A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Monday, February 26, 2018

Happy Birthday, LBM!

Little Brother Matt (LBM) turns 48 today! (Well, tomorrow, but I think it will be today when he gets it.) For as long as I can remember, LBM has signed any card, in all caps. BROTHER MATT. Sister Jen (SJ), the sister between us in age, calls him Brother Matt. I started calling him Brother Matt, but then when I was going to email him and use the first letters as an abbreviation, I would write to BM, and I couldn’t do that. Growing up, we used BM (standing for bowel movement), when we were going to talk about what other kids called “poop.” (I went to a sailing camp and knew the bow was the front of a boat, so for a long time I puzzled over why this wasn’t a “Stern Movement.”)
LBM is not poop. He is funny and smart and has been through some dark times, which have deepened him. He’s a father and loves his three kids, who are each remarkable in their own ways. He also loves dogs, and they love him, and I believe dogs are excellent judges of character. (They’re like we should be, mostly loving and sometimes concerned or downright disapproving.)
LBM is six years younger than I am, so when I left for college, he was twelve years old. I must have thought of him as a somewhat fragile toy as he was growing up. A couple of times, SJ and I dressed him up: once as Santa Claus and once as an old man. My cousin Lori and I once dressed her younger brother Kenny and LBM as girls. LBM wore my wrap-around pink and green frog skirt, which fit him perfectly as a long skirt. We took photos, and then I lost and forgot about the roll. Mom found it, developed it, and looked at the photos with me. When she got to the photos of LBM dressed as a girl, she said, “She’s a pretty girl. Who is she?”
I said, “Mom, look really close.”
She studied the photo for a while and finally said, “Nope. I don’t know her. But she sure is pretty.”
I was amused. “Mom, that’s your son.”
Mom was not amused, and all the blood ran from her face.
The years when he was especially little, LBM slept in a sleeping bag on the blue shag carpet that ran along the hall to the kids’ rooms. This was about the time that SJ and I discussed LBM and his fears one day. We wondered together if he might be gay and agreed that we would always love him and would help our parents love him, too. We never spoke about it again.
As it turned out, I am the gay one and SJ and LBM have always loved me and have helped my parents accept me and my partner, Ann. (It would take my brain tumor for them to love Ann.)
When LBM received the coming out letter I sent him, he says he sat on his porch, letter in hand, and cried. Then he sent me a letter saying that he would always love me, and he understood that because I was unable to be in a relationship with him, him being my brother and all, (despite what some folks think about Southerners), he understood that I would be disappointed in all men and must therefore be a lesbian.
LBM has always been funny in a kind way. During radiation for my second brain tumor, when I was writing a Caring Bridge blog, he often commented in a way that built community. I had hoped to share an example with you, but my files are too much like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’s  (Bologna was the key, as I remember) to find his old comments. Even online, he was funny and kind, able to make us all laugh and bring us together.
Because I couldn’t find his comments from my blog, I’ll share an example of his humor that Dad told me about. When LBM was in college, Dad confronted him about how much he was spending on clothes. Dad said, “You’ve spent as much this year as I have in the last decade.”
Matt responded, “Yeah, but look at your clothes.”
As Dad told me the story, he laughed and acknowledged that LBM had a point.

As LBM and I straddle the half-century mark, six years isn’t as significant as it used to be. Though he lives in Connecticut and I live in Seattle and we live very different lives, we’ve grown closer. I feel lucky that he’s in my life. I hope that his kids and my sister’s kids are able to be there for each other like LBM and SJ have been for me. That’s a gift to pass through the generations. (Early signs are promising.)

Saturday, February 17, 2018

"The largest property-tax increase in King County in modern history."

King County’s 2018 property taxes will rise 17 percent higher on average than last year’s: The Seattle Times reported it’s"the largest property-tax increase in King County in modern history." 

A Seattle Times local front page article today requested stories about the impact of that tax. (The story’s not yet on the web as I’m writing this, but it will be if you want to check it out.) Because I am disabled and my income is from private disability insurance and Social Security Disability Insurance, and my partner is retired, this tax will impact us. We received our notice as I was writing this: our property taxes are high. I will submit a personal story—as requested—about our property tax hike, but today I sent concerns about the paper’s request and my hopes for the story to the Seattle Times staff.

Their request focuses on unhappy tax payers, asking people to share if they are "considering an extra job or...thinking about moving because of the rising fee."

I hope this story will include the context of a public school system that has been failing its most vulnerable kids and a state which, according to a Seattle Times column by Jon Talton on March 3, 2015, had "the most regressive tax system in U.S." (I don’t know if we’re still #1, but I’m sure we’ve not gotten much better.) In 2010, our state defeated the Bill Gates Sr. measure for an income tax on individuals who made over $200,000 a year and couples who made over $400,000 a year according to Andrew Garber'sSeptember, 2010, Seattle Times article. Though we see ourselves as a progressive city, our tax structure belies that image.

Our state’s education funding also belies our self-image. In 2010, Washington’s Supreme Court ruled in the McCleary decision that the state was out of compliance with its constitutional duty to fund fully public education, and in the intervening years the state has been ruled in contempt of court for not making adequate progress in adequate funding.

As a public high school teacher in Washington’s wealthier suburban neighborhoods as well as schools in low-income neighborhoods, I felt the personal impact of this inadequacy and saw the impact on my students.

The property tax hike is to address inadequate funding. In a city that sees ourselves as progressive, we need to look not only at the impact of this tax hike but also at the impact of our regressive tax structure and inadequately funded schools.

The discussion reminds me of William J. Barber’s revelation in his excellent book TheThird Reconstruction. He reveals that the recent governmental take-over by self-serving Republicans (not all Republicans are self-serving), began on the Wake County School Board in North Carolina, the system where my siblings and I were educated, a system once renowned for its public schools.

The discussion also reminds me that our nation elected a wealthy bigot to its top office, not just because of Russian interference but also because we as a nation are so easily swayed by fears—individual and communal—about losing our excessive wealth.

Recently, the progressive Baptist preacher NancyPetty traveled from North Carolina to preach at our little Wallingford church. One question she asked sticks with me: How uncomfortable are you willing to be for liberty and justice for all?

There are very real stories of people pushed into unhealthy work lives or out of Seattle altogether by this property tax hike, but their stories must be seen in the context of a regressive tax system and underfunded schools.

Our state and our nation need to ask Nancy Petty’s question: How uncomfortable are we willing to be for liberty and justice for all?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Welcome to the Upside of Downhill, Sister Jen!

Sister Jen is not a nun. She’s my sister. And today’s her birthday. Happy Birthday, Sister Jen!

Though she’s younger than I am, I look up to her. To be literal, she’s 1.5 inches taller than I am, and sometimes she wears high heals or stilts (okay, not really stilts).

More idiomatically, she’s an impressive person: smart, kind in a gruff way, funny, and unpretentious. Her credentials show that she is smart: she was a Morehead Scholar at The University of North Carolina, has a law degree, and is a vice-president for a Wall Street investment banking firm.

I notice her smarts more intimately, however. Last year at the beach, when my siblings, my parents and I were discussing later in life issues, my dad argued that the house was in good shape for my parents as they grew older. As usual, I argued with his every point. Sister Jen accepted his desire to stay in the house, and said, “Okay, if you’re going to stay there, you’re going to need to do some work to make it safe.”

She’d used the magic word: “work.” Dad was going to have to rise from his retirement on the couch and get work done on the house, something he’s always resisted. When my parents returned to Raleigh that summer, they started researching retirement housing, put money down on a place being built, and will move in August.

Sister Jen might like you to believe she’s not kind, but her gruffness is all fluff. She’s also been generous with me over the years. When Sister Jen fell on asphalt and was  helicoptered to the nearest trauma center for emergency brain surgery, I didn’t visit her in Florida because I thought I’d wait until she needed help at her home in New York. (This was before my own brain surgery, in the days when I might have been helpful.) When she returned to New York, she healed more quickly than anyone thought she would, and I never visited. When I had brain surgery a couple of years later, she came for a week to help, and when I tried to apologize for my own failure to show up years before, she waved off the apology. (Perhaps this is my way of apologizing again.)

Hmmm. Well, I guess her gruffness isn’t all fluff. Sometimes she’s gruff when someone tries to take advantage of her, particularly because she’s a woman. The year following my brain surgery, we had dinner as a family, and Sister Jen rose to get herself some ice-cream. I asked her to get me some, too. Dad said, “Hey, how about some of that for me, too, Girl.”

Jen retorted, “ She’s had brain surgery. I’m getting her ice-cream. You can get your own.”

When she was working at a different investment banking firm her first year out of college, her boss called her in to fire her. She fired back at him that she hadn’t been hired to go get coffee for the men and that the place had a glass ceiling. She left that meeting with a promotion.

One of my favorite aspects of Sister Jen is how funny she is. A few years ago, she was sitting at Little Brother Matt’s home, his youngest child G in her lap. Sister Jen said to G, “My nieces and nephews on the other side of the family call me ‘Auntie Cool.’ I think you should have a nickname for me. What should it be?”

Without missing a beat, G said, “Why are your teeth so yellow? We should call you ‘Auntie Yellow Teeth.” (G inherited SJ’s sense of humor.)

An hour or so later, SJ got up to leave, and Little Brother Matt asked why she had to go so early. “I’m going home to bleach my teeth,” she told us all, laughing and looking softly down at G.

Sister Jen and her husband still live in their six-bedroom home, their fourth child leaving the nest this fall. The home has a carriage house, swimming pool, tennis court, and lawn that served as a playfield when we were all younger. She has money in these times when money is so glamorized, but her cool seems separate from her money. For example, she was the first mom in her area to have an ipod perpetually around her neck. This is the kind of cool she is: not pretentious, but hip.

Today, Sister Jen is not just fifty, but in her fifties. I’m guessing she’ll age like Maxine, that grumpy woman on the greeting cards, who says things like, “Everyone is entitled to MY opinion.” She’s smart, kind, funny, and down-to-earth. I love all those things about her. I especially love that she’s my sister.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Begging for Support

I've been working on my memoir in the eight years since radiation for my second brain tumor. I believe I have an important story to tell, but it's difficult to see how I'll get it heard (or read). I need help with the storytelling as well as with disability insurance that I had through my district and social security disability insurance. 
Perhaps this will give you some sense of my struggle: according to disability insurance contract, I can make up to $4680 in any month but can never make more and continue to receive benefits. To continue to receive social security disability benefits, I can make money (fifty dollars or  a million dollars have the same effect) in nine different months but can't make any money outside of those months. In case you're not following the details, the rules cancel each other out and mean I can't publish anything without losing one insurance or the other. Ann and I live on this money. I can't risk it.
I've talked with lawyers and advisors for the last couple of months, driving myself in circles. For now, I've decided to keep writing my memoir, write the best piece I can, and then see what I can do. In that spirit, I'm applying for a scholarship to a writing conference this summer. It's a prestigious (and expensive) conference, so this is a long shot, but it's worth a try. 
I've drafted the essay below in an attempt to convince them to pay for me to study with them. Any feedback?
I bowed my head and then raised it to see my face in the bathroom mirror. I looked just like I had the day before: auburn hair parted on the side and curled around my ears, eyes Bluebird blue, a freckled nose, high cheek bones, and laugh lines beginning to form. “I have a brain tumor,” I said to my image. I tried four times, shifting the emphasis from word to word, but the sentence always sounded improbable. The pronouncement’s melodrama made me laugh, but this wasn’t funny. At 43, I had a brain tumor and would soon need to tell friends and family, colleagues and students in my high school English classes.
A decade later, I no longer work, and I live on disability insurance, social security, and my partner’s retirement funds. Writing a blog and crafting a memoir ease my sense of loss. The writing is so important in managing my grief that I lead other writing groups and events for people who struggle: homeless young adults, LGBT elders, and people with dementia.
I have an important story to share, a story of loss and grief in the wake of my two brain tumors, but also a story of gratitude, the gifts of learning to slow down, connecting with other marginalized people, the often amusing absurdities in my life. The story is important, but difficult to share, largely because of restraints from my insurance and social security.
In the past, I have overcome social and financial barriers due to being a Southerner, a woman and a lesbian , and I feel confident that I’ll overcome barriers again. I’ll need help, however.
In addition to disability lawyers and advisors, I need to craft a good story that helps readers understand the losses, gifts, and barriers caused not only by brain tumors and their treatments, but also by social structures. I have never been to Bread Loaf, but my writing teacher says it would be a good support for me.

I need that support. I need to tell this story. You need to hear it.