The Nurse’s Tale

I’m going to ask for your patience as you read this. I’m not going to tell you that my problems are unique, because I’ve been paying attention, and all of us everywhere have been suffering under this pandemic. I’m not going to make a claim that the nurse’s suffering is unique, because what I’m going to write applies to everyone in American healthcare: aides, social workers, doctors, therapists (physical, occupational, speech, respiratory and so many others), PAs, ARNPs, chaplains, phlebotomists, pharmacists, receptionists, patient transporters, medics, and thousands of others. But since I have over 25 years of experience as a registered nurse in the United States, I feel like I’m the person to tell you my story. I’m also going to use some language that some of you may find exaggerated or extreme. That’s fair. Again, I’m not trying to compare my experience to anyone else’s. I’m just going to try express myself in the clearest terms I can.

Here’s something to know about nurses: There are some that follow a career plan, that choose positions with an ultimate goal in mind, and I’m always a little in awe of that kind of purposeful direction. I’m grateful for nurses like that, because they often become great mentors in the science of whatever branch of nursing they’re in. But for a lot of us, our “career path” reflects more of a desire to balance our work with our families and communities. Many nurses are parents, and many more are children of parents, and we often change jobs to seek more stability at home. For example, I spent a big stretch of my career working night shifts, because it was the only shift that allowed me to be home on the days my son was with me (both his mom and I were single parents for much of his childhood) to both see him off to school and when he returned home. Sometimes nurses go into other fields because they’d like weekends off, or a regular schedule. I started doing agency work because until fairly recently Pennsylvania hospitals were allowed to mandate overtime to nurses if there was a staffing shortage for the next shift. Literally, when you showed up for an 8-hour shift (or even just covering someone for four hours), you did not know whether you’d leave 4, 8, 12, or often 16 hours later.

All this to say that like many nurses, I’ve done a lot of different kinds of nursing over my career. Inpatient psychiatric, med/surg hospital, endoscopy, home hospice, ICU, a bit of NICU, geriatric, nursing home, even chart review (Never ER. I don’t like surprises.).

I did not come from a medical family; I’m the only person in my immediate family to go into the field. I had no idea what I was getting into. In nursing school, I was always terrified that I was going to hurt someone, but began to find fields that I thought I could be comfortable in (psychiatric nursing I was especially drawn to). But from the moment I took my first nursing job, I have never felt fully comfortable as a nurse.

I put this down to a lot of factors. That I hadn’t studied hard enough in nursing school was a familiar fallback (my son was born during my first semester of nursing school, and I was trying to balance baths and feedings and naps and play and diapers with school, work, a recently diagnosed depression, an undiagnosed touch of ADD, and a failing marriage). I always looked hard at my faults, always overlooked my strengths. I let the bluster of some bossy nurses (most units had one) convince me that only they were doing it right.

But in April of 2020, I had what everyone usually calls “a breakdown.” My anxiety got so bad that I had to take FMLA for mental health, seeking out a provider with experience in psychiatry that could look at my meds with more experienced eyes (this was in addition to my then and current therapist, a wonderful LCSW who is one of the two best coaches/therapists I’ve ever had). After six weeks I went back to work, and handed in my notice.

(Right here, there is something I desperately need to communicate. I had accumulated enough savings at this point in my life to be able to afford being unemployed for a long stretch. Even twelve years earlier, this would not have been the case: I was deep in debt and living paycheck to paycheck. I was unfathomably lucky to stumble into a relationship where I could stabilize myself enough to catch up. I am fully aware of the enormous privilege that allowed me to be unemployed for months on end and not suffer from food or housing insecurity. It is also my absolute belief that we live in a dysfunctional nation when every citizen is not afforded this opportunity at least once in their lifetime. I’m alive and healthy today directly because of my privilege. It’s a moral travesty that most Americans can’t afford to do this.)

I decided to take “a few weeks off” and then look for a new job. But as the weeks drew on a paralysis seized me. I couldn’t even look at nursing positions. And as time passed from my nursing career, I began to look back and see the common denominator in every nursing job I’d held.

In every position in every healthcare system, every nurse, doctor, aide, etc., every single person who is tasked with providing care to a patient is sooner rather than later given a bigger patient load than they are able to safely handle.

It’s the nature of American healthcare. Even when working for a nonprofit institution – often especially then – I always, always, always felt I was ultimately serving the bottom line. I have never worked anywhere where the call has not been for more and more patients. Everyone talks about quality of care, but it is always second. First, get the numbers up. Never, “Do you need more help?” Always, “Once the numbers are up, we can hire more people.” But that never happens. Nurses retire, quit, go on FMLA or parental leave, and are never replaced, because lower labor costs are the easiest way to help the bottom line. It got to the point where the promises of better staffing actually hurt more coming from managers who seemed to believe it would really happen, and wanted us to be hopeful. It hurt less when it came from administrators you honestly knew didn’t give a shit.

And the effect of all this? In a position that can accurately be called “life and death” with the safety and health of human beings in your hands?

I remember the half-dozen times I sat in my car after a shift, literally crying over the stress of what I’d been through, needing to get the tears out so I could see well enough to drive home. Running into a bathroom for just thirty seconds once a shift, most shifts, because that’s the only place you could go to just catch your breath between patients. The agony of tearing yourself away from a patient who needed a little more time, a little more attention, a few more words, because you were being pulled to other people who equally needed help. Most shifts knowing that you only had the time to provide the most basic care to each person on your patient assignment, not having the time to research the chart, provide the education, reassure the patient, reassure the family. Working in a whirlwind of other caregivers at all levels who were just as stressed and just as busy as you.

The time off, for me, was the worst. Looking back on a previous shift wondering whose pain was not relieved because I couldn’t try everything in my arsenal, just throwing medication at it and hoping for the best (Do you know that simply sitting with a patient and talking with them is the best adjunct to helping a pain medication take effect? I learned that in hospice. I often didn’t have time to do that in hospice, when my next patient was 15 miles away. Who had time to do that at the bedside in the hospital? How do you explain to your second of six patients in your assignment that they had to wait in pain because that’s what you were doing?). Looking back, I obsessed over what I’d missed, what I might have done if I’d had more time. Or thought about tomorrow. Would my next shift be the one where it finally all came crashing down? Would tomorrow be the day I killed someone because of something I overlooked? What if I missed something – and the nurse’s job is supposed to be the patient’s last line of defense – because I couldn’t take the time to do a thorough textbook assessment, the way I’d been taught in nursing school? I was literally losing sleep over worrying about my work. Nightmares were frequent, and keep me awake afterward (even now, I still have them).

We nurses are not angels. We are not superheroes. We are ordinary people, just as strong as anyone else. Not everyone handles that kind of stress well. It can bring out the worst in some nurses, just as it can bring out the worst in human beings of all professions. All of us nurses have worked dysfunctional units, with nurses who are mean, petty, bitter, judgmental, nurses who resent new hires and jealously guard their turf.

It certainly didn’t always bring out the best in me. Right now, someone I worked with is reading this, thinking, “I remember him. He was an asshole.” You’re right, and I apologize. I often didn’t handle it well, and I’m sorry. I was often hesitant to reach out because I felt insecure in my own assignment. All I can tell you is I remember, too. I’m wiser now, and a better teammate, and if I could go back and correct my mistakes, I would. But none of us are at our best under that kind of pressure. I was doing the best I could at the time. Just like you.

On my “sabbatical,” discussing this in therapy, I began to realize how abnormal it was to be under that kind of stress for a solid 25 years. I’d always assumed the fault was mine, that if I were a smarter nurse, or had thicker skin, or weren’t so sensitive, I could handle it better. Because everywhere I looked around me, I saw nurses who were coping just fine. I seemed to be the only person who felt that way.


And I’d realized my mistake, the lesson I seem to need to learn over and over again in my life. Maybe, a lot of those other nurses were hiding their pain and insecurities as intently as I was. Maybe not all of that bravado I saw was real. Maybe the apparent callousness I’d run into was a defense mechanism hiding deeper pain. Maybe, because I was in the trenches and didn’t feel safe enough to risk looking vulnerable, I failed to see vulnerability in others. I’m thinking now of what they tell people in AA: “Never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.” Maybe this all wasn’t normal.

I don’t remember if it was me or my therapist that originally brought up the term “PTSD,” but I do remember pushing back on it right away. PTSD was for soldiers, brave people who had literally been through war. PTSD was for victims of domestic violence, and to claim their term would be to dismiss them. Wouldn’t it? But the more I talked, and the more I let myself remember, the more I saw the symptoms matching up. And then, in another context, a friend of mine said something that snapped me into focus. They told me that there need not be an intent to abuse for a person to be abused. Abuse is real, and it does not matter if there is malice behind it or not.

Everything cleared, including my inability to get back into nursing. I suffer from PTSD. And the American healthcare system was my abuser. Here’s where I began to connect the dots, over 25 years, three states, and most kinds of institutions:

  • I remember sitting in countless staff meetings having an administrator happily commend us for admissions being up, clearly clueless this meant we were working harder and being stretched thinner as a staff (for the same pay). What caregiver in their right mind would celebrate that?
  • I remember sitting in a staff meeting and a manager tell us that the one thing the hospital couldn’t afford was a nurse standing around with nothing to do. And I remember thinking, “You’re more afraid of a nurse catching her breath between onslaughts than of a patient not receiving proper care because there isn’t enough staff.”
  • I remember my first job out of nursing school working inpatient pediatric psych, and after six months being made evening charge nurse. I remember the stress of our busiest times, when seemingly no admission was refused, and we were given more children than we literally had beds for, and since every floor in the hospital was also overburdened and understaffed, there was no one to turn to. I remember being called on the carpet by the day manager for letting the stress get to me. After being threatened with the loss of my job, she told me to come up with a plan for delegating help. Except there was no one else to delegate to, since about two thirds of the hospital’s staff left the building when my shift began. I couldn’t think of a thing, but I knew I’d lose my job if I said that. So I made up a fictitious resource plan, which she accepted, and never checked back with me again. I remember thinking to myself, “This isn’t about actually solving the problem. This is about her being able to say she dealt with the problem.” Remember, I had been a nurse for less than a year.
  • I remember going into a hospital as an agency nurse, and seeing copies of a book called Who Moved My Cheese? lying around the break room. The book was about a cartoon mouse who had a meltdown because his cheese was in a different place. The book suggested that if only the mouse were to change his perspective, he’d find everything was really OK. Another nurse told me all the staff had been required to read this and attend training on it. Apparently, the hospital was equating its staff with fable mice, and the crushing patient loads as something the staff could overcome by somehow being more positive. I remember how neatly this absolved the hospital of all responsibility.
  • I remember sitting in two full days of Zoom training earlier this year learning Outward Mindset. Before any terms had been defined, the trainer asked us what might be a good balance between an “inward” and an “outward” mindset. I thought, 50/50, thinking you needed a certain amount of self-awareness and self-care to fully engage with the outside world. I was told that was wrong, that we always needed to be looking outward. It became clear that the solution to every problem presented in Outward Mindset was for the employee to adapt to what they were being told, not to demand change. I started to think it was Who Moved My Cheese? all over again, but it was much worse than that. In one featured video, a woman talked about being publicly belittled by her male manager, her knowledge and authority being picked apart by him in every meeting. And using her Outward Mindset training, she learned how to consider the position of her abuser and learn how she could adapt to his way of thinking. I remember thinking that I believed she was suffering in a toxic environment that upper management needed to address, but that this training had gaslighted her into thinking that she was responsible. I remember thinking, “Every woman in this Zoom meeting has had this experience, and can clearly see what’s really happening here.” I came back to this video later when the instructor asked each of us to say “something we’ll take with us from this training.” My hands were shaking under my desk because I’m an introvert who avoids confrontation, but I felt like I owed it to the others in the meeting to spend some privilege by speaking up. I remember saying I thought it showed how the training could be weaponized by management to keep those without privilege from calling for justice at the workplace. I remember being told that’s not what the training was meant to do. I remember being never so certain in my life that that was exactly what the training was supposed to do, and why it had such appeal to the white male manager who brought it to the system.

* * * * *

No wonder I was terrified to go back to my abuser. I engaged a career counselor who ultimately proved helpful, but for the first few weeks couldn’t seem to look past my nursing license, and kept suggesting other jobs in nursing (including teaching – god, can you imagine anything worse than a burned-out nurse guiding new people into the profession?). It wasn’t until I interrupted a suggestion with “I will literally kill myself if I have to go back to being a nurse. I am dead serious,” that she finally took the hint. I ended up taking a job as a contract tracer (from home) with the state Department of Health. It ended up being a poor fit for other reasons, but it led me to where I am now.

Today I work for two nursing agencies. With one, I gave vaccinations in pharmacies (COVID, flu, shingles, and others) in a local supermarket chain. With the other agency, I have recently taken a contract to work weekdays giving monoclonal antibody injections to COVID patients at a clinic about 40 minutes from home. Neither job gives me a great base pay for my years of experience in nursing. Neither job is challenging in any technical way; in fact either can also be done by a pharmacist or a medic. But I’m happy. It’s exactly what I need right now. I give shots to people as they come in, and I go home at the end of the day. I can’t even think of a way to take my work home with me. Because I can only deal with one patient at a time, I can give my full attention to the person in front of me. These days, I’m a superlative teammate. I’m more aware of myself and my colleagues than I ever was before.

I tell people that this work is my way of “easing myself back into nursing,” but that’s just something I say to avoid questions of why I’m not jumping back onto what I call “the hamster wheel” again. In truth, these jobs may evaporate as quickly as they appeared. (Or, they may not – I have a feeling the way Americans are treating this pandemic that it’s about to become endemic, a new reality, as will other viruses climate change is sure to bring our way). I don’t know what I’ll be doing five years from now, and I have a feeling it probably won’t be in nursing. But for now, if you really want to know what I’m doing… I’m healing.

I hope the nurse who feels terribly alone right now reads this and understands that no matter what he thinks, his pain is not in any sense “normal” or “part of the job,” but a terrible, terrible injustice. I hope the nurse who has battled through this and found her place of meaning in the system reads this and looks out for the other nurses in her life that need to be taken aside and asked two or three times, “How are you really doing?” I hope others of you who read this can take something to help you (teachers, especially – I’ve been hearing you cry out, and sense familiar echoes in your pain). I’d like to leave you all with one, final, “I remember:”

  • I remember giving flu shots in a local supermarket pharmacy just weeks ago. An elderly woman came in from a local nursing home, brought in by her son, who was sitting in the waiting room outside of earshot. She looked stricken, and she whispered to me in tears that she was heartbroken in her facility, and simply wanted to die, that she’d been on this earth long enough. And there was nothing I could do but take off my gloves and hold her hand and say, “I’m so sorry you’re in such pain right now.” And sit there in silence with her for five minutes because it was a slow time of day and there were no others to be kept waiting. But I remember thinking, “I feel more like a real nurse right now than I think I’ve felt in years.”
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When in the Course of Human Events: A Case for Divorce

There’s something both frightening and liberating about being an atheist. Once you’ve questioned the biggest assumption there is, the one thing that everyone around you seems to accept – the existence of a supernatural divine being – there’s no getting the toothpaste back in the tube. You start to question everything. You’re wrecked for conventional wisdom.

I’m writing this on Wednesday, November 4, 2020. It’s 2:47PM PST. The outcome of the presidential election remains in doubt, though it appears for the moment it’s tilting Biden’s way. But for me, America’s fate has already been decided. According to the New York Times, 67,455,548 votes have so far been counted for Trump – that’s 48.0% of the votes counted thus far.

I cannot reconcile my values with those of the people who after four years, still believe a man who stands for hatred, division, disharmony, dishonesty, corruption, rule by fiat, rule by bullying, contempt of science, education, and reason – a man who stands for nothing or no one except himself – stands for America. And those 67.5 million (and counting) cannot reconcile their values with mine, or the others who voted with me against Trump.

The assumption I’d like to question today is one I’ve seen floating around social media for the past few weeks. It’s an assumption that we can put aside our differences and come together. The assumption that there’s more that unites us than divides us, that we’re all one people, that we’re stronger together than we are apart.

I don’t see any evidence of that. In fact, I see a lot of evidence to the contrary.

+ + + + +

For as long as I’ve been alive, the Republican Party has been fighting for an ideology that has been seemingly embraced by the “red” states in this country; the southern states, Florida, Texas, and many of the nation’s more rural states. That ideology is at heart an antidemocratic one. The ideology – movement conservatism – holds that it is the wealthy who are in the best position to make decisions about how a nation or state is governed. The business owners, the rich, understand better than average people how economies work. The wealthy – literally the people in a society who are controlling the wealth – should be the ones making decisions about how society is run. Government, such that it exists, should defend the interests of corporations. Government’s only other role is to clear the road for capitalists to do whatever they feel needs to be done.

I deliberately used the word “antidemocratic” because it’s literally that; it demands that the common society member defer to the wisdom of the wealthy, not challenge that wisdom. (It’s also literally unAmerican, a direct rebuke of “all men are created equal” in the Constitution, but let’s let that go for now.) To me, personally, that’s an abhorrent ideology. Putting aside the fact that it’s led to financial collapse every time it’s been implemented on a national scale in our country, I personally feel movement conservatism is a direct path to patriarchy, white supremacy, and loss of liberty. It’s not an ideology I can compromise with. I want society to progress to be more inclusive, that it’s necessary to hear and learn from people who don’t look like I do. Movement conservatism is the opposite of that, because it relies on keeping power centralized among a wealthy few.

Movement conservatism is something that bothers me in the abstract. When movement conservatives try to force me and my community to their ideology, it infuriates me, and I get defensive. As well I should. I, in turn, understandably outrage people on the right because I am fighting to defeat how they believe this country can best prosper. They are also (I’m going to assume) fighting for what they believe is right.

Who’s right? It doesn’t matter. We can’t live together.

+ + + + +

This battle of ideologies has paralyzed our federal government. We’re the only developed nation without universal healthcare. The pandemic has exposed foundational problems in our economy, our educational system, how average people can make ends meet, housing, mental health access, infrastructure, prisons, and more. We can’t agree on how (or if!) to address climate change. Half of us want to protect our most vulnerable from COVID-19, the other half want to sacrifice them to it. Instead of any kind of solutions to these problems – from either side – we have one old man from Kentucky unilaterally deciding what gets addressed and what doesn’t. And he seems to have decided that federal and Supreme Court judicial appointments are the only thing the federal government needs to be doing. And the 99.64% of us who did not vote for him have to let him. Meanwhile, because of an institution designed to protect slavery, twice in the past 20 years (this year’s results pending) the person who received fewer votes than his primary challenger won the right to stand for all of us.

It’s a flawed metaphor (as all metaphors are), but it bears repeating: If this country were a family, it would be branded dysfunctional, and the differences deemed irreconcilable. People in the red states want something completely at odds with what people in the blue states want. It’s time to split up and go our own ways.

I’m talking of course, about dissolving the United States. By looking at an electoral map, you could make an argument for California, Oregon, and Washington (my adopted home state) breaking off to create Cascadia. The New England states, joined perhaps by New York and New Jersey could incorporate as a nation as well. Border states, and Hawaii and Alaska could join whoever they’d like. That leaves the South and the bulk of the Midwest to go off on its own (just as they’ve often talked about).

It sounds to a lot of people like a suicide pact. The last time we did this, some point out, we suffered a devastating civil war. Well, that was more than 150 years ago. Things are different now. Our divorce might even be amicable. In fact, there’s an excellent chance that it would be.

Think about it. Wouldn’t each side love to be free of the other? The red states would be free to set up the social and economic order they’ve been asking for. They’d be free to take off their masks, open their businesses, deregulate their guns, and finally build that wall. Other regions could start, for example, experimenting with more European-style democracies. We would stop hating each other because we wouldn’t be bothering each other. Each region would get the chance to start from scratch; take what we’ve learned about democracy in the last three centuries and apply it to the 21st century. Centralize or decentralize federal power? Use economic resources for public welfare or defense? Or dispense with taxation altogether? Can we use tech unavailable to 18th-century lawmakers to experiment with direct democracy? Each of us would finally bear only the burden of our own decisions, not the ideologies from half a continent away. Honestly, isn’t that what we all want?

And there’s no need to sacrifice security if we do this right. If we part amicably, we can begin our new nations with mutually supporting treaties. We can enter into a NATO-like agreement, in which we agree to share defense capabilities (again, a flawed metaphor, but you see where I’m going). We can establish a common currency if we like, trade agreements, a sharing of resources. If we like, open borders to encourage tourism and family reunions. There’s no reason we can’t get along as neighbors. We just can’t get along under the same roof.

+ + + + +

There will be problems to work out, but I don’t think any of them insurmountable. And of course there will be people of differing ideologies caught in states in which they’re uncomfortable (I know that pain; I’m a refugee from a deep red part of the country). But if those people are unable or unwilling to relocate, their voice will be amplified as citizens of a smaller nation. Instead of trying to fight the political battles of the bulk of a continent, they’ll be fighting for change within a smaller region.

And we can talk again. Without movement conservatives trying to remove my social safety net, I can let my guard down, relax, and relate to them as human beings again. Who knows, maybe I’ll see something in their new land that actually seems to be helping people. Maybe they’ll be able to look at what I’m doing, at long last objectively, and think “Oh, so that’s what they meant. That’s not so awful.” But we can’t do it now. Not in the same house. Neither side will give, and in this case, I don’t think either side should. America was a great experiment. Time to move that experiment to the next phase. What many consider to be “unthinkable” needs to be considered.

Oh, good. it’s 4:39, and the election results haven’t budged. I wanted to get this out before then, because this isn’t an “if Trump wins” post. A lot of us will lose some urgency if Biden is elected, but I believe I’ve laid out why I think this needs to happen even if Joe prevails.

And honestly, I’m all out of optimism for the United States in its current iteration. My friends want me to have hope. This is where I’ll put my hope.

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Our Enemy Isn’t COVID. It’s American Exceptionalism.

Years ago, when President Obama was hard at work putting together a consensus on the Affordable Care Act, I had the beginnings of an argument with a relative. I say “beginnings” because it was over almost as soon as it began. I was mentioning how other countries were delivering health care to their citizens, and he cut me off with, “You want us to be like Canada?! Like France?!” And to him, that was the end of the argument. It wasn’t even a matter of whether other countries were providing inferior care, or more costly care, or care only to certain segments of their citizenry. It was the mere fact of looking outside our own country for possible solutions that was repugnant to him.

I was too bewildered to get the conversation back on track. But I’ve never forgotten that response. And I’ve been thinking about it more and more these days.

As of this writing (July 30, 2020), the United States has passed the 150,000 mark for COVID deaths. According to the World Health Organization, as of July 28th, 655,112 people have died of COVID worldwide. That means the United States has suffered 23% of the global death toll.

We make up 4% of the world’s population.

We’re doing something very, very wrong.

* * * * *

“American Exceptionalism” is a peculiar form of nationalism. It’s woven into our history books, into our popular culture. It’s so insidious that most of the time we’re not even aware it’s there. We’ve just come to accept it as part of the story. It’s the idea that America does everything better than any other country. We have the best government, the best military, the best movies, the best farms. The best universities. The best economic system. The most freedom.

We’re taught to believe this early on, and the history we teach our children is generally in support of this narrative. “Aberrations,” like slavery, genocide of the native occupants, are either downplayed, or held up as proof of our progression. “We used to have slaves. But then we freed them! Isn’t that great that we did that?” As if the entire institution of slavery existed to give us a happy ending we could feel good about.

American Exceptionalism teaches not that anything the United States produces is objectively superior to something produced outside our borders, by any scientific comparison. It teaches that America can do no wrong, simply because it’s America involved in the doing. It’s not wrong to say this is a supernatural way of thinking. The roots in religion, in the idea that we are God’s Chosen Country are right there under the surface, even roiling above ground when politicians and religious leaders begin inciting a deity as an ally. And the racism, for those not in denial, is easy to see. These are White accomplishments, the accomplishments of White men in particular, that American Exceptionalists are crowing about. If a White American wasn’t personally responsible, White America made it possible.

The biggest problem with American Exceptionalism is that by definition it forbids you to look outside the US to see how other countries are handling similar problems. If what America is doing is always superior, then what the rest of the world (the Brown world, in particular) does has to be inferior. Anything different than what the US is doing is wrong. It’s impossible to look at other forms of government, other economies, other health care systems, other educational systems to see what might be learned. It’s not just incorrect. It’s unAmerican. It’s unpatriotic. It’s what my relative at the top of this post was saying when he wouldn’t consider looking to what other countries did to solve common problems.

COVID tore away the facade of American Exceptionalism, and in more ways than just our horrific death toll. COVID exposed deep, deep fractures in the foundation of American democracy. It exposed an educational system that had unfairly saddled teachers with the added burdens of child care, nutrition, family services, because we’d never bothered to address those concerns anywhere else. It redefined who our “essential workers” really were, and revealed that we didn’t pay them enough of a wage to save for a few weeks of unemployment. It exposed our senseless system of tying affordable healthcare, not just to employment, but to the rarer beast of full-time employment, and only with an employer with a certain number of workers. It exposed the frailty of our medical supply lines, and the way American Capitalism pounced to profiteer over dwindling PPE, ventilators, and testing equipment. It exposed the way generations of Americans had been been encouraged to believe “freedom” meant, not “freedom from want” or “freedom from fear” but “freedom from inconvenience” or “freedom from civic responsibility.” All because it suited the American version of democracy to keep citizens pitted against each other.

4% of the world’s population. 23% of the world’s deaths.

If that doesn’t tell you we’ve gone tragically, horribly wrong, I don’t know what will. We, the United States, our country, is getting something terribly wrong that the rest of the world is getting right. And if we don’t avail ourselves of one of the greatest strengths any people can embrace – humility – and begin looking outward for solutions, we will not survive this crisis. American Exceptionalism has prevented us from honestly looking at problems generations in the making, because American Exceptionalism will never, ever admit that we could make a mistake. Or that we could learn from someone outside our borders.

* * * * *

There’s a closing thought I’d like to make, and it’s in response to an attack I’ve seen lately on people who suggest we look at our past more honestly, and perhaps a little more humbly. The attack goes that liberals want children to be ashamed of America, and to deny moments of actual greatness. The opposite is actually true, and I’d like to give a light example of how that can be.

I love baseball. The writer and scholar Gerald Early, in Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary series said something like (I’m paraphrasing), “A thousand years from now, America will be known for three things: The Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.” I can’t think of anything I’d add to that list,* and I think any one of those things would mark a great civilization. Baseball especially. The bastard child of a dozen European bat and ball games, baseball was developed, refined, and perfected in this country. And then gifted to the rest of the world.

When countries started competing in the World Baseball Classic, many fans bemoaned the fact that it was only recently that the United States finally won. Japan was a powerhouse that we couldn’t unseat, and it seemed to anger many fans who felt the United States was somehow entitled to dominance. In their anger, some made excuses for the American players, or criticized them for not playing to their potential. Others turned to more racist tropes, accusing Asian teams of essentially creating brainwashed automations that were chained to their baseball acadamies, a la Japanese Ivan Dragos.

I loved that the US lost the first World Cups. Not because I didn’t want them to win. But because I saw it as proof that this country, in inventing baseball, had made something of such beauty and value that even the rest of the world had embraced it. People in the Caribbean, all throughout South and Central America, and all across Asia loved this thing we created. They embraced it, played it, practiced it, taught it, made it their own. American football has never taken hold anywhere else, not really, because people outside this country have difficulty relating to it. But baseball proved to have global appeal. We made something so wonderful that other countries, other cultures loved it enough to get good enough to beat us at it. Really, it was the ultimate compliment. They couldn’t beat us at our own game, if they didn’t love our own game.

That’s the kind of thing American Exceptionalism overlooks. If everything is superlative, then nothing is. And you miss the honest moments of greatness that we stumble on. Not because we’re Americans. But because we’re part of an astonishing species.


*When I first heard him say this, I wanted to add “movies” to the list, but what I’ve learned since about Japanese, German, French, Italian, Soviet, Chinese, Indian, Scandinavian, South American, Mexican, and Caribbean cinema of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s convinces me the US was a major player, but not the leader in the art of cinema.

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I See Color

I’ve been running across a phrase on social media these days; you’ve probably run into it, too. Some white folks are saying that when interacting with people of color, they “don’t see color.”

I think this phrase comes from a well-meaning place. I think when I read this, that the person posting it is trying to send a message of equality. I believe it’s been said to get across the idea that the speaker tries to see the heart, the humanity of the person they’re addressing, and that’s an encouraging idea.

But I can’t say that. Because I do see color. I have to. And I have two reasons for that:

If I don’t “see” a person’s color, I don’t see something that is integral to them. If I don’t see a black person’s color, I can’t see that they’ve had an experience in this country wholly different from my own. I need to “see” someone’s color primarily to recognize that they, and the families and generations they came from, have had vastly different interactions with this country’s institutions than I have. The black people I see in my life have had to learn how to dance around their interactions with police. The black people I see in my life have had to endure questions, whenever they reach a position of any authority, if they’ve “earned it,” or if it was just because of affirmative action. The black people I see have had to achieve whatever they could with role models of their own skin color in textbooks, libraries, museums, state houses, courtrooms, hospitals, universities, boardrooms, police stations, orchestras, country clubs, coaching staffs, military academies, laboratories, Broadway stages, editorial boards, Academy Award podiums, HOAs, and 3-star kitchens so rarely and exceptionally that emulating them must come across as Herculean. If something as simple as playing little league baseball in a small town requires breaking new ground, what strength is left for anything else? If I don’t “see” that, immediately and with open eyes, I’m not “seeing” this human being for who they are.

And the other reason? If I don’t see color in anyone else, I can’t see it in myself. If I don’t recognize my own “whiteness,” I can never see my own privilege. And if I’m going to try to interact on a human level with another person, I must see how my own privilege has sheltered me.

I don’t have to agree with that privilege. I can decry it, I can refuse to take advantage of it. I can understand that my privilege was never something I asked for, or meant to keep from someone else. I can be proud of my own accomplishments that hard work and study have given me. I can hold my head up as a moral human being. But what I can never ever do is forget for a moment the privilege I hold. Whether I asked for it or not, my life has been shaped by it as surely as another’s lack of privilege has shaped theirs.

My father never had to teach me how to behave around police. His father never had to steel him for the fact that the color of his skin would keep him out of certain professions or neighborhoods. I have never been accused of stealing a job from “a good black boy.” I never had to wonder how my name or zip code would look on a bank loan. I’ve never hesitated checking off “White/Caucasian” on a form, never wondered if it would help or hurt me. I’ve had the luxury of imagining it was simply a data point.

When I was in my 30s, my first job out of nursing school was at a psychiatric hospital in the Washington, DC area. During my first year as a nurse, I found myself in a room listening to report on the upcoming shift. I was the only white person in that room. The others were all black; one other nurse, and three psych techs; people who had undergraduate psychology degrees, one of whom was working on his Masters. All had worked there longer than me, and I’d had one course in psychiatric nursing in nursing school.

I was running the shift. None of us found that remarkable.

I have to see color, or else, I’ll forget how definitive it is in America. As a white person, we’ve been taught that color is invisible; it’s the only way we can sleep at night. It’s ingrained that being white is the norm, the baseline. It’s been taught in this country for 400 years. How can any person expect to think differently?

An awful lot of us white folk are new to talking about race; we’ve never really had to do it before. So I don’t come down on the people who “don’t see color.” Hey, it’s a start. Maybe not the best start, but I give them points for trying. It’s where I started. And like me, maybe that’s their first step on a journey.

And in case you’re wondering, I see more than just color. I see gender, and I see gender identification. I see sexual preference. I see religion. I see mental health. I see physical handicap. I see age. At least I’m trying to. Because as a white, middle-aged, cis-male, atheist (my lone outlier!), heterosexual, physically healthy person, I’m not going to see an awful lot of important people in my life unless I try to look through those lenses.

I hope I see you. I’m trying.

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Is It OK to Miss Baseball?

Everything goes OK for a while. I’m on top of the new reality, I’m adjusting, I’m looking out for the people in my life. I send out texts to my older friends to see if they need errands run; maybe one less trip to the supermarket or the pharmacy or the pet store will be the difference in whether or not they get exposed. I’m planning two days a week of takeout meals from my favorite local restaurants to help keep the businesses and their employees from feeling abandoned (the amount of money I spend there is nothing in the grander scheme of things, but maybe I’m helping with morale). I’m making plans to see to my self-care, to stay as healthy as possible. I’m listening to doctors and scientists, and I’m ignoring Trump.

On good days, I feel like I’ve got this. I’m on the board of a local nonprofit, Sunday Assembly Olympia, and early on we made the difficult (and financially risky) decision to cancel our monthly gathering and all our small groups. Like a lot of organizations, we’re trying to figure out how to still serve our members and the community. But I was proud of our board that day. It felt like we were doing something civic-minded. Not just for us, but for Olympia. I felt like we were making a selfless decision, and that I and we were putting the needs of at-risk people ahead of our own social desires. I felt like this COVID-19 situation was manageable.

And then the Seattle Mariners cancelled Opening Day (for which I’d had a ticket since January, and taken the week off). Shortly after that, MLB cancelled Spring Training and put the entire season on hold. And I wept. Just ugly-cried for 30 minutes. It took a good 12 hours for me to not feel like the world had just ended.

And immediately, and I mean immediately, even as the hissy-fit was in full swing, I felt immense waves of guilt wash over me. How was baseball important in the larger picture? People are dying out there, and I’m getting derailed over a fucking entertainment? And let’s be clear, I wasn’t grieving for the vendors and groundskeepers and stadium personnel, and certainly not for the millionaires on the field and in the owner’s boxes. No, I was grieving for me. I was grieving my loss. And not of a loss of health, or income, or security. I was grieving the loss of watching grown men hit balls with a stick.

Because “grown men hitting balls with a stick” was how baseball was always described to me by non-fans. And I got that. I never took offense, I know that baseball isn’t for everyone. I never set out to be a baseball fan, it’s just something that grabbed me on some level and never let go. Maybe it’s the history, or the choreography of the sport. Maybe it’s the pace of the game, the negative space that it embraces, or the endless fascination with trying to describe human performance through math. Maybe it’s simply that every time I see a runner on third with less than two outs, even if I’m walking past a Little League game, something in me must put everything else on hold to see if the runner can score.

Baseball is, on nearly every level, stupid and artificial and nonessential. It’s even harmful in some respects; the professional game is capitalism in its most toxic form, it’s still racist (you really think Jackie Robinson was the end of that?), sexist, and rationalizes steroid use among children. We sacrifice our childrens’ healthy arms to the sport, and we pollute the youth game with parental competitiveness. Maybe losing a sport was COVID-19’s silver lining.

But baseball, for me, was normalcy. It was something that was there six months of the year (well, nine, if you count Spring Training and the playoffs). I didn’t always need it, but it was there if I did. It was soothing. It was familiar. It was home.

“Baseball” for you, is probably something different. Your “baseball” is something that can’t be justified in the daily struggle for survival. Your “baseball” is something that probably seems trivial to others, but deeply matters to you. You “baseball” might be choir practice. Or your book club. Or death metal concerts. Or burlesque, as I’m learning from a friend of mine who’s finding empowerment as a performer.

I think it’s OK to mourn your “baseball.” Just because something doesn’t have meaning to other people doesn’t negate its meaning to you. The things we cling to, the things we need to find our tribes, these are the things people outside our passions usually look at as nonessentials. As first-world pursuits. And on some level, they’re right, and so we feel petty and shallow when we’re hurt when we lose them. After all, look what other people are losing. How does my “baseball” matter in that context?

Looking back, I think the loss of baseball hit me because I wasn’t ready for it. I was so busy looking at my own real needs and the needs of my community that I didn’t prepare myself for the loss of my passions. It’s not that baseball is more important to me than the health of my friends, or the threat to local businesses. It’s just that I wasn’t ready for it. I hadn’t considered it because it wasn’t “important” in the face of the suffering of others. But of course it’s important. It’s important to me.

Does that mean I’m petitioning for baseball to start up again? No. Hell, no. It’s absolutely the worst thing we could do right now, gathering 20,000+ people in a coronavirus petri dish. Baseball needs to sit this spring out, for the good of the country, the world. It’s an absolutely appropriate sacrifice to make. Even when I was deep in my mourning over the loss of Opening Day I realized this. We gave up most of a season in 1994 to something as stupid as a labor dispute. Even if Major League Baseball loses the entirety of the 2020 season, at least it’ll be for a noble cause. It’s a sacrifice we baseball fans can offer up.

So what do we do with our feelings of loss, especially when they’re not shared by everyone else? As a hospice nurse, I have a tip on grieving for you. Sometimes people at the periphery of a person with terminal illness need to get their feelings out, but they don’t know how. After all, nothing can be worse than the pain of the person who is dying. Something that helps (bear with me here) is to think of the dying person at the center of a circle. Immediately outside their circle is the family or friends closest to them, people actively caring for the dying person. Outside that circle is another circle of support people for the caregivers. And then another circle for those people and so on. The rule is, everyone gets to complain out. No one gets to complain in. Someone caring for the dying person doesn’t get to complain to the patient how much the illness is affecting the caregiver’s life. But the caregiver does get to vent to their own BFF how much pain this loss means to them. Similarly, the BFF doesn’t get to complain to the caregiver that they’re not available as much for support. But the BFF does get to complain to her spouse that she misses the caregiver’s company. Nobody gets to vent to the dying. The dying gets to vent to everybody.

In the same way, don’t go on social media and complain about the loss of your “baseball” whatever that may be: your painting and wine outings or bowling nights. That’s going to sound selfish, because you’re complaining to people who don’t understand your loss, since they don’t share it. People won’t understand that you’re not saying you are uniquely suffering. They’ll think you’re saying that your thing is more important than any other person’s thing.

Instead, find support among the people who share your passion. I’m going to share this post, for example, among a few Facebook baseball groups I belong to. These are people that understand that I’m not mourning the loss of baseball per se. I’m mourning the loss of normalcy in my life. And they’ll get that, because they’re mourning the same thing.

This is hitting us all out of the blue, and we’re trying to adjust as best we can. We’re making it up as we go along. We’re doing great, most of us, most of the time. We’re just going to get blindsided by things we never expected.

For my part, I’m going to try not to cry too much over baseball on social media (A League of Their Own not withstanding, there are plenty of tears in baseball in the best of times). And I’m going to be patient with my friend that mourns the loss of March Madness this year.

Because maybe that’s their “baseball.”

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A Sad, Sad Knucklehead

I find myself wanting to write about depression. My depression.

I’m doing this for me, because I process feelings verbally, and talking or writing about something that’s on my mind helps me make sense of it. I’m going to publish it, because I don’t know who out there needs to hear this right now. That’s not easy, because we’re taught there’s something snowflaky, something demasculating about men sharing feelings. In my head I know that’s bullshit as I write it, but that means little to my gut, which has trapped lessons learned from early on from all sorts of places. You know what I’m talking about. So, it’s hard.

But, to quote Tom Waits (always when you can, quote Tom Waits), “I’ve smoked my friends down to the filter.” At least that’s what it feels like. My friends are wonderful, but when you’re depressed, talking about depression feels like losing an argument. You find yourself trying to say, “this is why I’m depressed,” and that’s wrong right there, because real depression doesn’t come from rational places. You’re not depressed because you have problems, or the world is an awful place, or because, look here, I’m going through terrible things right now and in awful pain, and can’t you see that? It colors everything else, makes everything else weightier. But it isn’t caused by any of those things. It just is. It just happens to you, unbidden and unforgiving and unjust. And you grab to find words to explain it to your friends, and the words aren’t there, and you can’t explain it, it just is.

And my friends – bless their hearts! – they try to argue with my depression, outwit it, and they’re no match! No match at all! Because don’t you see, my depression knows me better than you do. My depression knows things about me that you can’t possibly know, things I’ve never told a sibling or a spouse or a therapist. You know only what I’ve allowed you to know, plus maybe one or two things that have slipped out; you know the things I’ve humble-bragged about, like the time I took the special needs man to the baseball game. I tell that story all the time! I’m the hero of that story! That’s the only reason you know about it! You serve it back to me as proof that I have worth in this world. Haha! My depression is ready for you! My depression has been with me for longer than any person in my life. My depression has been with me since I was six and a half years old. My depression has saved up every awful thing I’ve done like a fistful of Draw Four cards in Uno. My depression will see your act of kindness and raise you the kid I bullied in middle school. Or every single time I looked at a girl or woman for her sexual uses and nothing else. I didn’t tell you that story did I? Well, my depression knows them all, and is only too happy to sing me off to a fitful sleep at night, every night, with every single personal horror.

That’s what it’s like to be depressed. And your friends – bless them! – watch you back away because you’re convinced that they don’t know the real you. Not like your depression does. You listen to yourself talk, and you sound (to yourself) whining and beseeching and wearisome. You can’t imagine wanting to be around a person such as you. The slightest sensation of a drop in attention – There! You dropped your gaze! – is confirmed as exhaustion with the very soul of me. It might be real; it might be the depression – I can’t tell! So I drop away, because I can’t take the chance that the only reason I’m around is to keep things light (that’s the depression talking, too). I need you, but I don’t know how you can help. Or if I deserve it.

So just be for your friends with depression. You can’t fix them, not in the short term. You’re up against something you can’t go toe-to-toe with. You can’t win on depression’s turf. You can empathize, a weapon depression doesn’t have a defense against. You can tell them, “you’re in a lot of pain.” That usually shuts me up. That usually cuts through the depression and tells me, “I was just heard. He got it.”

I’ll be OK. I will. I’ve been through this before, and will go through it again. I’m back in therapy with a terrific clinical social work/therapist who listens, pulls pieces from the things I say, and serves them back to me so I can listen to myself, too. I have an appointment with a psychiatric ARNP so my meds will be in the hands of an expert in the field. And tonight, I got out of the house and visited with some dear friends who love me and listen to me, and share with me their wisdom of how they walk through a world that looks increasingly like it’s on fire.

And, hey. I’m writing again.

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The 12th Knucklehead


It’s almost here. It’s been a particularly long and cold winter, more so than most. I’m hungry for baseball. Today the spring training games began; tomorrow the familiar voices will yawn and stretch, get behind a microphone, and begin to bring us the Game from (for many of us) impossibly warmer climes. Places where baseball hasn’t slumbered after all, not completely, but places that can seem as distant to us as a crisp beer on a sweltering day. It’s almost here. I’m almost ready.

But first, some old business to which to attend. I need to close out another pastime before I can get my head into the national pastime. We have some rare football issues that we must address.

Some background, if you’re new to the blog. I love baseball, my son, ethics, and dorkiness. At least three of these loves combined about seven years back when I abandoned a “favorite” football team and had to choose another, from scratch (you can read about that here). My knucklehead helped me work out a formula in which we could attempt to quantify the qualities I was looking for in a new favorite team, and in the process, we actually managed a numerical ranking of my team preferences. It was as dorky and clinical as it sounds. And it was a lot of fun. And, for a while, it worked.

In the interim, life happened. My son grew up, went to college, and headed to New England to try being a dork there and seeing how it suited him. While he was at school, I left our home in rural Pennsylvania and drove across country to see if being a dork worked better for me in the Pacific Northwest (spoiler alert: it has).

That should catch us up.

So, for a long time, being a Packers fan (as The Formula assigned my fandom) worked out just fine. After all, football wasn’t something that was really in my heart, so which team I decided to root for really didn’t matter so much to me. I would often have to remind myself that I was supposed to be following the Green Bay Packers. As I would tell people, I was such a devout Cheesehead that I could name up to two players: Aaron Rodgers, and The Guy With The Hair.* From time to time I would check in to see if The Pack was having a good season, but usually late to guess if they were going to make the playoffs.

But it did seem a bit clinical, even for me. It was an interesting exercise in stats and ethics (ethics, because I chose a team factoring in social issues that I cared about), but beyond that, didn’t really lead to an emotional investment in any given game. It remained something my boy and I had fooled around with. Football wasn’t really a passion for me, anyway. It was something, late in the season, I might put on the television as background noise while I did the laundry on Sunday.

[Now, I can hear what you’re saying, especially if your name is “Barth” and you coach high school football in Connecticut: “HAH! WHAT’D I TELL YOU, STATS BOY?! SOME THINGS JUST CAN’T BE QUANTIFIED INTO YOUR LITTLE FORMULA! LIKE HEART AND GUTS AND PASSION!” To which I would respond, “Not at all. Anything can be quantified. All this proves is I wasn’t skilled enough to pull it off. I failed math, not the other way around. And lay off the caps lock. It’s unbecoming.”]

And then one day a few months ago, I noticed something interesting. I’d had the Seahawks game on, and they were playing San Francisco, with the division lead on the line. (Watching the Seahawks had become an occupational hazard as a hospice nurse in Washington. I’d learned that my patients’ emotional health was far more often tied to the Seattle Seahawks than on their own terminal conditions. “How’s your pain?” “Awful. I can’t believe Pete Carroll called for a running play.”) I stopped to find that late in the game, the Seahawks had a first and goal, the lead in their grasp if they could just get into the end zone, less than ten yards away. They couldn’t, but they did get a fresh set of downs on a fourth down… play? ‘Niners penalty? Some damn football reason. And they still couldn’t score, given eight shots at a touchdown. And I felt something. Something I’d never felt before watching a football game, something I’d only felt as a die-hard Red Sox fan.

I felt disgust.

It was the kind of disgust you only feel as a fan. The disgust you only feel when you start to let your heart into the game. The disgust that’s only possible when you were hoping for the best for your team, and they did something stupid to let you down. A year or two ago, I just would have shaken my head, laughed, or rolled my eyes. This time, I surprised my dog with a loud, “Damnit!” (He snapped his head around, as if to say, “What was that all about? I’m just a dog, but even I can tell we’re not watching baseball. Or the Oscars.”)

Was it possible I was turning into a Seahawks fan? And if so, isn’t that a betrayal of The Formula? Had I lost my faith in Reason?

And then it hit me. The reason I had invented The Formula in the first place. Why I had to do deliberately what to most people seems to come naturally:

I had never loved where I lived before. I had never lived somewhere (at least not as an adult) where I felt I had ties to the community.** Where I wanted to claim, and to be claimed by, my neighbors. In Olympia, I have that. For the first time in my life, I have skin in the local game. I feel like I’m with my people.

Still, I wanted to do it right. I felt like I already was a fan, but it felt like cheating to declare it now with the ‘Hawks (despite that day’s loss to San Francisco) headed to the playoffs. It felt too… “bandwagony,” like I hadn’t earned it. I felt like it would be an insult to my friends to try to claim fandom this late in the season. I wanted to wait, not until next season when we might have some hint if the team would be any good, but certainly after the current season had ended. So I did something that pleased the dork in me; I set a “go live” date for my Seattle Seahawks fandom:

March 1st, 2020.

I have some local friends who have agreed to come up with some kind of initiation ritual (no body paint, no shirtlessness. I’m still a baseball fan at heart). It may be as simple as meeting some friends at the sporting goods store at the Capital Mall to help me pick out a jersey, then walking over to the Stack 571 for a celebratory beer and burger. I haven’t decided yet whether to go with the classic blue and green jersey or the eye-popping bright green affair. But I have picked out what’s going to be on the back.

No player on the Seahawks wears the number 12. That number is reserved for the fans, the “12th man/woman” that the team honors. Jerseys that bear the number 12, usually just have the word “FAN” printed on the back, instead of a player name. I like that. I think Russell Wilson is great (it turns out that I really seem to like a quarterback who isn’t afraid to run). But he’s not the reason I’m signing on with the Seahawks (also it’s much less likely that the entire Seattle fan base will be dragged into court on some heinous charge than any given player someday). The good people of Washington are the reason I’m enlisting. I’m a twelve.

I’m the Twelfth Knucklehead.


*And I just had to Google “Aaron Rodgers” to see if there’s a “D” in his last name.

**Closest I came was when I was a kid; we moved to Hawaii when I was four and left when I was six. I never appreciated living on Oahu, I was just happy running around barefoot all year round with my friends. I can’t decide whether I missed out on enjoying living in Paradise, or got it exactly right.

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A Letter to My Son: Regarding Privilege

I know. It’s a loaded word. But honestly, privilege is something you’re going to need to have a handle on as you head out into the world. And it’s a damned elusive thing to get a grip on, nearly impossible to discuss dispassionately. A lot of people have been holding back for a long time on this topic, and they’re in no mood to be patient with us any longer. So between you and me, among family, as someone who will always have your back, let me pass on what I’ve learned over my years about my privilege. It isn’t much, but what I’ve got I’ve mostly picked up over the past ten years of my life, not the previous forty. I’m hopeful you can get wiser quicker.

I should start by defining the word “privilege” but I’m not ready to do that yet. Maybe by the end of this letter, maybe never. It’s like a black hole; you can’t see it, but you know it’s there by the effect it has on the space around it. The results of privilege are all around us. Privilege itself is invisible to those who hold it. The frustration of the unprivileged, in part, comes from the fact that they know we can’t see what they’re talking about. You can’t fault someone for what they’re doing unawares.

But you can’t let it go, either.

It was a Facebook conversation that finally, briefly, put privilege into focus for me. A friend had posted something about one of the many women’s marches* immediately following Trump’s inauguration, and in the comments that followed, a few Trump apologists began expressing their doubt that women in this country really had anything to complain about. There followed the usual micro-examples (“my supervisor is a woman,” “the girl they hired at the fry station makes minimum wage just like I do,” etc.), but what really started to resound with me were stories a couple men reported about going through divorce. In particular, divorce that involved custody of children. That’s when their feelings began to make sense to me. That’s when the light switched on in my head.

They didn’t know it, but these men were describing the one time in their lives when they had lost their privilege. Of course it hurt. They’d never felt it before. I’d never felt it before. Until I got divorced.

Your mom and I divorced in Virginia, a socially conservative state. As a father, as a parent, certain of my rights were protected. There were formulas made up to try to equitably determine child support. A father’s access to his child could not be removed except through the legal system. There were things in the law you could point to that said a father had some rights. But if you wanted to go beyond what the law limited you to, that’s where you ran into trouble. Once you tried to present yourself as an equal partner in a child’s development, the burden of proof was on you to provide evidence for your astonishing claim. Motherhood (but not womanhood) was protected by the state of Virginia.

Now, that’s no fault of the good women and mothers of the state. Their sole privilege in their lives was an accidental byproduct of a paternalistic court system. Moms didn’t create that system as surely as they didn’t create the one that kept them unprotected in wages, health care, and human rights. But in matters of custody, they caught a break.

We didn’t suffer much as father and son because of the state’s bias, but that wasn’t because of the system. That was because of your mom. Your mother understood that your well-being as a child depended on a healthy relationship with both your parents. I (and you) owe her that. And that made us lucky, because a mom less dedicated to your care could have easily made it difficult for us to spend time together. I always had to keep that in the back of my mind. There were only so many waves I could make. And when your mom decided to move you to her hometown in Pennsylvania, I knew I had two options. Accept it. Or fight it, throwing myself thousands of dollars more into debt (I was living paycheck-to-paycheck at the time), and still lose in court. So I let it go, and followed you north.

I was angry and hurt, because it wasn’t fair. I was made to feel like a lesser parent simply because of my gender. I didn’t know it at the time, but I see it clearly now:

I had lost my privilege.

Because that feeling that I had of being forced to prove my worth, in that one area of my life, is what women and Muslims and immigrants and black and brown citizens and the LGBTQ community have to face all the time in all the other areas of their lives. That outrage, that humiliation, that lessening that I felt in front of the courts of Virginia is the feeling that my privilege protects me from in all other areas of my life.

That’s why I understood the hurt these men were talking about. They weren’t used to it. Neither was I. It does hurt. They just couldn’t make the leap that other people had felt this, too.

So privilege is armor you don’t know you’re wearing. It’s not bad to have that armor; it’s a good thing. But it’s essential to understand that not everyone has it. And it’s essential to understand that arrows hurt, wound, and can even kill people who don’t have the armor. The armor you don’t even know you’re wearing.

My poor understanding of privilege, from the standpoint of one who has unwittingly held it all his life is this: People without privilege aren’t asking me to take the armor off. They just want some, too. Or at the very least, they want me to understand the damage arrows do to the unprotected.

* * *

At this point, I feel like I’m supposed to tell you that you should educate yourself, and that’s truly the best thing to do. But don’t do so with the goal to understand or empathize with what women or Latinos or Jews go through. Realistically, I don’t think that’s possible. It’s too late for you to grow up in poverty. You’ll never be black. If you’re Muslim or gay or trans, you’ve kept it to yourself, so I’ll assume you don’t have intimate experience with those realities, either. You can talk and read and meet, and those are all good and wonderful things that will make you a richer human being, but they are not things that will allow you to experience what others have lived. It’s crucial that you understand the distinction, because it’s all the difference between looking across the table at a fellow human being, and looking down at them.

When I was in nursing school, we were given a definition of pain that I’ve never forgotten, and that I’ve found to be more accurate with every day I work with patients. Ready? Here it is:

Pain is whatever the patient says it is.

If your patient has a broken leg and tells you they have 4 out of 10 pain, then that’s what they have. If they have a hangnail and rate it 9/10, then guess what? Their pain is at a nine. The lesson is you don’t get to judge. You’re not feeling what the patient is feeling. Maybe the guy with the hangnail has fibromyalgia, which affects the way people experience pain. Maybe he has an undiagnosed brain tumor. Maybe he just lost his job and his health insurance. Maybe his child was just killed in an auto accident. Maybe he’s just cursed with a low pain threshold. There are many factors that affect someone’s pain, and pain is always subjective. Even if they’re having trouble putting what they’re feeling into words, something in this person’s life is causing them to tell another human being that they are in pain. Something is going on here, and it’s real.

You don’t have to understand it. You have to take it seriously.

For most of my life, I didn’t believe racism was endemic and institutional, because I didn’t feel it. I wasn’t exposed to it, so I tried to judge it on that basis, and I was wrong. I couldn’t imagine that black men and women really were being executed by police, or denied homes and jobs and respect just for the crime of being black, and that these things happened on a daily basis, so I didn’t believe it. What I should have done was just listened. I should have understood that the proof of that was that so many people were consistently crying out in pain. I withheld belief because it didn’t fit in with my own experience. It never occurred to me that my privilege “protected” me from reality. I should have just heard the pain for what it was.

You don’t have to get it. You just have to listen. Living in someone’s skin isn’t a prerequisite to taking them seriously.

When Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” tape came out, I started hearing voices I’d never heard before. Some were voices I’d missed. Some were voices speaking out for the first time, emboldened by their resistance. A few of my Facebook friends made allusions to harassment they’d endured at work. Some made reference to assaults they’d try to bury in their past. One courageous friend even shared with me a story of being sexually assaulted by her pediatrician when she was sixteen. When she told her mother about it, her mother urged silence.

Years ago, I thought that if women and girls were smart and followed the rules, they could avoid sexual assault. Later, I believed it was something that loomed as a possibility in every woman’s life. This year I learned that every woman in our lives has a story like this. Our mothers, grandmothers, wives, bosses, nieces, lab partners, dormmates, waitresses, teachers, and sisters, every one of them carry personal experience of sexual assault and/or intimidation. I’m ashamed that it’s taken me a lifetime to hear them. It’s why I write this letter to you now, my beloved son, so that you can get a better head start than I did. I think your generation already has. But it’s too important to leave to chance.

Be aware of your privilege, as much as you are able to sense something you can’t see. Sit and talk with people, and listen. Withhold judgment. Remember that your empathy may not be possible, but it’s not needed, either, not as much as your credulity. Read. Start with Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson, if you need a starting point. Turn to your friends for other books, films, and music to get your eyes and ears turned outward. Above all, understand that your experience of life is not everyone’s experience of life.

It’s not your fault you have privilege, and I know you never asked for it. But you cannot deny it, not if you want to make the world a better place, as I know you do. Look for it in the rare moments it’s visible. Privilege doesn’t want to be seen, not by us. Pointing it out might be the best thing you can do.


*As you know, I was proud to join my local one in Olympia, WA.

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A Bit of Housekeeping

I started writing this blog back in the fall of 2013, when The Knucklehead went away to college. I needed a distraction with my only child out of the house, and I thought this would be a good one. I didn’t feel qualified to lecture anybody on anything, but I’d learned a lot from working at being a dad, and I wanted to share my stories. My hope was that something that worked for me might work for someone else out there, too. Or that other parents might find some reinforcement when reading about some of my own doubts and insecurities.

It was hard to find focus in those first months, and it shows in my  early posts. But as I lurched between my passions of baseball, movies, and books, I began to find my voice. I wrote more about ethics than other facets of parenting, because I’ve been a student of ethics since even back when I was a little kid. Gradually, I began to gain confidence. Some of you have been kind enough to let me know when something I wrote was meaningful to you, and that meant the world to me.

Here’s a secret: Whenever I had trouble finding words for something difficult I was trying to express, I imagined I was chatting with My Knucklehead, just he and me. That led to some of my better writing, at least from what trusted friends have told me.

But it’s been harder lately to come up with fresh posts about parenting, as you’ve probably guessed from the infrequency of my writings lately. Maybe I’ve said all I have to say on the subject. Maybe, as my son begins to turn his attention to the larger world, it would be healthier for me to turn my own attention more to my own life, and less to his.

Besides, there seem to be more pressing matters these days. I’m feeling more and more that it’s my civic responsibility to lend my pen to the Resistance against Trump and those who enable him, both within government and without.

My son graduates college in May, and I think that would be an excellent time to finish out The Gentleman Knucklehead. This blog has served its purpose well. For a couple years my blog had great focus, and I’m proud of my writing. But honestly, friends, I think we’re now in the fourth season of Lost. I don’t want to do that to you, to my son, or to myself. So here’s my plan:

Between now and The Knucklehead’s graduation, I’m going to devote this blog to a series of open letters to my son, each on different topics. I think this way we can end strong; I’ll write better when I’m addressing my boy directly, and where most of this blog was seeded in stories of the past, these posts will be looking toward the future, toward a child entering adulthood (adultery? Grown-uppitiness?). If anyone reading this has ideas of topics you’d like me to write about, I’d be happy to hear your suggestions.

I won’t stop writing. I’ll probably begin another blog, and if I do, I’ll let you know where you can find my writing. And it’s possible I’ll return here from time to time when I have something new to say about parenting.

Or even (gulp!) grandparenting.

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House Rules

OK, Knucklehead.

You’re making your first visit to you new home on the Left Coast. This time it’s for eleven days; next time, who knows when or for how long? A couple days? Two weeks? Eight months? To quote Robert Frost, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Happily, in this case.

Nevertheless, it’s still my house, my rules, boy. It’s best to review them before the visit. Some are classics. Some are new, befitting the change of venue (and the fact that you’re over 21). Infractions of any will result in swift, severe consequences. That’s right: epic whining from yours truly. Oh, I’ll do it. You know I will.

  1. I’ve accepted that you like to channel-surf. I understand the concept of “just browsing.” But the whole reason it frustrates me is because you have the remote. And just as I’m beginning to get curious in what’s going to happen next – ZZZIIIIIP! – it’s gone. It’s like having a book ripped out of your hand in mid-sentence. I can’t take that for eleven days. So at a sitting, I’ll allow you twenty minutes of channel-surfing. Then you have to pick something. ANYTHING.
  2. Here’s an oldie, but goodie: if you happen to run across a broadcast movie I have in The Collection, after you’ve been watching for ten minutes, you must quit watching the broadcast version and pop in the disc to watch the entire flick. I didn’t bring up any knucklehead of mine to watch hacked-up Bowdlerized versions of a real film. As my mother used to say about books, “If the author went to all the trouble to write it, the least you could do is read it.”
  3. Of course, if it’s Rocky II-IV, you’re welcome to zap through to the fight scenes. Sorry, Barth.
  4. I buy good beer, which you’re old enough to drink. I don’t want to ever catch you drinking beer out of the bottle, not in my house. Good beer should be decanted into a pint glass, so that you can get your nose into the bouquet as you drink it. That’s the entire point of pint glasses, of which I have plenty. The only exception is if we’re sitting in lawn chairs in the back yard, which have those little pouches in the armrests that will accommodate a bottle, but not a glass so much. Otherwise….
  5.  If I ask you, “What do you want from the supermarket?” and you reply, “Anything is fine,” you deserve whatever you get.
  6. I raised you to be a moral man. Not to follow my ethical values or anyone else’s, but your own, and to work at discovering what they are and to work at being true to them. I trust you, and I trust your choices, even if they might not be mine. So if there is someone you are bedding in your life outside this house, should that person come to visit overnight, that person will share a bed with you here. It just seems hypocritical of me to expect anything else. Your friends have been my friends. Your family is my family.
  7. But for god’s sake, keep it down. I’m right across the hall.
  8. You might have heard that Washington state has legal weed, and for persons 21 or over, that is true. It’s easy and safe to purchase, but there are still limited places to consume it. You can’t smoke it in public, or even at the place where you bought it, or anywhere that prohibits smoking in general. You can smoke it at home, but for aesthetic reasons, I don’t want smoking or vaping of any kind inside the house. That leaves the backyard or garage, and you’re welcome to toke up there if you’re so inclined (no toking and driving, same as drinking – save it for when you’re in for the night). The catch is, if you’re a social smoker, I can’t join you. I still have cravings from when I quit smoking cigarettes before you were born, and I’m afraid that smoking anything at all might wake the beast. So while I can’t join you, I’ll sit with you and have a beer if you like. I only say this so you don’t buy more pot than you can consume during your stay. I don’t want the rest, so unless you want to swallow baggies in the airport before your flight east, it’s just going to go to waste.
  9. For the first few nights you’re here (or knowing you, early mornings), I’m probably going to peek in and look at you while you’re sleeping, just like when you were three, and five, and seventeen. That’s just going to happen.
  10. Rainy days mean nothing in the Pacific Northwest. We’re still going out, still walking the dog, still visiting Rainier, still bopping around downtown Olympia. And put that umbrella away. You’re embarrassing us.
  11. If you put a snack down on the coffee table, the dog is going to eat it. No use getting mad at him. Or me. This is his house, too.
  12. Any human being that walks into this house and makes a snack has to ask every other human being in this house if they want one, too. That goes for me as well as you.
  13. I’m going to randomly hug you and say, “I can’t believe you’re here.” That’s another thing that’s just going to happen.

Glad we got this all straightened out. See you at SeaTac on Thursday.

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