How they lie.

Before we go to sleep the girls and I often lie in bed and read and/or draw. Last night I was looking at a magazine. Willow pointed to a picture and said, "Who's that?" I said, "That's Martha Stewart." "Oh," said Willow, "is she the evil one?" Which made me laugh so hard. I am not sure where she got that, but in truth, as much as I love Martha's Good Things, she is a little scary, a little too perfect, a little too happy, a little too photoshopped, a little too everywhere in a magazine that is supposed to be about food and decorating. Willow asked if she could black out her face. I've seen her do that before to models in catalogs. If I didn't know her better I might find this disturbing, but the truth is I've never asked her why she does that. But now I just said "sure." Because something told me to go with it. So we looked at the magazine page by page, and I found it interesting that I had never before noticed that on at least every other page there is a fakey wax museum-ish face with a vacant stare and a wide fixed grin, and most of the advertisements feature women that look eerily similar in terms of hairstyle and coloring and makeup. Willow happily blacked out each face, then put an X through each advertisement. And it occurred to me suddenly, "Wow. How much nicer it is not to have those weird, alien people constantly staring at me."

I don't know what all this means, I just thought it was interesting. I'd also that day been looking at Photoshop editing videos. One professional photo editor remarked that 99.9 percent of photographs in the fashion and entertainment media are changed to make the subjects look "better" -- thinner, whiter, smoother. I have the software and I know how incredibly easy it is to do, and it's one reason I do not have fashion and entertainment magazines in my house. For a tiny minority to define what is good is offensive enough, even without the computerized improvements. But what we see in the magazines isn't available to anyone, not even the models. It is literally unattainable. That means nobody wins (except for the people making the money off of those of us who are willing to believe it and accept it.)
I have dreams often where I'm trying to escape. Sometimes from criminals in my own home with my children, but most often from law enforcement, in which case my identity changes. I have never done anything wrong, but am being sought for who I am. I always have others with me. Last night it seemed like I was dreaming about this all night. There were two of us and we were small children. We were escaping. It was easy, even when the pursuers were on motorcycles. The terrain was beautiful, interesting. At one point we were on a hill overlooking the city of Corvallis, and it was lovely, vibrant, many of the buildings having red roofs like a European town. I said to my friend, come look! And then the pursuers came over the ridge. And we ran away, laughing, untouched.
Willow: You know what I'm going to be when I grow up, mama?

me: What?

Willow: A scientist.

me: Oh? Why's that?

Willow: I've always wanted to figure out stuff.

me: Like what?

Willow: Like make a potion to make people live longer. And I want to find out mysteries, and I want to find out what things are and test things and see how they work.
Last evening I was reading in an unschoolers' blog post about girl cliquishness -- she said that when her girls were in a certain age range (unfortunately a pretty broad one,) in *all* the social outlets they had to deal with this and that just as often as not her own girls were the problem. She seemed to think that this is just the way it is, and this bothered me so much that I woke up this morning thinking about it. I don't like it so I don't want it to be true. I mean, there was a time when racism was the norm -- probably for most of human history in which people have had contact with groups different from them. Not so long ago in this country it was not only the norm, but it was culturally accepted. I have no doubt there were people who believed (and still believe) that it is just human nature, or has an evolutionary basis. In other words: It's just the way it is. But increasingly people are coming to understand that it is overwhelmingly a learned, social phenomenon.

If that's true about the girls (and I fear it is) it makes it very hard to accept. It seems like it would be easier if I did believe that it is something wired into them. But as it is I'm disgusted and dismayed at seeing my own daughters learn to be part of it, either as the ones doing the ostracizing or the ones being ostracized. And just to be clear, I'm not talking about thinking everyone should be friends with everyone else. Real friendship is a rare thing and can't and shouldn't be forced. And I'm not talking about accepting everyone, even if their behavior is offensive and hateful. But there's no question that the most moral and conscientious way of being around other people socially -- that is, people who are are not offensive and hateful, and regardless of how else they look or act -- is to be considerate and kind. Now, still that doesn't necessarily mean fully inclusive -- we're all naturally drawn to certain people, those we're familiar with, those we find common ground with. And some of us are shy and tend to be quiet in groups or new situations. But that's a very different thing from treating a prefectly decent person as if they're unpalatable, or invisible, or a social liability. Intelligent adults just don't do that, and if they do, *they* are the ones who are ostracized. But we have different standards for kids. "That's just the way it is."

My greatest fear is that my girls will learn to be the ones treating others callously. My second greatest fear has already come to pass -- that they will be the social outcasts. They are learning that they are second-class. That they are not as good. That they are unattractive. None of which is true -- it's all context. What makes me angry is their reaction to it -- to become desperate to be accepted by these others, to become grasping. It makes me furious to see them following someone around who is ignoring them. I want them to have more self-respect than that. They deserve better than that. I am so mad at them, for their own sake -- but is that fair? They are little girls. Is it even rational?

And then I think, well, I went through the same thing, and I turned out... okay? Picture a little girl, sweet but incredibly not socially savvy. Picture her round pasty face with small features, her black-rimmed glasses, her square body that won't fit into the cute little girl fashions. There were long periods of time when I had no friends, and it was clear that my presence was undesired, that I was deemed an untouchable, at best invisible. Do you know what that feels like? Well, don't even try to guess if you haven't been there, because I assure you the reality is worse than what you can imagine. But here I am, many years later, and I do have friends, I am comfortable in our community socially, I am in love, I have people who love me. And still, lingers, a sense that I am unlikable and unworthy, and that all people are untrustworthy. My guard is up always, and I am stingy with my affection. I will not be the one chasing after others, never again.

And that is an uneasy, mean sort of existence. It protects me but doesn't give me comfort.

I want to take them away. I do not, because I fear that not even having a chance to find that friend who loves you is worse than learning that you're lesser or better than others. And I think that I'm wrong to do so, but it seems something is lost either way.
I read somewhere once about an experiment, written about from the perspective of one of the participants: a group of people had gathered together for some kind of self-improvement seminar. The facilitator gave them the opportunity to take part in an exercise in which they would first be blindfolded, then paired up randomly and asked to explore their partner's bodies. The person relating the story, a young man, said that what he sensed with his hands was that his partner was voluptuous with large breasts and soft skin. He said that touching her aroused him, and that she responded in kind, and they ended up kissing. After a few minutes they were asked to take off their blindfolds, and he was very surprised to find himself facing an elderly woman.

The story had a profound effect on me when I read it, when I was also still young; suddenly I was conscious of the fact that the visual world, though undeniably prominent for most of us, is not inherently the defining source for value, and that there is a whole world of feelings that are unique to themselves and independently valid.
It was a good night overall -- my hips and back did not hurt, I was warm enough, I had some good dreams -- in one in particular I remember laughing and laughing with my friends and child -- and then there was this odd thing. I don't have the perception of it having been a dream, but I don't remember anything else about it so I really don't know. All I came away with was a sort of inkling, almost like a message with no messenger. And it woke me up. It was: I am going to die in May. And then on later reflection (as I got up to go to the bathroom) I thought: May 22nd.

I didn't feel any sense of foreboding or grief about this. It doesn't feel like a real thing either -- it wasn't like a Knowing. But it got me thinking: what would I do if I were to die in six months?

I would write, a lot. I would write about my memories. I would write everything that I know and think, without compulsion to look smart or marketable. I would write letters to people to let them know how much I appreciate them, the sort of thing that seems weird and socially inappropriate when you're alive. I would draw a story for my children.

So then the question is: if it is so important, why am I not doing that already?