Thursday, March 10, 2016

What Just Happened?: Classroom Disability Discussion Strikes a Nerve

In class recently, I showed my community college English students a brochure designed by the University of Kansas Disability Center called "Guidelines: How to Write and Report About People with Disabilities*." This is the 8th edition of the brochure, and is a short, helpful guide for people who work at schools, businesses, and non-profits. A press release from UK notes the brochure includes sections such as  "'Rosa’s Law and the Language of Bullying,” “Key Concepts in the Disability Community” and “A Few Exceptions.” A companion poster called “Your Words, Our Image” highlights selected terms from the brochure." - See more at:

My goal was to show students the document design and to remind them that the research skills they are learning can be applied in the workplace. I pointed out that an employer might ask them to put together a brochure in their future careers, and this kind of task would take research and writing similar to what we are working in class.

Also, I find the brochure helpful because of its goal to put the person first, and the disability second. For example, the brochure suggests "a child with autism" or "a child on the autism spectrum" rather than an "autistic child." It has a glossary of terms, and broaches some of the sensitive issues of writing professionally about folks with various disabilities.

Let's just say the lesson didn't go as planned.

Prior to showing the brochure, I noted that my goal was not to promote political correctness (a hot-button issue on my campus), but the English language does evolve over time. Words that were acceptable many years ago, such as "retarded," are not now considered acceptable or professional when writing or speaking about people with learning disabilities. I explained I was not an expert in the field, and that I also needed to keep up with the changes in English language.

As I showed the various sections of the brochure using the projector, I could see that a couple of students were becoming agitated. A student in his thirties finally spoke up.

He felt the brochure demonstrated that people in our country are quick to be offended, and he could not express himself without giving offense to some group. The first amendment was being thrown out. People can't stand the truth; reality was being pushed aside. It is what it is, and people refuse to admit it. He was upset.

I thanked him for expressing his views, and noted that the brochure was "guidelines." I didn't address the first amendment comment, because I didn't want to go off on my own rant. To be honest, I wasn't sure I could adequately defend the first amendment in a well-rounded manner. If you are offended that someone is offended, what does the English teacher say?

Several other students supported his stance. One student who has a seizure disorder said she didn't care if people said she gets "fits." Another student noted that she knew someone who refused to call a child a "crack baby" out of political correctness.

We were off the rails.

I pointed out that the brochure was titled "guidelines," and that what may be said in casual conversation may differ from how we would write in a more formal manner in the workplace. Or at least I think I did, because by then I was a bit flummoxed by students defending their rights to call a person "retarded."

These students are not cruel. They may not be particularly thoughtful on this issue, but they are not cruel. Part of my job is to get them to think more critically, to nudge them into what I call "thinking like a college student." In fact, I venture they are more intimately acquainted with people with disabilities on our campus, in our town, and in their families than the majority of the American population. Some of them have learning disabilities or other types of challenges in varying degrees of severity.

They have the right to call someone "retarded," although I made it clear this word is not acceptable in a classroom setting. [In my head, I was thinking: our freedom of speech is protected. If they use offensive words referring to people with disabilities, they will not be arrested. I wonder who they believe is taking away their right of free speech? What was going on? Was I doing a spectacularly poor job of explaining this brochure? Perhaps.]

I agreed that within the confines of a relationship with a person with disabilities, language may vary based on the two individuals and their comfort level with each other. But is it wrong to want to address a person with a disability the way that person wishes to be addressed? Or in a way that we understand that many in that group of people with a disability typically wish to be addressed?

The brochure promotes awareness and kindness, in my view. Our class discussion tapped into something disturbing.

I'm not sure what to call this "disturbing thing." I'm not sure what to do about it. I work in the field of changing minds, but I am not sure I know how to change minds on such a surprisingly divisive topic.

I will settle for opening them a crack, if I can.


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Brave New Bras

Down to two bras that “sort of” fit, and those shredding more daily, I face facts. I must go bra shopping.

I consider ordering some bras online, but one bra’s stock number was illegible, the other one discontinued. Not to mention I’ve gained… shall we say ten pounds? Sure, ten pounds.

As a professional bra fitter for Maidenform in a former life, I suspect I might have to go up in my band size. There was no way around actually visiting a brick and mortar store. I was going to have to actually try the bras on before buying. And somewhere in the last ten years, I have gone from a woman who likes to shop, occasionally, to a woman who mostly orders not only clothes, but sometimes even groceries, online. Shopping is no longer a pleasant prospect.

As in, I’d rather wrassle a herd of hissing possums than shop.

I brave the traffic for the 20 mile trip to the nearest Kohl’s. They had the best selection in my area the last time I shopped for bras… shall we say five years ago? Sure, five years ago. No one wears bras as old as a first grader, right? Thank goodness Kohl’s still has a good selection, and they still have the super sale rack of the previous season’s styles that I remembered.

I line bras up on my left arm, looping my hand through the hangers as I remember from my bra saleswoman days. Look at me-- I can carry many, many bras! Let’s see, four in my old size, four in the next larger band size. No underwire, beige, rose, lilac, and “walnut” colors, some with tags promising “lift,” some telling me they’ll keep me cool, some sporty styles. Cause I’m so sporty.

To the dressing rooms. Nice, there’s a vacant stall. Hang up the bras. Wait—there are only two hooks on the wall? Where am I supposed to put my clothes? I need one hook for the bras to try on, one for the keepers, one hook for the rejects, and another hook for my clothes. Is Kohl’s so hard up they can’t put more than two hooks in a dressing room? Grumble. Haven’t tried on the first bra yet.

Disrobe the four layers of clothing above the waist (hey—it’s a chilly 40 degrees in the Carolinas, brrr), try to ignore the static electricity sending blue sparks flying, hope the louvered dressing room door is not showing anyone the white-haired lady contorting herself to hook up the first bra she’s tried on in five years. Who thinks it’s a good idea to put louvered doors on dressing rooms anyway? Why do most bras hook in the back and not the front? Are my arms shorter than they used to be? Sheesh.

Okay, it’s too snug. The old band size is not going to cut it. Guess the old bras must’ve stretched out just a wee bit. The cups look funny, too. Gamely, I try on several more in my old size, since there can be variations in sizing between brands. Nope.

Deep breath. Okay, going up a band size is not the end of the world. I try on the first one in the new size. The band fits great, but the cups look like someone is trying to put too much batter in the cupcake pan. So to speak. But this cannot be. To go up a band size and a cup size? Nah. Not me.

I keep trying the different brands, somewhat optimistically hoping there’s one that fits. But, alas. After bra number eight, I bid adieu to the fair boobs of youth.

I re-robe myself in the four layers. Delegate the rejected bras to, as the Kohl’s sign says, the “we’ll put them back” rack outside the dressing room.  

Okay, so it’s the new (doesn’t that sound better than “bigger”?) band size and maybe a new cup size, too. Ouch. I remember as an under-endowed teenager how I longed, really and truly longed for more hoohas to fill a bra bigger than a triple A. Yes, bras do come that small.

Now I understand why my bigger busted friends complain that smaller is better. Never did I dream I’d have bazumbas at this point in my life, but perimenopause, menopause, and beyond have unexpected consequences even for the formerly small busted woman. Big consequences. Why, oh why, so big?

The rest of the story: I find some bras that fit and are moderately comfortable. They still come off as soon as I get home from work, most days. They are new, not stretched out and shredding. I can afford them. My breasts are healthy. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that bra shopping is udderly exhausting. It takes me two days to recover from all that driving, dressing, undressing, revelations, reevaluations, recriminations, and ultimately, acceptance of the body I’ve got.

Dear Kohl’s—thanks a million. See you, five years. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Fashion "Disasters" ... or Maybe Not

Thinking maybe it was time I participated in a Throw-Back Thursday on Facebook, I grabbed a box of old photos I'd found recently. Many Throw-Back photos focus on fashion disasters, and there was no doubt in mind I could find a photo of one of my own fashion disasters. After all, I turned 18 in 1975. The seventies and eighties were frightening years for fashion in oh, so many ways.

Thumbing through the photos, I noticed for the first time that there aren't many of me. Guess that can happen when you're more comfortable taking the pix than being in them.

In the few photos of me, I often didn't look half-bad. Gasp. That I looked just fine astonishes me. No, I'm no narcissist, but low self esteem and I do have more than a passing acquaintance.  Not labeled the "pretty sister" in the family, I never had a positive body image, and in those days was resigned to being what I considered decidedly chubby. I didn't absolutely hate my looks back then, but I certainly didn't love my image in the mirror in those days.

Most of the pix show me in jeans and a sweater, or short-shorts and a cotton top. Not really what I'd call total fashion disasters. I was even rocking hoodie jackets before they were hijacked by hipsters. A real trend setter, bwah-ha-ha--not really!

With the few scraps of wisdom I've gained since then, I see in my earlier self a young woman who was in her prime, slim, with a pretty smile and sparkly eyes. Decidedly not chubby, and if I had been chubby, that wouldn't have been the end of the world, now would it?

Too bad I didn't enjoy and celebrate my appearance more back in my teens, twenties, and thirties! What time I wasted worrying about my appearance!

Finally, at the bottom of the box, I found the photo that qualifies as a fashion disaster. It's a red plaid dress, buttoned up to the neck, with a skinny black grosgrain ribbon tie. That 1984 dress hadn't crossed my mind in 30 years, but once I saw it, I remembered I indeed thought it was pretty. It was a nice quality dress that I wore for many years, and I felt good about myself when I wore it. Nowadays it looks vaguely Little House on the Prairie or perhaps a garment a "sister-wife" would wear. The bobbed hair was not my best look, either. Slightly cringe-worthy, but sheer youth and good health can make up for most any fashion faux pas.Some other photos in the box show me in the garb I wore while I was a commercial fisherman. One of only two women on the island who worked crab pots, there's a shot of me looking like the Gorton fisherman. But I look happy, even though my jacket is stained with fish blood. Surely many people would see the goofy red visor and grubby slickers and judge this the ultimate fashion disaster.

For once, looking at that awkward girl that I was, I feel nothing but pride. Happiness, youth, health, and a smile can make a fashion disaster seem trivial in comparison.

So yellow rainslickers are okay with me. However, you can bet I won't be tying a grosgrain ribbon around my neck again in this lifetime.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Ernest Hemingway: The Joys and Dangers of Reading

Depending on the day I’m having, I blame, or thank, Ernest Hemingway.

Reading his books as a teen was dangerous. For Whom the Bell Tolls did me in. I followed it with everything he’d written. Hemingway made me think that it was possible for a kid from the suburbs to have an adventurous life. That the adventurous life was worth seeking. That there was more to me than a studious, meek, naive homebody.

So instead of going to college at 18, I embarked on the twisting, turning, jumbled journey of this life.

I went to work in an auto plant, making cars on an assembly line. An unintentional trailblazer, I was one of the first women autoworkers in the 1970s.

As a member of the UAW, I got an education in unions, learned to question authority. I found out what sexual harassment is, observed what alcoholism can do to people at a young age, and grasped how mind-numbing factory work can be.

I’m thankful someone wants to do that work; I respect factory workers immensely, but I could not survive the assembly line. Chrysler Corporation was floundering and laid me off from time to time, leaving me time to discover the next phase.

After breaking up with my high school boyfriend, I dated. Dating sucks. I pray I never have to date again. Family members introduced me to a fishing guide on an obscure, hurricane-lashed island, accessible only by ferries that sometimes didn’t run.

Hemingway whispered in my ear, told me that islands = adventure.

Yep, before I knew it, I was living under primitive conditions on Ocracoke Island, and married the fishing guide. I learned to cook in a fledgling gourmet restaurant, trained by a rebellious, classically trained female chef. Years passed, and I became a real estate broker, discovering I didn’t have to be paralyzed by shyness.

The marriage ended as I opened my own real estate firm and beach-clothing store. Just as the businesses began turning a profit, a commercial dredge crashed into the main bridge needed to get to our island ferries. With the bridge down, the businesses were ruined.

I parted from the island I’d loved for 13 years. My new man and I sold a few remaining assets, bought an old van, and refurbished a 1964 Holiday Rambler camper. We set out on a 2 year odyssey around the United States, logging 40,000 miles along the way.

We’ve had a few more adventures since then. Enough to agree with Hem that "life is a moveable feast."

And through it all, with each wild twist and turn, each heartbreak, each top of the world, look at that green valley below moment, Hemingway smiled.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Many Paws and a raffle for a free book!

If you agree with me that menopause bites, then it may not be too much of a stretch to go from menopause to Many Paws. Woof.

Don’t hate me because I love puns. 

Many Paws is a new “altered book” by writer and artist, Susan DeGarmo. She loves puns, too. From the flaming red-orange cover to the detachable last page of purple irises that can be converted to a hot flash fan, DeGarmo acknowledges the pitfalls that many of us experience during “the change.”

Many Paws is Susan’s adroit way of disguising the subject of the book, since “no southern lady is going to have a book laying round that  says ‘Menopause.’”

However, if you leave the book on your coffee table, the ladies from church may be startled to flip open the pop-up book and see artwork of a reclining female nude, covered in strategic places with long-eared white “hares,” since “Now gray hairs are everywhere!”

But, honestly, church ladies aren’t as easily shocked as they used to be. Especially if they are struggling with changes of their own.

What it is: Many Paws, Susan DeGarmo's altered book from Meaux Books that is customizable. You can put your own photos, or those of a loved one, over the heads of some of the figures in the book. If you give the book to a friend, for example, you can put her face in the book.

How it came to be: DeGarmo was teaching a class about making altered books while having a hot flash, and Voila! Many Paws came to be.

What makes it unique: It’s a pop-up book for adults! It has moving parts! It has (tasteful) nudity! It socks menopause a big one in the kisser!

Conclusion: A great gift book for anyone in or approaching menopause. Even those women who are having an "easier" time with the change will appreciate the humor and pathos. The art work is fun and inspiring!

Make a comment below to be entered in a raffle for a free copy of Many Paws. One entry per person, please.

Disclosure: I was provided copies of the books, but the opinions expressed are my own. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Wolf Hall, I Can't Quit You

Wolf Hall, a 2009 historical novel by Hilary Mantel, takes place in the time of Henry VIII. She won the Man Booker prize for her work.


Mantel is driving me crazy with her distracting use of the pronoun "he" without adhering to the rules of pronoun usage.

If we use he, we are usually referring to the last man mentioned. For instance: Norman carried a hatchet. He took it with him everywhere. The "he" means Norman. Not Thomas Cromwell!

"He" is the narrator of Wolf Hall, and Mantel plays games with the pronoun "he" so that I'm constantly re-reading to figure out if her "he" is Cromwell, Henry VIII, or another one of the dozens of males who populate the book.

Now that I have that off my chest, here is an intriguing passage from early in Wolf Hall. The first speaker is Norris, an attendant of the King; the other speaker is "he," Thomas Cromwell, who has served the now diminished Cardinal Wolsey.

"You know my lord cardinal is indicted under the statutes of praemunire, for asserting a foreign jurisdiction in the land."
"Don't teach me the law."
Norris inclines his head.
He thinks, since last spring, when things began to go wrong, I should have persuaded my lord cardinal to let me manage his revenues, and put money away abroad where they can't get it; but then he would never admit anything was wrong. Why did I let him rest so cheerful?
Norris's hand is on his horse's bridle. "I was ever a person who admired your master," he says, "and I hope that in his adversity he will remember that."
"I thought he wasn't in adversity? According to you."
How simple it would be, if he were allowed to reach down and shake some straight answers out of Norris. But it's not simple; this is what the world and the cardinal conspire to teach him. Christ, he thinks, by my age I ought to know. You don't get on by being original. You don't get on by being bright. You don't get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook; somehow he thinks that's what Norris is, and he feels an irrational dislike taking root, and he tries to dismiss it, because he prefers his dislikes rational, but after all, these circumstances are extreme, the cardinal in the mud, the humiliating tussle to get him back in the saddle, the talking, talking on the barge, and worse, the talking, talking on his knees, as if Wolsey's unraveling, in a great unweaving of scarlet thread that might lead you back into a scarlet labyrinth, with a dying monster at its heart.

Are you still with me? Damn, what awesome prose! So despite the annoying confusion over which "he" is "he," I'm still reading on page 400 of 500+ pages. I've tried to quit you, Wolf Hall, and I can't.

Le sigh.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Poem Made for Menopause

What’s that Smell in the Kitchen?

All over America women are burning dinners.
It's lambchops in Peoria; it's haddock
in Providence; it's steak in Chicago
tofu delight in Big Sur; red
rice and beans in Dallas.
All over America women are burning
food they're supposed to bring with calico
smile on platters glittering like wax.
Anger sputters in her brainpan, confined
but spewing out missiles of hot fat.
Carbonized despair presses like a clinker
from a barbecue against the back of her eyes.
If she wants to grill anything, it's
her husband spitted over a slow fire.
If she wants to serve him anything
it's a dead rat with a bomb in its belly
ticking like the heart of an insomniac.
Her life is cooked and digested,
nothing but leftovers in Tupperware.
Look, she says, once I was roast duck
on your platter with parsley but now I am Spam.
Burning dinner is not incompetence but war.
--Marge Piercy

Just as T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” character ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock") measured out his life in coffee spoons, Piercy’s speaker measures her life with Tupperware leftovers. Sometimes you’re the roast duck—others you’re the Spam. Relationships and aging are not for the cowardly. Men, be very afraid.