What even is an organizational skill?

20140905_195124_1 Ten minutes can count for a lot, if you know how to use them.

NaNoWriMo teaches this through the magic of word sprints, which have pulled countless writers across the finish line just in time.

Most sites intended to help you out of clutter and hoarding habits, like FlyLady and Stepping Out of Squalor, are based off a a similar principle. You may look around at your messy house and feel too overwhelmed to begin, so instead of tackling the problem as a whole, you set a timer for ten minutes (or five, or fifteen). Anyone can clean for that long. Build up a few small blocks of cleaning time, and you’re on your way to an uncluttered home.

For the longest time, I couldn’t accomplish anything even with the ten-minute method. I couldn’t even focus on something fun without feeling walled in, trapped, and desperate to do anything to relieve myself from the pressure of obligation and impending failure.

Now that things are changing for me, I’m discovering that I never developed the organizational skills that get most people through the day. I barely know how to look at the big picture, even though it doesn’t overwhelm me the way it used to. For goodness’ sake, at my last followup with my doctor, I told him that for the first time in my life, I feel capable of routinely choosing to get up when my alarm clock goes off. (And let me assure you, my past failures were not for lack of trying.)

As November draws nearer and my duties as an ML kick in, I find myself alternating between planning styles and states of mind. One day, I’ll feel fine checking off a few boxes on my to-do list and allotting the rest of my time to other tasks. The next day, I’ll be posting in the private ML forum in a panic, feeling like I’m weeks behind and have to get things done right this minute.

The truth is, I’m just no good at estimating how much time and effort a job will take.

I’ve moved mountains to get copious amounts of work done in no time at all, and I’ve ducked out of commitments just to get some of the pressure off, but I’ve never succeeded at pacing myself. I’ve tried my best to use ten-minute blocks of time productively, but I always either get distracted or let my ten minutes stretch into a frantic race against time.

So here’s my goal for the NaNoWriMo 2014 season: Realize that ten minutes means ten minutes. Break up my tasks into small steps, and schedule in downtime if I need to. I can do this! But the more I let myself stress over how much I have to do, the less I end up getting done.

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“Here’s to those who wish us well…”

IMAG0286 “And those who don’t can go to hell!”

That’s our family toast. I don’t know if it originated from my grandfather or if it predates him, but we never miss saying it at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner in his honor, although he’s been gone for over fifteen years now.

There are only five of us — mom, dad, two brothers, and me — but we’re an interesting mix.

Among the lot of us, we’ve got nine cats and one dog. We’ve got an extended family of high school friends, unknown birth parents, estranged parents, adoptive parents, partners, exes. Together, we’re Catholic, Lutheran, nondenominational, atheist, uncertain. We’re second-generation Italian, Czech, Floridian, New Jerseyan, one thirty-second Spanish, rural Tennesseean mutt. We’re de-facto music lovers, video game players, and Miami Dolphins fans. My parents are short, my brothers are enormous, and I’m the petite one at 5’1″. Except for my blonde mom, we’ve got curly dark hair. We tan easily, and we prefer dark clothes. In group photos, we tend to resemble a Mafia family, and I’m pretty sure none of us are especially ashamed.

We don’t drink underage, but except for my straight-edge kid brother, we are drinkers. My parents are beer drinkers, I’m a gin drinker, and we all go for the occasional glass of red wine, as per Italian heritage law. We don’t shy away from strong words, hence the toast above.

We have weird holiday celebrations that are holdovers from customs and religions no one really remembers or understands: honey crosses on the forehead, strong sauerkraut soup, chickpeas tossed on the floor for the angels to pick up. (Or for the dog to eat. He’s basically a little angel, isn’t he?)

I don’t always understand my family, and they don’t always understand me. But at the end of the day, you can’t strip me of my family identity any more than I can manage to escape it.

(And, don’t tell them I said this, but I’m the only one who’s a half-decent cook.)

 And, okay, I’ll say it: I love them.

They can be hard to talk to, and hard to handle, but when I head over for a visit, it still feels like going home. It’s a place where I know the rules. I know where to find the snacks and drinks. I know when to sit down and shut up. I know I’m likely to hear a man’s voice burst into song, and I know it’ll sound damn good, because apparently in our family, the carry-a-tune gene is sexist.

So please, remind me of all this the next time I have to go see them. I’ll need all the help I can get.

Will He Come Back?

IMG00026 This is my ex cradling my cat — our cat, back then — circa 2009.

Let me step again and give you a content warning here: this post discusses domestic violence. If you want a history of him and me, check here first.

Half of the reason why I left him was the cat. I took care of her. I trained her as well as I could. In sickness or health, she’s the one cat I’ve owned who doesn’t go outside the box. Early on, I believed my bad behavior caused him to abuse me, so it never crossed my mind that he’d hurt an innocent kitten. He did, and not infrequently. I started trying to leave as soon as it happened, with my cat in my arms, but it was like he had a sixth sense about us. He’d notice, and he’d put a stop to it. He’d be extra careful not to leave marks, to make sure I couldn’t call in help and show them evidence.

But he could be sweet, too. Any abuser can. The cat loved him, and he loved her, as much as he could love another living thing. I stayed with him for years because of how he’d cry over his mistakes, or tremble over his fears. Like an innocent, or a child. He’d refer to these moments as “showing his true self”. I don’t agree — it wasn’t a fake or unreal person who abused me. It was him. But the scared, vulnerable boy wasn’t fake either.

After I left him, I wanted to help him move on with his life, but I could only take so much. I couldn’t spend every evening on the phone, trying to walk him through basic household tasks like operating the coffee machine. I couldn’t give him money for rent every month; I had my own life to live. I tried and tried to cut off contact with him, but he’d keep sending me messages, no matter what. Finally, almost a year after we broke up, I sent him an email saying I’d contact the police if he kept trying to speak with me. He listened, and I haven’t heard from him since.

Today, I regretted that.

If I could see the future, even at a heavy price, I’d use it to see if my ex will ever reenter my life. I know that cutting off contact was the right thing to do for both of us. It stopped him from manipulating me. It stopped me from enabling him, or feeling constantly afraid.

But today, four years after our breakup, a reminder of him entered my life in the strangest way. I went to get a library card, only to find that he still has books out under my name.

The lady at the checkout desk said, “Maybe it’s worth getting in touch with an old friend, if you think they might be able to recover the book for you.”

I almost laughed. I left the library feeling okay. I’m used to taking responsibility for things he helped (or forced) me to thoroughly fuck up. I would pay the replacement fee and get on with my life.

Unfortunately, the thought of him didn’t leave me. I started to worry, as I do every week or two, when I have a thought or a dream about him. I cut off contact, so I don’t know where he is. Before, he would have messaged me if he was angry or upset or planning to come and find me. But now? He could be preparing to turn up at my doorstep with a gun, and I’d never know.

I tell myself I’m safe. It’s been a while. He’s probably moved on, and if he’s found another person to abuse, at least he has a police record thanks to me, so they’ll take any reports more seriously.

hope he has moved on. I hope he’s gotten help. I loved him once, I saw the good sides of him, and I want a good life for him. I hope he understands that me leaving him wasn’t an act borne from hatred or retribution, but from fear for myself, and from a wish that it’d drive him to understand that his abusive behavior is serious enough to require intervention. I hope he’s out there living a good life, never even allowing me to cross his mind.

I hope he’s not blaming me for all the ways his life has gone wrong, plotting revenge as I type.

Speaking statistically, I know that the danger has likely passed, but that doesn’t help me let go of the fear. It has faded over time, but inevitably, it comes back to me. I think it always will.

If I could look into the future and know for sure where he is, what he’s doing, whether he hates me, whether he’s well? I’d do it, at any cost. My peace of mind is worth it.

When I Need to Cry, I Watch Horror

20140904_171113_1

Growing up, I was not a crier.

One of those anecdotes my family loves to repeat: When I was first learning to walk, I wouldn’t make a sound if I fell down and hurt myself. Instead, I’d sit there on my diapered rear, looking solemn. So, one day, my grandma came up to me and said, “Honey, it’s okay to cry.”

I punched her in the face.

Later on in life I ran across a few situations that probably merited tears, but I never could figure out how to cry. (And, as I learned firsthand, there comes an age when it isn’t cute to express your emotions through whacking people anymore.) I cried over high school crushes, but for the most part, anything more intense would make me clam up.

I remember sitting through tearjerkers like Up and Big Fish while my friends or family wept around me. There were plenty of jokes about how I was heartless, or they were too emotional. I wasn’t an easy scare either, when it came to horror movies. If you’re the kind of person who believes in gender stereotypes, you’d call me the man in every relationship I’ve had: I kill the bugs, I let my lover hold my hand in scary movies (and when they have nightmares after), and I don’t show my feelings.

The thing is, I wasn’t feeling my feelings either, and I wanted to. Crying, or at least sitting with your sadness for a while, is cathartic. You do it, and you move on. There was plenty I wanted to move on from. For a while, I sought out the saddest movies and songs I could. I’d sit in front of Youtube and watch these recordings of sobbing people having their pets euthanized. Nothing.

Then I saw a horror movie alone, and I caught myself off guard by bursting into helpless, noisy tears.

I think it was The Last Exorcism. Later on, when I went to see sequel in theaters, I cried too. (No, not because of how awful it was.) For a few years, I went by myself to see every horror movie the week it released: Chernobyl Diaries, Paranormal Activity 4, Sinister, The Possession, The Woman in Black. Some were good, or at least fun to watch. Others were terrible, but inevitably, I left the theater sniffling and all wrung out.

And it felt great. It felt like I was finally getting somewhere in life. I just couldn’t help wondering what the hell it was all supposed to mean. The movies that hit hardest tended to feature young girls as the subject of a ritual or a possession, which didn’t frighten me and certainly hadn’t happened to me.

…Unless, in a way, I actually had been through something similar.

I remembered how my ex, the one who hit me, used to be terrified of the woman from The Grudge. He said that for a long time after he first saw the movie, he’d sit awake at night, staring at the corners and waiting for a wispy dark cloud of her hair to appear. Which he thought was strange, because usually, he was most attracted to girls who looked like her — and like me — with long dark hair and pale skin. He was so terrified that if my hair fell over my face or I got too quiet, he’d yell at me.

I told him, “Maybe it’s because you’re afraid of what you love most turning on you.”

From where I am today, this sounds silly, but his fear gave me power. He could hurt me, he could manipulate me, he could shout at me, but he was also afraid of me. Afraid that the weak, intimidated person he knew might be taken over by something stronger. I don’t think he feared the supernatural so much as he feared me snapping out of it and finding a way to get back at him.

Movies that center on exorcism still scare us today, although the historical events that inspire them are often a case of misinterpreting disability. Some even take comfort in reclaiming exorcism as a way to handle their illnesses.

I can relate. The girls who star in these movies are innocent in a way I never got to be. The ghosts or demons that haunt them also give them the ability to hurt and terrorize — without being fully themselves, without marring their innocence.

I spent my childhood at the mercy of illness, feared for what it might do to me. I spent my early adulthood at the mercy of a man, feared for what I might do to him. I had power over others that came at a great expense to me. I was scared to show my feelings to anyone who asked, because I knew that an honest answer would make them scared, too. Or angry, or sad. Sometimes this felt good; it gave me a secret advantage. Usually, though, it just made me feel beyond helping.

These movies reflected my experience in a way real life never could. The protagonists don’t mean to cause any trouble. Some of them fight against the entity that seeks to take them. Some of them embrace it. Either way, they don’t come out the other side unscathed, and no one will ever look at them in quite the same way.

I cried because a handful of scriptwriters out there accidentally managed to understand me. They stuck up for me. They made me sympathetic.

These days, there’s less of a disconnect between me and my feelings. I still love horror, and I’m still not a big crier, but I no longer need to see pretty little girls in white dresses be tortured and turned into monsters before I’m able to feel something for myself. I’ve gotten better at processing my experiences, and I think I’ve finally cried myself out.

And I still don’t like it when people fawn over me and ask me if I’m feeling okay, but I can usually brush them off or tell them the truth, which is a big step up from smashing them right in the nose.

“You’re ugly, but…”

Untitled “You have such a kind soul!”

I’m ten years old. I’m walking through the mall with my grandma. A lady stops us, flashes me an eager smile, and tells me that I’m ugly, but I have a kind soul.

She doesn’t come right out and put it in those words, you’re ugly. Instead, she says something like despite how you may look on the outside, but I’m not dumb. I know what she means.

She goes on chattering, waving her hands around, talking about the light shining from within me. My grandma is nodding politely along with her, indulging her, so I do the same. I know this stranger thinks she has paid me a compliment, but I can’t bring myself to take it that way.

I am ten years oldI still want to grow up to be a princess. Beauty is important to me. Even in the books I love to read, the Animorphs series and the Baby-Sitters Club, the protagonists are plain and unstylish at worst. I am fatter than the girl in Blubber. I’ve checked.

I would like to be plain. I would like to not be fat, I would like to not have a disability that contributes to my fatness. Every night I fall asleep praying that I will wake up living in some other, better body in some other, better world. I try my hardest not to picture a future where I will never be lovely and thin, but here in front of me is this stranger telling me that I’m doomed.

But it’s supposed to be okay, because I have a kind soul. (What ten year old cares about kind souls!?)

After a while, my grandma drags me away from the stranger’s side. She gives a poised, neutral nod and says, “Wasn’t that nice of her to say?”

I shrug. I go to the food court, and out of anxiety and shame, I order one kids’ meal and one adult meal and ask the cashier to hide them in the same bag.This isn’t the first time I’ve doubled up on food and it won’t be the last, although in another year, I’ll decide to take the matter of my body into my own hands, and I’ll stop eating all meals but dinner.

And in three years, when I’m finally approaching thinness, I’ll be at the butt end of another backhanded compliment here at the mall when a car packed with teenage boys passes me, all of them hanging out the windows and howling at me at the top of their lungs. That’s when I’ll discover that there’s no winning, there’s no correct body to have. I’ll wilt a little inside as my grandma attempts to handle the situation with the same adamant grace: “My, they certainly did like you, didn’t they?”

I try not to let this stuff stick with me, but it does, even now that I’m an adult who just isn’t interested in the pretty princess life anymore.

The stranger could have chosen to act like my favorite teacher, who encouraged me to be talkative and creative. I still remember how reacted when I turned up to talent show rehearsals in glittery silver sandals. He said, “Now that’s a pair of stage shoes if I ever saw one!”

The stranger could have chosen to act like the nicest nurse at the children’s hospital where I got my monthly checkups. When I had to have blood drawn, she held my hand and told me it was okay to feel afraid. Unlike so many others, she saw past my weight and height and treated me like the scared child I was.

The stranger could have chosen to act like my physical therapist, who complimented my determination, motivation, and accomplishments. Even though it was part of his job to help me stay in shape, he never commented either positively or negatively on my body. 

But instead, the stranger chose to underline my appearance, as if my other good qualities were only useful as a way to make up for how I looked. I’m sure it was an honest mistake on her part, but I felt like someone had pulled a mask off my face and gasped in horror at what they saw.

Sixteen years down the road, I’m more comfortable in my own skin. I can take a compliment without turning it over and over in my mind, looking for the dirty side. I can brush off strangers the way my grandma once did, can look down my nose at them even from five feet tall.

That ten year old, though? She isn’t gone. Her legs still tremble in fear when strangers approaches her. She still tries to reach for food neither of us really want to eat, and she still looks in the mirror and sees herself fat, frizzy-headed, big-nosed, and unacceptable.

This isn’t the fault of a single stranger, by any stretch. I don’t blame her. But I do wish that instead of adding to the chorus of negative voices, she’d have been one of the few people who helped teach me how to take care of a frightened inner child who can’t calm down and won’t go away.

As Many Olives As Possible, Please

UntitledWhen I was very young, I was lucky enough to have a pair of grandparents who wanted to show me the finer things in life (and who, for a while longer at least, could afford it).

I remember getting new flowery dresses and wearing them to church on Easter Sunday. I remember attending the local ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker every winter. We’d pile into their Cadillac, they’d play 1940s hits on cassette, and my grandpa would sing along as he drove, while my grandma let me sneak sprays of her Norell perfume and swipes of pale pink Estée Lauder lipstick from her purse. I loved all this, loved everything my mom had hated growing up. The whole family used to take one look at me and say, “I guess it skipped a generation.”

I’m no longer so keen on church or “proper” ladylike behavior. I tend to avoid makeup that comes in subtle shades, or that can’t be picked up at the drugstore. I do wish we still had that old black 1986 Cadillac in the family, but there’s one legacy from my grandparents that I’ve been able to hold onto with no trouble: my absolute adoration for dirty martinis.

My grandma rarely drank outside of fine restaurants, hotel bars, and functions that I probably shouldn’t have accompanied her to, given my age. But one way or another, I always ended up sitting beside her, swinging my short legs, while she ordered a martini. Dry, extra olives, always made with gin. When the drink arrived, she’d discreetly pluck out the plastic sword (why it was always a plastic sword, I don’t know) and hand me the olives, one by one.

So, that’s how I developed a taste for gin around age four. Later on, my first real experience with alcohol was a bottle of gin I “borrowed” from my grandma’s pantry. I mixed a little into a glass of cranberry juice and was so underwhelmed by the experience that I didn’t drink again for years, until I started dating an occasional drinker.

I began ordering martinis in restaurants for the nostalgia factor. I started with sweet, fruity ones, thinking they’d be better for a new drinker, but I couldn’t see the appeal. I tried saying “just a plain martini, please” and kept ending up with vodka and lemon. At last, I literally had to Google “martini with olives and gin” to figure out how to phrase my request, and even then, I ran into stumbling blocks.

Waiter: Would you like that on the rocks, or up?

Me: Up? What is up? *looks at the ceiling*

After drinking so many martinis that weren’t quite what I’d wanted, I was afraid that the real thing would be underwhelming, or even worse, undrinkable. As it turns out, while I may no longer agree with my grandparents’ standards of quality in other areas, I believe wholeheartedly that very good liquor makes for a very good drink.

I may not have grown up to be what my grandparents desired or expected, but I still toast them when I have my favorite drink. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes just being what I imagine my grandma envisioned: someone who dances slow, lets her partner lead, allows her long, painted nails tap out the beat of the music against the curve of her martini glass.

(I doubt my grandma quite pictured the rainbow glitter on my nails, or the transmasculine partner in whose arms my nonbinary self rests, but I’ll be a proper lady in my own way, thank you much.)