What does the "all bodies are beautiful" message actually tell our daughters?

"Everyone says you're ugly anyway." 

It's just been that kind of week and this was my nine-year-old daughter's response to the standard mother-daughter talk about how all body types are beautiful and true beauty is in our hearts and actions--you know, those modern truisms that we pass around to try to feel good and keep the horrible self-loathing at bay. 

She has mentioned this before. The first time she came home with tales about what other--kids and some adults--say about me. she was six and there was hurt in her eyes. But she's over it now. Now she has internalized the social norms.

Arie teaching 4.jpg

"What if I get fat?" she asks and there is terror in her voice that runs deep... so deep.

I grind my teeth. I don't know which part to react to first. Her terror infuriates me more than anything. This is what scares you? Not failing a test at school, not monsters, not climate change... she's terrified of getting fat?

I want to tell her first off that if she gets fat, she'll be fat. So what?

She'll have lap-room for more than one kid, she'll have glorious curves and she'll look like an ancient goddess figurine. She'll also be more likely to have knee problems, heart problems and other health issues, if she gets fat. It's not all a goddess picnic. But I also want to scream at her and tell her to get worried about something worth worrying about.

And at the same time, when I see that terror in her eyes, I want to snuggle her close and tell her that she is very unlikely to get fat. I'm her mother, but she doesn't have my genes and she's physically active, loves salad, already wants to be a vegetarian and shows absolutely no signs of gaining any extra. You can't help but want to sooth terror, even if you know that the very soothing is insidious psychological poison.

My body is thick and heavy. I walk a couple of miles a day on average. I can't drive a car because of my vision impairment, so that's just what happens. Recently I've started using an electric scooter because of problems with the bones in my legs. So to get exercise I run on an elliptical machine. I also garden heavily and run herd on hyperactive kids. My Apple Watch at least thinks I have a pretty active lifestyle. 

My genes couldn't care less. A physical therapist recently shook her head over my legs, saying, "Looking at the muscles in your legs, you look like an athlete." My legs are mostly hard muscle, except high on my thighs where the muscle is covered with a layer of fat. And higher still, I carry a round Buddha-belly worthy of a goddess figurine. 

But that isn't the only reason my daughter hears people--both kids and adults--make negative remarks about her mother's body. My eyes have a permanent and severe squint, because I've been legally blind since birth. My pupils move erratically and I'm told it is disconcerting--to say the least--to fully sighted people. 

Given all that, it isn't very inspiring to try to be a fashion queen. I've been lucky to find good, professional clothes that fit me in the last few years. It probably isn't all the latest fashion and features a lot of slimming blacks and dark blues, but I just get dressed, make sure everything is clean and wrinkle-free and go. 

I don't wear make-up. No amount of make-up is going to make my eyes appealing and I'd rather not emphasize the issues. My face has an unfortunate habit of turning red when I'm excited or exerting myself. But I'm not crazy about the chemicals in most affordable make-up and hair dye, so my hair is going gray, which I actually find rather pretty in my own non-standard assessment. I personally don't like the look of make-up either. So some small part of my appearance is personal choice. 

 Creative commons courtesy of Lisby of Flickr.com

Creative commons courtesy of Lisby of Flickr.com

But I'll be blunt. I have never gone out in public dirty, smelly or with uncombed hair or even with rumpled clothes. And yet there are enough people saying negative things about my appearance that my terrified little girl says, "Everyone says you're ugly." And this is when she is in a somber mood, not when she's mad at me.

This isn't just a two-way relationship between me and my daughter. This is a three-way conversation and one of the three sides is the commonly expressed social norms of our society.

But society likes to pretend that it has no part at all. Every day or two, some version of a feel-good, "every person's body is beautiful" meme comes across my social media feed. There is never any discussion around these, just a lot of hearts and thumbs up and smiles. No one ever mentions the reality of having a body that is widely seen as distinctly unbeautiful--a physical disability or illness or a shape or a face that doesn't conform to current--or any--beauty standards. 

Those memes make me as sick as the rest of it. I know the people who send them, generally mean well, but mostly they do not open their professional or social circles to people who are considered less attractive no matter what their memes say. We like to say it doesn't matter, but it does matter--to what kind of job you can get, to what kind of community involvement you can have and to how you are treated on a daily basis in simple things like the grocery check-out line. 

This past week one such meme was specifically about communicating this universal beauty myth to our daughters. I have said it to my daughter many times, the same sentiments as in the poem. I tell her how grateful I am for my body, for the health and energy that come from healthy living.

We are almost never sick in this family, even though we are four people and none of us is actually genetically related to any other. It astounds the pediatrician that my children and I stay so healthy through the winter while their classrooms are only half full due to illness. We probably do have some genetic luck, but it is also the result of good nutrition, activity and careful use of medicinal herbs. 

I am thankful that my hands are nimble and strong, that I can sew and build a rock wall and do a great many other things. I am thankful for what vision I have, even if it's supposedly less than ten percent of "the norm." 

I tell my daughter that each of us is beautiful. She hears how beautiful she is every day from strangers. Her big magnetic eyes, completely unblemished skin, thick curly hair and slim, muscled frame are all exactly what society applauds. But I tell her I am beautiful too, because that is what we have been taught in my generations that we should say. 

But if it is true, it is only because I personally choose to see beauty in myself. While some specific feature of my body, may be considered favorable to someone else, it would be disingenuous to say that my body fits any other idea of beauty. 

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And I would not care much, if we lived in a world where appearance wasn't so crucial, where physical beauty wasn't a hiring requirement, a social gatekeeper and something strangers comment on  to small children. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. We don't pretend that everyone has a great singing voice or amazing math ability or spectacular writing skills or huge sports talent.

But we like to pretend that everyone is physically beautiful. 

Why? I'm not sure. Possibly because we actually believe deep down that physical unattractiveness is the last truly shameful flaw--that while it isn't a person's fault if they are tone deaf or bad at math, that it would be a person's fault if they were ugly or fat. And so we must never admit that such a thing is possible or we would be blaming that person.

Finally, last week I broke down and said as much on one of these memes--with not one word of profanity, caps or insult to anyone except the generalized norms of society. And the response rocked me back on my heels and sent my head spinning.

I was met with one of those social media hate storms, in which I was told that I need my head examined and several less flattering things. A group of friends ridiculed me and joked at my expense. Then the person who posted the feel-good meme threatened to use their position to have me banned from a spiritual group I belonged to. 

These were the words that sparked that storm of hate: "I’m thankful that my body doesn’t get sick a lot, thankful that my hands can do a lot of things, thankful for energy to do the things I want to do. And I acknowledge that everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  If someone came along and asked me if I would trade my writing ability, my mental ability and my inner world of curiosity and fun and fantasy for a body that people would honestly say was beautiful, a body that could get around freely or ski or drive or sing or dance or just not make my children ashamed, I would still turn them down. I don't want to hear platitudes about how everyone is beautiful unless people are actually friends with those whose bodies are far from perfect, friends enough to meet at a place where they can get to and in the door, friends enough to spend time, and share the enjoyment of life with people who don't fit common beauty standards."

I wanted to open up a discussion, but somewhere I touched a nerve, something that must have struck home enough that it could not be allowed. And the result was a stream of hateful messages at me and ridiculing messages about me to others. It's the way social media is and one has to be prepared, if one wants to engage in conversations there. But let's not kid ourselves, social media is only more brutal because people are more likely to speak their minds and dispense with politeness. The opinions expressed on social media are what people really think.

While we often--on and off social media--claim that all bodies are beautiful, the messages we and our children absorb from this enforced cheeriness is much less supportive. Children, who are more attuned to actions than words, hear something like this: 

  1. Physical attractiveness is the most important measure of worth.
  2. Don't question the social norm, if you don't want to become a pariah.
  3. And always smile and put on a good face, even if you feel desperately sad and terrified inside.

That I think is a terrible thing to tell ourselves or our daughters and sons. Here is the message I would like to replace it with, one that does not tell half truths or require suspension of one's knowledge for a moment of fuzzy inspiration: 

Friends, children, old people, people all over the world, homeless people, refugees, bankers and presidents, gay people, straight people, black, brown and white people, wheeled people, stick people and running-all-around people, I mean all of you.

Your worth is not defined by your appearance, by your brain, your body or even by your abilities, by your wealth or sophistication or even your manners, by your country, your house, your car, your ancestry, your social media rating, your popularity or your job. Your worth is defined by how hard you strive for something beyond those trappings, by your passion for something beyond yourself and by the depth of your relationships, rather than by their number.

You have strengths, no matter how close to rock bottom you've hit. You may not be beautiful, healthy, popular, smart and wealthy all at once. But there is something in you, that the world needs. You also have your weak spots. You probably are not beautiful, healthy, popular, smart AND wealthy, and if you are, you almost certainly have some other large problem. And that problem does not define you or make you unworthy.

You will in the end choose your own worth because worth can only be measured by things that a person can choose, not by those things that life hands to you. And another thing, that kind of worth cannot be quantified or compared. It just is.

That line between guts and a bad decision

I stood at the top of the red slope just where the relatively flat ledge drops off on the steep face of the mountain, forcing myself to take slow trembling breaths.

"Come on! You can do it!" the guide hollered up from thirty feet below.

My brain kept imagining the impact, the feeling of hitting the snow fast. My legs and back cringed from imagined crashes and the thought of an unwary skier slamming into me from behind.

"It isn't that much different from the blue, You're ready for this!" the guide tried to reassure me. But his hazy, darker shape on the glaring snow was rocking back and forth in a way I recognized meant he was climbing slowly back up toward me. His movement and the touch of uncertainty in his tone both belied his confident words. 

Arie snow ski mountains trees - Arie Farnam.jpg

There was no one who could possibly say if I was ready for this. I was twelve and usually up for dare-devil stuff. But I was also legally blind and I had crooked legs and missing ligaments in my ankles. That guide had known me for all of an hour and a half. 

"I'm ready!" I called down to him. I was very far from sure that was true. But the one thing I was more afraid of than the red slope was being a failure.

He stopped rocking back and forth. I inched the tips of my skis over the lip of the ledge. I knew that wasn't the way to do it. I needed speed or I really would fall. 

I jumped a bit in the boots and dug in with my poles. Not much. You shouldn't be picturing anything very dramatic here. But I had just enough momentum to topple over the edge and into a hard snowplow and then a painfully slow curve. 

My knees and ankles screamed with pain, but I gritted my teeth. The guide lurched into motion and made the turn below me, calling out in that singsong that follows the contours of the land so a blind skier can guess the terrain ahead, "TuuUURN right! TUuurn leeeeft! Turn right! Turn LEeeft!"

The singsong grew a bit faster. The pain in my legs had spread so that there was no point that stood out anymore. It was all just a blazing ache. But they held. My legs held the V and the slope, turn after turn.

I could barely see my guide, a wavering gray shape in the undistinguished whiteness all around.  But despite my slowness, he stayed just far enough ahead and not too far, clearly having to plow himself to stay with me. 

Just as I sensed more than saw the looming darkness of trees on my left, a black shape flashed across my path, scraping the tips of my skis. I jolted and nearly fell but managed to stay up. 

"StoooOOP!" the shout was not abrupt like you might expect. It swooped just so that I knew how big a turn to make to stop and how the ground would rise a bit under my skis as I did. 

 Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I made the turn and stopped but my guide was gone. I caught the flicker of his gray shape below me, chasing another shape, then turning, forcing the other shape to the side. They were too far away for me to hear more than the low, angry tone as my guide chewed out the stunt skier who thought it would be fun to zip between me and my guide on our first run down the red slope. 

A moment later, he let the skier go and called up to me, directing me with tone over the humps and valleys of the slope and around an adult and child skiing together.

I made it down the red slope that day and several other times, though I never learned to like the red more than the blue. I loved to fly over the smooth white snow of the blue runs, where there are not so many moguls and almost no stunt skiers. 

That was one of five guides I worked with in three years of skiing in a blind skiers program as a kid. Some of those guides were spectacular in both skill and patience. Others struggled to ski so precisely and master the voice methods used to guide blind skiers at the same time. Either way. they were the difference between skiing and not skiing--i.e. the difference between a kid's long-awaited day of exhilaration and a kid's resignation to yet another "can't." 

I wanted to ski. It's hard to describe how badly I wanted to. I couldn't ride a bike fast or skateboard or roller skate, except in a small defined rink--and even then slowly. I knew I'd never drive. To me the only speed, the only feel of control and competence in the physical realm was skiing. And the guides that made it possible were among my childhood heroes. 

Most people who have never seen a blind skier and guide work together are skeptical or even disbelieving. "How could you ski? Even with a guide? Just how?" They'll admit that maybe I could, because I can see some. But I've known totally blind skiers who could do it much better than I can. 

It took three years of hard work for me to get to the point where I could tip over the lip and make it down the red slope reasonably well. It took patience and encouragement and not thinking about the dangers or how my dad broke both his legs skiing when he was a kid. 

But because of that training, I can ski after a fashion. It isn't pretty. It isn't nimble, but today I even ski without a guide on easy, well-known slopes. In the brief years of the blind skiers program I learned enough to last decades.

But now I'm over forty. My legs aren't just crooked. They're creaky. My calves are balls of muscle to compensate for the missing ligaments. And my eyes are funkier than ever with slowly failing retinas. And I still want to ski.

I don't much anymore though. It's too hard and too expensive. But I've skied enough to make sure my own two kids are better at it than me. This year I thought I'd miss out on skiing entirely, until I was called in to be a substitute teacher at an ESL skiing camp for Czech homeschoolers in the Krkonos Mountains. 

On Saturday, after classes were over, my husband and kids wanted to ski down from our lodge to a major ski area near the town of Rakovnik nad Jezirkou. This required entering the slope near the top and on a red run. Then I could ski to the bottom and ride the lift up to ski the blue slope thereafter.

My husband isn't quite like the intrepid blind-skier guides. He has all he can handle just to ski without having to turn his head back on every swerve to yodel the way the land rolls. So I just followed his fuzzy shape silently through the snow. To do this I have to fix my eyes on him and never look away. If I glance away, I'll never be able to tell which fuzzy shape is my husband again and other skiers don't do what I need them to. 

We came out on the red run and started down the crowded, ice-packed slope, weaving in and out among other skiers, while making my painfully slow curves. Then the run narrowed and suddenly dropped. There was no lip this time, just a hump and we were onto a sheer steep slope on a sheet of ice. And there was no more plowing or slow curves. I made one, lost my bead on my makeshift guide and went down on my back.

I tried not to think about the skis of people behind me cutting into me as I blocked the way. Instead I struggled to get up on the steep ice. But I quickly realized that probably wasn't worth the fight. 

"Good snowsuits are the better part of valor," I grumbled under my breath, lifted my skis in the air and coasted the rest of the way down the hill on my backside. My husband and kids were a bit embarrassed to be with me that day, but that was my call.

I've been told by eye doctors, that I'd better not fall hard anymore or get hit in the head or any such thing. If I do, I might well wake up not seeing anything. And crappy as my vision may seem to most people, it comes in rather handy to me. So I've finally become cautious in my middle age. 

All in all, I've never been particularly comfortable with that line, "You can do it!" Who knows what another person can or can't do. Mostly we don't even really understand what takes courage for another individual and we certainly don't know where the line between courage and foolishness might be for them. 

I'm the lady skiing along with less than ten percent of everyone else's eyesight. I skim over the snow on the blue slope that everyone else says is boring. And I'm flying. My heart is singing with my own version of freedom, while I avoid the red runs and never even want to go near the black.

So for whatever it's worth, here's my take.  Push your own limits, just enough to feel fully alive. There are things that really are dangerous and not worth the risk. The better part of valor is using your a brain... and good protective gear.  

Manifesto of a plastic bag washer

There are things that come naturally to me: turning off the water while I soap up my hands; saving a leftover potato to make dough, hording empty pickle jars, separating recycling from compost; making old clothes into washrags or drying ziplock bags. These seem to have always been habit.

I didn't grow up during the Depression, as some of my friends like to joke. I did grow up poor, but it was an odd kind of poverty. Some call it "voluntary poverty."

Technically, my parents could have pursued more prestigious careers earlier. We had a few good toys--legos and sleds--and the great wealth of a natural playground just beyond the door of our scrap-wood shack in Northeastern Oregon. But we also had old, faded clothes, socks that always fell down into the toes of our boots, nothing that matched, healthy homemade lunches or free school lunches and a TV twenty years out of date (when we had one at all). 

 Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Living that way voluntarily is something quickly ridiculed today. I've heard it on-line, read it in popular new books, seen it in movies and recently gotten it from two fairly close friends. Voluntarily living modestly is considered naive, hypocritical and just plain stupid. 

The pressure is on in our society to get the most high-paying job possible, to pursue a major career and to use material bounty to keep you sane in the rat race.

I can hear the "buts" already and there is some literary and social lip service paid to frugality and "the simple things in life." However, those things fly out the window when it comes to a discussion of saving for your health care or your children's educations in the United Sates. If you don't have a near or above average income, that level of saving isn't realistic. And the excuse that you didn't save hundreds of thousands of dollars because you were living modestly and working at consuming less--which precludes high-powered careers with expensive clothing, classy social obligations and extensive travel and commutes--will get you exactly nowhere. 

I have the utmost respect for people who have worked their way out of poverty and don't want to ever go back. Immigrants, refugees and other disadvantaged people often work hard and focus on a career at the expense of everything else in order to gain a secure material life. To many people who came from poverty, the idea that those with the education and privilege to live a middle-class or wealthy lifestyle today might elect to live with less must appear ludicrous and, yes, hypocritical. 

And yet we know that it is not reasonable or sustainable for most of us (let alone all of us) to live the high-consumption lifestyle of today's western wealthy and middle classes. Environmental crises grow year upon year, setting new standards for a dismal new normal like clockwork.

The polar bears were threatened. Now they are simply dying. In a few short years, they will be gone. Hurricanes, droughts, desertification and wildfires set new records each year and claim more lives and more livelihoods. On the one hand, we know it cannot work for all of us to consume at the levels some of us have become accustomed to.

But acquaintances recently ribbed me for washing and reusing ziplock bags. Some because glass jars are a better way to keep food in recycled containers, others because they think one should just buy new bags. Both groups are wealthier than me, have greater storage space and don't store many leftovers in the first place. They can chuckle all they want. 

A friend of mine described how his partner insists on throwing out pasta that spilled onto the counter, not because it is dirty or contaminated but because it is a "poverty mindset" to spend time carefully picking something like pasta up. And I'm not even getting into all the people who refuse to eat leftovers or habitually buy new clothes simply because they have worn an outfit the requisite three times. 

Often the reason given is not even a desire for comfort, but an insistence that living lavishly is a matter of self respect, proof that one is not living in poverty. 

I have not appreciably drug myself out of poverty. I grew up in a family with very little monetary income. I pursued the work I loved and made ends meet but little more. Today my family lives modestly and does it well. We wear second-hand clothes more often than not. My children get new clothes when the old ones get too small. I get new clothes when the professional clothes get downgraded to gardening clothes and the gardening clothes fall apart.

And I still wash plastic bags, just like my mother did. I have no intention of stopping so long as plastic bags continue to invade my kitchen. I'd love to have shelves full of healthy and expensive glass storage containers and I agree that plastic bags are a modern evil, even when reused, but living well with less entails compromises.

I think there is special jargon for this in ecological circles and I do care about the environment, other living beings and the earth a great deal. But I am not doing these things to make a statement, to prove a point or even to make my own little impact on the environment better.

I do these things because not to do them feels wrong. To waste resources feels unwise and unethical. For a few years, when I lived in an Eastern European city without recycling or any place to put compost, I was forced not to separate garbage and it made me feel unwashed. 

Even if it doesn't matter whether we let the faucet run here and now because the local community has plenty of clean water, I can't abide it. The habit is wrong. The modeling for children is wrong. There is always reason to conserve, to reduce consumption and to live well with less. 

Those who belittle this may not understand. But it is my self respect that matters to me.

Give a damn about something... anything

Last year was a doozy and our prayers for next year are uncommonly humble. Never before has that sentiment ricocheted around the on-line and offline worlds as it does now.

I have never been much for New Year's resolutions, partly because the New Year isn't a great  breaking point for me, but also because my self discipline is strong when it's there and nonexistent when it's not. Trying to manufacture it with a calendar marker isn't much help. 

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Cutting out sweets when I just received my favorite goodies over the holidays--and have been virtuously not devouring them all at once--is decidedly unappealing. The weather makes anything more than my indoor workout unrealistic. And everything else I should be doing, I am already working on. 

But this year there is one thing I have to make a resolution on. I must resolve to care.

I am known for my passionate opinions and passionate work. And having been born under the sun sign of Aries, my passions are near the surface. But there is a downside to that too.. Too hot a fire burns out quickly. 

This past year, my personal life as well as global political and publishing trends have conspired to strip me of much of what I thought made life worth living. The things I cared passionately about have been trampled into the mud by stampeding events. Family crises resulting in escalating stress with no hopeful end in sight derailed my writing career, which was hobbled by the miserable publishing climate as it was, and I'm not even going to start on politics, since you've heard it all before. 

Mostly the things that I still have from last year are the humblest things--a home, some chickens, a duck, two cats, a garden, some members of my family. I am immensely grateful for them. But the thing that has been most dramatically taken away has been my passion. 

I know from watching other people sink into dullness that passion is the key element in life force. The passion of hopes and dreams is lovely. The passion of love and commitment in a relationship is precious. But even the passion of anger or revenge has it's virtues. I don't care much anymore what passions you may have, but I know that having some passion is essential.

All year we heard that this is NOT the time to talk about climate change--after a natural disaster that cost many lives--or about guns in America--after a tragic mass shooting--or it isn't the time to silently kneel for lives lost in your community--during a public and symbolic moment. The core message is that we must curb our passion, stifle the fire because cool heads will make better decisions.

But do they?

I see a first grader playing with trash right outside school and all the adults walking by, picking up kids, going about their business. And the older kids too. I stop and pick up the trash, making a stern note to myself to wash my hands. The older kids stare at me. Why do I care? It isn't my trash--or is it?--they must be thinking. 

I care. In the past I have really and truly cared about picking up the trash in my community. This year I have to choose to care, but I still care.

I disagree with people about a lot of passionate issues. Someone wants to agitate for a political candidate that isn't my cup of tea, though I don't think the candidate is evil. Or they simply care more about gun violence than climate change and I think the priorities should be reversed, if we had to ultimately choose. Or they insist that STAR voting is superior to any other type of voting reform. Others are vehemently trying to build a voice for their marginalized nation or refugee group. 

And you know what? I want to hug every one of those people and say, "You go, human! More power to ya. Have courage and strength. Don't give up."

Because when you get right down to it, these people give a damn and that is far more important than what precisely they give a damn about. 

I invite you to make this resolution with me, if you're struggling. Don't force yourself into a virtuous change of routine that will fizzle out in a couple of weeks. Just resolve to care about something specific. Choose something local and concrete, like your family or your place or your local school. Or choose an issue. But choose something beyond your own person to care about. 

Yes, it's risky. You may well lose that thing or your cause may be lost. That hurts and you may have to choose again.

But what you gain is purpose. If not exactly hope, then at least you gain a temporary antidote to despair. Despair and it's close cousin indifference are the worst destroyers of our world. 

Therefore, I invite you, even if your passion is something I may disagree with. Give a damn this year. Choose and follow your passion. This is how we ensure that we will have a future. 

Adopting a sighted guide on the train... or the ethics of helping strangers avoid corporate traps

What you pay for today is often a service rather than an item. But we are not always informed about what exactly the service we are purchasing is. Often as not, that lack of information is intentional.

As a small example, in the Czech Republic an new rail system was recently implemented that allows private companies to run trains on the Czech railways. These trains usually run at the most lucrative times of day and on the most frequented routes, leaving the less profitable village routes to the national rail company and causing some bitterness. 

 Creative Commons image by Toshiyuki IMAI of Flickr.com 

Creative Commons image by Toshiyuki IMAI of Flickr.com 

For passengers, the problem is that for most of our lives we have been buying tickets at the ticket office and using them for any and all trains on the purchased route.

The only possible exception used to be express trains requiring an upgrade payment, but even those trains still utilized the base ticket you bought. It wasn't worthless. You just had to pay for an upgrade if you wanted to use the express train.

But now these private trains pull in to the same stations and travel the same routes and once you get on board you are told that your ticket isn't valid and you are required to buy another one from another company.

I have more or less mastered this system after a couple of confusing encounters. But many people, especially those who only travel at special times of the year, such as the recent holidays, are not yet aware. Recently I met an elderly woman on a train platform with frosty mist rising all around us. I wouldn't have noticed her at all, except that she helped me read a sign that was a bit too far for my shortsighted eyes.

It was a brief, polite encounter and would have ended there, except that later I noticed her colorful hat in front of me boarding one of the private trains. She sat down in the set of seats I wanted to sit in, so we sat together. I also noticed her pull out a Czech National Railways ticket. I was half expecting it and even with my eyesight the blue logo was clear when she laid it on the tiny fold-out table right between us.

"Excuse me," I said, my words rushed with urgency. "That ticket won't work on this train. Another train will be here in just five minutes. You've got to--" 

But the train jolted into motion before I could even finish my sentence.

The older woman started to rise from her place, her eyes going wide with anxiety. "How was I supposed to know?" her voice teetered on the edge of panic. "And what do I do now?"

I'd seen it plenty of times. She would be humiliated. The conductor would come and scold her for boarding the train with the wrong ticket. Then he would attempt to get her to buy a new ticket for the same price she had already paid. And if she couldn't or had the gumption to simply refuse, she would be put off the train at the next station.

That was the most reasonable response. I happened to know that another train where her ticket would be good was following just behind us.

But being legally blind, I am well accustomed to missing inconspicuous notice boards and being publicly shamed for it. It might not bother a lot of people. My husband sneers over such things and calls me "thin-skinned." But I just do not like being scolded. It's very unpleasant and I could tell that the older woman across from me felt the same way.

I heard the snap of the conductor's stamp on tickets just a few rows behind me and there was no time to explain.

"Sit down," I hissed at the older woman. "You helped me on the platform, remember? I'm legally blind and my pass says a guide can travel with me for free. You're my guide."

It's the law here. Even private companies have to honor it. I don't generally need a guide to get around, even though I only see about ten percent of "normal." But that primarily comes from a lifetime of adaptation and a lot of good mobility instructors. I know people with similar eye conditions who are very disoriented and do often need a guide. So the doctors and bureaucrats who certify such passes have little choice but to assign them based on technical measurements rather than subjective abilities.

I couldn't explain any of this though, not with the conductor suddenly right behind me. The older woman sat back down, her eyes wide and her jaw trembling just a bit. At the last minute I nudged her incorrect ticket under the map on the table.

The conductor turned toward us and I produced my disability card and paid for the private train ticket, giving a nod toward the woman to indicate that she was included. She never had to say a word. And the conductor moved off. 

I explained it all afterwards and sure enough, she was one of those people who rarely rides the train. She had been doing some rare holiday visiting and was confused by the dizzying new variety in trains. She didn't appear to have the energy for one of those spontaneous autobiographies that strangers exchange on trains or airplanes, so we sat mostly in silence for an hour and a half, until she got off at the stop just before mine. 

I had to wonder whether my action was ethically correct by current standards. She did help me but only in a very minor way. But to me the greater issue was that she had paid for a ticket and the companies should be responsible for providing adequate information for passengers. More than my right to adopt her as a guide, I felt she had a right to a transparent and fair system of payment that would not result in either extra charges or humiliation for understandable mistakes. 

The budget conservative litmus test

You may support social justice politics, but that doesn't make you a spender and a waster. In fact, most people who know me personally would call me a fiscal conservative, especially when it comes to my own budget. 

My mom coined the phrase "doing poverty well" and I am an apple that didn't fall far from that tree. I take doing well on modest means not just as a necessity but also as a wise and sustainable plan. Part of that plan is a combination of a few state-of-the-art bits of technology with a generally low-tech lifestyle.

 Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn

For instance, here is how the morning went at my house. At six a.m. I got up and sent the kids into the bathroom, where there is a small hot-air heater, to get dressed in their sturdy second-hand clothes. Most of the house is chilly in the morning. I went downstairs to prepare herbal medicines for my husband's cold, my daughter's special needs and my banged up leg (injured while fixing a storm-damaged greenhouse last week). Hubby made the kids' breakfast and school snacks of bread, cheese, homegrown carrots and homemade fruit roll-ups, while I made sure hair got brushed. 

After they left while the world was still navy blue with clinging night, I lit candles, built a fire to heat the house, put the tea kettle on, got a coat and went to let the chicken's out of their night seclusion. Then I settled down by the fire with the new iPhone that took two years to save for and started the day's writing and marketing work. The phone is already proving its worth with the added accessibility functions for the blind. 

There are a few sustainable investments (like solar panels and our own well) that I might spend money on if I had more, but mostly if I had more money I wouldn't really live very differently. And the only thing we have ever gone into debt for was a ten percent loan on building our house, which we paid off within five years. As a freelance journalist and then as an author, my livelihood has always been unpredictable and my spending doesn't change much even when I do make more. 

So, let's do away with the propaganda that says you are either a fiscal conservative who wants to cut services for the vulnerable in society and slash the economic safety net or you are a debt-happy "liberal." That s a mythical divide that has never existed.

With politics the way they are in Europe and America these days, there has been a lot of talk of financial restrictions. And yet inevitably, this talk comes from men (and the occasional woman) who own millions and are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars more for questionable work. They are people for whom the concept of balancing a budget is disconnected from functionality and has more to do with who they think "deserves" money than with what works. 

There is one simple litmus test we should apply to any leader or representative who says we have to cut health care, education and other basic needs for the public on the grounds that we can't afford them. They must first abolish the extra employee benefits that give them and their families access to top quality health care, education and so forth. .

I do believe there are times to tighten belts. And this is one of them.

Climate change is a serious threat and it requires the kind of concerted economic effort that pulled us out of the Great Depression or won World War II. We can and must invest in new technologies to move toward one hundred percent renewable energy, creating vast numbers of new jobs in new industries and significantly restructuring the economy. This will no doubt require some sacrifices. 

And the only leader worth the term is one who leads the charge into the breach. I am not against fiscal conservation. My household saves, invests and carefully manages every resource, both financial and otherwise. Mostly we live frugally, but when we see that something expensive would significantly aid the whole, such as specific technology, we make the investment. We do extraordinarily well with little. But this is primarily because those who set the budget risk their own comforts and luxuries first and no part of the whole is discarded or allowed to fall into deep crisis. 

If we cannot afford to feed and care for children, then we can't afford benefits for Congress or the president and the same goes for state representatives. If you're the captain, you risk yourself first, not your crew. This is basic ethics according to Star Trek. But it is also functional. There is a reason why the military model requires those with authority to take risks first and to ensure that no one under their command is left behind. It works over the long term. 

If we want an economy that is sturdy and healthy for the long haul, rather than spurting with unstable and unequal growth one minute and leaving whole cities homeless the next, we must change the concepts by which fiscal decisions are made. If and when the straits are dire, let the politicians sound the call by making their own sacrifices first. Then the need for hard work and conservation will be clear to all.

Make a scene: From bystander to assertive witness

At dusk on Monday evening, I set out for the ESL class I teach a mile and half from home. I rode the diminutive two-wheeled electric scooter that I use to get into town, puttering around the corner by the store run by a Vietnamese family.

I can't drive a car or ride a bike in traffic because I'm legally blind. I can see well enough to navigate safely at walking speed on the sidewalk but not much more. And due to a joint and bone condition I can't walk more than half a mile without intense pain that lasts two days. So the scooter is the best way for me to get around.

 Creative Commons image by Arimeq of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Arimeq of Flickr.com

As I passed the store an angry shout stopped me. "Get off the sidewalk, you stupid cow! You get in the road, right now!" A man was screaming at me in a harsh, ragged voice from a house across the street. 

I knew even then that most people would say I should ignore him and keep going. But as soon as the words hit home, I couldn't hear or see, even as well as I normally can. I recognized the symptoms of a PTSD trigger and struggled to fight the wave of dizziness and disorientation. That meant first I had to stop to avoid running into a lamppost.

"I'm calling the police! You should be arrested, you pig! Get off the sidewalk with that scooter!" The man was still yelling. And I had heard the same thing from another man just last week. In this small town, rumor travels fast and there seems to be an epidemic of people accosting me about my mobility device. 

To be clear, I have been very careful in the year since I've had this scooter. I've never come close to bumping a pedestrian, even though many of our sidewalks are no more than a foot wide. A wheelchair or a standard disability scooter with three or four wheels could not navigate on the sidewalks here and the few people who use such devices travel in traffic. But the traffic is also very bad, crowded and fast. It isn't safe for a person who can't see well. I have small children who still need an adult to accompany them to school. I have no real choice about whether I use the scooter or where I use it.

I have been afraid that people would judge me harshly and so I have made an effort to yield to anyone else on the sidewalk and to go extra slow around dogs and small children. Yet finally my fears have been realized and s group of people are lobbying the city to forbid me to use any wheeled mobility device on the sidewalks. 

"Do you want me to come down there and push you into the road!" The belligerent man threatened. 

I know what my husband and my friends would say. "Just ignore them. Mainly, don't make a scene. Whatever you do, just don't make a scene."

"I can't ride in traffic. I'm visually impaired," I finally called over to the man.

"Then stay the f--k home!" he fumed. "I'm dialing the police right now!"

"Fine. I'll show them my disability ID," I told him and moved slowly, shakily away.

I couldn't exactly make out the figures of people in front of the store several feet away or the figure of the man yelling at me. But I could hear by the shuffling of shoes on pavement that there were witnesses. By their quiet shuffling, I figured they were embarrassed and also hoping to avoid "a scene."

 Creative Commons image from Aidan Jones

Creative Commons image from Aidan Jones

I have made a scene too many times in my life. I have been told over and over again not to make a scene--by my mother, by my husband, by my friends. Mostly I try not to, but there are times when a scene is just what is needed.

For the first 20-odd years of my life I experienced extreme social ostracism and isolation, which resulted in a kind of long-term PTSD, which is different from most PTSD because it doesn't stem from one traumatic incident but from repeated threats over the long term.

The result is that when I am threatened with social isolation, my brain shuts down. I cannot think clearly and talk my way out of the difficulty. Instead my brain can only do fight of flight. And that often means I scream back at whoever is harassing or threatening me and sometimes at anyone at all, if the attacker has managed to make him/herself scarce. The result tends to be more social isolation. Who wants to be around someone who is always making a scene after all?

In this case, I managed to fight the PTSD symptoms. I have been working on that. After 20 years of trying, I can finally respond relatively calmly... sometimes.

But the thing that stands out to me most painfully in the entire incident is not the belligerent man, but the bystanders.

I cannot count the number of times, I have been harassed, belittled, demeaned or even physically attacked in public due to my disabilities and bystanders have been silent or even made excuses for the abuse. I have been told I should not be allowed to have children, because clearly a visually impaired person cannot be safe with children and I watched with helpless horror as a group sat around discussing how valid that prejudice might be, while I was told to be quiet and allow others their say about my validity as a parent.

I have made many scenes, but I have also waited, hoped and prayed someone else would make a scene first.

When I saw the video of Sam Carter, the lead singer of the heavy metal band Arcitects, stopping a concert and making a scene (including quite a few F-bombs) because he just saw someone sexually harass and grope an unwilling woman in the crowd right in front of him, I started sobbing. The same thing happened when I read the story about waiter Michael Garcia who told a diner he could no longer serve him after the man said loudly "Special needs children need to be special someplace else" in a Houston restaurant where a five-year-old boy with Down Syndrome was eating with his family. 

These are rare and famous incidents. It is unfortunate that they are famous because they are rare.

There are a few more incidents like this though that weren't caught on video. Some years ago, I was riding a street car in Prague when I noticed a white man who was clearly intoxicated harassing two young, dark-skinned children. There have always been issues with pickpocketting on the street cars and dark-skinned people are often blamed. But these children were standing away from other people and wearing school backpacks.

I went up to the man and tried to put myself between him and the children. I told him to stop. He pushed me roughly out of the way with astonishing strength. I turned to the other passengers on the street car, who were sitting quietly with their faces averted. I asked them to help and then turned back toward the man who was pushing the children physically toward the exit. The street car stopped with a jolt at a station and the doors opened. 

I told the man I would call the police and demanded that he stop harassing the children, who were clearly younger than 10 or 12. Instead he grabbed the backs of their necks and threw them out of the street car. The driver, apparently wishing to avoid a scene, slammed the doors quickly and started the street car moving again. I did call the police and they said there was nothing they could do after the fact unless the street car driver was willing to get involved, which he was not. 

Often making a scene does not stop the harassment or abuse and thus many people tell me it is useless and a worthless waste of energy.

 Creative Commons image by Tamara Craiu

Creative Commons image by Tamara Craiu

I can't speak for those children because I was never able to locate them again, but I for one would not feel it was useless if a bystander had stood with me against the threatening man harassing me on Monday night. 

It is easy to say we are against racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and all the rest. It is not easy to stand up and make a scene, to call a stop to harassment, ostracism or prejudice. It is in many situations damn scary.

I have been a bystander and I have sometimes stood up and sometimes things have happened too fast. I was confused, was afraid or had my own PTSD to deal with. I have wished I had been quick enough to say something or simply show by where i positioned my body that a vulnerable person did not stand alone. Sometimes I have managed to do it.

Once when I was a college student and I was first able to go out to a bar for a drink, I stood at a bar waiting to be served behind a group of three Black women with British accents. The bar tender was serving drinks to people in front of them but then he skipped them and asked for my order. I was shocked. I had talked to the girls and knew they were waiting to order. I slammed my fist on the counter and demanded that he serve them immediately. (This was even before I'd had any drinks, mind you.)

Certainly, there can be times when making a scene actually embarrasses the person you are trying to defend or the person is so triggered by past trauma that they do not realize you are trying to help and they lash out against you. But I for one am certain that some attempt to stand with the vulnerable is better than no attempt. We are not perfect but we can stand up for our tribe. And if our tribe is multi-hued and many splendered, then this is what we must do.

A friend told me about a recent incident in which she was out with a friend who has a condition that causes her eyes to move strangely. A child came up to her in a store and said, "Your face is ugly and you have weird eyes." The woman threw down her shopping and ran out of the store crying. 

I do understand. I have been told many times that my face is not appealing and my eyes appear strange. I have overheard conversations and simply watched as groups of people turned away and excluded me. When you live with a vision impairment or other condition that makes your face different from those around you, it is a common enough problem.

My friend went to the child's mother and told her what had happened. The mother replied that the child's words were simply true and not harassment. My friend objected and asked her to teach her child not to comment on people's bodies or... well, she would have mentioned skin color, except the mother and child happened to be black and she assumed they already knew that.

We are all fallible and small children do say things that are insensitive without understanding.  I have heard the understandable anger of black people when a small white child commented loudly that someone's skin "looks like chocolate." They rightly say white parents should teach their children to refrain from making stereotyping comments. The same applies to all people when it comes to commenting on disabilities and body differences. It isn't necessary to shame children over insensitive comments but it is necessary for witnesses to say something.

What is important is not that we never make a mistake or that a child or even an adult never speaks or acts out of ignorance. What is important is that when you know better. you stand by those who are vulnerable. Stand up and if necessary you should indeed make a scene.

Do we still need feminism?

It took me a very long time to say "me too." on Facebook.

I have to explain this because many of my readers are old-school email junkies and don't frequent Facebook or Twitter much. So in case you were doing valuable non-screen-related things this week, this will get you up to speed. There is currently a movement on social media where women, and some men, post "me too," as their status if they are a survivor of sexual assault or harassment. 

It's a good idea. It comes as a response to revelations of celebrity rape and sexual harassment in the past few weeks, and it is meant to show that these are far from isolated incidents. Many, many women experience sexual harassment on a regular basis and far too many have been subjected to rape or assault. 

 Creative Commons image by Sodanie Chea

Creative Commons image by Sodanie Chea

Why didn't I quickly jump on the bandwagon then? 

First, I'm always skeptical of these social media campaigns, where you must change your profile picture to this or that or else be branded as a supporter of terrorism or some such. I decided long ago not to participate in those campaigns. It takes several minutes for me to change my profile picture, and being a working class mother of very demanding kids, I can't always guarantee that I'll be able to be on-line long enough to discover and abide by all such trends. I don't want my lack of response to some particular campaign to be taken as a statement. I also know many people with limited internet access for whom keeping up with these things is entirely impossible. If I refrain from all of them, we are all less likely to be blamed and labeled for neglecting one.

But posting "me too" is much easier and less permanent. It also isn't showing support for something but demonstrating a statistic in real-time. So, after some thought, I decided that this is a different situation.

But still I was hesitant. Most of the sexual harassment I've experienced is so mundane that it barely merits a mention and if one hundred percent of all women haven't experienced the same, it is only due to specific and fairly isolated social surroundings. I have been called fat in several inappropriate situations or had the same implied among professional colleagues. it has been many years since random men blocked my path and tried to force me into sexual conversation or made catcalls at me, which apparently means that I am no longer attractive. Either being catcalled or not is a sexual/social signal in a society where a woman's appearance and sexual allure is considered to be a large part of her worth.

I have been asked to clean up the kitchenette in an office where everyone else was a man and been GLAD to have a role because I felt otherwise left out, even though I had a specific professional job to do that had nothing to do with cleaning. Sometimes I don't know what is worse--that men buy into this culture that demeans women or that we do ourselves. 

And that made me hesitate to post "me too" because I do know that so many other women have suffered so much more and I have not been exactly exemplary in my resistance to the male dominated culture. Mostly I have been glad to stand on my mother's and grandmothers' shoulders and accept those benefits of feminism that my generation was lucky enough to inherit without doing much to free my own mind from the treadmill. 

And then there is the fact that I did face actual sexual assault twice and managed to escape, using specific techniques from self-defense classes. This made me perhaps most uncomfortable posting "me too." I did not want to imply by telling my story that women who did not have the good fortune to have the training or who did have the training and either couldn't fight back or simply failed to overpower an attacker are somehow to blame. There is far too much of that blame-the-victim going around as it is. 

I do want women and girls to know that self-defense training can work though. Let's just be clear. I was mostly just lucky.

In one case, I was at a large outdoor festival at night. I was sixteen and had never been on a real date. A man at the party treated me nicely and acted like he wanted to be my friend. I was attracted to him and excited by the prospect of a romantic involvement. But then he very quickly pulled me away from others into a dark field. He squeezed my breast and kissed me forcefully. I tried to back away but he gripped harder. I said "no" and he ignored me.

I had grown up in a culture that said that if I was attracted to him and initially went with him someplace, that I had given my consent. The fact that I was sixteen and quickly decided that the pace of things had gone way beyond what I wanted was irrelevant. Not only my friends, the media and society in general would have judged me to be an impulsive girl who got what she deserved, I thought so too.

I told myself, "That was really stupid. No one would or should help you." As a result, it didn't actually occur to me to scream for help. But I had recently had one of those one-day crash courses in self-defense that parents sometimes put their teenage daughters in, and one of the techniques we practiced was startling an attacker by yelling right next to his ear. I did not want to continue with the encounter and "no" wasn't working. So, I leaned in a bit, got right next to his ear and let loose a wild yell, that went unnoticed by the partiers all around. I have quite a loud voice and it no doubt hurt. His grip loosened and I ran, easily evading him once I reached a more crowded area. 

That night I crawled into my sleeping bag in a pup tent on the edge of the festival, still shivering and alone. As I was settling down one of the older teenage boys I had traveled to the festival with brushed his fingers along my tent and said out loud, "Such a shame. A pretty girl going to sleep alone." His friends laughed and they walked away, not knowing that I had just had to use a self-defense technique to escape a non-consensual encounter. And yet as I lay there I knew those guys weren't dangerous and that they meant the comment in fun. I was even somewhat glad they would call me a pretty girl, even in jest. I had been heavily ostracized and bullied at school for having a disability and being called "pretty" was a strong lure. 

Three years later, I had gained and lost my first serious boyfriend, had lack-luster sex and was started on a life of feeling uncomfortable about--and generally disinterested in--sexuality. I was still occasionally called pretty, but even at 19 that was fading. My first boyfriend and others had called me "fat" many times, though I was actually well within the most limited version of the "healthy" range and I'd love to be that physically fit again. Still I took them at their word. I never felt happy with my looks. I just wasn't that interested. I had more important things to do and I spent my time writing, studying at college and wriggling my way into as many foreign exchange programs as possible. 

One of these was in Siberia. My second brush with sexual assault occurred on that trip. I was studying in a mid-sized city in Siberia called Kurgan. This was 1995 and it was a lawless period. The streets were largely unlit and there were many abandoned buildings and open sewer holes. Organized crime ruled and gangs roamed the streets. Night also fell extremely early, because we were so far north. One evening, I was returning to the place I was staying around ten pm from a small party. Mostly people did not go out alone at night, but I was never particularly popular in social settings and I had not managed to form any close friendships during my stay. I either stayed in my room alone or I walked alone. Those were my choices. Being an adventurous risk-taker who loved learning about other cultures, I just did what I had to. 

So just as with my previous encounter, there are a great many people who might say I deserved to be assaulted. I was after all taking extreme risks. This was not a safe place and I knew it. But that is part of the problem that we are trying to address with the "me too" campaign. Neither iinitial interest nor risk-taking is a justification for assault.

I was walking under one of the few streetlights in town when a man came at me fast from the side. He stepped up and took my arm in a way that could have seemed friendly except that he gripped quite hard. He asked me in a falsely friendly tone how I was doing and where I was going. He told me I shouldn't be out alone at night. He then started to talk to me in a sexual manner that was apparently supposed to entice me. 

I was a naive risk-taker but still smart enough to know this was a very dangerous situation. There was no help anywhere nearby and I knew I couldn't best this larger man in a direct physical confrontation. So instead I used another technique learned in self-defense classes. I pretended (this time entirely falsely) to be interested in him. I joked and laughed and told him I was meeting my friends and my brother. I kept him talking for two blocks, until I was near enough to the building where I lived. The doorways of the apartment blocks were entirely dark as was most of the street. At that time desperate people stole everything, including any unguarded light bulb. Finally, the man's grip relaxed a little as he became more confident of my cooperation. Then I called out cheerfully as if greeting my brother in a dark doorway. His grip loosened further and I judged the second, kicked him hard and ran. Being visually impaired helped in this case. The stairwell I bolted up was pitch black and I could hear him stumbling around as he tried to catch me but I knew every crack in the uneven concrete steps and I reached a door I could lock behind me by memory and by feel. 

I was taught to be prey. Many men are taught that women will flee and the only way they can catch one is by force. I was simply taught to be smart prey, but even so the assumption I held and the assumption of my self-defense instructors was that I would be prey. 

This is why, even though I escaped, even though I am far luckier than many women, I want to support the "me too" campaign. We should not be prey. Sexuality should not be about fear and force and conquest. Being a woman should not be considered grounds for any particular assumptions. 

This is one reason why we still need feminism today. 

We needed it before we had a president who openly declares that a woman's worth is primarily in her sexual attractiveness and appearance. And we certainly need it now that we have such a president. A few months ago The Daily Beast reported that Republican Rep. Robert Fisher (R-NH) wrote under the username FredFredrickson,  “I’m going to say it—Rape isn’t an absolute bad, because the rapist I think probably likes it a lot. I think he’d say it’s quite good, really.”

This kind of attitude still exists today, even in places of power. Rape culture has not been successfully relegated to some small criminal element. Both women and men need to be on guard against it. Both women and men can be legitimate feminists. 

My generation has perhaps been living partly off of the achievements of past generations of women and there are so many other terrible problems in the world to fight against. It is hard to focus on the small, mundane assumptions or the hideous comments of politicians. The "me too" campaign shows how alive and well the scourge of assault and harassment is.

We still need feminism and we still need self-defense classes for our daughters.