Failure #26: Defend myself

I have a black belt in repression. I have mastered the art of turning the other cheek. I took all of those sticks and stones and built a fortress in honor of the great comeback spirit of Nyah Nyah.

Look, I hate fighting. Confrontations require a lot of effort, what with the yelling and the maintaining the anger level to sustain the argument. I’ve found that it’s easier to let the other person express their dismay, nod empathetically, and move on. Then I can watch television in peace. Despite years of teasing and unpleasant encounters, I am a relatively non-confrontational, cool-headed person—perhaps to a fault. I have a temper that I am uncomfortable with unleashing, so I prefer to remain disengaged from arguments, regardless of whether I am right or my own level of anger. Oh, and I never learned how to fight properly.

It’s become cliché now to say I had a bad childhood. Everyone had a crummy childhood. No one was happy and everyone was misunderstood. I’ll say I had an unfortunate childhood. Before I enrolled in grade school, I was a cute little kid who sat a little too close to the television and made up adorable words like “HeeHee World” for Disney World and “fayfay” for horsey. Once I entered first grade, I was suddenly the love child of Mr. Magoo and Elmer Fudd. In a perpetual state of squinting, I would have conversations with hat wacks and walk into wabbit holes. Within six months or so, we learned that I couldn’t see, hear or talk vewwy well. And from that point on, everyone would accuse me of it all being an elaborate wuse, er, ruse.

My mother went into protective mode. She lobbied to get me into the special education classes, but I was not mentally-challenged (contrary to what my maternal grandmother liked to tell her friends) nor did I have a learning disability. She attached a black elastic sports strap to my delicate pink plastic glasses, so that I wouldn’t lose them. She went to my teachers to explain all of the conditions for special treatment I would require in their classrooms. I didn’t stand a chance.

At the time, I didn’t understand that kids will look for anything to tease each other about. It’s the kid way. I had no experience with real children, just the JW-programmed kidbots and sitcom kids. So when kids started picking at me about my eyesight and the way I pronounced words and my noisy corduroy pants, I took it to heart. I wasn’t aware that I was supposed to point out their flaws in an unkind manner as well. As I saw it, they were right. These were things that were wrong with me. “But why-y-y-y?” I would whine to my mother. “Why are they picking on me-e-e-e-e-e all the time?” She advised me to ignore them. “Drive your own desk” was her favorite response to any issue I had with other children. No one taught me to be assertive and stand up to the bullies. All the adults said, “Tell a teacher. Go to a grown-up if someone’s being mean to you.”

My approach to dealing with bullies was three-fold. My first plan of defense was to cry. “That’ll show ’em,” I thought. “They’ll make fun of me and I’ll just burst into tears. Then they’ll feel so bad and leave me alone.” If that didn’t work, I’d shout “Leave me alone!” and squint at them. When that didn’t work, then I’d go to a teacher and tell her that the brats on the playground kept kicking rocks in my face. Ha. Ha. Ha.

The grown-ups fought my battles for me. The teachers were well aware of both my disabilities and took care to set me out in the hall while they lectured the whole class about picking on people with disabilities. In those moments, I wished I’d been in the special ed class. Those kids were nice to each other. The class was small, so the teacher could give equal attention to the students. They held hands whenever they left the classroom. But they probably didn’t watch Bosom Buddies, so I still wouldn’t have anyone to talk to.

My sister, armed with a scowl and good intentions, would escort me up to my school and dare other kids to mess with me. She’d hiss empty threats at the bully du jour. This usually resulted with further taunts about my being a crybaby who needed her adult sister to defend her. There were no wabbit holes big enough to hide me. One time, one of my bullies reported my sister and the authorities were called in. Then it was back to my three-fold plan.

It’s easy in hindsight to pull a Cyrano and rattle off fabulous witty comebacks to childhood teases. However, it wasn’t all verbal teasing. Some kids treated me like an interactive science exhibit. Despite my glasses’ strap, kids still wanted to take my glasses to see if they were real. “Can you really not see without your glasses?”
“Let’s take her glasses and make her try to read something far away.”
When it got around that I had a hearing impairment, it was all “Let me whisper something to you. Psstpsstpsst.” And “Can you read lips? What am I saying now?” followed by silent, flaccid mouth flapping. Some kids were desperately jealous that I was getting special attention and wanted to prove I was making it all up. I just put my head down and waited for something shiny to come along and distract them. If I’d wanted special treatment, I probably would’ve come up with something that didn’t make me look (and sound) like a total dweeb. Maybe a mysterious fainting illness that would allow me to take naps.

At the beginning of sixth grade, we managed to secure a deal through the local crippled children’s clinic for me to finally get hearing aids. After years of going back to the clinic every two months for testing, they determined my hearing wasn’t improving and I needed to try the devices. I was excited to be able to finally hears sounds I’d never heard. And then I got to school. After my first spelling test with my new ear jewelry—and being one of the only three kids in class to ace it—some little boy who’d never acknowledged my existence before announced to the entire class that the answers to the test had been transmitted to me via the hearing aids. Back in the box went the hearing aids. I took them out again when we moved later in the school year. It was a new school and a chance to start over. But it only brought more nasty children saying nasty things. I found that a rumor was circulating that I had AIDS. Back in the box went the hearing aids and back to the clinic went the box.

By the time I got to junior high, I was a pathological mess. Convinced that people were going to make fun of me no matter what, I just gave up.  I stopped brushing my hair. I rarely changed clothes. People would ask me things and I would make up complicated untruths.  I stopped trying at school, just exerting the minimum amount of effort to prevent outright failing. It was easier to feign disinterest in academics than to get all the teachers involved and deal with more grown-up pity in addition to the teasing. My mother and I had decided I was old enough to deal with my teachers myself and there were too many of them for her to meet with to explain that I was damaged goods. My smells and bad attitude kept everyone a safe distance away.

High school offered another chance at reinvention. I was old enough for contact lenses and could finally pretend that I was physically normal. Instead of teasing me over things I couldn’t help, people could tease me about my Daffy Duck sock collection. Ultimately, I ignored my disabilities and repressed the childhood pain instead of finding a way to embrace and fully overcome my disabilities while raising awareness. I should have found a way to be assertive and inform people about hearing loss and encourage them to be more sensitive to the issue. At the time, it was more important to me to be a (very silly) person than a cause.

Insults are like styrofoam—they might be intended for one-time use but they don’t break down easily and aren’t easily absorbed into the emotional landfill. I’m trying to shrink my emotional carbon footprint by limiting the amount of bile and unnecessary cruelty I release into the world. Sometimes that means I don’t get to win a fight. It might mean I don’t get the chance to defend myself against unfair accusations. It’s okay. I’ve got four cheeks.

Failure #25: Visit a strip club

Once again, being the expert mind-reader that I am, I know what you’re thinking:

1. “Silly Katharine, ladies don’t go to strip clubs.”
2. “How is this a ‘failure’?”
3. “Is Katharine going to reveal a whole bunch of freaky sexual fetishes that I probably shouldn’t read while I’m at work?”
4. “I know where I’m taking Katharine for her birthday.”

How much of what you look at on the internet is honestly safe for work? Especially when your company probably frowns upon you spending any time on the internet while you’re on their time (and computers). Also, your boss is standing behind you right now.

I’m sorry that I won’t be able to titillate you with ribald tales of near encounters with professional nude dancers. In fact, to my conscious knowledge, I have had zero encounters with dancers in any state of undress. What happens in my unconscious state stays in my unconscious state. To further disappoint you, I have no fascinating stories of how I’ve managed to avoid nudie bars. I do have some theories, though, if you’re interested.

The obvious theory as to why I have never visited a strip club is simply unavailability. Assuming, of course, that it is naked gentlemen I’d like to see wriggling about and not naked ladies. Gender inequality still reigns in the sex industry as even in the 21st century, strip clubs catering to women are rarities. In Alabama, male strip clubs must not exist at all. Surely, if there was one in the 1990s, my sexually-curious gal pals and I would’ve sought this out, procured fake IDs and gone on an adventure. Y’know, for “research purposes.” Instead we were left with the notion that if you want to see a naked boy, you just ask him to take off his clothes. Occasionally, the Chippendales tour would roll into town. My sister went to one of their shows once and returned home with a souvenir thong and a photo of a dancer. I was fascinated…until I saw the dancer’s picture—a greasy orange man with a blonde mullet and sleazy grin.

Which brings me to my next theory: I do not like the same boys that other girls like. Or possibly more accurate is that I do not like the boys the sex industry expects women to like. Hairless, oiled-up beefcakes have no arousing impact on me except arousing the desire to go to Boston Market for some rotisserie chicken. But then I want to come home and watch my Boston Legal DVDs and giggle over Alan Shore-Denny Crane sleepovers. While other girls may be content to swoon over men who spend more time at the gym than the library, I prefer my men a little more endowed upstairs. I prefer substance over style, brains over brawn, and wit over width. Sadly, if girls like me want to see nude clever, intelligent men we have to settle for archival photos of naked Monty Python on Tumblr. Or just ask our clever, intelligent boyfriends. It would not be the same experience as watching a professional pelvic-gyrator because smart men don’t wear shiny underpants.

Everything I know about strip clubs was learned from television and movies. No one ever looks happy in a gentlemen’s club. The dancers are disengaged with fixed, vacant stares. The men are borderline creepy and lewd. It all seems like some puritanical attempt to dissuade people from visiting such places. But I’m curious to find out if strip clubs really are as depressing as the buildings seem in daylight. My mother and I took many roads trips to Florida and would see all of the We Bare All billboards dotted along I-75. I was always a little intrigued to go to the Risque Cafe and see if it warranted all the signage. My mother would just giggle and keep driving. But imagine the kind of story I would have of my mother and I going to a strip club, seated amongst sweating truckers and shifty-eyed locals. What gems would I have from the woman who—while I was purchasing some new pants—once turned to me as the cash register rang up my trousers as ‘Active Bottoms’ and exclaimed “No, no!” Apparently bottoms should remain inert. Dirty jokes abound.

Surprisingly, none of my heterosexual boyfriends insisted on taking me to a nudie bar. There were discussions. Jokes were made. I never entirely rejected the idea. But we never even ventured into a strip club parking lot. Nerdy boys talk a very good game of how they only like “real girls” and are put off by silicone and latex undergarments. It’s just as well they never took me. I would only mock and judge. While at a karaoke bar, I spent most of the evening mocking the graphics and font choices. Analysis of a dancer’s song and costume choices does not make for sexy times.

Do we even need strip clubs anymore? Who needs to risk embarrassment at exotic dance clubs when we’ve got the internet? Through the magic of technology, anyone can do a Google image search for their scantily clad gender of choice and have plenty of objects to ogle without a midnight trip to the bank machine. I suppose some things must be experienced in the flesh.

Will curiosity eventually get the better of me? Will I muster up the courage to experience an exotic establishment and risk being viewed as a lady pervert? Probably not. More likely is that I will find a documentary exposing all the worst bits of stripping and the dangers of exotic dancing and post a mildly outraged Facebook status about it afterward. And then inadvertently look at more pictures of naked Eric Idle (Seriously, was he contractually obligated to strip regularly? Did he need to remind people that he was not a lady? How does this account for Splitting Heirs?). Look out, your boss is back!

Failure #24: Get married

Love and marriage—Frank Sinatra crooned that you can’t have one without the other. Sorry, Ol’ Blue Eyes, but the heterosexuals are disproving your myth—marrying without love, loving without marriage, and disparaging the entire institution. We’re rebels, Frankie baby.

Before I begin, let’s clarify something: “getting married” and “being married” are very different things in reality. Ladies can spend an entire year focused on the task of getting married. Little girls fantasize about getting married, they rarely fantasize about being married. Getting married is about weddings and fancy dresses and giant cakes and presents from long forgotten relatives. Being married is decidedly less glamourous. I failed to get married.

Marriage is one of those traditions that everyone is assumed to take part in. But no one really discussed it with me and asked whether it was something I’d like to do someday. My own parents had several divorces between them and 100% divorce rate. Bitterness consumed my mother after her last divorce and she soured on men altogether. To this day she cannot be convinced that men have any redeeming qualities. My poor boyfriends never stood a chance. Nobody taught me to play house or instilled in me the desire to take care of a husband/family. While other girls dreamed about being princesses and mommies, I dreamed about being a self-sufficient modern woman—a jetsettin’ lady leaving an international trail of broken hearts. To be fair, no one told me about any of that either.

I didn’t even think about marriage until my first serious boyfriend in high school. Sixteen sounds too young to consider the prospect of marriage. Unless you live in Alabama. Serious Boyfriend #1 and I sometimes played the game of “what would it be like if we got married.” We’d get all moon-eyed and imagine white picket fences and cute cottages and tricked out entertainment centers…wait, why does he get to play with all the cool electronic toys? Do we need so many game consoles? I want to play Tetris! Y’know, if we get a smaller television, we can buy a hot tub…Whaddya mean what’s for dinner? We realized that a mutual love for the animated The Tick series and Weird Al was not a solid foundation for lifelong partnership but did make for some short-term laughs. And we learned an important lesson in trying to make out to George Carlin’s HBO specials.

Serious Boyfriend #2 entered my life before my senior year and stuck with me through my first year in university. Somewhere along the line, we got engaged. I thought it was a pretend engagement, something to pacify the parents while we spent all of our waking hours and most of our non-waking hours in each other’s company. Apparently, there’s some unwritten societal rule that couples can only be together for six-to-eighteen months before everyone starts nagging about wedding dates and offspring. Because I assumed the engagement was an open-ended ruse until we eventually broke up (and we were breaking up, right? Right?!), I had no intention of planning a real wedding. This wouldn’t do. Everyone expected us to set a date. Serious Boyfriend #2 became Perturbed Fiance. Silly people. They thought I would plan one of those traditional weddings with flowers and frilly dresses and family. Had they met me? I grew discouraged after finding that the bride’s side of the…chapel-like location would be sparse compared to the groom’s side. In order to receive wedding presents from people your parents only mention in passing on the big holidays, you have to invite them to the actual wedding. And they feel obligated to show up. The whole event was becoming distasteful to me. Perturbed Fiance seemed open to the idea of elopement. So much for pretending!

As I said, I failed to get married.

Cohabitation, on the other hand, is something I can live with. Cohabitation without expectation is even better. Since Perturbed Fiance became Serious Ex-Boyfriend #2 instead of Ex-Husband #1, I have lived with two men. Once with the far-off intentions of marrying and settling down in a small town, which didn’t jibe with my jetsetting lady plans. Now I cohabit with a man who is also not the marrying kind. Our mutual love for each other has kept us together for an unspecified amount of time and provided long-term giggles and guffaws. We agree that fancy parties are not necessary for us to celebrate our relationship, even if we don’t agree which way to turn the spoons in the dishwasher.

Marriage is sneaky, as my boyfriend and I learned a few years ago. Apparently, in the eyes of some governments—including the one in our newly adopted country—couples who have been together an unspecified amount of time (hey, that’s us!) are considered common-law spouses. So, my once Secret Boyfriend has evolved into my Common-Law Partner. Without any ado, I am, for all intents and purposes, married. I guess Sinatra was right after all. These boots are made for walkin’…wait.

Katharine hearts Robot of Leisure

Last month, I completed the first of six stories for my new graphic novel project Robot of Leisure. I’ve taken a character I created in the early aughts and developed a story and history for him. I’m hoping this project has legs and that we can take it farther than just a few stories and some crafts I sell on Etsy. The first story is available for free viewing online via Issuu.

Like The Curable Romantic, the entire project has been a solo undertaking (which reeks of pretentious control freak egotism but it’s really a way to keep all those design-y skills sharp and to learn new things so I don’t become a 31-year-old techno-dinosaur). So, from illustration to design to creation of promo videos—I take the blame for it all. It isn’t perfect and it may not be to everyone’s taste. I’m having a great time creating this new world and finding new situations for Boris. The second story promises to be much more fun than the first, with lots of costumes and action and robot silliness.

If you like it, go ahead and forward it like it’s viral.

Failure #23: Contract chicken pox/measles

The good news: The inoculations I received in 1985 for the four major “numbered diseases” were successful. The bad news: There are six numbered diseases and I caught the fifth one. Twice.

I was never a fit and robust child. While other kids were running around outside, shrieking and having a wholesome innocent childhood experience, I was inside trying to keep my Rainbow Brite from sleeping around with all the male toys and organizing my crayons by name, sharpness, and which colors were friends (no one ever liked Burnt Sienna). My caretakers were obsessed with keeping me “safe” and were not encouraging of any activity involving movement, sound, or my behaving like a normal child. “Sit down and shut up” was their mantra for many years. And it worked until I enrolled in grade school. We’ll assume that the first six years of my life were relatively illness-free, if only because most of my memories are blurry and mumbly.

Once I was in school, my health went on a steady decline. In addition to the discovered dullness of two senses, I was a germ and fire ant magnet. My physical well-being was always in question. From the ages of six to eight, I had multiple colds, sore throats, insect bites, several bouts of Fifth virus, and a full-body allergic reaction to penicillin. My mother had failed to protect me from terrible things. My sister was pissed that I required so much attention. My baby teeth were falling out. My glasses were pink. My life was a series of maddening annoyances. I couldn’t win.

I tend to be plagued with maladies that are not life-threatening but no one really knows about them. The great thing about chicken pox is everyone knows what it is, even if they haven’t had it themselves. If you’re a six-year-old and someone asks why you missed school, you can say, “I had chicken pox” and that someone will nod knowingly, pat you on the head, and send you along to do whatever six-year-olds do. When someone asked six-year-old Katharine why she missed school, she replied, “I had fifth virus” and that someone looked at her as though she’d told them she studied graphic design at Humber College instead of OCAD. Fifth virus manifested itself as a rash on my belly and face. I recall at least one occasion of my mother hauling me and my rash into school before the first bell to show my teacher why I’d be missing school. I was mortified as she told me to lift my shirt to display my itchy belly to Mrs. Elmore. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Elmore would’ve been content with whatever doctor’s note I brought in on a healthier day. But maybe I’d run out of officially sanctioned sick days. Or, since fifth virus is also colorfully known as “slapped cheek disease,” my mother didn’t want to be accused of physically abusing me. Everyone knows psychological abuse is better because the wounds are internal and long-lasting, especially if you continue to pick at the scabs 20 years later over leftover cheesecake in motel rooms.

The closest I got to the chicken pox experience was my surprise reaction to penicillin. I developed a full-body rash while taking antibiotics to recover from a bout of strep throat. I spent a week in misery, alternating between hiding under heavy blankets to break my fever (and escape Phil Donahue’s transvestite interrogations and Luke & Laura’s latest misadventures) and thrashing about in discomfort. After several experiences with giant fire ant bites, I’d built up some resistance to scratching. But, man! The temptation is hard to resist. Scratching an itch is instinctual. And when it’s done just right…well, there aren’t many things in life that induce so much satisfaction. The friction of fingernail on skin is a sensation that is not easily matched. Benadryl and calamine lotion cannot compare to the simple scratch.

Armed with the knowledge of my actual limitations, we learned how to keep me safe without subjecting me to a life of absolute stillness. My mother arranged it so that my encounters with other children were limited to classrooms and play dates with pre-approved children. I was feeling healthier, if still mostly inactive. If I missed school, it was because I was in my mother’s office watching Bewitched on my portable black and white television or sitting in the crippled children’s clinic to deal with my malfunctioning ears. It would be some years before my belly was exposed again in any public setting.

As an adult, I’m not sure how likely it is that I could catch chicken pox now. It seems unlikely as I don’t find myself surrounded by children very often. To be safe, I always cross to the other side of the street when passing a pack of grade schoolers. I avoid popular parks and any activity where children are in abundance. Mostly I stay inside, trying to prevent sexual promiscuity amongst my plush moose and organizing my PrismaColor markers by name, usability, and musical talent. Some habits are hard to break.