Monday, September 23, 2013

That Time of Year- Halloween Costumes = Racism, Sexism, and Discourses of Oppression in Marketing Strategies

The eversodelightful George Takei* posted the following image  in his Facebook page this morning. 

At first, yeah, ouch, that's cold, right? 

Okay, well, I think before I was even done processing that initial reaction, I was already onto the overanalysis portion. So hold onto your butts and prepare yourselves for what's to come. 

Look at it again. There are three boys, dressed as superheroes. And a girl dressed as...

Annie. Or, rather, Little Orphan Annie.

So let's deconstruct  this a little.

Because sure, all four characters are orphans (hence the joke in the picture). But which is defined more by their orphan status than any of their actions? The girl.

And in their individual stories, who does the rescuing? The male characters are the saviors in their narratives. They're superHEROES, aren't they? They have angst and conflict, but they win, and they do the fighting. They beat the baddies themselves- sometimes with help, yeah, but still, direct confrontation between the main protagonist and the badddies in these narratives ultimately leads to the badddies getting beaten and the goodies coming out victorious.

In Annie's narrative,  sure, she's the protagonist, and she demonstrates a lot of strength and optimism in the face of a lot of terrible things. But she's not really the hero of her story (let's focus on the musical, since that's more familiar)- that could either be FDR and the Secret Service members that inform her and Warbucks that the people claiming to be her parents are impostors (by sweeping in at the end like a deus ex machina),  or even Daddy Warbucks himself, since he adopts her and gives her the family of which she dreamed. She gets what she wants in the end, but it's circumstantial and because other people give it to her. She has little to no agency the entire time.

So this speaks to a dialectic between fiction in general and comics specifically. While they exist, examples of well-rounded fictional female characters that are agents within their stories are of a far lower number than males with the same characteristics. Books, movies, TV- females that are the ones doing the doing and aren't focused  on some arbitrary Thing (or some traditionally feminine Thing like having babies or finding a man) are few and far between.

And then there are comics, where it's even  more difficult to find female characters that aren't used as the plot device for males or aren't objectified. I've said before that I'm struggling to write a piece about DC specifically, but really, while say Marvel is better, and Dark  Horse is even better than Marvel, overall, women and girls are still more often than not side characters that drive men's stories in comics, or their stories revolve around and are dependent on the actions of male side characters. And yes, they often die.

Women are too frequently brushed to the side in comics and superhero movies and merchandizing. Joss Whedon notes it, and it pisses  him off- which is pretty telling  and important, since  he's in charge of the Avengers films and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Hell, even a five-year-old girl notices it (and  actually, so does Joss's daughter, heh). It's like girls aren't expected to care or want to be heroes- they're just supposed to be rescued. Or be pink princesses

And then we get into the costume industry itself. Starting with  children, doing Google image searches with various forms of "child" along with "Halloween costume" bring up results that are usually pretty much the same. Here's the result for "child halloween costume." As you can see, the vast majority of the results are pictures of white children. There are a few children of color (gonna go with CoC from here on out for efficiency's sake), but notice how a lot of them are of characters specifically of color already (like friggin' Dora the Explorer, or Princess Tiana). A few generic ones have CoC, but they're very few and very far between. 

So while sure, the picture posted by Takei may be about "my kids," so one  would expect some similar physical characteristics among the younguns (although why be so traditionalist? What if the family adopted???), the fact remains that it is a photoshopped image of four separate children's costumes- and yes, all of them are white.

Think  I'm being hyperbolic? I wish  I was. Here are the Google  Image searches  for "Batman" with  "children costume," too. "Wonder Woman." "Superman." "Princess." "Prince." Y
eah, there are a few CoC in each, but  the fact that they stand out so much drives the point  home, rather than refutes it- they're the exceptions proving the rule. 

It's that time of year- go to the nearest Halloween store, or just hit the costume section at your nearest Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Shopko, etc. Divide the number of images of CoC by the total number of images of becostumed  younguns. I bet it'll be a single-digit number. Hell, it's prolly under five.

And then, while you're at it, head on over to the adult section. While this very easily could become entirely about the sexxed up stuff (which has lots of gender issues- the more "mature" costumes for dudes are funny, like  these- many of which are also insulting to women because they're cross-dressed in some way, which is in itself supposed to be a joke- while the "mature" ones for women are excuses to show T&A, like  this example, or just a GI search for "women costume  halloween"), just do a ratio of white-to-non-white and  see what happens.  I suspect it's prolly a little better than for the kids, but not by much.

And  then you get this shit  here. Adrienne at Native Appropriations has  written extensively on why this is absolutely not okay.  But let me  put in my own words why it's not okay for white people to dress up as Native Americans for Halloween.

A white person in a "Native American" costume  is dressed up as a stereotyped version of the peoples their ancestors raped, murdered, and stole land from in order for them to eventually have said costume in the first place. It's entirely colonialist and insensitive- and, frankly, kind of sick. Who are they, Norman  Bates? Do they feel the need to dress up like their victims in order to feel at peace? Well golly, Bob, howdy, I'm so sorry you feel bad about the history of violence between your ancestors and my own... Not. A legit way to feel better wouldn't involve further exploitation.

Tribute?  Bullshit. A tribute would be a real official apology from the government and some actual assistance in building some gorram infrastructure. It does not honor me when a white suburbanite dons feathers and a tomahawk and goes, "BOBOBOBOBOBOBO!" while drunk at a party. There's no reverence in that.

And also,  the costumes just say shit like "Native American." Generic, stereotypical iconography, and lumping everyone together in one huge amorphous hodgepodge. Never mind that every individual indigenous Nation has its own culture. The fact that you can get "Native American Princess" costumes today, in the fucking TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY demonstrates how white people are willfully ignorant of the diversityof indigenous cultures and are more concerned about projecting  their own values onto indigenous ones, rather than actually honoring them. Newsflash: THERE WERE NOT, NOR ARE THERE, NATIVE AMERICAN PRINCESSES OR PRINCES. Hierarchies of power and social capital, absolutely. But the concept of "royalty" wasn't a thing for North American  indigenous peoples. Hereditary titles sometimes, maybe, but those titles didn't work  in the same way as the titles people from colonial countries and kingdomes did (and yeah, a few that still do). 

So what's my point?

Well, it's that the Halloween/costume industry  is both a reflection and reinforcer of current discourses of sexism and racism in society  today, be they literary, specifically comic-book-oriented, or generally hitting at the (white) cultural zeitgeist in the U.S. That picture of those kids proves it. 

*And OHMYGOD, please say it right- it's "Tah-KAY," not, "Tah-KYE," people- it's Japanese, and would need an "ai" at the end instead of an "ei" to be pronounced the way you think it is. This is one of those tiny pet peeves of mine that irks me far more than is necessary, but I cannot STAND it when someone  says  his  name incorrectly. Prolly because 1) I took Japanese in high school, 2) it speaks to a larger discourse of ignorance of different cultures, and 3) I'm used to getting my own name mispronounced all the bloody time, so I take it personal for other people when theirs are said incorrectly.  

Friday, September 20, 2013


My department is one of the most (if not THE most) proportionally under-resourced at my university (either way, our grad students do have the lowest stipend for teaching and/or TAing, natch), so, go figure, we're in a building that kind  of sucks. Granted, there are older ones, but they don't really try to keep this one in good condition- there are at least rennovations in older buildings and maintenance constantly fixes things. And fixes them, not just tinkers and then leaves (like the maintenance crew at my previous apartment complex, oy vey...). In our building, stuff  is run-down, but rarely replaced.

Enter the women's restroom on the second floor, and one  of the two paper towel dispensers. I'm in my fourth year of grad school, and the dispenser on the left has been finnicky  the entire time. It would jam and you'd either have to stick your hand  inside to get anything out, or you'd have to just use the one on the right. It did this at least once a week, and while okay, it'd start working again within a day or two because maintenance or the janitorial staff or somebody would mess with it, it would invariably jam again.

Four years. Four fucking years.

I started sending emails about it in the spring semester, like in March or so. I sent  a few over the summer. And finally, I snapped on Monday and sent another the the same gal I'd been in correspondence with. I didn't mean to come across as huffy, but I think  I kind  of did:

I realize this is probably a stretch, but that same paper towel dispenser is once again malfunctioning. Is it possible for it to get replaced, rather than tinkered with? Or is there someone I could appeal to in order to try and make that happen? This thing keeps messing up every week, and I'm sure the staff fixing it is tired of doing that, just as much as we patrons of that restroom are tired of it not working.


She informed me it was forwarded to someone else (and there were two names Ccd on her response), and I got an email Wednesday morning (at the top of a chain I hadn't been in the loop on) saying it had been replaced. Ladies and Gentlemen, my I present to you the Gabrielle ____ Memorial Paper Towel Dispenser:

Who did that? I did that, bitches!

Honestly, I don't know why I feel so fucking awesome about it, but  I do.

And here's the thing. It may be small, but  I do know that paper towel dispenser pissed a lot of women off. And I know they'll at least be glad it's there. Yeah, they'll probably wonder why the new one is there, and just assume the janitors/maintenance finally had had enough and, in all likelihood, not even consider the possibility that it took a total of thirteen emails (twenty if you count the ones I sent  months  and months  ago).

And I guess I see this as symbolic of life, and how I live. I may be a pushover and get walked over a lot, but I'm an advocate. I try  to change things. It's why I was on student  government as an undergrad and ended up on a first-name basis with the president of Whitman (he wrote me rec letters, yay), why I worked in special ed, why I was on my departments graduate student government, why I research what I research, why I want to move to Seattle and work for a nonprofit, and why I write this blog. Some of those things may seem more efficacious than others, and I recognize the truth to that.

But I get sad when people think they can't make a difference, why bother. There's that  saying, though, "You can't change  the world, but you can make a dent." And I want my life to be full of dents, and I want other people to realize that if they make dents, too, all those dents combined will result in something amazing. 

Lots  of dents
I've become much more jaded and pessimistic since I started grad school- between the number of times these institutions  around  me have let me down. And  the number of times the people here have let me down.  And the way things outside grad school have fallen down on me. 

But I still retain this wide-eyed, naive hope that I can make a real dent. Even if it's small.

And I still try to make  minuscule ones every day. By doing nice things for other people, whether it's helping someone get their bike onto the rack on the bus (Wednesday) or buying lunch for a stressed out friend (today) or helping people I love like  family through some hard times (ongoing). Maybe those aren't going to change the world, but those dents? They matter, even if for only the moment  they're happening (bike lady), to the people involved. Call it paying it forward, if you will- maybe  the random people I help, or the friends I help, will do it, too.

And all those dents combined would make a pretty shiny world.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Intent And Saying You're Sorry

One of the apologist arguments that gets tossed about a lot when I get into discussions about racism, sexism, classism, or other "isms" I notice that are harmful and oppressive (and usually pervasive) is the argument of intent. I point out that an aspect of a movie, article, picture, is sexist or racist (usually not saying the whole thing is, but rather some specific element), and someone (and yes, usually a wealthy white dude) says, "But they didn't intend to be racist, so what's  the big deal?" And it's often followed up with a, "Why should they apologize?" And, really, it even happens in regular conversation about mundane things- someone will just say something that hurts someone else's feelings, and they get huffy and demand to know why they should apologize, since they didn't mean to hurt that person.

It baffles me, and I think, on some levels, the perpetrators (or their defenders) are afraid of looking  like this:

I know this is a kind of unsophisticated way to go after the particular (il)logic I'm talking about, but I just think this is utter bullshit. Think about this a lot  more simplistically. 

People apologize for accidents all the time, in everyday circumstances, and in more extreme ones. If I accidentally hit someone with a door, I'm going to apologize profusely because I feel absolutely terrible. Hell, I apologize like crazy whenever I almost hit someone with a door. I know I'm kind of an extreme example, but I'm sure you, reader, would apologize if a door makes unintentional contact with someone else at your doing.

Or think of this  one: 
We're held monetarily accountable if we get into a car accident that's our fault somehow (say, a missed stop sign that results in a T-bone), and that act of the car insurance company paying the damages is of the same symbolic significance as the apology I give when I hit someone with a door. 

The reason is there was harm done to another person. It's not like I set out to slam the person in the face, or T-bone them in the intersection. But society recognizes that when harm is done, compensation is due to the person that was harmed.

Yet forms of oppression, harmful and hurtful things, are excused away by people because, well, the thing wasn't intended to be harmful.

This relates to my previous post about April Fool's Day, or when talking about how silence functions with respect to harmful discourses- the ones doing the harm, or the people defending them, turn it around onto the person pointing out the harm and make them look like the one doing harm- it's implied the whistle-blower is seeking out things to bitch about, or making shit up, or whining too much and just need to grow a pair.

Using the "intent" argument is an excuse for assholery and a tool for oppression. It's not hard to apologize, or even to acknowledge having acted inappropriately toward someone else. 

Yet it's so bloody hard for this "intent" thing to go away when issues of "isms" come up. And this in itself is harmful, because it gives people a free pass. As long as they don't intend to do any harm, claims of harm are invalid. And this can lead to all sorts of justifications for inappropriate, hurtful behavior. Not only that, but it can delegitimize the claims of those calling out the BS because of their positionality.

See, here's the thing. A claim of non-intent coming from a member of a dominant group equates exoneration is "inherently" invalid  because, guess what? The person making this claim is also part of the group that writes the rules of the game. And, inherently, subconsciously, then, that person assumes disagreement is wrong, because what they value in other circumstances is structurally valued as normatively better, anyway. 

And I would also like to point out that there are sometimes double-whammies, too. I've always been irked by hearing, "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings," or the like from people. I've felt condescended to, like they were trying to make it seem like it was my fault, still, in a backhanded way. Well, I guess I wasn't making it up- this little page explains how to apologize properly, and the first part is a fine articulation of what I had in the back of my mind for ages. But yes, rather than apologizing for what has been done, the attention gets shifted onto the reaction, framing the conversation around that. And that's not good, because it goes right back to above. 

I feel like I've said this before in my blog, but I'll just say it  here: One  of the difficult things  with pointing out something bad is that the person that did whatever caused the harm makes the other person out to be the bad one. Here's how it plays out:

A: Hey, you just punched me in the face. Could you at least apologize?
B: I don't think "punch" is really the right term for it- I was just flailing my arms and just happened to have my hands in fists, and your face just happened to get in the way. In fact, my hand  really hurts. How dare you accuse me of trying to punch you when it's my hand that's probably broken! You should be the one apologizing to me, and probably paying for my medical bills, too. 

I just get so gorram sick of the douchebags that know they're being douchebags that bear down and put all of the blame on the people they've upset. Which leads me to two examples  that dovetail slightly, but that ultimately end up in the same place.

Item 1: Pennygate*

The  dudes at Penny Arcade posted a comic with some dialogue that  upset anti-rape advocates, persons that have experienced sexual  assault, and some other people that just found their  joke ("...raped by dickwolves") in poor taste. This was a couple years ago, sure,, but the reponses from the dudes were pretty lackluster, and the gorram thing kept coming up over and over. I'll give you a link  here with a good summary of the events, better than I could- but  note how the woman writing it  is swearing them off. Why? Because every time they get called  to the carpet, they give a half-assed apology  at best, followed by some pretty crude backlash aimed at the people  they, in theory, were just apologizing to. So most recently, while wearing a shirt with the punchline of their rape joke on it, one  of the Penny Arcade bros  hunkered down again (and made no move to stop the cheering from the audience, as well as says they've never done anything wrong). And  then there's yet another apology. And you know  what? I just don't fucking buy it. I seriously don't.  They apologize and then repeat the behavior and go to great lengths to throw it in the faces of the people they've hurt. That's, at best, insincere, at worst, sociopathic. They've also done a great job of demonstrating they really don't give a flying fuck  about other people's opinions about other things and would rather make fun of people expressing  malcontent, rather  than engaging in any sort of productive dialogue. The Penny Arcade dudes are just spoiled, entitled little boys that don't recognize their upper-middle-class, male, white privilege, and they're never actually going to be  sorry.  They haven't learned or moved toward "a progressive goal" (as is  claimed in that interview). As they "go forward," they're just doing the same bullshit every single time.

Item 2: Harleygate

I'm working on a difficult post about DC right now because I could write a huge essay on how  DC is so problematic for me to read or be fan of, as a woman of color and disability advocate- but I've always felt much more  emotionally connected to the DC Universe. But the most recent debacle has  been over a contest for new artists depicting Harley Quinn in various suicidal moments, no context, no dialogue. The last panel, in particular, was pretty awful because there's the specific instruction for her to be  naked in it, thus not only fetishizing but sexualizing suicide. Here is a link to the contest page, for your own objective look. There are lots  of reasons this  was messed up for a lot  of people, including  that it was announced right before National Suicide Prevention Week.  Jim Lee, DC artist  currently on Superman stuff, responded about the Harleygate backlash, and did quite a lot  of the same stuff DC and fanboys do to people that say there's anything remotely wrong with a piece of nerd culture, usually a game or comic. Basically saying the fans that are upset are doing it wrong, that they just don't  understand- then he very condescendingly makes some outlandish argument that is supposed to be, Well, DUH! He insinuates that if you're upset,  you're not only stupid, but also not a real fan of comics because you just don't "get" them.  And that's pretty insulting. Then DC itself apologized, as well as one of the two main architects of the contest. And while I kind of buy  the one by  the artist, I don't buy it coming from DC. DC has fucked up enough that stuff like  this exists. Flub  after flub after mistake- they keep losing  creative minds because the company wants to uphold the devaluation of women, persons of color, and anybody  that isn't heterosexual. I think the reason  this entirely misguided contest went through, and the week before National Suicide Prevention Week, to wit, is because it fit quite  comfortably  within the overall discourse that DC sends out to its audience- that  women are sex objects of no worth except to jack  off to or serve as plot points for the stories  of the male characters. The fact of the matter is, DC is a huge corporation, and if they  didn't expend some resources to figure out that, if nothing else,  the timing was entirely inappropriate, boo; but if they  did know about the temporal problems here and didn't do anything, well,  that's just even worse, and they're really  no better than the Penny Arcade bros. So I don't buy DC's apology any more, either. And I'm not sure  if I'll be willing  to buy any more products with DC's name on them, at least  for a while. Just because I'm so upset over the Harley thing, and some other stuff they've done recently (like forcing out Batwoman's writers- because they, the writers, wanted her to marry  her girlfriend, who is, gasp, another woman!). 

In all honesty, I think it takes more strength to sincerely apologize. To own up to one's actions, take responsibility  for them and any repercussions, and then  work on changing the behavior. Bearing down  and being a stubborn asshat is actually pretty cowardly. The Penny Arcade bros aren't "brave" for "sticking up to"... who? Rape survivors? DC isn't "brave" for not pulling the contest despite the who... people that have lost loved ones to suicide? 

It's the intent behind the apology that makes the difference, not necessarily  the original action. If you keep fucking up and saying you're sorry, you're doing it wrong. The apology needs to come linked  to the intent to change the behavior. If that doesn't happen, you're full of crap. 

And power matters. Pulling the "intent" card during an "apology" denies the privilege of the person making  the apology. If what you were doing is an echo if a systemic discourse of oppression, it doesn't matter whether you intended the harm or not, because that discourse has made the decision for you. Apologize for upholding that, not hurting the person's feelings. Acknowledge that there are norms and institutions whose existence depends on the marginalization of others.

Or just admit it was a dick thing to say. Or that it was your bad and you won't  do it again.

*I'm not sure if this nomenclature is a thing, but I thought  that sounded snazzy.

Friday, September 13, 2013

How (and how NOT) to Comfort Someone

I know I'm a mama bear

I'm on the left, in case you were wondering
I take care  of others all the time, it's my natural modus operandi. And usually, it energizes me. But every now and then, I'm tired, and I'm hurting, and I just want to let out my own troubles. And then I start to (start to-I don't remember the last time it was complete) confide in someone. And by the end of the conversation...

I'm comforting them.


Sometimes, it doesn't really affect me either way- I may not feel any less crappy by the time the convo is over, but I don't feel an increase in crappy feelings, either. But  other times, it makes me feel worse, because it signals that the person I was interacting with doesn't care enough to let me finish or really only keeps me around  to serve as free therapist. And whether or not I'm more upset, I'm usually at least a little annoyed. 

PROTIP: If someone says they're sad, immediately saying you're sad, too, is THE WRONG THING TO SAY. Seriously, it negates their feelings and makes it about you. If you want to comfort someone, keep your own shit to yourself, at least at first- start out by  acknowledging their feelings and prove you've contemplated them before offering your own shitty shit. If you don't send a message that you've heard them, they won't feel heard- and it'll come across as if your only motivation for talking at the time is for them to hear you.

Trust me, I'm an expert comforter. I earned my Ph.D. in comforting others before I was ten. So believe me when I say, the worst thing you can do when trying to make someone feel better is make the conversation about yourself*. Sure, present parallels as a way of demonstrating you understand, but always bring it back to the other person's feelings before you finish your statement(s)- finish telling your experience with a reflection on theirs. For example, the first three lines of a conversation:

"I'm feeling  kind  of crappy right now."
"Aw, how come?"
"Well, my dog died a year ago today, and every dog I've seen for the past week has made me remember him. I don't even know if I'll ever be able to get another dog again."

The Proper Response:
"Oh, I'm so sorry. I understand. He was a really great dog, irreplaceable, I agree. You know, I lost my cat five years ago, I grew up with her. It took me two years to get a new one, and I still miss her sometimes. So I know it's hard, and it's okay if it still hurts, even years from now. But maybe someday you'll be able to get another dog. Not a replacement, because it's not like you can just replace an important part of your life. No  other dog will ever be the same, but that's okay. He was YOUR dog, and special for that! But a new dog for a new kind of companionship may someday happen, too. And you know what? It's okay if it doesn't."

The Wrong Response:
"Oh, I know  what that's like. When my cat died, I was so sad, I didn't even eat for two days. I was a wreck, because gee wiz, that really sucked. I was so sad, I didn't want to go to school. I kept crying in class and expecting her to be there when I got home, then I'd cry when she wasn't. I mean, I still miss her, and I was a kid when that happened. Whenever I see a cat that looks kind of like her, I remember how she crawled on my shoulders as I was trying to do homework and I get this sinking feeling in my stomach."

Do you see why? The first offers comfort, the second is a passive request for it. The second barely acknowledges the person whose dog died, while the first is mostly about that. The first uses the personal experience as  reference point, the second is all about that personal experience.

You shouldn't make it about you. If they say  they're upset first, it should be about them. Even just saying, "I'm sad, too," without offering any words of encouragement (sorry, an "internet hug" doesn't count) is potentially hurtful, because it signals you'd rather discuss yourself instead of the other person's feelings.

Now, here's the thing. It's okay for you to be in pain and not up to dealing with theirs. So what then? You tell them that, plain and simple. "I wish I could help you, but I'm so messed up over my own shit right now, I'm kind of useless.." And if they offer for you to share your stuff, say no. If they persist, only offer your problems  up if  they say it'll distract them from theirs- this sometimes genuinely works for me, which is why I already said it's sometimes energizing to care for others. It does sometimes give us something to focus our attention on apart from our own shitty lives, so if they say as such, then it's okay. Otherwise, try to avoid the conversation altogether if you know they're unhappy and you're not happy enough to provide the kind of comfort they need.

This may genuinely come as shock, folks, but part of why I don't often confide in others (for the real stuff- complaining about the bureaucratic failings of my department or something is small potatoes compared to the REAL shit going on in my life, I promise) is that it HARDLY EVER WORKS. I'm stuck in this terrible cycle of everyone expecting me to be the one comforting them, no matter what the blazes is going on, so if they're already upset, they take me initiating conversation with them as a chance to unload on me. I've had conversations that started with me sobbing so hard my chest hurt turn into me hugging the other person, petting their head, and telling them it's going to be okay. 

And no, not eeeeverybody does this to me, but more do than don't. And it's enough that I just don't bother talking to the people that don't because I'm so used to keeping things to myself. 

So back to the example. I realize  that no, not everyone would respond to the second one like I would- my instinct to care for others means I'd answer the unstated request: I'd tell that person I'm so sorry, do they think they'll ever get a cat again, etc. I'd ask them for happy/funny stories about the cat to remind them that while the loss was sad, the contribution the cat made was a net positive. And I'd crack jokes and do all I could to get them to laugh.

So this  means  that yeah, okay, maybe this isn't universal truth, but I know this is how I respond. And I know I'm not the only one. And everyone tells me I'm so good at comforting people, how do you do it? And so instead of saying, "BOOBS!" like I usually do to be funny, this is some legit, serious advice for making other people feel better.

So here's a very clear how-to, based off of a combination of what I know has worked when providing the comfort, and what I have experienced on the receiving end as helpful or NOT helpful: 

  • When someone expresses being upset, sad, etc. (whether they came to you or it's because you asked what's up, how they are, etc.), do not react by presenting your own crappy situation (current or not). Start out by acknowledging how they feel- give it a thorough verbal contemplation. 
  • If you absolutely CANNOT keep in your own  shit, be as brief and vague about it as possible- only say enough for them to understand that your empathy comes from the fact that your situation is/was similar. 
  • Also, for the love of God, don't shoehorn your own story- if your only way of comforting is through sharing your own experiences, even if they aren't applicable, then, well, stop comforting, or just nod and encourage but don't say much else. It's possible to comfort people WITHOUT talking about yourself, after all. But it needs to actually pertain to the circumstances.  NEVER try to equate, say, insurance problems with someone losing a loved one. Believe it or not, a common element does not remotely equate the same experience. Not only does it make you seem even  more selfish than if you poorly present just something genuinely similar (i.e. they lost their grandma to cancer, you lost yours a while back in a car accident, so you spend a very disproportionate amount of time on that (thus not following the above bullet)), but also makes you come across as not understanding them at all (because if you somehow thought these two things are the same, you must have been the wrong person to come to, because you obviously misunderstand completely).
  • Take cues from them both in the present conversation and based off of what you know of them as to whether they're seeking advice or just a chance to vent (and sometimes also hear that it'll be okay). And for  your own well-being,  if you know they're the kind of person that argues with advice, no matter how good, don't give it. Even if they seem to be seeking it, play dumb. If they ask directly, say you don't know, or give such a non-answer that they'd have nothing with which to argue. If that frustrates them, say something like, "I don't think you're ready for advice yet, it's still too soon, why don't you process how you're feeling, first?" or something. Dealing with hostile comfort seekers is tricky, and you shouldn't be attacked by someone you're trying to show kindness to, so it's okay to dodge a confrontation over advice. Their comfort shouldn't be through bashing you. If that seems to be the only thing that makes them feel better, reassess how important that person is to you, and at least consider avoiding  them when they're sad.
  • Actively listen, meaning demonstrating you're listening and actually hearing them. The most common form is restating some of what they've said  in the form of a question. (But be careful, asking for something like the date or time- unless there's a temporal aspect to their upset- makes it seem like you're more concerned about superficial details than the actual meat of the matter.) You can also do this by nodding, maintaining eye contact, and making little "Mm-hmm" and "Uh-huh" sounds or saying, "yeah," "okay," etc. And, "Go on, I'm listening," if there's a pause or they seem to get hesitant. 
  • Never end on your own story- always come back to theirs and demonstrate how what you learned (if  it's in the past) or are learning (if it's current) from yours can help them get through their own situation.
  • If you're down with touch, offer to hug. If they want one, they'll take it. If they don't, they won't. Sometimes people averse to touch may feel like a hug could help, so give them the option. If you're both comfortable with it, maintain physical contact by letting them lean on you, holding their hand, rubbing  their arm, etc.
  • If you know they like comfort through physical contact, but you don't like touching people, try to gather the guts to at least touch their arm or something once or twice- if they know you don't usually do that, it'll mean a LOT to them. 
  • Put. Your. Phone. Away. If it makes an alert noise (text, email, FB, etc.), don't check it (although if  it seems  to keep going off, silence it). If it's ringing, apologize and stop it. If you do end up needing to mess with it  because some sound won't let up, don't have it out for more than a few seconds. I hate that I should need to say  this, but I've had people answer their phone on me while I'm in the middle of crying when  the received call wasn't even an emergency (and  then a few of them wondered why I said for them to never mind when they eventually hung up).
  • Don't blame them for their suffering in a mean way- it's possible to gently help them to understand how they've contributed to the situation, but this should also come directly with solutions and praise for recognizing that once they do so.
  • Don't downplay the situation to the point of delegitimizing their feelings (as in saying, "It's not that bad, why are you so upset?" in a way suggesting they're overreacting and being  irrational). 
  • Avoid offering "advice" that comes across as judgy or know-it-all-esque. Be helpful, not bossy or condescending. 
  • Don't change the subject too soon because doing so indicates you're uncomfortable or don't care, thereby demonstrating you were the wrong person to turn to, and thus making  the person feel dumb. It's okay to change the subject, but you need to feel 100% certain they're okay with that- so the best way is to either wait for them to do it, or ask if they feel any better or need to keep talking about whatever it was.

I know that's a lot, so if there's one thing you take home from this post, it's this:

Please, think about it before you offer your own sob story to someone that's already crying. You may just make it worse.

Now go forth and comfort someone you know, and take this image with you for strength:

Right on, dog.

*Okay, prolly not always the worst thing, but it's pretty bad. See the bullet list to notice some other things you could mistakenly do wrong. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Spider Woman

I spent over two hours talking to a friend in their car as they were dropping me home last night. About stuff. We're helping each other through some pretty messed up shit, shit we wouldn't wish on our worst enemies, let alone people we care about, so I'm not about to go into specifics, here, except that of something I observed during our conversation.

As I've said before, I don't dig spiders. Well, last time this friend dropped me off, there were two huge ones on opposite corners of the window in which the car was parked and facing. So no way  to avoid passing at least one of them, even if I went around the back of the car. This had me freaked out, to the point where I turned my body away from the windshield while talking to this friend in order to not see them. The friend noticed, so I explained, and when I eventually got out, they did likewise and (slightly seriously) formed a barricade with their body between myself and the arachnids.

So this time, when we pulled up, my friend was the first to say, "I see no spiders," again, slightly seriously.

"I was looking, too," I admitted.

So then we started talking, and I looked over to the doorway into my building, and holyshit. Three spiders right there, one of which was in the process of weaving its web. Then I looked over at the patio to the right, and SHIT, two more on the right side, one right near the banister, the other about 2/3 to the ceiling.


So I tried to look at my friend as we talked, but gradually I lost control and couldn't help but stare from spider to spider. I grew goosebumps, despite it being hot in the car (summer, you know), I got shivers a few times (my friend didn't notice, thank goodness). I was not looking forward to getting inside. It became almost four in the morning, but there was a small portion of me that sincerely didn't want to get out of that car because it would mean passing those spiders.

I know, I'm fucked up.

But after a while, I noticed a moth darting up against the glass on the the door to my building, the glass in which, in one spot, the spider weaving its web had situated itself. I kept wondering if it was going to fly into one of the webs, and it seemed to have a few near misses, but it always scraped by. It  even made one of the spiders scramble to that portion of the web, but apparently this moth was pretty damn good at its own evasive tactics and self defense. And this moth  was at it for over an hour of the time I was in this friend's car. 

Then after a big hug from my friend, I looked again (because I had to, it was compulsive).

"Whoa," I said, "looks like one of them has caught something."

My friend said, "Hm, you're right, I wonder what that is. Oh, and now it's time for dinner."

"That's nature," I said as the spider started to attack. My friend  made a half-hearted chuckle, unable to hide their discomfort.

So then we both remained silent as the spider that had been spinning the web earlier went after its prize- a rather  large something that started to struggle. In the light of the bulbs inside, I could see the shimmer of wings- the spider had caught a dragonfly with a body a good 3/4 larger than its own (so this was a huge fucking dragonfly). The spider tapped the dragon fly a few times, but  just  with its legs, as the dragonfly thrashed and fought and struggled not to get bitten.

"Oh," my friend  commented, "it fell."

"Yeah," I said, "but it's probably covered in goop, and it'll just die anyway."

"Yeah, it looks like the spider's having to fix its web," my friend said as the spider started re-spinning.

We finished our conversation, had another hug, and I stepped out and hesitated at the door. I looked up at the spider in the window, over to my left at the moth flitting near another web, and down at the dragonfly on the ground.

And for a moment, I felt like the dragonfly. I couldn't tell if  it  was dead or not, and I was too freaked out by the huge spider over my head to check it. But I felt like what I had witnessed it do was like me, or that I was like it. Like  all of my fighting and struggling  doesn't matter- in the end, there's no hope, nothing left, and I'm trapped, wrapped up in the mess I created, and no one is there to save me. I fall, and I can't get up, and my place and purpose is of no consequence. And  even if someone could make it better, they don't, because they're too selfish  or scared.  The thing I couldn't accept, though, was that the dragonfly was as good as dead- it had absolutely no hope. 

And then I remembered that little moth as I went up the stairs. Sure, it may not have been making the best life decisions, but it always got out. I thought maybe  I was like the moth for a moment, but then realized, no. Because the trouble I've been in throughout my life, the vast majority  of it has been things over which I had absolutely no control whatsoever. Sure, there are some times where I've put my heart on the line and had it crushed, but I think getting your heart broken because someone doesn't feel the same as you or because you didn't get selected for whatever thing you applied for or something is way different from getting caught doing something like breaking the law or injuring yourself doing some ridiculously dangerous stunt. And for the love of Pete, that moth was eventually going to get caught by a web, or burned in a lamp or something. I had no hopes for that moth- it was going to meet a pretty bad demise, and I wouldn't really call it "untimely," unless it was meant in the "surprisingly delayed" sense. It'll eventually self destruct.

And then, oddly enough, I thought of the spider after getting inside. The spider that was just doing what it was doing, and when what it thought was an opportunity came across, did everything it could to get what it wanted. The spider that when its home/life was literally torn up, it literally started weaving it back into place without really losing much time. Sure, the web would never be the same again, but that doesn't mean the spider wouldn't do its best with what it had. And it would try again, once the web  was repaired and another opportunity presented itself. The spider would keep going. It would move on, but it would keep trying. 


I'm a spider?

I've faced a lot of hardship. I've watched my hopes get dropped, been dropped myself plenty of times. I've thought I could take a chance more than once and get something great out of it, but I've faced disappointment more times than is "fair." I've rebuilt every time, though. And I don't know if I'm stronger for it, but I know I'm better for it.

Batman took on the form of something that frightened him in order to instill fear in the hearts of those he was against. So does that  make me Spider Woman?

It was WAAAY too difficult to find a picture
of her that didn't have her looking like
she was either having or trying to have sex. And
this one is a bit booby for my tastes. Ugh.
I uh, don't plan on swinging around in a spider costume any time soon. And honestly? I don't think  this  will change my opinion of spiders all that much, if at all. But I like to think I'm tough like  a superhero, resilient. I re-spin my web, meaning I rebuild whatever is left of myself and  my life every time something bad happens. And I go on and keep doing my best to be a good person, to do good things, be good to others, and I don't give up, damnit.