Friday, December 19, 2014

Dude, Randy Must Be A Dick.

It turns out that phone books can hurt you even when all you do is pick them up off your step, curse quietly, and recycle them, never to see them again, until some hapless time traveler prints a new edition because surely you need it

But here's the thing: we have booster seats for children, and they invented door stops a while back, and it's rare that all of the Internet breaks down at once, so unless you have just a driving need for kindling, no one needs a phone book anymore. We have Google, and iPhones, and we don't need to look up local businesses or neighbors in the yellow pages anymore. That whole process actually sounds painfully outdated just writing about it. 

Phone books are useless and don't need to exist anymore, is what I'm saying. 

But they do, and when a new tri-county phone book showed up on my deck the other day, sad and full of the knowledge of its own purposelessness, I didn't think anything of it, other than that the printer had handed me several thousand tissue-thin pages and cried, "YOU recycle these!" rather than just doing it themselves. I tossed it in the bin and moved on. 

Then my phone - my cell phone, because landlines are for old people or people who...don't have cell phones? Do those people exist? - rang, late one night, in those beyond-witching-hours when people with day jobs need to be sleeping in order to avoid hate-murdering anyone in their office the next day. Since my ringtone is an incredibly loud rendition of the Thundercats themesong, I spun and thrashed around in my blankets as I woke up enough to answer. 

"Rrrmngffello?" I slurred into the phone. 
"RANDY?" a loud, violent, incredibly loud voice shouted back at me. 
"Ow. What? No." I answered back, holding the phone at arm's length. 
"IS THIS RANDY?" The lady was really, really angry at Randy, and I think she thought I was protecting him somehow, like maybe I was gonna stall her here on the phone while Randy booked it to Mexico. 
"No, there is no Randy here," I said again. 
"FUCKIN' RANDY?!" She was determined that if Randy wasn't there in the dark with me at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday, that I should somehow become him. 
"Listen, no, there is no one named Randy here." I tried to sound reasonable. I felt like I was talking someone down off a ledge, or out of a loaded, cocked shotgun aimed at some poor dude named Randy. 
"IS THIS 719-???" She proceeded to recite my phone number to be, correctly, and then waited, huffing pissed-offedly into the phone. 
"Yeah, but there's no Randy here," I said again, increasingly confused, and still kind of asleep. 
"Oh." Suddenly, she was quiet. She sounded disappointed, like a lion that had been cheated out of some tasty gazelle by some asshat named Randy. "Okay," she concluded, and hung up.

I stared at my phone for a moment like it had become a foreign object, and then I put it in sleep mode, so nothing but my alarm could rudely jerk me from sleep again that night. 

The next morning, I had two missed calls, one from the same woman who so desperately wanted to talk to/viciously murder Randy, and one from another number I didn't recognize. 

Now, I used to teach 7th grade, and my classroom didn't have a phone in it, so many students had my personal number in order to reach me for homework help, or in emergencies, or whatever. Some of these kids have not, in years past, been above the odd late-night prank call. Last summer, some kids called me about six times in a single night asking me really, really cliched crank call questions, like, "Is your refrigerator running?" except they shout them really fast and giggly because they're thirteen and bad at conversations. After a handful of calls, angry sleep Avalon shouted into the phone, "Unless you little heathens are on fire and I am the only person in the whole world who can help you right now, fucking stop calling." Which was admittedly not the most awesome thing to say to someone who was probably one of my former students, but I was working a summer job where I was on-call round-the-clock, and I couldn't silence my phone in case there was an emergency I needed to respond to, and I really wanted to sleep. 

So at first, I thought the late-night Randy lady was just one of my kids who had planned out a really elaborate prank call, and that I had derailed it somehow from its intended path. 

But the calls kept coming. Every other day or so, I'd get weird calls from numbers I didn't recognize, and while I let most run to voicemail, only a few left messages, all confused-sounding and looking for someone named Randy, who seems to be a universally reprehensible person, and who people seem to need to reach fairly desperately. After about three weeks, I stopped answering my phone for callers I didn't know, and just checked the first three seconds or so of voicemails to see if they were actually for me. If I got through the first moment without an angrily shouted, "RANDY-," I kept listening. Then I got the most interesting call of all. 

Beep. "Hello, Ms. Manly, my name is Joleen, and I'm from Echo Pages. There was a printing error in a recent edition of the phone book, and your number was mistakenly printed as the number for Patriot Bail Bonds. We'd like to talk to you about changing your voice mail to redirect callers to the correct number, and perhaps purchase your phone number. Give us a call." 

So that explained a lot. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Vignettes (and a long story about poop)

So, I moved from New Orleans to Colorado Springs this past summer. I did this for a number of reasons, the foremost among which was better proximity to family, but also foremost among which was the job. I was hired in early summer to teacher middle school at a charter school in Colorado Springs, which meant I didn't have to transfer my teaching certification from Louisiana, and I could continue to work with low-income students. It also paid extraordinarily well, so everything was shaping up nicely. I finished my summer work in Atlanta, met my parents in New Orleans, packed up my house and was back in CO within the week. What follows here is a series of vignettes about the doings of me since then. 

I lived with my folks for the first few months back in CO as I started the new job and tried to find a place to rent. I needed a place that had enough space for me and the cats and our stuff, and while that may not sound too demanding on paper, it was hella hard to find a rental house. The market here is vicious. Like, shark-frenzy vicious. I would find a place I liked online in the morning before work, call and leave a message at lunch, and get a call back that afternoon to inform me the place had been rented not two hours before. This went on for weeks. So I just bought a house instead. 

Everything about the job that wasn't the money was shit. Charter schools are notoriously hit-or-miss, a moving target of educational and community balance, and this one was a spectacular miss. So I paid the closing on my house, and I quit my job, just in time to have a mortgage. 

Unemployment was like a vacation. An unemploycation, if you will. It took two weeks for the three years of teaching to wear off a little and for a Sunday night to roll around without me experiencing the horrible and automatic dread of the impending Monday morning. I had forgotten what it feels like to just accept the end of a weekend without a panic attack. 

But when I vacation, I vacation. It didn't take long for me to forget what day of the month it was or how daytime schedules work. I spent a lot of extremely late nights tying up some freelance writing projects and publishing Honey Island Swamp Child. Curating and editing that anthology was a richly rewarding experience, but it also saw me drinking Red Bull at my computer at three in the morning for the first time since college. It's not a thing anyone older than 22 should ever do. 

When my life isn't adhering to a schedule wherein other humans rely on me to be at a place at a time, the basics of being a capable and self-sufficient person rapidly fall away from me and I become a frayed husk of forgetfulness and rationalization about why the thing doesn't have to be done today. This means, most significantly, that I forget/refuse to go shopping for food. Currently, I think I have some mandarin oranges and half a container of old Chinese food in the fridge. Also old milk and some cereal dust. That is all. This is my food selection, just because I hate leaving my house and if I don't have to go anywhere all day – like a job or something – then I just don't, and my food supply steadily dwindles into just the dust at the bottom of the cat food container and some used cinnamon sticks. 

So when I was housesitting for my parents during their final camping trip of the season, I found myself huddled in the middle of their living room, staring at nothing, cramming chips in my mouth like a ballsy, very hungry squirrel. I ate a total of four chips inside about nine seconds before the image of myself there, in the center of the carpet, holding chips like my baby, came to my mind, and I quietly stopped. 

I made two animal-related decisions consecutively, and they together have resulted in a massive increase in the amount of pet feces I have to handle on a daily basis. The first decision I made was to adopt a dog who stress-poops, and who happens to be stressed a lot. The second decision was to toilet train my cats. That is, not to house train them to use a little box. That they already know. The choice I made was to actually teach them how to use the toilet. Now, I understand from the Internet that this process is made much easier when only attempted with one cat at a time, but I don't know how to tell one cat to poop in a box and the other to poop in a toilet and have that happen, so I just went with it. 

The cat were fine at first. Confused, and bad at balancing on the toilet seat, but fine. Then the little rings from the middle of their fake litter box that hangs suspended in the middle of the toilet started to come out, right on schedule, and they forgot how to poop entirely for a few days. There was just no cat poop anywhere. Then, they came to what I'm sure they considered to be a rational kitty agreement. 

The found a long thing, that was porcelain, near the toilet, and they decided that was a close-enough target to what I wanted from them. So one day, I came downstairs, confused by the utter lack of cat poop anywhere in the house, but definitely being able to smell it. As part of my super skilled detective work in the poop quest, I pulled back the shower curtain. 

The bathtub was, horrifyingly, transformed into a cat poop storage unit. There was so much cat poop. I didn't punish them for it, because cats tend to hold grudges instead of internalizing self-correction, but I made them watch while I flinchingly moved one cluster of poop (this is an awful story, I know, I'm sorry) from the tub to the toilet. They seemed to understand, and for a few days, everything was fine. The cats were weirdly but successfully pooping in the toilet, the dog was at least attempting to poop mostly outside. We were on the straight and narrow. 

When, a few days later, I discovered another tiny, guilty-looking cat poop in the tub, I disinfected the whole thing with bleach and covered the inside with aluminum foil. Cats are supposed to hate aluminum foil, you see. It's a widely accepted understanding among cat people. But that night, I heard a whispering, wispy sound, and I tracked it to the bathroom. Pulling back the shower curtain again, I saw Whit, gleefully perched in the middle of the foil, fastidiously folding edges back on themselves in an absolute fit of cat origami. He was thrilled. I was confused. But I left him to it. The next morning, I found a cat poop carefully wrapped in a take-out basket of foil, like Chinese leftovers, so I redirected him again, moving poop while he watched from tub to toilet. He got it. 

But the holidays rolled around, and I decided to get a new Christmas tree for my new house. I got a huge, all-white tree, and a lovely, almost too-sparkly tree skirt to match. The cats have always loved Christmas, but if you have a cat, you know that they are also deeply materialistic creatures, and are finely attuned to every household change. I think, perhaps, that the move, the new house, the new dog, and the new toilet expectations were all made too much by the introduction of a new tree - they were apparently very attached to the old one - and therefore Whit began his own personal war on Christmas. 

He pooped on that poor tree skirt more times than I thought a cat could ever poop in a single night. When I came downstairs the next morning, there were ornaments everywhere. An angel in the bathroom, a ball on the couch, hooks just all over the damn floor. It was like a minefield. But the poop. On my brand new, extremely white tree skirt. I washed it to get the stains out, and the rest of my clothes are still glittery. Two days of my cat using his feces to enact a deeply personal war on Christmas was enough for me, and I retired their toilet training kit, at least for now. Whit still sometimes pees in the toilet, and he likes to hang out on the seat for some reason, but when I refilled their litter box, Zephyr straight up rolled in the litter like she'd never seen anything so beautiful. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Art of Cats and Beanie Feels

Back in Colorado, my parents (and previously, me) have two cats and a dog, each of which has its own distinct personality and habits. 

One of the cats, though, also has a very, very strange pastime. It's bizarre. Almost...surreal. 

"Meowrp, Salvador Dali speaks to me in my cat-dreams."  

At night, she takes Beanie Babies (remember those?) from a massive basket where my old collection of them is kept, and she spreads them around the house in ornate designs. 

No, seriously. She does. This eight-pound cat spends every night making countless trips from the beanie basket to every corner of the house, carrying bean-filled animals in her mouth and carefully posing them in precise patterns and displays. 

Don't believe me? 

This is where they start. 
"We are bears, but could potentially double as weight-bearing pillars. Because bears. Bearing. Get it?"
"The annual G8 Beanie Summit is hereby called to order."
We thought, at first, that she was only pulling out animals she recognized from real life, like cats, dogs, and snakes. But then...

"Dude, did you hear about Kenny? His wife put flame retardant in his coffee." "No!"
#beingstoicandmagic #hellsyea
"Why are we on land? Our weight will kill us here." 

She has definitely not encountered dragons in real life, unless she has way more exciting days than I do. You'll probably also notice that she places beanies in piles of similar kinds, like shape, species, or color. This is pretty consistently true of what we've come to call her "art," though sometimes she opts for more complicated patterns instead. These usually involve the stairs. 

High art is all black and white these days. 
"Is it Christmas yet?"
"But Avalon," you might say, as you waggle your finger disparagingly at the computer screen, because I know the type of people who read my blog, "This is utter nonsense. There is no way that cat does that. This is a hoax. Cease your idle shenanigans, woman!"

And yet, it's all true. Her record in one night is a whopping 67 beanies, which, when you consider she's wandering around carrying in her mouth something that weighs probably a statistically not insignificant portion of her body weight, is pretty remarkable. I don't think I could do that. I wonder what the human equivalent would be. Maybe me wandering around my house carrying various bean bag chairs in my mouth, placing them in patterns according to color? How wild would that be? 

More remarkable, though, are the displays she creates which clearly, undeniably, represent other things. In the house, there are three pets: a gray cat (the artiste), a multicolored tortoiseshell cat, and a brown-and-white Australian shepherd. This is the most common combination of beanies she creates: 

In case you're super bad at paying attention, those are clearly beanie forms of a gray cat, a brown cat, and a brown-and-white dog. I don't really know how anyone could argue that, but just in case you were rearin' to, I bring my cats to visit CO twice a year or so. When I do, Charade's art changes a bit. 

See those leopard twins? They always show up when I bring my cats to CO (or, really, just whenever I visit, with or without my kitties). 

Now, you may have registered that those beanies seem to be in something like a circle. Charade, it seems, has a pretty great understanding of geometry. She also tends to, for whatever reason, associate my presence in the house with three specific beanie babies: an owl in a graduation cap, which I find flattering, and twin cuckoos, which she moves closer and closer to me each night, even though we put the beanies away each morning. 

Outside my door. 
Inside my door. 
In my friggin' shoes.

But the owl beanie clearly, somehow, in her magnificent artistic cat world, is me. Every time I come home, this greets me the morning after my arrival: 

It's a grand circle of beanie celebration! Educated-Owl-Person has returned!
And, sometimes, the owl gets real up close and personal overnight: 

Charade is truly an incredible specimen, with, as we like to say, a "rich inner life," much like Walter Mitty. Her experiementation with beanie art started slowly – so slowly we barely registered it. We thought we had just failed to put stuff away well, or that the dog was moving them around at night. But they started to become more in number and in the complication of their positioning, until we began to try to figure out what was going on. One night, we set up a motion-activated camera in the living room to try to catch her in the act, but her movements were so slight and close to the ground that the camera never picked them up. 

Eventually, after many confused, beanie-strewn mornings, we caught her in the act, late one night, as she carried a beanie across the house in her teeth. She had been talking at it, like a mother cat might to a kitten, yowling through her clenched jaw into its beanie hide. Then she saw us watching her, and she froze. Fear and horror fled across her eyes as she realized she'd been found out, and she set the beanie down and ran. 

The presence of the beanies suggests a lot of things about a house cat's capacity to think, process, understand, and categorize. Clearly, she can differentiate between colors – and even shades of the same color. Obviously, she is self-aware enough to know what she looks like, and has a memory clear enough to tie now to before now, because sometimes little black dog beanies appear in her displays, and our last dog was black. She apparently connects abstract ideas, too, because the last time I checked, I was neither a cuckoo nor an owl in a mortarboard. Patterns and shapes seem to be things she can conceptualize of, as well, what with the bear-stairs and orca-piles. And in case you were wondering, all of the above photos were not hoarded and collected across a matter of months; I took them all over a span of four days while I was home for spring break. 

The beanie activity is heightened dramatically during periods of stress or joy in her cat-life. I'm home to visit? BEANIES OF JOY. I depart? BEANIES OF SADNESS. 

Pictured: Beanies of sadness. 
Anymore, the beanies come out almost every night, and she still doesn't like to be observed in the creation of her art. She does, though, deeply desire for her art to be recognized and appreciated. In the morning, when we get up, she always rushes to her beanie displays and sits daintily next to them, and then just stares at us until we begin to snap pictures, fawn over her, and discuss what each new piece might mean

And sometimes, if we don't get up early enough for her liking, she goes into my parents' bedroom, stands on my mom's shoulders, and begins to poke her face until she wakes up. Because art waits for no man – or cat. 


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

This is not a funny post.

No, seriously. This is not my average, vaguely humorous, cat-referencing entry. This is a tirade made of outrage, riveted together with a deep emotional and intellectual exhaustion. 

This is a post about feminism. There will be profanity. There will be uncomfortable, unpopular opinions, and I guarantee I will lose a few followers over this one. 

And it's worth it, because I am fucking over sexism. 

My name is Avalon, and I need feminism. 

I need feminism because sexism is very much alive and well in our world. 

I need feminism because when I biked to my night job last week, a drunk man stopped my progress and talked about how my hips were "some next level shit," and when I told him twice to back off, he didn't. I need feminism because when I rode around him and finally made it to work, I recounted the episode to a coworker, who answered, "You live in New Orleans," like the fact that we live in a big city was an acceptable excuse for unwanted, unsolicited, and unwelcome sexual harassment. 

I need feminism because, despite their definitive and unquestionable lack of uteruses, there are collections of white men attempting to regulate my reproductive health and choices. You can bet every last shred of American tender you have that if men could get pregnant, birth control would be utterly uncontested, plan B medication would be an over-the-counter procurable in packs of 30, and you could get abortions at every corner drugstore. I need feminism because some people think that their campaigns to impose their moral or religious tenants on others are more important than my right to make my own choices about my body and my future. 

I need feminism because we excuse the impulsive or aggressive behavior of our young sons by saying, "Boys will be boys," and then act surprised when our grown boys enact and incite violence against others.

I need feminism because we teach our daughters that when a boy rough-houses with you on the playground, it means he likes you, and then we shake our heads in confusion when they come to us with black eyes and shattered bones claiming that, "He really loves me," or, "It wasn't his fault."

I need feminism because pop culture has taught girls for decades that they are prizes to be won, trophies to be awarded to the male heroes for their ability to be better at being male than other males. I need feminism because the most cherished movies of our youths taught us that women are at our best when we are voiceless, when we are seen and not heard, and that our value exists only in our relationships to men, that we are only waiting to be saved by someone else's story. (This is the story of Snow White, of Sleeping Beauty, of Cinderella, of The Little Mermaid, of countless others.) I need feminism because I am the protagonist of my own goddam story and if anyone lives in an illusion regarding this, then they are, at best, an antagonist. 

I need feminism because women are treated in the media and in advertising as objects. I need feminism because marketers seem to think that it is okay to portray women as at their best when they are acting as much like pretty, inanimate decorations as possible. 

I need feminism because some men, and some movements, dare to tell women how to be beautiful. 

I need feminism because eating disorders and their effects are lauded in our culture. 

I need feminism because some men don't understand why catcalling is offensive, threatening, and intolerable

I need feminism because 3 in 5 college-aged males say that they would commit rape if we referred to it as "forced sex" rather than "rape." I need feminism because 35 percent of men say they would commit rape if there was little to no likelihood that they would be caught or punished. 

I need feminism because 1 in every 4 college-aged women reports being the victim of a sexual assault. I need feminism because 62 percent of them knew their attackers. I need feminism because almost half of rape victims admit to not reporting the assault. 

I need feminism because women make approximately .88 cents for every dollar made by a male in a similar job with similar qualifications and experience. I need feminism because last week, every Republican in Senate voted against the Equal Pay Act. Every. Single. One. 

I need feminism because I was taught as a teenager that when you walk alone at night, you use the shop windows around you to make sure no one is following you too closely. I was taught to walk towards the edge of the sidewalk so that I'd be as far from alleys and doors as possible. I was taught to not be raped. I need feminism because we teach our daughters how to avoid being raped rather than teaching our sons not to rape

I need feminism because there is widespread debate about what "consent" means. I need feminism because I thought that was a pretty cut-and-dried idea, but legislators seem to think it's a subjective issue. 

I need feminism because when a woman is raped, prosecutors still ask what she was wearing, like it matters. I need feminism because we're still blaming the victims. I need feminism because our culture still works so hard to make victims feel guilty or ashamed for the violence perpetrated against them. 

I need feminism because when a coworker told a rape joke the other night, everyone laughed. I need feminism because when I told him it wasn't funny, everyone looked at me like I was a killjoy. 

I need feminism because violence against transwomen in the US is statistically the highest rate of violence against a subgroup in today's society. 

I need feminism because some men think we wear makeup or certain outfits for them rather than for us. 

I need feminism because when I bought a chest binder, I did it for all the comfort of a sports bra without the sports bra, but I realized that when I dressed androgynously, strangers gave me more room on the sidewalk. 

I need feminism because young women are taught, overtly or not, to take up less space. I need feminism because we're trained to cross our legs and keep our arms in so that the men around us can occupy more physical space. I need feminism because no one should learn that they deserve to take up less space than their physical existence warrants

I need feminism because at the school where I teach, the boys are let outside to play at lunch almost twice as often as the girls are. I need feminism because they notice this, and are never provided a rationale. I need feminism because we are teaching my female students that they have less right to the world than men do. 

I need feminism because my students call one another "bitches" or "hoes" and come away believing that the use of these terms can ever be anything less than deeply and subversively derogatory.

I need feminism because when one of my male students tells another one to "stop being such a little girl," I have to slam the brakes on what I'm teaching in order to help my students learn that my gender is not an insult

I need feminism because some people are tired of hearing about feminism. 

I need feminism because the visibility and daily reality of sexism and female oppression is enormous, but we are told again and again to shut up about it. I need feminism because the word "feminazi" exists. 

I need feminism because the "strong female protagonist" trope is a thing in modern literature and film. I need feminism because people are still thinking about heroes as being qualified by gender, rather than the characteristics of heroism. 

I need feminism because the Bechdel Test continues to be relevant. 

I need feminism because in some places in the world, girls are made to undergo torturously painful and dangerous procedures, like genital mutilation, in order to ensure that the man they eventually marry will perceive them as valuable. 

I need feminism because more than 18,000 people are trafficked in the US every year, many of whom are children, most of whom are forced into sex slavery. I need feminism because every year, every single US state acts as a setting for human trafficking and slavery. 

I need feminism because these thoughts physically keep me up at night. I need feminism because watching a stranger gaze at my chest fills my blood with violence and my throat with bile. I need feminism because I would rather wear hoodies in 90 degree heat than dare to let another person believe that my body exists for their idle pleasure. 

I need feminism because I teach. I need feminism because I watch my students, male and female, become indoctrinated in a system which believes that men can do anything, and so can women, as long as they're quiet about it and don't pursue a life of singlehood or childlessness, because those choices automatically render them as anomalous and amiss. 

I need feminism because only about 30 percent of doctorates awarded in the US every year are awarded to women. I need feminism because the STEM fields are dominated by males in the US – by more than two thirds. I need feminism because only about 5 percent of math doctorates in the US go to women each year. 

I need feminism because people still ask me why I'm not married yet, like I am some wild animal who needs a man to tame her. I need feminism because I might be full of lions, but that doesn't mean I need to be domesticated. 

I need feminism because about 70 percent of mothers in the US work full- or part-time while serving as the primary caregiver for their children, but only about 30 percent of fathers in the country do the same. 

I need feminism because some men believe that their kindness or generosity or active listening or sharing of meals entitles them to sex. I need feminism because they don't know how wrong they are. 

I need feminism because we are taught that our voices are simply the windows into our emotional instability. I need feminism because when a man screams, you wonder what's wrong, or what he's going to do – but when a woman screams, you wonder what's wrong with her. 

I need feminism because pads and tampons are expensive as hell, are not covered by health care plans, and not a single woman has ever asked to need them every month. 

I need feminism because we have never had a female president. I need feminism because women in positions of power are called "bossy" rather than "assertive." I need feminism because most of what I have learned about professional mentoring, I have learned from men. I need feminism because when a woman addresses an assembly of people, be it online or on the news or in person, people who disagree with her attack her looks rather than her ideals. I need feminism because many people seem more concerned with how a female Supreme Court Justice appears than how she thinks and acts

I need feminism because mens' rights groups are a thing that exists. 

I need feminism because people think our softness and our curves and our openness are signs of weakness. I need feminism because when women aren't soft or open, they are condemned for attempting to be masculine. 

I need feminism because I do not fit into any of the boxes our society has built for women, and I refuse to try. I need feminism because my parents taught me to be the very best possible version of myself, and they taught me that I was good, and that I was powerful, but so many girls don't get taught those things. 

I need feminism because some people reading this think I'm overreacting. I need feminism because you might think these aren't your problems. I need feminism because you may be attempting to write me off as an extremist, as a feminazi, as a bra-burner, as a PMSer on a soapbox. I need feminism because you can dare to believe at any moment that feminism is not important, relevant, or crucial

I need feminism because I am a white, cisgender female who has led a privileged life, and I, with all the social, economic, and personal advantages my life has afforded, still experience sexism every day. I need feminism because I cannot imagine how hard every day can become for my sisters who are of color, or who are trans, or who are lesbian or bi or pan or a, or who identify otherwise, or who come from different or less fortunate backgrounds. 

I need feminism because this war is real, and you are on its front line. I need feminism because this is a fight that I wake up to every day. I need feminism because every woman I know who leaves her home every morning subjects herself to incredible unfairness, oppression, inequity, and prejudice – things she endures so frequently that she often fails to recognize them. I need feminism because women are strong enough to do that, and because they shouldn't have to be. 

I need feminism because, to quote Joss Whedon, we will never not be fighting this fight.

And you need feminism because there is no middle ground for you, here. You either believe that women are people, or you don't. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Synaesthesia Problems

My name is Avalon, and I have synaesthesia

For those of you who, like me until I was, like, 22, have no idea what synaesthesia is, here's the rundown: During the early stages of childhood development, the brain undergoes a pruning process, wherein the synapses and more unused connections in the brain are severed from one another to make room for all those other things you have to learn now, like language and how to use a toilet. In synaesthetes, though, that pruning process skips some steps, so some areas in our brains, particularly involving the gathering and analyzing of sensory information, are a little more connected than they should be. The most common manifestations of synaesthesia are lexical and numerical, wherein the synaesthete perceives letters, numbers, words, and/or names as being inherently colored, no matter how they actually appear.

But there are myriad forms of synaesthesia, in varying degrees of severity and life impact, and most synaesthetes have multiple kinds. I don't have lexical-numeral synaesthesia, but I do have what's commonly called sound-color synaesthesia, as well as what some refer to as "aura" synaesthesia, but which is more accurately referred to as "emotion-color" synaesthesia. This means that, for me, every sound is overlaid with a sort of cloud of color and texture that's really difficult to describe, and also that I perceive peoples' expressions and body language as inherently colored. Days of the week, months, and certain activities also have hues in my head, so if I don't keep my planner carefully color-coordinated it feels like it's lying to me, a bit. 

Now, the thing about synaesthetes is that most of us don't realize we perceive the world any differently from anyone else until adulthood, if even then. Because here's the thing about most synaesthetes: they tend to assume throughout their youths that everybody sees the same way they do, so they never bring up the wild sensory experiences they have, because they think everybody else has them, too. It reminds me of when I was very young and my parents realized that I needed glasses, and when I finally put on my first pair of bifocals at age 7, I realized that I could see individual leaves on trees. I hadn't realized until that moment that trees were more than blobs of hazy green and brown, and the revelation that other people saw leaves on those trees was completely mind-blowing. It wasn't something I'd ever thought about before, and so I'd never talked about it. Likewise, naturally assuming that everyone experiences music through sheaves and mists of color meant that I never brought it up, because I thought it was as normal and unaccountable as my taste in books or food. 

So in my junior year of college, as I was sitting in the back of my evolutionary biology class, and my professor mentioned that a small percentage of people have a genetic mutation which means they see colors as they hear sounds, my mind skipped a beat. Wait, I thought. Wait, wait, wait. Sound as color. I see that thing. That's a thing I see. Does not everybody see that? Wait. What? I think I successfully derailed the rest of that class with really poorly-formed questions about what that experience was like, and when the class ended, I went immediately to the professor's office. Turns out, he has lexical-numerial synaesthesia, and was happy to talk me through what synaesthesia was and how it worked. In the end, I got to do my thesis project on syneasthesia and its evolutionary benefits, which was pretty cool. 

In the years since I discovered that I perceive the world differently from other people on a very foundational level, I've learned a lot about how synaesthesia impacts my daily life. As a teacher, I have lots of opportunities to use my synaesthesia to my advantage – like recognizing students' voices when my back is turned. I'm sure that everybody does this, is able to identify who is speaking even when you're not looking, but synaesthesia means that I understand this process through color. Frequently, I'll be sitting at my desk or helping another student, and I'll have to call out someone on the other side of the room for being off-task or speaking inappropriately. Yesterday, I did just this, and the student I called out became upset and spat, "How do you always know it's me??" and I wanted to answer, "Because your voice is rust-colored and cloudy," but that's not a thing that normal people say, apparently, so I just pretend I'm magic. It's been a pretty helpful trait. 

I keep a couple of calendars in my classroom, which I update every day. The markers and chalk that I use to maintain the calendars has a nasty habit of disappearing, and the increasingly limited color choices are frustrating to me, synaesthetically-speaking, because dammit, guys, April is beige and I don't have any beige chalk and the closest I can come is this weird lavender color and it's not quite right and this is really stressful even though it shouldn't be and I just really need to reconcile the color the month is written in with the color it is in my head okay. I work needlessly hard to keep my calendars and planners in the appropriately color stories for each month and day of the week. Mondays are red and that's just how it is, and Thursdays are taupe and that makes them better than Mondays, and 2007 is a deep crimson, and that's how I understand the passing of time. 

The sound-color synaesthesia is by far the most significant form of the disorder that I experience, though. ("Disorder," as my professor once noted, is such a nasty term to describe synaesthesia, though that's technically what it is; I find "mutation" or "neurological misstep" to be so much more fair.) I listen to music that looks pretty to me, and because every music-color synaesthete experiences their sensory crossover differently, that means we get into some pretty lively (read: vitriolic) online discussions about what songs look like what, or how instruments sound/look, etc. Every song, to me, is a blend of color and texture and movement and action, so every bar is different from the last and instruments can take on different hues depending on how they're used. So when I listen to Bon Iver, I experience mostly icy blue, with gray and white and black and burgundy and brown lines and stars and bursts. I listen to Bon Iver a lot. Coldplay is white and green and sky blue and tawny. Piano music is less color and more texture, staircases and impact bursts of light. Cellos are gold. Always, lines of rushing gold. This means that the music I play in my classroom is composed of patterns and colors which sooth me and may or may not sooth my students, like the XX or Morcheeba. It also means that I find Skrillex and bounce music (a genre of horror-noise specific to New Orleans) basely intolerable. 

Many synaesthetes experience, at one time or another, what's called "sensory overload," where, because they're tired or stressed or overstimulated or otherwise distressed, their synaesthetic experiences overwhelm their ability to access and understand stimuli. It can create awful headaches, panic attacks, anxiety, depression, irritability, and can sometimes be crippling. I have never been brought to my knees by sensory overload, but I know synaesthetes who have, and it's rough. I come close to being overwhelmed by the "aura" synaesthesia in big crowds when I'm already really close to my emotional thresholds, and I despise the bar scene. It's too loud, too dark, too crowded, too pulsing and gray and ashy and it's just too much. This means, ultimately, that I don't go to many work socials, because I know I'm going to become irritable and withdrawn and unhappy, and won't be good company at all. 

I love live music, though. My first year teaching, a friend and I went to a Death Cab for Cutie concert here in New Orleans, and I freaking lost it. I started just openly weeping because Transatlanticism was just...amazing. I saw it in a way I didn't on their album, all sweeping wings of color and light and I couldn't handle it. Certain other songs always make me cry if I don't consciously turn down the synaesthetic experience by focusing on something else, too: some songs draw me in and capture me in golds and blues and bursts, and I cry for no other reason than just that it's an incredible thing to experience. The "When You Believe" song from The Prince of Egypt is like that.

The emotion-color vein of synaesthesia heavily influences how I perceive and relate to other people. Again, I'm sure that synaesthesia here is just morphing how I understand other humans into a world of color and texture, because that's how my brain do, but everybody has those flash instincts about others in the first moments after meeting them. Sometimes we meet someone new and they intrigue us, or they strike us as contagiously happy, or as creepy and awful and not someone we want to be around. For me, those same instincts just appear in a spectrum: a fascinating person might be blue, or green, or yellow (though I find I tend to have trouble getting along with yellows), and a happy person might be purple or pink or white, and a creeper might be red or black. Sometimes, I'll encounter a person and my whole brain will go NOPE because he's just a spatter of blood-colored stain and it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Is there any validity to these random flash analyses? Maybe, maybe not. But they're never steered me wrong so far.

I love having synaesthesia. It means that I can drown my world in music and close my eyes and just be saturated in the sound. It also means that I can't let my students write in pencil, because I cannot stand the horrible shrieking gray noise the graphite makes on paper. It means I sometimes weep at concerts, and that I hate dive bars. But what I find most interesting about it is when others ask me what it's like, because, invariably, they make me think of something that I didn't know was specific to my synaesthesia. They might ask what it means when I "see" sound, and then I'll flounder for descriptions for a solid eight minutes, because I don't know words for how I experience it. It's like English is a step behind what syneasthetic experiences demand of a language, and without the words to describe it, I can't adequately vocalize it because I don't really understand it. It's the same when people ask me what color they "are," because it's not ever a solid, stagnant, frozen thing. My dad is orange-brown-earth-white-sunlight-fire shades, but since the colors are always moving and shaping and changing, it's impossible to name or settle on one shade. Mom is green-white-blue-brown-silver, and I can't describe it well enough because I literally just don't know what words I could use. I don't think they exist. Language is restricting and the words we know shape our thoughts; I wonder if bees or cuttlefish or mantis shrimp, who see in exponentially more spectrums than we, could name them. If they could talk, I guess. And if the shrimp would stop hitting stuff for a while.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Celebrity culture is a weird thing. We watch movies and shows and read books and listen to music and we experience real emotions related to people who aren't real, or to characters who are being portrayed by actors, who are themselves different people entirely. And then, those real people, who present not real people on TV or in moves, go around the world meeting fans of the not-real people they play, and we the people lose our shit over it

Last month, for the third year in a row, I attended the New Orleans Comic Con. I am a huge fan of cons. It's a gathering of nerds, where artists and writers and cosplayers and just general lovers of things meet to talk about how awesome things are. And this year, for the first time, I bought a VIP pass, because Matt Smith (!!!) was going to be there. 

The first thing I learned was that VIP passes to meet celebrities are expensive. Like, a substantial portion of my monthly rent expensive. But that didn't matter, because I was going to meet the Doctor. And that was awesome. My friend Liz went with me, and she bought a VIP pass to meet Alan Tudyk (!!!); between our two passes, we'd both get to meet both staples of modern sci-fi. 

I didn't really know how to prep myself for meeting these people, or even whether I should. I wanted to say all sorts of things to Matt Smith about how much Doctor Who has meant to me, about how I loved the passion and childlike glee and seasoned militaristic harshness he brought to the role, how the show inspired me and reminded me about important things – but I remembered last year's Con, when I met James Marsters and lost the ability to form words. I had never been "starstruck" before; I thought the concept was silly, because people are just people and these actors are just people doing jobs that are a little more public profile than others. But then Spike was there, and he was super nice, and I couldn't remember how to talk. So I wasn't sure how I'd be able to communicate with Matt Smith like a human. 

Turns out I needn't have been concerned. There were thousands of people at the Con to meet Matt Smith. Our photo with him took about 14 seconds, and our autograph session took about 20. I had the time to blurt, "The episode Vincent and the Doctor really meant a lot to me and got me through some tough times" as he was signing, and he replied, "Thank you, that really means a lot to hear you say that," before a line manager funneled me out of the way. It was really nice to meet him, and get his signature, but there was nothing involved that could be considered anything close to a conversation. It can be noted, however, that I forgot how to smile when faced with the task of taking a photo with the Doctor. 

But the other celebs we got to meet that weekend were much more human. We ran into J. August Richards and took a photo with him and our new light sabers and he texted it (probably) to J. J. Abrams to vy for a role in the new Star Wars franchise. Alan Tudyk was phenomenally nice, and also funny, and also just ridiculously handsome. He's like some computer-generated example of what perfect symmetry and structure looks like in a human. We went through his line twice just to talk to him again.

I think, though, the meeting that really blew me away was Linda Hamilton. We went up just to say "Hi" when her line was down, and I told her a story about how my mom and I used to watch Beauty and the Beast together, and how much that time had meant to me. She held my hands and smiled and listened and talked with us and then autographed a print to my mom, and gave it to me freely, even though they were supposed to be $40 a pop. 

Last night, Liz and I got to meet a different kind of celebrity. The podcast radio show, Welcome to Night Vale, has been traveling the country, performing live shows, and last night, they were in New Orleans. It was a totally different live experience, because it was essentially a stage broadcast, but also something of a play, and also something of a standup routine. Afterwards, we got to meet the cast and writers, and I gave them all Mardi Gras beads, to provide a fail-safe to my apparent inability to communicate with celebrities. Turns out, I didn't need one: they were normal people who had created something other people enjoyed, and were following that creative passion to its logical conclusion. So, thankfully, I remembered in conversation with them how to form words and sentences and not fall into a slobbering goo pile at their feet. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Fightclub: The Extracurricular

Growing up, I attended public schools. But public schools in Colorado's best districts, I've learned, are completely different animals than public schools in New Orleans, where I've spent the last three years. Here in some of our nation's most underserved schools, the daily educational process is like being transported to an entirely transformed world than the one I lived in when I attended K-12. There are substantial differences. 

For instance, when was in school, there were exactly two fights that I can remember, one in middle school and one in high school. Both were ill-formed, half-assed, and badly executed. They were over almost instantly and can probably be classified more appropriately as brief slap-fests than actual fights. And we were all, appropriately, mortified. 

When I was a kid, the only "fights" I experienced first-hand were the scuffles my brother and I instigated against each other every day of the week and twice on Sundays. One or the other of us might escape with a bruise or a bit mark, but almost always in good humor, and whenever more serious injuries occurred, they were accidental. 

The first real fight I ever witnessed was in my classroom, between two of my students, on my first day as a solo instructional leader. I was the only adult in the room, and I had no idea what was going on. I had zero classroom management skills, no administrative backup, no instincts or abilities to read the kids' energy levels and intentions, no mental space to keep track of their attitudes. I was drowning, and I didn't even know it. 

But at the end of the day, the kids were standing around at dismissal (my first mistake – why on earth would I let them just idle in the room without purpose?). Then, so quickly I didn't even notice it happening, two girls had seized text books and were beating each other viciously with them. One broke the other's glasses with a blow to the face; the other's nose was already bleeding. I had had no training or preparation for this. I had never actually seen such malicious violence in person, for which, on a deep and foundational level, I am very grateful. I tried to grab one, but let me tell you, teenage girls fight with vengeance, and they are impossible to hold on to. Eventually I managed to shove my way between them and the veteran teacher from next door came and wrenched them apart. I won a cracked rib, a sore shoulder, and a complete mental blank for my efforts. 

I quickly got better at handling fights when they broke out, and, happily, at managing a classroom in such a way that prevented fights entirely. I'm proud to say that there has not been a single fight in my classroom this school year, because I have no time for that nonsense. My students unanimously believe that Ms. Manly is too crazy to fight in front of, and that's an image I have worked hard to cultivate. But, man, in the beginning, there were some doozies. 

At the first school where I taught, which was a failing charter, the procedure for a fight was: Don't get involved. Get other students out of the way. Pull the chord on the wall (which may or may not work) for help.

I found this to be basely intolerable. Don't get involved? I thought. How can I just let kids fight without trying to stop them?

At this charter, there were two guys who doubled as security in addition to their normal duties. Whenever a fight broke out, we were supposed to pull the cord and wait for them to show. But sometimes the cord didn't work, and we were sort of on our own. Occasionally, for a bad fight, I had to send another student to find help and just hope they were nearby. I remember one fight in particular, when one of my favorite students, a really nice young man who always asked how my day was going and was always polite and kind, finally snapped. I learned that if I inserted myself between the combatants, the fight would (usually) quickly deescalate, because they were far less likely to be willing to hit me than each other. So when I got between them, I just put my elbow in the chest of the student, and walked slowly toward the wall. I'm proud to say I kept right on teaching, gently leaning on this kid with my to help him keep still and calm down, until the security guard arrived and promptly started laughing at how ridiculous the scene way. 

Let me stress again that I had no formal training about how to deescalate physical conflicts. I had to learn on the fly how to (A) keep uninvolved proximal students safe, (B) disengage the combatants promptly and safely, and (C) keep me safe. I read up on some strategies, and it seemed like best practices was to restrain the instigator by gently holding their wrists, crossed at their shoulders – it derails their forward momentum. But it's super hard to grab a hold of some slippery kid's wrists when they're flailing and yelling about one another's mothers. I got good at it, though, which is both a positive and a negative – positive in that any fights I encounter don't last long, and negative in that I've had so much practice. At least I've learned how to preserve the peace in my classroom so that fights are never a possibility in the small space that I can control. 

Last semester, there was a terrible fight in the hallway on my floor as the kids were coming back from lunch. The hardest part about breaking up a fight isn't the combatants themselves – it's the crowd of students who gather to watch. Getting through that wall of kiddos can be difficult, and this was not a fight I could deescalate by shoving myself between them. This was a vicious all-out brawl. Over a girl. In a middle school

I finally reached the kids, and was trying to disband the crowd so other teachers could get close enough to help, when one of my former students, a really sweet young man who grew approximately two feet over the summer, bellowed for the crowd to part. He came charging down the hallway like a linebacker, head down, shoulder forward, and ran straight into the middle of the fight – and then kept running. He had managed to pick up one of the fighters in a running fireman's carry and lugged him bodily all the way to the other end of the hall. It was the speediest and most dramatic deescalation I'd ever seen. I tracked down my former student later, where he was bent over, panting, and covered in sweat, and patted him on the back, saying, "You know, that may not have been the smartest thing to do, but I'm sure glad you did it." 

But to date, the most ridiculous fight I have ever seen was at that charter where I taught when I was new to New Orleans and new to the classroom – and it wasn't between students. That spring, I was returning to campus from having chaperoned a field trip. I was tired and sweaty and gross and wanted nothing more than to return to my quiet, childless house for a night of peace. But as I entered the front door of the school, a grown woman with half a weave on her head and a strapless Maxi dress ran out and clotheslined me onto the school steps. She was screaming, "Run, son, run!" 

She didn't wait to see if her son had followed. She picked up the hem of her dress and booked it across the parking lot. Toddling after her came a boy of no more than four, from our pre-K program, and he looked super sad about it, and not at all rushed. As I picked myself up and dusted myself off, gaining my breath back and contemplating what would be the bruise across my collarbone, the school's cop, a big ex-Navy Seal, came barreling out after her, taser in hand, bellowing for her to stop. She was half a block away now, by the parking lot entrance, and when the other school cop appeared by the cafeteria doors, she redirected across the parking lot,  trying to avoid him. Then two of our custodians popped out of the school's side door, and she was surrounded. These guys were not small, and the cops were experienced and trained. But she fought like a tiger. The felled two of them before the cops finally had her on the ground, flailing and screeching like a trapped animal. She was cuffed and hauled away in the back of a police van, and our school cop had a black eye for the next three days. 

Turns out she didn't have custody of the little one and had tried to take him with her before his grandmother, his guardian, could pick him up. But he went home with his grandma and was safe and his mother, who was clearly either the Hulk or on PCP, was booked. And behind me on the stairs, my supervisor, an instructional coach, quietly started singing the school's spirit song. 

Author's note: Fights in schools are super sad things and are unfortunately all too common, but one of the tools we teachers use to not feel defeated by what happens in aspects of our jobs that we cannot control is humor. Don't judge me too meanly for occasionally laughing about it; I'm all too well aware of the often harsh reality of my kids' lives, and work every day to make them better.