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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Under the Udala Trees and Being Able to Breathe

If you set off on a witch-hunt, you will find a witch.
When you find her, she will be dressed like any other person. But to you, her skin will glow in stripes of white and black. You will see her broom, and you will hear her witch-cry, and you will feel the effects of her spells on you.
No matter how unlike a witch she is, there she will be, a witch, before your eyes. - Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees
So here's the thing. Sometimes I use this space to gripe about stuff in my life that is bothering me, which is fine. It's awesome, actually. It feels good to complain about things! The problem is that the books I read are often Very Serious, which is to say that they deal with topics that make my complaints seem very, very trite and minuscule. If it seems like I'm trying to have it both ways, it's because I absolutely am. I want to talk about my life, make jokes, and talk about heavy stuff in the books I read. This makes for weird posts, but I'm a weird guy. This is what you're signing up for.

So here we go.

I worry a lot that I'm comparing my little problems with some really big ones. When I talk about feeling left out sometimes in high school and then wrap it up with a book about racism, please don't think that I'm equating the two. I worry about that every day. I'm just talking about books and also about my experiences but do not think for one tiny second that I'm not aware of the privileges I often take for granted.

Here's a big problem with the way my brain works: when I feel bad about something it immediately jumps to someone who is dealing with something way worse and then I berate myself for feeling bad. For example, when I have my quarterly visit to the doctors office to find out how bad my body is crapping out on me, it's preceded by approximately a week of low-level stress that climbs over time to the day before in which I am a complete and utter wreck. When I go to the hospital to do my blood work, I'm at about peak anxiety, which is especially great given that my blood pressure is one of the big numbers I have to worry about.

So there I am in the waiting room feeling sorry for myself and looking at my phone for some kind of distraction, and my name gets called. Then I go into the room where they stick the needle in me and I have to look away in fear of passing out, and maybe half the time there is a little tiny baby in there! And man, do I feel like a jerk. This may be a controversial opinion but I for one don't think that babies should have chronic illnesses. Like, at least I know what's going on, you know? I'm there voluntarily. It took most of my time here on earth to learn that life is essentially arbitrary and random and I'm not special because I'm sick and you're not special because you're healthy. It just is.

At least now I treat myself to a sticker on the way out

These poor kids are born into that. They get betrayed by their parents on a regular basis. One day they get in the car and it's to go get ice cream and play in the pool and visit grandma. Another time someone holds them down and sticks a needle in them. You guys, that sucks. It sucks way worse than what I'm going through.

I'm very glad I have this body. It does a lot of the stuff I want it to. It doesn't do spinning roundhouses (YET), but it can run and jump and longboard and rock climb and work. It helps me garden and hike. My ears work well enough that I can hear and identify birds. My eyes (with pretty intense corrective lenses) can watch peregrine falcons fly and my kids playing pretend in the yard. I'm so grateful for all that my body can do, but let's be honest, it's also kind of busted.

There's the aforementioned kidney thing that I've mentioned before, I've talked about that a lot at this point. At some point I decided that if I shine a light on it and talk about it honestly, it stops being so scary. Kind of like how dumb the guy in the Alien costume looks when he's just hanging out on set. I mean, it's scary and can still kill you, don't get me wrong there. But it's terrifying when it's dark and there's fake smoke everywhere. I need to be honest with myself and others, but it makes people a little uncomfortable.

In my opinion, the words "It could be worse," is one of the last things I ever want to hear in any situation (another is "you've got polyps up there") because of course it can. Every situation is worse if a meteor hits you. Or if Netflix went bankrupt. I can't think of a more garbage response to a bad situation than it could be worse. Other alternatives: "You're going to get through this," is... fine. "This will make you stronger," is true-ish but not helpful. How about this one instead, how about "Let's talk about it. Tell me what you're thinking." Ooh, that one's good. When you're telling someone that they're going to be stronger or that it can get worse, what you're really saying is that their pain is making you uncomfortable and they should stop it. You can't be in pain anymore, you think, because I just said a cliche. What an inconvenience it is to have to watch them suffer when it's their job to be funny and cheer you up.

Speaking of inconveniences, here's another one. I don't talk about it almost at all. It's more complicated, is why. And frankly, it's embarrassing.

I'm extremely allergic to dogs.

When I'm in an enclosed space for more than an hour or so with a dog, I start to get hives on my back. That's when I know I'm in trouble. Soon the itching becomes unbearable and spreads to my arms. Then the coughing begins. At first it's just a little itch in my throat, then it's hacking, then I can't breathe because my airway is closing. I can open my airway with an inhaler and kind of manage it that way, but allow me to let you in on a little secret: inhalers are expensive. Even with my insurance, they cost $50 apiece. That's no EPI pen cost, but it's still a frickin' video game I'll never buy for every one of those little canisters (not to mention boring stuff like dinner for my family or a chunk of the water bill).

I don't want to carry one in my pocket everywhere I go because they get dirty and crappy in there or trigger themselves and precious puffs get wasted, and I can't afford to have one in every vehicle in addition to the one I keep near my bed for when allergy season is bad. I can bring it with me if I know there's going to be a problem, but a lot of times I don't. Dogs these days are like impeachable offenses from our president or that one Shakira song, the one called "Wherever, whenever."

I know how people feel about their dogs, especially natural resource people, and especially especially natural resource people who live in Salt Lake City or Park City. Dogs are life. I get that. I'm sorry. I'm sorry that your furbaby makes me feel like I'm dying. I wish it were psychological, or that I'm just a jerk who doesn't like dogs which according to social media is a very profound personality flaw. The entirety of the internet meme community is based on the joke that dogs are better than people. I will hold every human baby there is, snotty or not, and I will love it, and I will get it to fall asleep and you will want to take a picture because we are adorable, but I don't want your dog in my lap. Yes. I'm basically a monster.

This all gets made worse because I don't ever want to tell people. Many people who I just love have dogs and man, do they love their dogs. I don't want them to be weird around me. People are already so weird about me when it comes to sodium. I get policed sometimes by people who know, chiding me gently about eating potato chips, when potato chips are actually pretty low in sodium compared to literally everything else served in a restaurant (especially salad dressing, oh my gosh you guys, the salad dressing). I hate having concessions made for me. Just can't stand it. I'll quietly go hungry or thirsty because nobody has offered and I hate to ask because then my host will have to stand up. "Where's the bathroom," I don't say, before disappearing and driving to the gas station ten blocks away and then coming back and pretending nothing weird happened.

Instead, I just look like some kind of weirdo jerk because I push dogs away from me when they stick their faces in my crotch. Or when they do the thing where they rest their head on my knee when I'm sitting and look up at me sad because I'm not petting it. I gently kind of angle my body away or stand up. Then the owner looks at me pityingly and half-heartedly says, "Get down Duke (they are always named Duke), he just must not like doggies." Duke doesn't get down, by the way. Duke never gets down. Duke is like the opposite of James Brown.

Isn't that enough, though? This isn't like my buddy's barbecue, this is a professional setting. Like a lot of offices have dogs in them now. If someone comes to your place of work for a meeting you invited him to, and he is giving you clear signals that he doesn't want your dog up in his privates, shouldn't that be enough? Get that dog up out of his junk, for goodness sake. We are human beings.

It's not enough, it turns out. Because your dog is like your kid. OK. But I have kids. My kids can be annoying. I love them and sometimes I still want to lock them out of the house and push food out of the cat flap when they get restless and/or the neighbors are about to call the police. I recognize and am painfully aware that you might not love my kids, or have any kind of affinity for them, or even care about them. That's one reason I don't have them in my office all of the time (the other is because I've read Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day). I don't take them with me when I'm going to do work with other professionals who have a job to do and may or may not want a small child running around and destroying things.

They're only here because the salt mines are closed on Sundays

When I'm on a hike, I keep my kids close and when we pass other hikers I tell them to keep it down. I don't let them chase wildlife. They stay on the trail. I don't let them poop directly in the path of other hikers, either. I've taught them how not to negatively impact other people's experiences in nature. I know not every parent does this (believe me, I know), but I think we all are at least given the luxury to frown at such parents and complain about their kids.

Not dogs, though. And yes, I've heard. There are no bad dogs, just bad dog owners. That's a really clever slogan but it doesn't fix the fact that it takes me 2 or 3 days to get the allergic reaction out of my system after having to fight a dog off of me on a hiking trail. "He just wants to be friends," the bad dog owner says. "Friendship is a two-way street, and I am clearly pointing out the one-way sign," I want to scream back, but instead I kind of laugh and smile politely while trying to get muddy paw prints off of my rad flannel that I got on clearance because of course I did. In the end, though, I'm not allergic to bad dog owners. I'm allergic to dogs.

Some of you are reading this and saying, "not my dog," and you're probably right. I love good dogs. I love watching working dogs work. I love a dog that understand boundaries and let's me approach her. I will pet your good, good dog. Even if I itch later. There are lots of things that bring me pleasure that make me uncomfortable later, like singing too loud along to Kelly Clarkson on my run, or putting too much hot sauce on everything. I want to pet your sweet puppers and scratch your doggo behind the ears, but dangit, I want to be the one to make that decision. Because of the aforementioned issue in which they make me sort of not able to breathe, please understand that even when it's open air and I'm probably fine, they give me anxiety that is completely non-voluntary.
It was like having an addiction to chili peppers, or to beans. You sensed that eating too much of them would overwhelm your system. That afterward there would be consequences. Your mouth would burn; you would surely get the runs. The dreams would come again. But you did it anyway.
Anyway, all this brings me to other things that people are born with that makes them feel like outcasts even though it's no fault of their own and should not be shamed for it. Let's be honest, the dog thing isn't that big of a deal. Nobody has stoned someone to death for being uncomfortable about dogs. Or beaten them in the streets. Or forced them to go to "therapy sessions" that use techniques that sound a lot like torture.

I'm not comparing my (comparatively) silly problem to the horrors perpetrated against LGBTQ folks, but I think there's an interesting thing to talk about here. Here's a scary word that gets used so often that it's become an easy target for fedora-clad meme-makers, it's intersectionality. What that means is that there are no clear lines that divide groups that are discriminated against, and if we focus on one group at the expense of another, our work is counter-productive. Women, on average, get paid less than men. But white women get paid more than black and hispanic men.

That doesn't mean that white women shouldn't fight to reduce the pay gap, but it does mean that we all need to recognize that race and gender intersect. Sometimes white feminists can come across as uncaring or dismissive of other discriminating forces in society. White women deal with micro-aggressions every day. They get cat-called. They get assaulted. That all sucks. But they also get out of tickets when a man or woman of color could very well be shot. It doesn't mean everything is solved, it just means we all recognize what we're dealing with in a society that is still fundamentally unfair.

None of this means it's OK to tell someone who is struggling or standing up for themselves to stop it, because someone else is suffering worse. I have a tendency to downplay my struggles when compared to others', and the result is that I don't allow myself to feel bad, or feel like I should stand up for myself. That's a dangerous conclusion. It would be ridiculous of me to ignore someone else's struggle that is greater than mine, or make it seem small in comparison, but it doesn't make my problem go away. I have a right to assert boundaries as much as anyone else while at the same time acknowledging how hard it would be under different circumstances. This is tricky stuff, you guys. I'm probably blowing it just trying to explain it.

So the book I read is called Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta, and this whole ordeal you just went through with me will hopefully make sense. In the book, we meet Ijeoma, an 11-year-old Nigerian girl in the middle of the Biafran War. We've talked about this war before here, so I won't go further into it, but you don't survive a war at that age and not come out of the other end untouched. Ijeoma has lost her father, and her mother is unable to care for her, so she is sent to live as a house girl. Here she discovers that she is gay.
Man and wife, the Bible said. It was a nice thought, but only in the limited way that theoretical things often are.
Here also is where we discover what being gay is like in Nigeria in the 70s and 80s. When her preference is discovered, she undergoes borderline abusive Bible study with her mother, then over the years watches atrocities against LGBTQ people take place with a collective shrug from the populace and the tacit approval of the government. To put this into context, in 2014 the Nigerian government passed a law against "establishing, supporting, and participating in gay organizations and public displays of affection." The punishment is a 10-year prison sentence. According to one report by Human Rights Watch, "the law, which took effect in January 2014, is used by some police officers and members of the public to legitimize abuses against LGBT people, including widespread extortion, mob violence, arbitrary arrest, torture in detention, and physical and sexual violence. The law has created opportunities for people to engage in homophobic violence without fear of legal consequences, contributing significantly to a climate of impunity for crimes against LGBT people."

Ijeoma, like so, so many gay people in the United States as well, (especially in my community) marries a man in order to "cure" herself, and soon has a child. Here the book turns into the best description of emotional abuse I've ever read in fiction. We understand so clearly how gradually it happens, how trapped an abused spouse or partner can feel, and how difficult it is to get out.
I spoke in a monotone those days, because by then I had begun to grow numb. As much as I didn’t want it to happen, it was happening. Often my only thought was of how much longer I could carry on that way. How much longer could I continue to exist in this marriage with Chibundu? I was convinced that I would only grow deader were I to stay in it. I would only grow more numb. And who would take care of Chidinma if things went that way? Who would take care of her if I became like the living dead?
Sounds like a real downer, doesn't it? Somehow, it isn't. In spite of all this, we love Ijeoma. We love her mom. Her life is tough and complicated and also beautiful. And, oh my gosh, this book is also beautiful. Throughout the book Ijeoma employs the Nigerian tradition of telling folk tales that apply to the current situation. She sees herself in the cautionary tales, but struggles with guilt, both for being what her mother called an "abomination," and for living a lie. I've just never read anything like it.
And now she began muttering to herself. “God, who created you, must have known what He did. Enough is enough.”
Anyway, that's what I keep thinking about. We can take our own struggles and use it as a beginning to understand someone else's, but need to be very, very careful when assuming we understand them completely. It's harder and sadder for a baby to have a chronic illness than it is for me, for example. But that doesn't mean I should pretend that I'm not suffering. I would never tell someone who is LGBTQ that the discrimination they face is less than a Nigerian deals with, but it would be equally ignorant to ignore just how far we still need to go in regards to worldwide attitudes.

And for real. Poor me who gets sick around dogs, because in spite of my complaining, they are pretty easy to ignore. But also, poor me, right? I'm tall, white, straight, and American. That's a pretty great hand to be dealt. All that being said, though, I still should be able to breathe.

And here's my main point: we should all be able to breathe.