Monthly Archives: May 2014

Callow Youth

To a young co-worker:  Hey, J, I love your dress-  polka dots!  Lovely, you look like something out of 1950…

J: Oh, thanks!

Me: Have you ever seen that show on PBS, “Call the Midwife?”  I love the period fashion featured on it …

J:  Can’t believe you’re saying that, my mom can’t talk about anything else…

Me: Oh, it’s WONDERFUL–  I swear it’s not really an older person’s show, it’s got some pretty timeless themes and quality writing and acting… but I am probably as old as your mother…

J:  Um, probably?  (Appraising me)…  …She’s like, oh gosh– (thinky face) …early sixties?  I can’t remember.

Me: (blink) 😮

Me: (blink) :-/

Me: (blink) 🙁

Me: OK then if I don’t see you have a good weekend.  (Laxative in her coffee?  Or an emetic in her tea…?)



I was interviewing a client who was shocked and outraged that because of her criminal history and its aftermath she would not be eligible for a certain privilege.  “How can you people (note to self, being addressed in any context as ‘you people’ never ends with the offer of sweet pastries or pots de creme) -how can you people do this to me?  I finally get my life turned around and you can’t give me this one thing?  What am I supposed to do? (she followed this, sotto voce, with a series of curses meant for ‘us people’).”

I said, “I’m sorry that the decisions you made when you were younger are still following you around.  But this is policy that was decided long before you made those decisions, by people I’ve never met, and it can’t be changed in this instant.”

She’s guilty.  She knows it, knows that I know, knows there is no denying it.  Can’t change the facts.  But she wants to change the consequences, and her future, in the moment, when she’s ready to move away from her past.  But we, Society, “Us People,” are not ready to move away from her past.  We have agreed that the perpetrator does not get to dictate the term of the sentence, the depth of the consequences, the half-life of reverberation from her wrongdoing.  We do that.  It sucks to be her– but try telling an 18 year old her, in the moment before she shoplifts $258 worth of stuff from Walmart, that one day she will have children, and won’t have the money to pay her fines and costs, and won’t be eligible for childcare so she can go back to school.  What sayeth the 18 year old, verbatim– for veracity’s sake–?: “Fuck you.”

So the consequences haunt her, as they do all of us who screw up.  When you clomp on my instep with your birkenstock, your saying “sorry!” doesn’t make the pain go away.  It throbs for minutes or hours to come, and that’s how long I’m mad at you and your big clompy shoe.  Forgiveness isn’t automatic– it’s a process, one that I, the victim, dictate.  You say “sorry” until I let you know you’re done, that I’m done needing to hear it.

A partner strays.  She breaks a trust– not a contract, not anything so banal as that: worse.  She breaks the promise made when she looked in your eyes and said, “I love you.”  In that look, that phrase, the promise proffered is this: your well-being is mine.  I am not well if you are not well.

And when you were not well, she was -not well.  Off balance.  Off kilter.  Maybe had not realized how much she depended on you being well, being the caretaker of everything, the level, keeping things seaworthy.  And she did not have the power to make you better.  In this sea of unrest she sought solace elsewhere, maybe not deliberately– maybe more in the way the fourth chocolate finds its way into our bellies.  “Did I really eat that fourth chocolate?  Not possible.”  Oh, the way we lie to ourselves.

Unlike the 18 year old Walmart pocket-shopper, if approached prior to the straying the partner would have said: “I would never do that.  I would never hurt my partner.”  But she did.  She’s guilty, she knows it.  She knows that you know, and that there’s no denying it.

The flip side is mercy, of course.  That doesn’t take away her need to keep apologizing.  She must apologize until she has breathed her last, if that’s what it takes until you say “enough.”  You get to dictate how long the sentence, how deep the consequences, the half-life of the reverb.  But this is not the faceless shoplifter who decades later faces your policy.  This is your partner.  Coparent. The one who knew you when.

Forgiveness may take a while, as it should.  But mercy can be employed immediately.  Not clemency, not off the hook, not a full pardon.

Mercy.  You have this within you.  You’re looking at the pond of the rest of your life: toss in the smooth stone of mercy and watch the ripples, for years to come, as they create good on every shore they touch.

The Outlandish Mini-Me

Search on youtube: “Toddler Cussing,” “Little Kid Swears,” “Baby Says F*ck.”  Mini-me blurting an adult word is funny- obvious, slapstick, funny. In a larger sense it’s a holler or sentiment or evolved thought coming from the unexpected corner, a younger version of ourselves, that is surprising, sometimes in really positive ways.

I’m reminded of a co-worker, a young woman, asking if I had a tampon; I surreptitiously pulled one from my handbag, wrapped the already-wrapped T in a tissue, and handed it to her.  “Christ, clown– it’s a tampon, not contraband.”  She discarded the tissue and strode toward the loo, carrying the fuchsia-wrapped symbol of all things mysteriously feminine as blithely as she’d carry a pen.  It made me so happy– young women who are IN YOUR FACE, guys, about this stuff, no longer feeling the need to protect men from this elemental fact of humanity’s very existence– “we bleed, get over it.”  I loved it.  Outrageous, a young clown: mini-me.

Aligned, at issue: the Princeton student, frankly not quite a man at twenty years old, who wrote an essay that has had some conservatives high-fiving this outlandish mini-me:

His name is Tal Fortgang.  He’s already tired and jaded about people minimizing his accomplishments.  Did I mention he’s twenty?  What’s darling and precious and loved by conservatives about his essay is the bold sweep of hyperbole: who now, in their thirties, forties, fifties, would have had the courage to say at twenty that they have just about had it with people saying that just because he’s white he has not earned anything himself but has been hand picked hand held hand delivered –thanks to this white conspiracy, this secret HAND shake from the “invisible patron saint of whiteness.”  He protests: did I not work?  Did my parents not sacrifice, my grandparents, Jews, not suffer discrimination?  Not SUFFER?  We did, damn-all, and I’m tired of apologizing, I’m tired of people believing that nothing I accomplished is real, that there is no true meritocracy.

Sweetheart.   I have to tell you: you can’t see your privilege because it’s in the air you breathe.  It’s in the azaleas and cherry trees on campus, the salmon for dinner, the growing up with smart peers and the being welcomed into families of wealthier kids too.  All your life you have seen a charming life that could be yours.  All your life you have known that this has been within your capability, within your parents’ expectations.  You have never known a mob, a parade, a conga line of people chanting: “you’re shooting too high.”

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, renowned astrophysicist and black man:  “The fact that I wanted to be a scientist was hands-down the path of MOST RESISTANCE…I wanted to become something that was outside the paradigm of expectation of the people in power… fortunately, my depth of interest was SO DEEP and SO FUEL-ENRICHED that every curve ball that was thrown, every fence built in front of me, every hill I had to climb, I just reached for more fuel and kept going.  But as I look behind me I wonder where are the others who might have been this, who are not there?  What blood is on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not? Who are those who did not survive the forces of society that prevented (progress) at EVERY TURN?”

So, Tal?  The wind you feel at your back is not turbulence from your serious work.  It’s the gentle breeze you can’t credit because you’re flowing in a jetstream with thousands, millions, of others.  You’re being carried on a current as imperceptible as the earth’s rotation.  It isn’t that your work is meaningless, it’s that you don’t, and can’t, acknowledge that many people have to work harder, run against unrelenting gales, surpass low expectations, thrive without encouragement.  So.  Don’t “check your privilege.”  But also, don’t mine your past for any corresponding disadvantage, because it doesn’t exist.

While conservatives lap up your ballsy stance and embrace it as bold righteousness,  I’m stifling a chortle.  You’re not a toddler cursing, but you’ll be just as embarrassed when you read your essay as a mature person.  They’re using you.  You’re a party trick.  You’re their mini-me.