Reform Rochester Now!

Making city and citizens self-sustaining

The Pied Piper and the Boston Tea Party

The two stories are true, more or less. The first one is so old, it’s afflicted with a literary form of Alzheimer’s, making parts of it surreal. Like stories, human beings fade into a foggy myth-like state as we age. But as someone who visited my ancestral home seven years ago near Hannover, Germany, whispers of my ancestors come to me in the marrow of my bones confirming stories of rats living inside Hamlin countless years ago. I can feel the furry bodies of the vermin that chased away our dogs and cats. I can hear the squealing of rat whelps within the walls drowning out the cries of our children. Bitten by fleas, exhausted and starving, we desperately sorted the excrement from our grain, only to die in agony from bubonic plague.

The second story is an American legend relived by some who’ve recently felt compelled to dress as minutemen from an earlier era, whispering vaguely, “we need to take back our government.” Probably no one would disagree that the election of the first black man as President of our country came as a shock to the system of some, who have been looking around anxiously for grounds to impeach him for the past 6 years. What they don’t remember is what we threw into the harbor and why. Our basic sustenance was being taxed, and we were forced to pay a foreign government that never took our basic needs into consideration. Hardworking Americans were not represented in England, yet we were forced to pay tribute.

What do the poor need today more than anything else? Give a man a sandwich and he’ll still be hungry tomorrow; a blanket, and someone will steal it when he goes to bathe. Give him a job and when his salad days are over, he’ll be just as hungry and broke as any of the homeless because there’s no guaranteed retirement.

What most poor people really need is a good lawyer. An advocate for the single mother whose ex-husband won’t pay child support. A representative for the unions on strike. Someone to lobby Washington to get bills passed despite corporate greed. American lawyers take the title of Esq. which means “esquire” or a man elevated to a rank between gentleman and knight, in England. To have this title of dignity makes you an honorary citizen of the United Kingdom. Since no man can serve two masters, then to whom do your loyalties belong, lawyers?

Think how many of you could be using your talents to more constructive ends: farming, manufacturing, or dreaming up ways to make the world a constructive, happy place instead of destroying an opponent in a courtroom. The way things are, it seems there are never enough lawyers. Hire one, and he’ll eat up everything you have.

You can’t impeach President Obama for his policies, his healthcare plan, for not knowing the Constitution, for being born in Hawaii, or even for being black. But you have grounds to impeach him for being a lawyer. And why stop with the President? Impeach every U.S. Congressman who has ever been a practicing attorney. Every state governor, every mayor who holds a license with their State Bar. Demand they resign immediately and deport them all, because they are agents of Mother England and not fit to govern this free nation. Why wait for the Pied Piper when we can and must surely accomplish this ourselves?

Playing the Game

I’m completely over my ex-husband. We got divorced eight years ago, and he is a completely forgettable person, certainly not one of my great loves. He was a perfectly amicable guy to live with most of the time. We didn’t fight about important stuff, we bickered. Other men saw us doing it on our honeymoon. He got really angry about dumb stuff like getting rid of his pickup truck and getting a mini-van when the time came to get a bigger vehicle. He let me catch him flirting with other women and probably cheated on me. He put me down in front of his friends and his family so that I couldn’t have lasting relationships with most of them. Despite the financial hardship it caused in my life, I took it as a heaven-sent relief when he discarded me back in 2005. I don’t feel like writing about him today, but I need to, because he and I did something that I didn’t do with either of my two other ex-husbands: we had a child together. The three of us constituted a military family: our baby girl was just under 2 years old.

You know those little games you play with the man in your life, games that make getting through each day with him easier. Letting him win when you probably shouldn’t, because you know the stupidest things mean so much to him and a bigger battle is coming along down the road that you need to focus on. Part of our game was his shifting expectations of me that always made me feel like I stood on quicksand as months went by and the seasons changed. I had no career because, within a week after we got married, he refused to permit me to go on tour with the orchestra I had prepared my voice for since 1993. Once we got back to the US, he told me to “get off my lazy butt and go back to school.” So I did, and when I finally got faculty approval for my major at my undergraduate school, he got a transfer out of state. When I refused to drop out of school, he divorced me. He was the one with the job and the income, and I was the one thrown out of family on-post housing with nothing, struggling to stay in school. When divorce papers came that I was supposed to sign, I went to JAG on post for legal advice since I had no money for a lawyer.

Naturally, there were parts of the divorce decree I disagreed with, but the JAG attorneys told me to sign it and not cause trouble because I didn’t have money to fight my soon-to-be ex-husband in court, and if I didn’t cooperate I might not ever see my child again. The head lawyer, let’s call him Mr. Sebastian, told me that when the child lived with me I could file to have the parts I disagreed with amended, and in his opinion it was a badly written document. So I signed it in good faith. I reasoned that my soon-to-be ex-husband really wanted the divorce and if I did what he wanted, he would be forgiving and do the right thing for our family. Why wouldn’t he? There’s no reason for him to keep hating me if I cooperate, like the JAG attorneys told me to. Yeah, yeah, I thought: you’ve got all the money and you can hire a lawyer and I can’t, so goody for you. Maybe you’ll pay less money in child support when the time comes. Fine.

I reassured myself that my priorities were in the right place, since the Divorce Decree said I would get custody at some point. Having a family was a choice I had struggled with for years. I didn’t have really good modeling in my own family for two loving parents. Mine got divorced when I was seven years old, and the first year they separated I cried frequently and easily. When I reached adulthood I seemed to find myself in relationships with men who didn’t want me to get an education, so it took me 20 years to get my Bachelor of Arts degree. I really wanted that baby, but I needed to finish school and I couldn’t do both by myself, so she went to live with his parents for two years, but she stayed with me for several weeks in the home of a church friend in Baltimore County as I was finishing up at college, then came to live with me in New York at the age of five, a year earlier than the Divorce Decree said. If I had it all to do over again, I would not have missed the opportunity to have the beautiful little whip-smart girl I have now, who looks like a Barbie doll, even though her dad made me give up my career and then left us without support.

Due to the setbacks I’ve faced after the failure of multiple committed relationships where I compromised for the guy and then lost out waiting for my turn, I’m living at the poverty line with no career. And here I am, writing this letter to the reasonable person I once expected my ex-husband to be:

Dear Josh:

When we met at the church dance in 2001, we were both Mormons and I came to believe that family was important to you. I assumed a lot when we got married. You led me to believe when we were dating that my career was important to you and that you cared about it and would be supportive. Then once we were married, you accused me of being a liar and a cheat because I took you at your word but you had changed your mind. We went back to the U.S. and I never sang again but I tried to be a good military spouse and make you happy. Remember the parties we went to with your friends? Remember how you volunteered to go on assignment and I took our baby daughter to Utah by myself to meet your parents for her first Christmas? Remember how you told me to go back to school, and I did what you said?

I was so sad because every time you said something, it turned out not to be what you really meant. I tried to take pills because that’s what the other wives were doing at church, but I know that marriages don’t work that way with the wife taking pills, so I stopped and decided that I wasn’t the problem. I let go of my dashed hopes and my career and started over with a new identity of being a student and trying to do something else. And then you didn’t want me to have that, either. We sat down for a family discussion about your own career plans and you tricked me into helping you choose a path that would make me drop out of school again.

You know that you’ve always earned at least four times what I do, but when you hired your lawyer, the two of you made up a story that I was capable of earning the same salary you do and therefore you should never pay child support. You and your lawyer signed that document and dated it, along with another one where you told the Court I was working full-time earning minimum wage when you knew that I was in school. You knew when you divorced me that I did not have a place to live, yet you were negotiating how much money I would owe with a Court in a state far away from me and had the judge sign documents that I had never seen.

I remember that you love to play games. You like to win and you’re proud of how you cheat. Raising a family is not a game. You have a ten-year-old daughter that you see three times a year. You’ve paid off my own lawyers so they don’t do what I ask and your own lawyer torments me with Motions to Compel and passes repeated judgments on me for thousands of dollars. You won. Doesn’t that make you happy? You have more money than I do and you beat me in court. I am raising our little girl without child support or any kind of alimony from you. When are you going to get tired of playing the game?

I am just a single mom now, that’s all I am. Not a singer, the head of a company or anyone accomplished at anything. I have tried to pick up the pieces the best I can and raise the little girl by myself. Don’t you want to help at all? I thought the Mormon church was all about family, but your parents hate me, especially your mom, for no reason. When are you going to stop trying to bankrupt me? What did I ever do to you?

What pleasure does it bring you proving that you don’t owe me or your daughter anything, and that no one can make you pay for the promises you made and failed to keep?

You know who I am. I’m not going to sign my name.

Mommy can’t play with you because Mommy is sad

I wanted to write this post two weeks ago, and I should have, but I was busy.

For the first time, I was able to get the custody matter before a judge and have fair representation here in a local court. A Monroe County judge finally seemed to be willing to discuss my case with the judge in Utah for the purpose of getting jurisdiction moved here so custody could be discussed. I also returned to Monroe County Child Support Collection for a new appointment on almost the 5-year anniversary of the first time I filed there. My child’s father pays no child support or alimony though he earns $10,000 a month while we struggle at the poverty line, and after years of lawyers in three states ripping me off, finally a court appointed me with some lawyers who were motivated to represent my child and me.

With a splitting headache, I had waited in the crowded lobby for 2 1/2 hours because my hearing is always scheduled last. The judge dismissed my case. He started speaking before I even sat down. He had not managed to get in touch with Judge Howard in Utah’s Fourth District, so he based his ruling on the court clerk telling him the case was pending. My ex-husband’s attorney never even spoke. The attorneys representing my child and myself were so shocked, they both delivered their arguments twice. In my petition filed in August, I had explained that I wasn’t able to get representation in Utah and that the clerk had prevented me from scheduling a hearing on my own behalf. I explained the financial hardship caused by my having to travel from New York to Utah and appear in person for every hearing, and the pointlessness of hearings in Utah when no one lived there, including the child’s father, who is an active duty Warrant Officer who can change his state of legal residence at will whenever he feels like it.

my ex-husband

On the days I deal with the ongoing child custody and support issues in my life, I find myself climbing out of a scorched and smoking crater. Other days are hazy and unclear, leaving me feeling like I’ve been walking through mud without getting anywhere, as I try to push my unequal treatment in America’s legal system out of my mind in an effort to focus on being productive and happy. Going to court to try to get your bills paid and your basic needs met is not a joke, and when year after year goes by without help, your credit rating goes down, you lose assets, you get closer and closer to poverty. I was told that a child is legally entitled to support from both parents, and I finally found lawyers in my own town who believe that, too, but they can’t help me anymore. Once again, I am fighting that battle alone.

Everyone believes I am a good mother to my child. Her doctors, her teachers, her friends, my friends. Laying aside the financial pressures I’ve been feeling for the past 5 years, if that were possible, and my ex-husband’s human right to continue kicking me in the teeth after the divorce, I have to write about the confusing feelings I began to have when I first found out I might get a fair hearing.

I felt pain. Even though I was happy and encouraged, I began to feel like a quadriplegic does when the nerve endings are trying to knit themselves back together in his spine and he feels a tingling somewhere in the part of his body that was dead. Things are starting to wake up again and the pain is excruciating. That was the first thing I began to notice: the pain of healing. It hurts to feel human again after being treated like a worm for so long, after being numb for so long. The next feeling I felt was regret. I began to look around at my daughter’s toys, and I felt sad. In my marketing class last week, we talked about the concept of Perishability, how in the service economy, once a day is lost, it’s gone forever. My daughter has been here 5 years, and I looked at the gifts she got and the things I bought for her that we were supposed to play with together, the Legos and the dolls and the science kits and the butterfly hatchery, the journals and sticker books and calendars. She came to me when she was 5 and now she’s 10. When she played, she had to play by herself because Mommy couldn’t imagine and Mommy was tired. She’s used to playing by herself now so it’s not a big deal. We’re together doing things separately, and that’s how we spend quality time. All her toys are in boxes because I guess she didn’t feel like playing with them either, as days of playing alone drew into weeks and months and years.

But for that brief period I felt like a human being, we got out the dolls and we played, and it was fun. We had so much fun together. I look at their pretty faces now, and that’s all they are. Pretty things which lie around, waiting to be looked at or discarded. We keep them around hoping for good days when we can play with them again. I can’t think about the images of the happy Mormon family where mothers play with their children. Those images of smiling family don’t even make sense. In the past 5 years, my daughter and I have played with dolls three times. We don’t even play on Christmas, we just open the presents and then put them away.

To be a productive human being in a world where I am mistreated, I work hard to numb myself daily. The only thing that gets to me now is when her dad calls or takes her with him on a visit. He loves her and hates me, and he shows his love and hatred by opening his pockets to pay off lawyers and judges. Now and then, he’ll buy his daughter a bag of sugary syrupy candy or a toy. This is what he does with his money instead of paying child support and alimony, and the Family Court lawyers and judges are just fine with that.

What will my little girl be when she grows up? A doll with a pretty face, lying around waiting to be played with or discarded, maybe. In the United States we used to do things and make things, and we were notable for the things we did and made. I talk to my little girl daily about history and national pride and what it all means, and I try to share my sense of identity with her. As much as it hurts, identity never goes away, but one day I probably will. Maybe it’s better for her if it happens sooner than later. Maybe she will be angry and keep up the fight instead of watching me be slowly worn down until she herself loses hope. I’m always planning and thinking of her. Maybe I’m fighting this all the wrong way. Maybe I should let her father win custody when she’s 12 and focus on my own survival. Maybe I should just accept the fact that life is just no fun.

Some thoughts on Marriage

A man friend and I had the opportunity to work together on a plumbing job for the past 2 weeks. For many things I pay him to do for me, I’m happy to let him do it by himself. Plumbing is different, as I’ve discovered. It really takes two people.

Initially I was annoyed and a little resentful when he insisted I spend time in the basement with him. It was my basement. My job. My money paying for the fixtures and tools. I’d been trying to get him to do it for months, and he realized I meant business when I paid a contractor $50 to come over and give me an appraisal. Then my friend had something to prove: that he could do it better than the other guy and save me money in the process.

The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t get basic questions answered, by either my friend or the contractor I hired. My main questions were “where does city water enter my building” and “how big is the pipe?” I got the damn’dest non-answers to these basic questions. I guess you have to stand up to pee to find out certain things.

After the contractor left, my friend was willing to show me the difference between a half-inch pipe and a three-quarter inch pipe, and that was it. He wouldn’t let me make a map of the pipes in the ceiling, so instead I bought tags and labeled the five units different colors so we could keep them straight. He got irritated when I followed him around and tried to label the segments he needed to cut. He wouldn’t show me where the pipes needed to connect but quickly rushed from one location in the basement to another. He wouldn’t answer me when I asked him where he thought the fixtures would go that he needed.

“Never mind.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“You don’t need to know.”

“That’s none of your business.” The dismissive way men lean forward and raise their voices at you when they want you to shut up. You do shut up, because you want the guy to finish the job, so you tolerate your own ignorance in stony silence.

I would stand in the aisle with him at The Home Depot trying to help him find the brass pieces he needed. Because he wouldn’t answer my questions or let me help him figure things out, I tied up a good deal of my credit buying parts and then returning them. He couldn’t properly verbalize names of fixtures we were looking for. Days later, I began to hear myself saying them instinctively when we were standing at the service desk of the plumbing supply store up to 90 seconds before he came up with them himself. He wouldn’t let me purchase the meters we needed right away and then insisted I return the fittings for them, cursing and swearing at me when I told him we needed to take them back and get what we really needed the following day. He blamed me for going on one school field trip with my daughter after I had cancelled going with her on the others, instead of sticking around to babysit him. He refused to give tenants proper notice before shutting off their water so many times I got tired of fighting with him to do it and two of them called me one night, angry because the water went out when they were trying to make dinner.

I was in the middle of fighting with him to mount the shelf on the stone wall instead of mounting it on some flimsy wooden boards, and fighting with him about returning the meters that he couldn’t get to connect because he refused to purchase the proper fittings.

On the last day of a two-week job to individually meter five units’ water usage, we worked together for around a half an hour to two hours. That’s when it all came together for me. He didn’t need to tell me what to bring him because I was already standing there with it. I wondered why the whole job couldn’t have been like that, and then it dawned on me. Marriage. That’s when it works, when two people know each other’s needs and they work together without having to explain. Thirteen days of confusion and utter abusive misery and two hours of intimacy. That must be what marriage is about. Okay, God, I get the joke.

Then I notified the tenants I would be going into their apartments at 8 pm to run water and check the valves and that was when hell broke loose again. He was angry because I got it and he didn’t want me to. He had to have it all his way. I went up to one of the units and the water was turned off, but I tried to get him to leave it on and turn it off when I asked and he flatly refused to do anything I asked him to. So I told him to take a walk and had my nine-year-old daughter stand at the valves. She refused to leave her post, even when faced with a grown man screaming at her and menacing her, threatening to throw screws at her because he would not let me do anything my way. I finally had to call the police, but before they arrived, I was able to check that all the units were working, no thanks to my friend, even though he had completed the job.

So this is marriage, the way man made it. The man screaming and swearing at the woman most of the time, keeping her in the dark about the important stuff so he can feel special. Commiserating with his friends about how schizophrenic women seem to be naturally, while the woman blunders along trying to smile at everyone until she can find the fixture that works, waiting to scrape together her two hours of marital bliss from years of unending heartache. This is love and life on Earth, I guess. Thanks, God. This is why men get addicted to pornography, because to nearly all of them, sexual intercourse is just masturbating with another human being present. I get it now. There’s no working with someone, because when you cooperate you have to share credit, too, and that’s unacceptable to the men I’ve met. We haven’t developed language to explain this to young people who think they’re in love, so divorce remains inevitable.

To women who want to help or want to make something of themselves or want to raise children or just want to be happy, marriage becomes a prison sentence, because inevitably the man doesn’t want the woman to shine. Maybe this isn’t always true, but here I am in my 40’s, confused and discouraged at all the things I could have become if I’d just had a little help.

The Geese

My companion and I were driving down the busy six lane thoroughfare known here in Rochester as Jefferson Road yesterday evening. It was the tail end of rush hour traffic, and as we were approaching the intersection out toward Marketplace Mall, I noticed an odd sight. He noticed it at the same time.

A seagull appeared to be disoriented in flight, circling in the middle of the stoplights as if he would suddenly drop. Two other seagulls appeared to be watching. He flew out of the intersection, seemingly tired and then we were surprised to see another take his place. My friend had been worried about the seagull, but as the moments passed, it occurred to me that something tasty had fallen to the pavement and the seagulls wanted to eat it but couldn’t due to the press of traffic. I guessed a bag of potato chips or french fries (there were three competing fast food chains on the right side of the intersection. As we approached, I looked at the ground where the seagulls had been circling. There was a small dead animal there. I couldn’t tell if it was a squirrel, there were no recognizable body parts on it. Whatever had run it over had really clobbered it. I couldn’t distinguish its pelt, but as we passed the corner on the right, we saw a small family of geese, two parents and three goslings. They were moving about in a small circle in the ditch looking back towards the road expectantly.

“Look at the cute baby geese,” I told my friend, and as we went further down the road I started comparing the pelt of those downy babies to that of the road kill, which seemed the wrong shape and color to be a gosling.

Coming back the other way on the thoroughfare, traffic seemed to be worse on one side. We noticed that several vehicles were stopped but there had been no accident. Two women were trying to coax the entire family of geese out of the road to the side. The pair of adults were very distressed. One of them was chasing one of the women, its tail feathers splayed out like knives in a back alley skirmish. Both adults were hissing and arching their necks at the two puzzled women. Canadian geese are the most docile, but these two were really upset.

Later it occurred to me what probably happened. Two adult geese and their four little babies had been crossing the thoroughfare at the corner. One of the babies got left behind somehow, rushed to catch up and was crushed under the wheels of a car that had gotten into the turn lane. The family had waited in the ditch for the last one to catch up and then tried to go back to find the little lost one.

Just in case you wondered if Canada geese can count: if you suddenly lost one of your kids, how long would you keep going back to look for him or her?

The Fighting Mantis

Now and then, like that Beatles song, we wander past places we’ve known, remembering happier times there. For Rent signs now appear in the windows of the building which housed my former kung fu school. I looked online to see if that guy was still in business. Yep, he finally moved further West into the suburbs, to a larger location he was thinking about back when I went to the school. Good for him. I can let old grudges go under certain circumstances, like divorce.

I did check the Better Business Bureau online to see if his acumen has improved. He was a good guy in many respects, but he had some issues, and not just with me. Honesty is a big issue when you’re in martial arts. Are you honest with yourself? Respect for others is another important quality, understanding and compassion. While learning to see opportunities to exploit another’s weakness in a fight, not taking unfair advantage of someone weaker than you is also an element of sportsmanship. We studied mantis form, which is a lot about finding, and keeping your center. If you’re into Chinese astrology, he was born in the year of the Tiger. I was born in the year of the Monkey.

I was an active member of the Mormon church, and there was a saying I had heard: “an unmarried man over 30 is a menace to society.” I can’t remember whether one of their former prophets said that, or who it was exactly. But it applied here. This guy loved to play games. At the time I studied with him, I was single in every way, and he was overly solicitous. I could tell he liked me. He also liked my daughter Mandy, who had his same birthday. And though, physically, he really wasn’t my type, I found myself falling for him pretty hard.

The flirting got pretty intense in late June heading into July. It was all physical, as you might well imagine. He would stand next to me, turn his shoulders, flex, and then move to another part of the room. If I wasn’t paying attention, he would move closer until I was. My daughter and I went almost every evening, and we enjoyed classes. We even advanced to our yellow belts. We went to his birthday party, which Mandy thought was HER birthday party. She really stole the show, but he was also full of quite a bit of bluster, which I found mildly unpleasant. I brought an UNO deck and we all had a blast. No one really seemed to know if he was seeing anyone outside school. I approached him at one point weeks later to ask what his policy was about dating his students. He said never. I respected that, but the flirting and posturing continued. Since my daughter and I were both attending classes on the Family Membership, the schedule changed inexplicably two or three times, making a lot of things more confusing and difficult for everyone at school. There was also grumbling among one or two of the single parents about fees appearing where they hadn’t been before. Two of the single mothers had several children in the program.

The summer wore on. I selected a Christian day camp for Mandy for about a week. It was 2010, and Mandy was ordered to visit her dad for the last 3 weeks of August. I wound up having to go to court in late September. They had planned a surprise birthday party for me at the kung fu school, but I was too sick to go and participate in more pointless flirting. I went the next night instead just so I could see everyone before I made the drive out West. When I got back, my health was starting to decline, plus I was back at college. I went into his office to speak with him one night about getting out of my contract, or at least taking a break from the payments. He told me to take a break, but keep paying, so I did.

I ended up withdrawing from classes at my college, but I still didn’t have the guts to try to get out of my contract. Until it hit home that Mandy’s therapist was going to set me back about $400 per month and I was going to need to cut my other expenses. The last straw came when the schedule changed yet again, and I was told to take Mandy out of the kids’ class and that I should stop going to the adults’ class, and that we should now go to the family class which was in between the two, even though our contract entitled us to unlimited classes. The instructor didn’t make this clear to me, he had his sister do it.

I was angry, but like the fighting mantis we were learning about, I found and kept my center. One of the single mothers sitting next to me the next evening while our kids were in class together was starting to hit her boiling point. It was just everything that had happened over the previous two or three months weighing down on her. She leaned over and told me something that was really ticking her off. “Oh, yeah: he just did that to me, too,” I told her. And that was it. She detonated. Told him off right there and then in the middle of the room. He wasn’t sure how to handle that. After dismissing class, he turned to me and asked if I knew what it was that set her off. I answered, “yes, and actually there’s something I really need to talk to you about.” That was his second shock of the night.

We sat in his office from that moment until two or three hours later. He didn’t even teach the adult class that evening. He spent that much time in his office trying to shame me and intimidate me into staying in my contract. He had two members of the adult class come in alternating as witnesses in case I tried to claim he had been sexually harassing me. He got his sister on speakerphone to try and make me feel like there was something wrong with me. But I just sat in the chair, relaxed, one hand hanging down to the floor, my left ankle crossed over my right knee. He got all heated, and I asked him if he’d like to punch me in the face. I told him about my issues with the changing schedules, the recent breach of contract and the flirting, and said I didn’t think our continued business relationship was appropriate. He again suggested I keep paying but not attend. I told him that if I had to keep paying my bill he could count on me to keep showing up every day as I had been, and he grew increasingly uncomfortable with that idea. I maintained my relaxed posture even when the police showed up. While I was still in the room, he called his company authorizing them over the phone to cancel my contract. My daughter and I left calmly.

I wasn’t too surprised to see that a few days before my birthday that year, an actual complaint had been filed, which was later resolved. Another complaint was filed last year and remains open. As I read through it I recognized the name of one of the children, and suddenly I knew what happened to my daughter’s friend who went to the school. She had been living with her mother. The following year, she must have gone to live with her dad, and we lost touch while remaining marginally able to pay our bills.

So this is how it works with children of single parents: if they are a staple of your business, you must remain respectful and flexible. Keep your center, and don’t make enemies by demanding what someone can’t pay. Remember the fighting mantis.

How a Yard Dog says Thank you

My lightning reflexes and better-than 20/20 vision make me an excellent driver. Rounding the corner near my house with my companion, I pulled over at the curb when I saw the dog. He was struggling at the edge of his fence to get a ball that had rolled beneath it.

“Could you get out and help that dog get his ball?” I asked my companion, who loves dogs. He didn’t want to move for a moment.

“He’ll bark at me.”

“He will not. He wants his ball,” I insisted.

My friend got out, gently retrieved the ball which was just beyond the reach of the anxious dog, and threw it to him. The entire time, the dog’s tail was wagging all the way up to his shoulders. The man who owns the dog came out of the shed. His mind was elsewhere, but he saw what we were doing and faintly smiled at us. He was on his way to the backyard and did not want to play.

The dog began trotting toward his man, then turned and looked back at my friend, still standing at the fence. He hesitated. It was a moment where the dog examined his protocol. “I should play with the stranger. No, I shouldn’t. I should bark at the stranger. But there’s a ball in my mouth.”

For a long while he stood with the ball in his mouth, looking over his shoulder at my friend without moving. His ears were forward as if he wanted to play. My friend paused there, then got back into the car.

It was a happy moment. God bless you, dog! Enjoy your ball.

Tomorrow, I will try again to do something nice for someone I don’t know.

The Black Mark

At times you dream you’re with someone. For example, your father. In seconds, he becomes your mother… and then, the news vendor on the corner. Yet you still feel as if you’re talking to the same person. You thought you were at home, but suddenly you realize you’re in a school. Or a hospital, or a prison. Dreams are like that. And at times the mind behaves as if it were in a dream.” – Chete Lera as Antonio, Open Your Eyes, 1997

This film is similar to Blade Runner (1982) and Source Code (2011) in its examination of unchangeable fate and disposable people. Psychologists struggle for years to prove findings using rigorous scientific methods and scatter charts, but the most backhanded insinuations in films like these often seem to provide a more accurate framing of the inner workings of the human mind. Woke up from a dream last August that I had built an armature of clay. It looked pretty good to me, until my teacher came to see it. The sneer on his face gave me fresh perspective. Suddenly I hated the thing I had made. I put it down and walked away. The teacher was one of my former instructors at Rochester Institute of Technology. His sneer is one I’ve seen too often, considering he’s younger than me and we both started R.I.T. the same year. We have another thing in common: to date, neither of us has earned our Master’s Degree.

Two years after graduating college in 2007, I was accepted into Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Film and Animation. It was a dream-come-true of sorts, a belated steenbeck pat-on-the-head to a 20-years-younger me. For my Bachelor of Arts degree, I had not been able to major in film making because I was a transfer student, so I focused on writing and research, decoding the social meaning of the moving image rather than producing it. The only class that didn’t transfer from Columbia College was my Screenwriting class. Though I looked at other Master’s degree offerings, I was steered toward the MFA program because I had made several award-winning animated short films already that were in film festivals that year. Suddenly, I was among much younger students who had never edited 16 mm film on a Steenbeck with a razor blade, who didn’t know what a kodalith was. As the bulk of my core curriculum, I was expected to learn computer software. It seemed challenging, but I was enthusiastic. Two years into the program, the Acting Dean had to set me straight about what I was trying to accomplish because, for some reason, my academic advisor didn’t do that when I was first starting out.

Two dreams common to all students sneak into popular films. In one, you get caught naked in front of everyone, whether they can see you or not. In the other one, you just can’t get to class on time for the Final Exam. Maybe you wake up on the wrong side of town or in another state, or your alarm won’t go off at the right time, or you’re running through mud. These dreams have become cliché because for some reason, everyone has them. My dream was special: there was a doll in it whose face I don’t remember, and a teacher who judged it who in real life has no business judging puppets because his expertise is in Maya. In fact, he has no business judging me, but because I got an “F” in his class, I was suspended from school. I originally wrote about this dream last August 19th in a post entitled “School is No Fun” where I discussed feeling out of place in the MFA program as it was being taught due to my age, and my meeting with the Department Chair, who wanted me to feel the stigma of being a “bad student,” after which I had the odd premonition I would not succeed, no matter how hard I tried or how well I managed to do.

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Sometimes you just know a teacher doesn’t like you. Stephanie was tough, but the toughest part about getting through her class was that she doesn’t let you know what you’re doing wrong. I got to see her doing this to other students, both graduate and undergraduate, usually white females. If she doesn’t want you to make it, she just “doesn’t like your project.” She doesn’t have to give you a reason because she’s the Head of the Animation Department. I got the cold pricklies from Stephanie the very first time I sent her an email in 2009. It concerned scheduling my courses, and if I could select certain ones based on the time of day they were offered. Being a single parent, I had to take someone else’s needs into account so I thought it was a fair question, but I got no response. Maybe that was when the die was cast.

And, ultimately, I was strung along like a puppet, led to believe that there was a chance I could still make it through the program when I went in to meet with the Department Chair in May 2012. I was accepted back into the program on Academic Probation, which meant my grade point average could not fall below 3.0 for 3 consecutive quarters. The rule is, to get your MFA in Animation, you had to pass the 2Q to continue the program. Since, from my observations of other students struggling with her and from my own experience, I was pretty sure I would have a difficult time getting through Stephanie’s class, I tried to get a different faculty member to supervise my progress in that class. His name is Tom, he’s senior faculty and he teaches puppets and armatures, but he declined. “I only work with the thesis students,” he said.

Push came to shove. When I wound up in her class again this past Winter quarter, she began verbally abusing me in the classroom, and I went to him once more. At this point, he has been promoted to Department Head and, while I still couldn’t take the 2Q with a different instructor, he told me to send him my work in various stages of completion. “Just do the best you can and get it in the screenings, and you’ll be fine,” he lied. I believed him of course, because when you’re in school you have to trust your teachers in order to learn.

So I followed Tom’s instructions carefully, got my film finished and into the screenings and about a week later went online to check my grade. That bitch had given me a “C” which was just low enough that I was instantly suspended. Five days later, I was withdrawn immediately from my Spring quarter classes without a hearing on my grade. She had no decent explanation for giving me a “C” instead of a “B” for a grade, except that “she didn’t like” my work. There was no rubric for her grades, no written critique, nothing. Being little more than a bridge troll, how has this so-called teacher been earning her paycheck over these past 20 years?

But here’s where the doll comes in: when we finally had the hearing about my grade a month ago, I brought my Doll. He was an alien-looking guy named Adam, made out of self-hardening clay. Tom sat next to me. He was fascinated with the puppet I had made, took him in his hands and tried to manipulate the arm, breaking it off at the bicep. sad puppet“Oh, sorry!” he said, obtusely. “I thought you had made an armature for it.” Adam is an old, brittle little puppet I made the first time I tried to go through Stephanie’s 2Q class in Fall 2010. Back then, I brought him in to show her with a bunch of other models I made at our first project meeting, and she didn’t want to see any of them. As I was walking through her office door, she told me she didn’t like my story concept and insisted it would never work. So she never saw the sad little dolls I made. I was sad then, too, and felt like my project would surely fail, which was one reason I withdrew from all my classes that quarter. The next time I brought Adam to one of Stephanie’s classes was more than 2 years later, because after being verbally abused by her in class, I felt like my doll wanted to come along for the purpose of being there for me its creator and to prove, among other things, that as much as bad teachers hate them, good ideas never die, and that all good animation is not done using computers, that people are not puppets, that many types of animation qualify as “fine art” and that you can’t and shouldn’t force everyone to study the same thing and insist that they become experts without proper training by real teachers.

The irony is, all my award-winning short animated films were either stop-motion or cut paper. My first year in the SoFA MFA program I never had the opportunity to take the classes I needed to make a stop-motion 2Q film with puppets and armatures. The dolls I made for my first 2Q project couldn’t move at all; they were statues, and I was never able to present them to my instructor (Stephanie) for feedback because she didn’t want to see them. I did not have advising in my project or in my course of study the entire time I went to Rochester Institute of Technology. Nonetheless, despite being advised by the Acting Dean that I should have spent my time and tuition money improving skills I already possessed when I entered the MFA program, he also told me not to contest the “F” I received in a Maya class I should not have been in because he said I would alienate my professors and no one would want to work with me. I don’t know what kind of teacher Tom would have been (like the film referenced at the top, where Cesar imagines he’s in a relationship with Sophia, but he’s only been with Nuria), and now I guess I’ll never get the chance to take his stop motion and armature building classes because I was suspended from the program after successfully completing and screening an AfterEffects project and getting a “C” for it.

*   *   *   *   *                    *   *   *   *   *

There is no winning in this program, and very little learning. You don’t have time to do truly excellent work on your own. The teachers either like you or they don’t. The other students will either help you through the program, or they won’t. The Master of Fine Arts program at Rochester Institute of Technology is nothing more than a ruse to take money from people in a certain age group because, from my experience, the teaching staff there has nothing to offer but a snub. And for those alumnis who have “achieved” a Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of Film and Animation, look at the wording on your document carefully: Congratulations, you have a degree from the School of Photography!

Ode to Sammy, a Dead Preying Mantis

Mandy is a sensitive soul. She cries when a fish dies. We’ve had minnows, guppies, and most famously Betta fish as well as hermit crabs, snails and caterpillars that try to turn into butterflies. She names all the pets, even the ones she can’t touch, and mourns their eventual passing. We cannot keep birds or mammals due to allergies. Last summer, I came out of the acupuncturist and found a preying mantis waiting for me on the hood of my car. He stepped onto my finger and let me bring him home. Mandy was delighted. She played with him and took endless photos and we bought him crickets to eat, along with moths, gnats and houseflies we captured ourselves. He seemed well-fed and happy, but about four months later he just stopped moving. He didn’t even eat the last moth we put in his enclosure, but remained green when he died instead of slowly turning brown all over, as one did that I captured at the end of summer 20 years ago that starved.

Over Spring Break while Mandy was with her dad, I got an email from him accusing me of starving the insect to death on purpose and forcing her to watch it die while telling her I was doing it to teach her father a lesson, and that I told him at the time that’s why I was doing it, and that I set the death of the mantis up intentionally to cause her distress because preying mantids live for two years. I had to write it out just like that so his perspective on the situation could be clearly seen. The funny thing is that everything he knows about Sammy she told him prior to the visit on the phone within my earshot, so while she is physically with him and he can ask her about it, he’s playing reruns over in his head of a phone call that happened months ago, remembering that he was “the good guy” because he was going to send her money to buy the mantis food (I think feeder crickets cost about $1.19 at the pet store) and I was “the bad guy” because I said No.

The real issue was I could not get to the pet store. After four years of not paying child support, he should have offered to buy me a car.

* * * * *                    * * * * *

When we play with dolls, if they have animal mascots Mandy will act out the mascot and not even play with the doll. It must not be as fun somehow to be a little girl.

At the end of Summer Parent Time 2011, Mandy came home from her 45 days with Daddy, and when I unpacked her clothing I found two new packages of Size 8 panties. I felt vaguely violated removing them from her suitcase, as though someone was criticizing my choice of underwear for my daughter. Why were her Size 10s inappropriate? The new undies didn’t have the butterflies, four-leaf clovers and seahorses on them, the patterned illustrations similar to what I grew up with. Instead they were just two colors, fuchsia with turquoise bands around the legs and hips.  The new panties were hip huggers, not briefs which cover the navel. I let her continue to wear them, but I thought they seemed pretty trendy for an 8-year-old.

A little girl’s panties are designed for the comfort and entertainment of the little girl wearing them, and no one else.

Two weeks later, when I took her in for a routine check-up, the RN gave me a piece of her mind. “Mandy is severely malnourished. She’s practically emaciated,” she told me, then gave me a stern talking-to about nutrition, eating vegetables and making sure my daughter drank milk every day. I was quite taken aback. I was stick-thin as a child, teased in summer camp about my “toothpick legs” — I guess I thought it was normal to look like a human preying mantis when it had been me. Mandy’s doctor didn’t think it was normal, but I still hadn’t made the connection….

It all came together four months later, when Mandy told me as I dropped her off at before-school daycare, “my underwear are PINCHING me!” that she should never have been wearing Size 8 panties to begin with. She wasn’t emaciated any more. I told her not to let other people make her feel bad about her body and NEVER to let anyone buy her underpants but me.

* * * * *                    * * * * *

Sammy, you were a pretty neat little guy. I’m sure you knew how much Mandy loved you. Your brief presence in my home continues to be food for thought.

Hindsight being 20/20, I guess Mandy’s dad let her waste away before his eyes to teach me a lesson. He told me that’s what he was going to do when he filed for divorce, that he was never going to pay child support. God help Mandy if he gets custody of her when she’s 12.


The Mormon Atheist

Have you ever heard anyone make the following endorsement in front of the congregation at your church? “I know my church is true.”

This post concerns people who are in-the-closet, and not concerning sexual preference. A few years back, my dad was confined to a nursing home. His second wife had long since left him and his children had all grown up and moved away. About half of them weren’t speaking to him anymore. So, rendered unable to drive due to disorientation and no longer the crusty old geyser among young hoodlums at his small town corner garage, my dad was taken into the city where he became two things for definite sure: a devout Atheist, and lonely.

Of course, my dad had been an Atheist since I was a small child, though our local church was Lutheran and my mom sang there one year with the Christmas program, so really the only thing he became was lonely. I had tried unsuccessfully for years to get him to believe in Jesus and read the Bible. Finally, in his twilight years, I suggested he convert to Judaism.

“Dad, look,” I reasoned. “You’ll get visitors from synagogue, and you can still be an atheist.” True story.

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About 20 years ago I seriously dated a guy whose family was technically Levite for over a year. Since then, I’ve observed that many prominent Jewish people are quite vocal about their atheism. I know Catholic atheists, too. Some of them go to church on Christmas and Easter and when a nephew gets baptized, etc., you know, Godfather-style, but they don’t pray (meaning, they don’t say the Rosary every night at 6 pm) or talk about God except when they’re cursing.

What does it mean to be in-the-closet about your atheism? Well, let me explain.

I wound up married to the very first Mormon I ever met (knowingly). We met under unique circumstances of which his Bishop probably wouldn’t have approved. He was a return missionary with wonderful parents who liked me, and I thought he seemed nice, but he wasn’t the kind of person I would have seriously dated left to my own devices, so the marriage was a very awkward, forced situation (long story). This guy had some really odd habits, too. He had problems in the past with gambling. I didn’t drink, but he liked to take me drinking. I mean, he took perverse joy in getting me inebriated, which is difficult to do since I would always stop at one cocktail. I didn’t have a drivers licence either (oversight of the multiple people who raised me), but he made sure I got one once we were married, and then within the first week took me out drinking then insisted I drive home. We then got stopped at a tollbooth because neither of us any money. It was the wee hours of the morning, and I was mad about it for a month.

He admitted when we were first dating (meaning, we were friends but we actually talked about sensitive issues) that he liked sneaking around and doing things he was sure no one would ever find out about, but the things he did were considered horrible sins, which included fornication, maybe even with men. He was very angry with his parents and I couldn’t understand why. I asked him why he didn’t just quit the church so he wouldn’t be so miserable all the time and “try to live like normal people.” I thought that might tame his compulsions somewhat.

His answer was “I can’t, because I know my church is true.

I struggled for the three years we were married. He went to SA meetings at one point where he had a Jewish coach. During this period I had a new peer group as it were at church, among people I never would have spent any time around were it not for my dysfunctional Mormon husband. I was essentially treated like a young single adult because he was gone so darned much. The guy actually didn’t come home at night. Certain married women hated me, but I began to want a family the more I attended church and I began to believe Church teachings as I lived the commandments, and I could always find real genuine church members who liked me if I looked hard enough. Three years later, I knew it was time to go, and I asked him for a divorce, and got it. I wanted to have children, but not with him. My Branch President understood.

I moved far away until I was legally divorced, and married Mormon women continued to despise and distrust me no matter where I went, but I eventually married again (Mandy’s dad). My first Mormon husband met with a bad end, which I’ll tell you about someday. Not today.

* * * * *                    * * * * *

When Mandy turned 8 years old, people on her dad’s side began clamoring for her to be baptized. We had been attending church regularly and I held a Relief Society calling. Other children in Mandy’s Primary class were getting baptized. Her father and I had divorced before Mandy turned 2 years old, and I could feel a big dispute coming on about where the baptism took place and who attended, so I put my foot down.

“Mandy isn’t getting baptized,” I said. So then I was the bad guy, but I felt I had sound Scriptural principles on my side: “Where does it say a child should be baptized at age eight?”

“Well, eight years old is the age of accountability,” I was told, so I pointed out that Baptism was supposed to be about a believer’s testimony of the gospel, and if Mandy didn’t have one yet she shouldn’t be baptized. I also pointed out to everyone who asked that Mandy’s dad never even took her to church the Sundays he had her. “I pack dresses for her to wear to church, and when I unpack her suitcase at the end of your visits, her dresses come back out looking the same way I folded them and put them in,” I explained. The argument was over.

The Church of Jesus Christ is under 200 years old, so being an atheist Mormon may not be culturally possible yet, as it is with some of the more established faiths like Catholicism and Judaism. But it still exists. Mandy’s dad is like some practicing Catholics I’ve known: He took her to church to celebrate Easter, but the Sunday afterward, there was no way in Hell anyone could drag him to church.

Mandy loves church, and she brings her Bible to school. Her teacher has seen her reading it. We used to spend the day Sunday going to churches. We went to the Mormon church but we also went to a Protestant church up the road because I grew up Protestant. There are two churches we go to now that Mandy really likes. When her dad came to pick her up on Good Friday, she handed him a flier.

“Look, Dad,” she said. “There are going to be super heroes at The Father’s House for Easter.” He gave me a dirty look. I’m sure he thought the whole thing was my idea, but I was just as amazed as I’m sure he was. Unlike my previous husband, Mandy’s dad had NOT been a return missionary.

I laughed it off. “Oh, well… one of the things some of the pentecostal churches do here in Rochester around the holidays is, they put on free musicals as an outreach and invite the community. One Christmas we saw It’s a Wonderful Life and another year, How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” I tried to explain. As an aside to Mandy: “I think your dad already has plans to take you out-of-town.”

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Yesterday, I talked to friends of mine on the phone as I used to do on any given Sunday morning. “Which service are you going to?” I asked my friend Linda at 8:30.

“You need to go today,” she said. “The sermon is ABOUT YOU.” Of course I went. The topic was dysfunctional family relationships. I knew Mandy wanted to go to church, and I really thought her dad would love to hear the sermon, too. It was very, very funny and so, so true. It may not be in the Bible, but if you can laugh about something with an adversary, sometimes a solution comes easier. I am always willing to find a solution.

“What do you mean, Mandy’s sleeping?” I asked him at the hotel. “It’s 10:00 in the morning.” That’s his favorite excuse for not going to church: “oh, we weren’t awake at that hour.” I usually find out later that they had been playing video games until 5 a.m.–not just that night but for every night of the visit. On one visit, Mandy actually slept for two straight days.

I went back in but came out again, the sermon was so compelling. “It’s 10:30, come on! Ask Mandy if she wants to talk to Mommy.” He put her on the phone.

“Mandy, do you want to come to church today?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said. “Put your church clothes on as quickly as you can and call Mommy back, OK? Church starts at 11:30.” She said she would call me back. Her father called me back twenty minutes later to say that Mandy would not be ready for church. “That’s OK,” I told him, “you can get here at five minutes to noon and not miss ANY of the sermon!”

At that point he got really irate. “You’re not listening to me!” he kept yelling. Then when he calmed down, he said, “Mandy wanted to go swimming one more time in the hotel pool.”

Classic. He took his daughter swimming instead of to church. When I saw her afterward, she was wearing her church clothing and had blue circles under her puffy eyes. (She didn’t tell me about staying up until 5 a.m. every night playing video games until after I got her safely home.)

So, yes, folks, there ARE Mormon Atheists, but at least they know their church is true.

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