When Traditions Begin to Change


For all 28 years of my life before this year, and well before my own birth, my mother’s Italian family has always gathered together sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas to make homemade pasta.  After we put the pasta together, it would go into the freezer until Christmas.  We made ravioli with beef and lemon and spinach filling and cappalletti, a sort of tortellini type pasta we serve in broth, full of pork and cheese.  This was always one of my favorite things about my family.  It differentiated my family from all those of the kids I went to school with, and then all of my friends and coworkers as an adult, who were eating more ham and turkey for Christmas.  It also was a time for my family to be together, be goofy, cook amazing food, and to connect with my Italian roots.  It felt familial, it felt loving, it felt divine.

When I was young, I remember the whole family gathering: my grandmother, mom, grandfather, aunt and uncle.  We would sit around my grandmother in her kitchen, the matriarch doling out tasks – you, make balls of stuffing for the cappalletti; you, dust your fork in flour to close the ravioli; you, get out of the way – all while kneeding and rolling endless quantities of hand-mixed dough, allowing it to rise and chill in batches.  My grandfather would walk through the kitchen singing Italian ballads and eating our work as quickly as we assembled it.  The kitchen was rambunctious, it was full of life and love.

The first change happened as my aunt and uncle moved out of town, got married, had kids.  It was more difficult to find time to get together, and our assembly party dwindled primarily to my mom, grandmother, grandfather and myself.  A few years later, I would go off to college and, despite vociferously advocating for my inclusion in this tradition, I was often left out in the name of convenience.  My mom and grandfather talked my grandmother into switching away from entirely hand-crafted pastas, opting for the higher tech dough hooks and pasta roller of the kitchen aid.  Still, the family enjoyed our annual Christmas Eve and Christmas day meals, drenched in the flavors of citrus and red sauce, fresh dough and the hillsides of Tuscany, the family growing all the while.

Over the past few years, my grandmother and mother have met alone to complete this enormous task.  They often choose days that my grandfather is golfing so that he is out of the way.  They claim to have a routine down, they know what they’re doing and they can work well together to get it done.  This efficiency has come with a cost, however.  It has created some resentment as the growing family consumes hours and hours of work as fast as the food can cook.  It has lost the familial camaraderie of the process, the community of joy built around a wooden board of flour and eggs, hands covered in oil and meat mixture, and the kitchen filled with happy laughter.

This year, however, things changed even more.  Over the past year, my grandmother has grown older and my mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.  It invades her bones and has especially decimated her spine, making it difficult to stand or sit straight for an extended period of time.  They decided that the ravioli, which could be made in a few hours, would be do-able; however, the cappalletti would simply take too long to craft.  Christmas day dinner would be replaced with store bought tortellini.

I know that times change; that people grow older; that traditions must change shape as the family in which it resides does the same.  Nevertheless, there was a sadness deep inside of me this year as we sat for our meals.  It hasn’t felt the same for some time – the community of love replaced by hands of technology – but this year, it felt that our christmas was caving in on the inevitable.  It felt like the precipice of finality; like inevitable death.

It  made me wonder: what will happen next year?  I am still single, less than a month away from thirty.  I have no partner or children to take over the charge.  None of the rest of the family seems interested in doing so.  Will this tradition – this childhood memory of gladness and warmth – come to an abrupt end?  Or will we pick up the reigns and, quite literally, reignite the fire of the hearth?  I don’t know, but a part of me felt the distinct loss of my childhood as we gathered around the table – ironically, the first time we’d all sat down together and eaten at the same time in years – eating pasta from a refrigerated box.

Snowpiercer: An Examination of Political Structure and the Necessity of Radical Intervention


When Snowpiercer was released, some of my favorite internet peeps were posting about it. This made me go, hmmmm…. Well, this and the fact that it was written and directed by a fantastic lefty film maker. I have to admit that, while I wanted to get to it, I wasn’t able to before it was whisked out of the only theater playing it in my town. I was sad. Until I saw it on an unexpected flight to Seattle last week.

So, it SHOULD go without saying; but, if it isn’t obvious, I’ll state for the record that there ::may:: be some ::spoilers:: present in this post. If you haven’t watched it and don’t want anything spoiled, you should probably stop here, go watch because it’s great (hey, I hear it’s on netflix!), then come back so I can fill you in on my thoughts and we can have a conversation about it. How’s that?

So, are we good? Yes? Good; I’ll go on. The first half of the film struck me as boring and heavy handed.  I was actually thinking “you know, what’s all the fuss about?”  Most of the film consists of the usual class-warfare hierarchical scheme of awareness touted by all the top liberal thinkers in a mind-bogglingly and glaringly obvious and overstated metaphor of the bottom half of society moving through a train from the back to the front.  They have sparked a revolution out of hunger and abuse, and have been pushed on by mysterious notes appearing in their food supply – bricks of ‘protein’ later found to be made from the bugs on board the moving society – the remains of humanity in total.

As our heroes move from the back to the front, they encounter all of the luxuries and opulence and disgusting indulgence of the well-to-do who have access to natural light (windows!) and an aquarium (sushi!) and real meat (a whole chicken-stocked butchery!) and clothes and drugs and saunas and pools.  Oh, my, what they have been missing out on!  Still, they move forward instead of getting mired down in the temptation – fighting for their lives as the security force comes after them by different means.  Again, nice, sure, but a bit forced and obvious.

But then we get to the last, eh, 15 minutes of the film.  This is when the entire set up changes.  I sat up in my seat, then was on edge until the end, when I sort of fell back in a heap going, huh, what did I just watch?  It wasn’t until the next morning when I awoke – finally rested, I might say – suddenly and full of insight on the ultimate message of the film, as I understood it, and what it means for us. So what happens in these last few minutes?  Let’s talk about it:

So, this engaging and refreshing narrative begins with our head guy sitting down with the security architect of the train, whom he has awoken from a sleepy respite in a criminal incarceration unit for drug users. Here, our protagonist tells the story of his awakening – his transition from one of the masses doing anything to survive to one of the enlightened as he is shown the middle way by an old man, his mentor.  Here he learns that the minor sacrifices of a great many mean the lives of the few.  This, I think, is our traditional socialist narrative – the greedy capitalist is saved by the example of a selfless one and sees the horror and greed of his ways.  This, however, leads him to seek the front of the train without compromise and with no real plan for how to move forward from there.  He doesn’t see this – but it is brilliantly illuminated in the final set of narratives.

As he is alarmingly and graciously allowed to the front of the train by the train’s creator, he endures a lecture of epic proportion – a lecture which led me to the edge of my seat with awe and excitement and thoughts of “oh, no he isn’t!”  It is my personal opinion that Joon-ho Bong built the rest of the movie around the idea of this final set of exchanges.  It is the crux of the entire film, and the film’s true message lies here.  As Curtis is allowed into the enigmatic Wilford’s inner sanctum, he is made aware that his mentor and guide to the light has secretly been working as Wilford’s partner in oppression.  The tyrant reveals a secret history of voluntary cooperation with the evil of the status quo – the structure of the train is not accidental; in fact, it relies on the complicity of the oppressed. It is placed in the context of extinction – we either cooperate in the only way we know, hierarchy, or we die.  These are the only two options.

And furthermore, Wilford goes on – the entire revolution has been masterminded by the tyrant and his cooperative lackey – in order to maintain order and population control, the architects created a second revolution (he has been planting the messages, you see, and we know of a previous revolution from narrative references throughout the film). The artifice of revolution is made in order to encourage the natural order amongst all members of the society while paring down on the population in order to maintain a carefully planned closed ecosystem. And why not? The world outside is frozen solid without chance for survival.  In this way, it is the cultivation of chaos, of conflict, of seemingly meaningful violence that maintains the oppressive status quo for everyone.  Because even the upper classes are terrified of the outside – because outside of the bounds of the train is nothing but death.

But here’s the kicker – the train arrives just in the nick of time for the disastrous frozen human overcompensation of anthropogenic global warming.  See?  The global freeze was caused by humans as their solution to global warming, which was caused by humans.  We move from one disastrous situation to another – constantly setting ourselves up for failure as a species and then maintaining that the same exact circumstances – the same hierarchy (the social division of the train’s cars), the same facade of control (protected from the wild natural elements, safely inside the train) – that got us there will save us this time.

This got me thinking – We have this history, as a species, as a modern society, of Revolting within the same system. (ie, “the train”) Think of a ‘revolution’ or a revolt – go ahead, think all the way back to ninth grade social studies if you need to…. Well, was this revolution an actual overturning of the system, or was it a mere redistribution of the system?  Over and over again we see these resets of the status quo – all throughout our history – and yet we deem them revolutionary.  Immediately, the USSR came to mind – a ‘communist’ ‘revolution’ which only succeeded in flipping the classes within the same system.  Then Nazi Germany came to mind and the ‘escape’ of persecuted Zionist Jews to the newly created Israel where they became the oppressors of a new innocent people, flipping the same system on its head again.  The US revolution – the same thing, the oppressed flip the system temporarily until 250 years later they are the same colonizing oppressors from which they originally sought refuge.  I challenge you to find one which doesn’t perpetuate the same cycle.

In this way, oppression becomes not an oppression solely by an other, but rather an act in which we ourselves conspire – we become complicit in and dependent upon our own oppression for the sake of the status quo which we know and in which we feel safe, even when it’s devastating us. And it does devastate us – for EVERYONE in the system, from the top to the bottom – as portrayed metaphorically in the film, the top never gets a break until they die and the bottom never reach any semblance of peace or enjoyment and the middle are so sedated by their boredom and paralysis from participation that they don’t even exist in any productive capacity. And this is where the final ending of the film reveals its brilliance – it actually BLEW MY MIND and made me wake up wired for sound when I realized this…

Ok, last spoiler alert, but seriously, if you haven’t seen it I’m about to spoil the ending for you.

Still here?  Good; I’ll go on.  The film ends, as you should know by now, because you’ve totally seen it (right?), with the catastrophic and metaphoric and violent destruction of humanity as the train is set off its rails into oblivion by the criminal technology creator – quite literally, the train, the ‘savior’ of humankind is also the means of extinction of a species. All of humanity, that is, but two who land in the new, un-navigated, unsafe territory of Earth.  It’s no accident that they were both born on the train – literally virgins of the Earth.  Neither, I think, is it an accident that we are left with a young boy and a teenaged woman – a virginal and matriarchal do-over – on equal footing with a solitary polar bear emerging to negotiate his way through the new landscape, as well. In this way, we can only escape our misery, our selfish hierarchy, our miserable power struggles through true revolution – that is a drastically new system, an uncharted new world that is both terrifying but also the only true redemption for humankind.

The privilege of being noticed, or participating in a conversation on cultural misogyny while fat – thoughts on the UCSB massacre, part two


I have been thinking an awful lot about the UCSB massacre, the man who did it, the men who support him and the victims Rodger attacked.  More over, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the conversation around this incident, and the media coverage.  Why this man?  Why now?  Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely support the conversations happening, especially those involving gender; however, I think there is more to this story.  There is a lot more about this case that hasn’t quite hit the public conversations quite yet. 


The week after Rodger went on a rampage, killing seven and injuring 13 more, a friend reached out, noticing much of what I had noticed: Do you think Rodger is getting coverage because he’s white?  I had to think about this for a moment, and consider my response – because, no, I didn’t think that was the case.  In fact, Rodger wasn’t white, strictly speaking – he was Asian American.  And while this raises some interesting questions about ideas of masculinity and an entirely diferent conversation around race and gender in our country, it doesn’t meet the point I was thinking when I responded to my friend: No, I said.  I think Rodger is getting coverage because of the whiteness of his victims. 


Back in 2009, a case so heinous hit the news that I could not believe it didn’t receive more attention.  Anthony Sewell, a fiftiesish black man and registered sex offender, finally had enough complaints filed against him about the smells coming from his home that officers finally came to investigate.  And they found the rotting bodies of 11 women, all of whom were women of color – poor women, prostitutes, drug addicts – and all of whom had been raped and murdered and left to fill the home this man lived in.  On the surface, this case actually has a lot in common with the Rodger case: In both cases, people around the killer reported suspicious activity, and in both cases, the police dismissed the complaints – in Rodger’s case, by meeting with Rodger and accepting his misogynistic “incel” view of reality and in Sowell’s case by dismissing the idea that the women who’d gone missing were worthy of looking into.  But one has incited a national conversation, and the other has been completely silent.


So what’s all this about?  Over the past several years, I have taken notice of the trend in coverage of killings leaning towards white and middle class populations.  Think about it: the news we’ve seen has been about shootings in white malls, on white college campuses, a white elementary school, a movie theater in a predominantly middle class neighborhood and where the media images were all of white victims.  To date this year alone, Chicago has reported 108 murders and New Orleans metro has reported 55.  None of these incidents have made national news.  I attended a reading event last month and the last reader of the night read a piece he had written for a local magazine regarding a missing boy.  The piece was incredibly well written, and drew a sombre response from the audience; yet, as it dawned on me when the boy was described that he was white, I was shocked initially at my incorrect notion, and I found myself wondering: why don’t pieces like this get written about the dozens of black girls and boys who go missing in metro atlanta each year.  The next day, I logged into facebook to see one such girl staring back at me: an amber alert for a teenaged black girl, gone missing while out with friends.  She and her family have not had any such plea for assistance written in the local media.  The juxtaposition was astounding and disturbing.  


Which brings us back to Elliot, once again.  The media coverage, while eye opening on many aspects of cultural misogyny and rape culture, has missed the link on so many other issues.  I believe that this case made headlines specifically because of the type of woman Rodger was targeting – blonde, thin and white, the “stuck up blonde” women he insists made him “desire” them and then ran away from him.  Would the same coverage and conversation have begun around an attack at a black or lesbian sorority house where the women weren’t deemed by our society to be “hot?”  As many articles have already pointed out, the ‘pick up artist’ (PUA) community has had a role in this attack, as have men’s rights movements.  There have even been some instances of straight up victim blaming, searching for the “girl who broke Rodger’s heart.” The nerd we love to hate has contributed an incredible piece about the misogyny in nerd popular culture and how that has come to inform his understanding of the Rodger attack, and then there was this piece about the misandry of patriarchal culture.  There have been many conversations around mental health, of which this is just one.  This blog has even called out the hypocrisy of some white feminism which discounts the black female experience – an important message for us to attend.  All of this things are right in different ways, and they’re all important.  But as a fat woman, and a fat woman who has experienced my own sexual assaults and harassment, I have felt a particular type of exclusion through this coverage.


You see, even the #yesallwomen meme has reinforced the cultural standards of beauty by primarily representing a white middle class female perspective.  And, I’d venture to say, a thin perspective.  This coverage of the PUAhate conversations about Elliot’s killings really struck me and have stuck with me… the hypocrisy with which they speak about unfuckable women yet DEMAND sex for themselves by only the most beautiful and fuckworthy of the women screams of an anger against all women, but I hear an especially tremendous hate for women like me – women who are the supposed equivalent of men like them, but who “can get sex anytime she wants it” simply by the existence of a vagina.  And that is absolutely a result of a culture which values certain bodies over and above others. 


This article from the WaPo talks about the reinforcement of social norms contributing to these attitudes via popular culture, while Seth Rogan violently responded with his own reinforcement of these norms.  I feel these norms in a very real way, and the ways in which they work against me in many facets of my life.  One such was is the invisibility I have experienced during this conversation.  As a fat women, how do my experiences with sexual assault matter to this conversation?  Furthermore, are my experiences valid in this culture at all?


Ultimately, I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that there is a LOT of wonderful conversation happening around this horrifying incident – but I think we have much further to go than the simplicity of the white, thin, middle class female experience, and I think the recognition of those limitations, whether it be one of physical ability, race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and/or size, matters.


What do you all think?

Mental health/illness and cultural context – Thoughts on the UCSB massacre, part one


I am a marriage and family therapist.  The thing that distinguishes MFT training from the other mental health professions – professional/mental health counselors, social workers, psychologists – is our intense clinical training in systems and theoretical training in general systems theory.  You see, in my training, I learned to recognize that what counts as mental health or mental illness varies based on context.  Different cultures, different value systems, all place differing emphases on what constitutes mental health versus mental illness.  This matters in the context of the Elliot Rodger killings because of the brief conversations about mental health that have arisen – and generally quickly quashed – since last week. 


We, as a society, are having a really difficult time figuring out how to have a conversation about mental health, especially as it applies to horrific crimes such as this one.  But I hope I can illuminate throughout this posting why this is not a surprise given  our cultural context.  Through my observation over the past few days of the media – both in print and radio – coverage of this terrible case, it has become obvious that we don’t have, as a nation, a language or understanding to inform a conversation of this kind.  The back and forth has been astonishing – yes, mental illness matters; no, mental illness isn’t the issue; it’s white patriarchal rape culture to blame; misogyny doesn’t matter, mental illness is to blame.  But in the end, the conversation hasn’t really happened at all outside of a few blurts and sound bites here and there.  In fact, the majority of the conversation around mental illness in the Elliot Rodger case has been – he was seeing mental health professionals; why didn’t someone catch this.  The long and the short of it is, the mental health professionals did their jobs – they called authorities and notified them that something was wrong.  Multiple times.  But law enforcement – the people whose job it is to actually detain dangerous people – laughed Rodger off as a good guy.  Before calling his a sociopath a few days later.


So here comes the part where we talk about the link between white patriarchal rape culture and mental health.  And why it’s so uncomfortable for us to have a conversation around mental health and mass murder in this country.  You see, before a few brave women changed the conversation, the initial media response to Elliot Rodger was exactly in line with this white patriarchal rape culture value system.  Initial coverage focused on how unfortunate the plight of this poor, loveless man must be rather than the objectification of the women he suffered.  As the perspective of Rodger’s actions changed over the next 24 hours, so did the story about mental illness and it’s role in the shootings.  All of a sudden, this man’s actions were no longer understandable or pitiable or misunderstood – they were deplorable, sociopathic, terrible.  Even the police who came to Elliot’s door and saw his youtube videos professing his hatred and his plan for “revenge” against women who’d committed the crime of existing walked away feeling like he was a perfectly wonderful human being.  That’s because the sociopathy of this man fell under the normally accepted male privilege and entitlement held of value in this country.  So any conversation around mental health must involve a conversation around our values as a society – and this is not something we seem prepared to do. 


When the conversations around this series of events has been either/or – a cultural divide of simply mental health OR simply misogyny – we’re missing the picture.  You see, this is a both/and – our cultural acceptance of misogynistic male privilege under very strict ideals of what constitutes masculinity – informs our beliefs about and response to mental health crises.  Poorly trained law enforcement officers viewed Rodger’s misogyny as normal and healthy, despite concerns from his family and mental health professionals that he was on the verge of doing precisely what he did.  A society which reinforces, even just in parts, the ideals that Rodger held to be true must be in some ways culpable of the crimes committed by someone taking this idea to its logical conclusion. 


It’s a shame that we seem unwilling and unprepared to have this conversation about the interaction of mental health and our own cultural values.  It could have saved seven lives.

When you listen differently –


I have a confession. I love weird music. Well, I think it’s beautiful :) but I’ve heard it’s weird. This is one of those artists I adore. Joanna Newsome writes these little packets of profundity, and I love her oddish voice and the harp. For some reason, her music touches my heart in a happy way, resettles me and centers me emotionally. So, when I found myself singing along with her album “Milk-eyed Mender,” I sputtered along with some words that took on an entirely new meaning….

“…And you do lose what you don’t hold…”

I’ve always held that little line to be a notion of holding on to those things you don’t wish to lose – in fact, to get personal, I’d always stuck to that line as one my partnerish should have heard – a line to help him see, you need to hold me – to really want me – in order not to lose me, dammit!

But when I heard it this time, on my way home from the news that my mother’s cancer had returned, it struck me that perhaps we can take this line from the Buddhist perspective – that, in fact, if we simply let go of the suffering and the hate and the sorrow, that it will leave us. It made me smile as I thought this during my drive – so much so that I returned the track to the beginning and listened three more times, listening for loss and the strength to let go.

Personal growth


The past couple of weeks have been very intense for a variety of reasons.  But, it has been a refreshing time, too; full of renewed hope and promise of something better – not through something new, per se (though I hope newness happens, too) – but rather by looking back and returning to things that fulfilled me as a younger person.  A return to an internal home space – that comfortable place where freedom and creativity rule and where doubt and hesitation are overruled by the intense drive to try it anyway and see what happens.


It’s difficult, as we get older, not to let life get in the way of fulfillment.  You have to be an adult, and that means paying bills and finding a career path and feeding your cats and looking for a partner and everything else.  And furthermore, we equate these things – both missing and found – with that fulfillment.  A new car will make me happy.  A partner will make me happy.  This job with money should make me happy.  But why?  Yes, living is a necessity – it’s quite necessary to pay bills and to have a job that allows that… But why lose the sense of wonder that goes with a life directed towards promise while doing those things.  I haven’t had that for many years – I’ve felt lost and I’ve floundered about trying to make others happy and failing myself at the same time.  I don’t regret the things I’ve done – in fact, I know that my path to this point has taught me many lessons, and I’ve certainly grown a whole awful lot as a human being through this journey.  I have the thinking, questioning, writing and logic skills learned from philosophy.  I have the people, applied, listening and attention skills acquired through training as a therapist.  And turning back to the fields I loved as a child – music, reading, writing and art – has reminded me that I have these skills, though neglected for quite some time, that help me to see the world and the people in it with wonder and newness.  And because of that academic training, I have new language and understanding through which to express that wonder.


I have been writing as I haven’t written in years.  I’ve challenged myself to get back into poetry and fiction, when I’ve been writing research and term papers for the past decade.  And it has made me happy.  It has given me a voice and a channel of expression and clarity.  It has reminded me that processing an event may be more important than the event itself – and that I have a choice what kind of meaning I give the life that comes at me.


Though the past weeks have been a real challenge, I believe that great things lie ahead.  Whatever it might be, I will ride it out and learn and be in the world through this next new lens – but I will not again forget to live in wonder.  That, after all, might just be what keeps misery at bay. 

10 years, 8 months.


The first time, it was a relief. A long awaited validation of the suspicions well-fought and pressed on for months to doctors who wouldn’t listen. When they finally found it, finally gave it a name, cancer, it felt like a weight lifted. Now they know what it is, they can take it out, can DO something. The second time, 10 years and 8 months later, to the day, she said it knocked the wind out of her. In the neurologist’s office to gather results on the hip and back pain she’d been having for over a year, expecting an uncomfortable cortisol shot, the doctor blurted out, “your spine is full of tumors.”


“Mine?” It came out before she could process – as if he could be talking to anyone else. The first time, she said, that her pains and aches hadn’t sent her mind racing immediately there – and here it was, her body turned against itself once again.


­           ­           ­*          *          *


The first time, it had caught me off guard. I was in my first semester at a smallish south Georgia university, about an hour and a half from home. My car had stayed at my parent’s house when I left, the victim of campus living and parental ambivalence around the first child’s launching. I got a phone call and mom calmly told me the diagnosis and that she thought she was going to be ok. I don’t remember much. I offered to drop out and move home; my quick response shoved quickly aside, “no, don’t change anything.” I remember sitting by the lake in the middle of campus, watching the water – watching the people and world which were seemingly unchanged – how could this be so when my entire world had shrunk in upon itself. I remember thinking, how could I possibly function without my mother.  


Over the next ten years and 8 months, mom recovered out of sight, with occasional drops in. A tumultuous process of surgeries, removals of many different pieces, reconstruction which involved processes which have made the past ten years occasionally unbearable, chemical injections making life temporarily and immediately miserable and, eventually – quickly even – a new prognosis – cancer free. The first few years were full of suspicion and waiting. When would it come back? All of us staying positive to avoid the thoughts of what we had narrowly avoided. But, slowly, our relationships moved forward and we learned to live without cancer – to love and laugh and fight and cry and celebrate together again, about the mundane and ordinary. No longer living our lives as though one of us were defeat-able at any moment.


­           ­           ­*          *          *


This time, though, is thus far a practice in not-knowing. What will come next? What IS it? What are the treatment options, or are there any? The losses seem much more concrete – what will it be like for my mother not be at my wedding someday? To not have her know and love my future partner? What if I have a child who will never know her grandmother? What will it be like for my mother never to witness the successes I haven’t yet had?


For now, I’m grateful for our ten years and eight months since the first diagnosis. I’m grateful for the time we have now. I’m grateful for the woman I call mother.