Author Archives: Amy Robertson

Estrangement

Image: black and white photo of my brother and me (two white kids) ages 6 and 8. We’re sitting on a fence. I’m on the left, short brown hair, t-shirt and shorts. He’s on the right, short lighter hair, sweater and shorts. My arm is around his shoulders.

Now that we’re here, it’s obvious we were always going to be here.

I come from a family of cutter-offers. Most famously, my great uncles — my grandmother’s brothers — Uncle Bubble and Uncle Nippy. I also come from a family in which grown men are called “Nippy” and “Bubble.” At least on my father’s side. On my mother’s side, my great uncles were Max, Ben, Jerry, Bafe, and Joseph.

The Bubble/Nippy split was legendary: they had summer homes across the street from each other and didn’t speak to each other for the last several decades of Bubble’s life. Since they were born in the 1910s and died in 1970 and 1984, I can’t ask them why. Indeed, due to further cutting off — Bubble would not speak to my father — I likely would not have been successful had I tried to ask.

While Nippy and Bubble provided the template cut-off, my father’s family had other variations. My great-grandfather did not divorce his wife, but installed her in a separate house in the Maine coastal village my family invaded each summer. Later, Bubble’s children would cut off from my father and even later — each for a different reason — from my two uncles. Nippy’s three sons had overlapping and complex cut-offs that I never really understood.

There were also less absolute distancings. When my grandmother married my grandfather — a well-pedigreed fuck-up — they moved from the eastern US to the middle of nowhere Wyoming, so that my grandfather could run a dude ranch, one of his more colorful failures. He left after my father was born, came back, and left again for good when my uncle was born. Not long after, he volunteered — at the age of 30-something — for the Army and managed to get himself sent to Europe toward the end of WWII. Many brave adventures ensued, none of which involved being a father to my father and uncle. Later, after my grandmother remarried, my father — considered the problem child in the new family constellation — was sent to boarding school in the same city in which the family — mother, step-father, brother, half-brother — lived.

So I come from a long paternal line of cutter-offers and distancers. My father and I talked about this. A lot. Constantly. Ad nauseam. After my mother started heading toward divorce in the early 1970s, Dad started getting therapy based on Family Systems Theory. This theory helps you figure yourself out by the patterns of behavior — specifically closeness and distance — in your immediate and extended family. As part of his therapy — whether self-directed self-discovery, or assigned homework I was never clear — he sought out and (re)established connections to dozens of random relatives near and far. We found, among his papers, reams of Family Systems charts from napkin scribbles to wall-size pieces of taped-together butcher paper. Having grabbed ahold of Family Systems Theory like a lifeline — and having been sent away from his family as a young teen — my father viewed cutting off as the ultimate failing. He worked his ass off to build bridges, among others to Uncle Bubble’s family, who would not only not talk to him but would also, as we discovered in his papers, return his letters unopened, having written in thick magic marker “RETURN: REFUSED.”

Not all of his family outreach failed. He built a relationship with the father who had abandoned the family in his childhood, and with whom he had had only sporadic contact for the ensuing 30 years. Granddaddy ultimately moved in with my father for the last 24 years of his life — a very bickery, Odd Couple sort of sitcom. It is my impression that Dad’s relationships with his brother and half-brother also improved over this period. They had never been estranged, but I think he — and they — made an effort to bridge some pretty considerable gaps.

In “Story of Your Life” — the short story on which the movie “Arrival” was based — the hero, a linguistics professor (!!!), is tasked with learning and documenting the language of a species of alien — spaceships orbiting the earth and mirror-like devices permitting communication. The linguist figures out that their written language is not linear — as is most human writing — but rather requires the writer to have the entire sentence composed with the first stroke. She uses the term “semagram” to mean, roughly, “word,” and observes:

Comparing that initial stroke with the completed sentence, I realized that the stroke participated in several different clauses of the message. … Yet this stroke was a single continuous line, and it was the first one that [the alien] wrote. That meant the [alien] had to know how the entire sentence would be laid out before it could write the very first stroke. The other strokes in the sentence also traversed several clauses, making them so interconnected that none could be removed without redesigning the entire sentence. The [aliens] didn’t write a sentence one semagram at a time; they built it out of strokes irrespective of individual semagrams.

As she learns this written language, she finds it changing the way she thinks. “As I grew more fluent, semagraphic designs would appear fully formed, articulating even complex ideas all at once.” She realizes that, for the aliens, events are not sequential and causal, but coexisting and teleological. After she learns the alien’s written language, she finds that

new memories fell into place like gigantic blocks, each one measuring years in duration, and though they didn’t arrive in order or land contiguously, they soon composed a period of five decades. It is the period during which I know [the alien’s language] well enough to think in it, starting during my interviews with [the aliens], and ending with my death. … [O]ccasionally I have glimpses when [the alien language] truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once. … I perceive — during those glimpses — that entire epoch as a simultaneity.

My brother and I got along well until late 2017. To that point, we had weathered our parents’ divorce and my father’s death, supporting each other, and sharing parent-based in-jokes, gossip about the larger family, remedies for nasal allergies, and adoration of and admiration for his kids, my niece and nephew. I always thought one of the reasons we got on so well was the utter lack of sibling rivalry which was based, in turn, on how different we were. Though we are relatively close in age — I’m 21 months older — we are different genders, which I think takes away a quick 80-90% of any sort of rivalry. We are different in most other respects, too: he excelled in science; I enjoyed languages. He was popular and outgoing; I was introverted and nerdy. I liked traveling and spent much of my late teens and early 20s living in Taiwan and traveling in Asia; he spent those years in Philadelphia and Delaware. I got a linguistics degree and then went to law school; he got a couple of chemical engineering degrees (B.S.; Ph.D.) and then went to business school. There was nothing we really competed in, which allowed us to support each other effortlessly in our respective worlds.

We are also politically opposite. Though we were both raised by the same folk-music-loving, Adlai-Stevenson-voting liberals, he started heading rightward in college, and ended up a Trump supporter by 2016. I know this only secondhand as we ceased being able to talk about politics mid-Bush-43, when he suggested lack of support for the Iraq war made one unpatriotic. His political views make me sad, but we ended up with an unspoken understanding that we would just stay off the topic, and trundled on.

Because of my father’s preoccupation with family systems — which started when we were approximately 12 and 10 — we heard a lot about our extended family and a lot about cutting off. We listened and watched and discussed the siblings and cousins who cut off, as well as those who sued each other over use of the common tennis courts, yelled at other people’s kids to stay off their docks, drove over each other’s lawns, and sent angry letters about microscopic differences in the shared use of a gorgeous piece of the Maine coast that at least I never had the patience to understand. And of course we knew The Legend of Bubble and Nippy — the touchstone/template/ur-cutoff.

So well did we know it, and so much a template was it, that when Bruce wrote me, just before our aunt’s funeral in December, 2017, “Not sure if we had our Nippy/Bubble moment or not,” I knew what he was talking about, and he knew I’d know. Then, 10 months later, there it was: he decided to “cut off all contact.”

I’m intentionally omitting the reason he does not want to talk to me. It would require a separate — likely tedious and long-winded — discussion, and honestly, given our family teleology, I’m not sure it matters. I will say that it was recursive or self-referential: a cut-off about a cut-off.

One of my father’s Family Systems mantras was that it takes two sides to cut-off, and that he refused to participate. I’ve expressed the same to my brother — that I do not want to cut-off; that we can resume communication at any time; that I love him — but as the returned letters showed my father, one person can be pretty damned effective at cutting off.

So I sit here, stunned and puzzled that this is where we are, yet feeling like we were always going to be here, the sentence written in our Family System before we were born. In the middle of the story, watching it sequentially, I would never have imagined the events that would get us here. If you had asked either of us in, say, 1985, I think we’d have laughed heartily at the idea that we would ever tread the ridiculous and over-analyzed path of our great uncles.

In the story, the linguist struggles with the meaning of free will in a thought system that understands history as coexisting and teleological rather than sequential and causal. Where, too, is the free will in a Family System? I’ve spent over 45 years thinking about our Family System, certain that I had the free will to escape the patterns. Now that we’re here, though, it feels like the entire sentence — one long run-on sentence from 1962 to 2018, one giant semagram — was always written this way.

***

Coda: This post focuses on the cut-offs. Many family members are moving away from some of the more destructive patterns, and I treasure my relationships with my aunts, uncles, and cousins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actions have consequences, or, how I responded to a MAGAing business associate.

Text conversation with a white guy I used to do business with:

Contractor: [discussion of potential project].  MAGA!

Me: Um, please tell me you don’t mean “MAGA.”  Srsly

Not funny.

I thought that might get a response from U.

But I have to ask:  are you a Trump supporter?

I am a supporter of the Constitution, less government
and the value of the individual.  I am not a supporter of
identity politics and victim culture.

Did you vote for Trump?  Will you vote for him in 2020?

Yes and yes

What is my alternative?

I’m sorry, I can’t work with you.  I respect your skills,
but I can’t work with someone who supports an entire
movement inimical to everything I believe in.
I appreciate your past work, but I’m afraid that’s it.

But I vote in CA, so my vote is completely wasted/futile.

Well I’m sorry to hear that.

Yeah, me too.

Signing off.

I answered your question: U didn’t answer mine.
What is my alternative?

You could do what many principled republicans do/did:  not vote.
STand up for your small government whatever,
but not vote for someone who is an admitted harasser,
who is working hard to oppress immigrants,
lgbtq people, muslims, and people with disabilities.

It’s not red vs. blue.  It’s a racist, nativist
movement that scares me for our future.

So:  actions have consequences.  Sorry.

I don’t see him that way, and that’s not what I support.

Those are his explicit policies.  He enacted a muslim ban.
He is banning trans people from serving our country.
He is turning back asylum seekers at teh border.

But thank U for answering my question.

it’s not what you may or may not see; it’s his policy.

So, yes, that is my answer.

 

Confiscating a Dynavox in the name of Christ.

Religious hospitals get a lot of press for denying healthcare to LBGTQ folks and the like, but a lesser known problem is that Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act includes this language:

The provisions of [Title III] shall not apply to … religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations, including places of worship.  42 U.S.C. § 12187

So, yknow, churches can be as inaccessible as they want and can’t be challenged under Title III of the ADA.  Fine.  Well, not fine, but we’re stuck with it.  But religious-themed hospitals are big business, and dominate the healthcare landscape.  Then they do this — to a psychiatric patient who used a Dynavox to communicate  — and claim immunity as a religious organization:

[The patient, Linda Reed] claims that she was denied the use of her Dynavox; that hospital staff attempted to give her medication she was allergic to; that she was denied timely access to her medical records; that she was denied the use of a telephone to call her case manager (about whom the record reveals little); that she was denied access to a chaplain; and that she was physically escorted off the premises by two security guards. Notably, the hospital’s corporate representative and nursing supervisor, William Fry, testified in his deposition that the Dynavox was locked up outside Reed’s room at night and that she had access to it during the day only “as long as her behavior was appropriate.”

Reed v. Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital, No. 17-1469, 2019 WL 494073, at *1 (7th Cir. Feb. 8, 2019) (emphasis added).*  Read that again:  she was only ALLOWED TO COMMUNICATE if her “behavior was appropriate,” apparently as assessed by Nurse Ratched.

 

Image: Dynavox speech generating device; similar appearance to a tablet; bottom half containing a QWERTY keyboard; top half a field showing the text being typed.

Dynavox

 

The hospital in question was Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital, now named “Ascension.”  It claimed, in seeking immunity, that it “will not perform medical procedures inconsistent with Catholic ethical directives.”  Id. at *6.  So I guess denying communication access — including communication with a chaplain — is fully consistent with Ascension’s Catholic ethical directives.

The Seventh Circuit denied the claim of religious immunity, but only because the hospital forgot to plead it.  The court “express[ed] no opinion on whether … the hospital might fit within the exemption for entities controlled by religious organizations.”  Id.  That is, if its lawyers hadn’t been so sloppy, the hospital might have been able to confiscate and control the patient’s only way to communicate, and gotten away with it . . . in the name of Christ.

*******

*I wanted to write “emphasis added, motherfucker” but didn’t find that in the Blue Book.

Gong Xi Gong Xi!* Now put it in the calendar!

Happy New Year!  I loved this wonderful post on Lunar New Year by one of my favorite blogs, Fakequity (get it?  Fake Equity? Motto:  “FAKEQUITY IS BAD. IT SHOWS UP AS ALL TALK AND NO ACTION.”)  The author talks about their love of the Lunar New Year traditions in many Asian cultures, and that “One of the reasons I love lunar new year is it the only Asian holiday even remotely recognized in the US and Western society.”  They then lament those times when organizations schedule random events on Lunar New Year:  “The rant sounds like this: ‘One day! Can we get one day to celebrate? Why did they schedule on this day?!?’”

A couple of years back, an organization I’m in scheduled an event on (IIRC) Purim.  We were quite properly called on it, and rescheduled.  At that time, determined not to make the same mistake, I went into my Google Calendar and checked a bunch of boxes to add a variety of culturally significant holidays:

List titled "Other calendard" with checked boxes for Christian Holidays; Holidays in United States; Jewish Holidays; Muslim Holidays; and Orthodox Holidays."

After reading the Fakequity post, I went to check whether this had resulted in adding Lunar New Year and … of course not.  What’s worse, this is the full list of religious holidays Google lets you add.  After that, it has a very long list of country holidays you can add:

List titled "Other calendard" with checked boxes for Christian Holidays; Holidays in United States; Jewish Holidays; Muslim Holidays; and Orthodox Holidays; Regional Holidays: Holidays in Afghanistan; Holidays in Albania; Holidays in Algeria; Holidays in American Samoa; Holidays in Andorra."

And so on.  So there’s no generic way to add Hindu or other religions’ holidays, Indigenous holidays, or cultural holidays of other parts of Asia or Africa.  To make sure I got at least Chinese cultural holidays, I checked “Holidays in Taiwan,”** which helpfully added such things as “Farmer’s Day.”

Fakequity to the rescue again!  Early this year, they created a list of “2019 Culturally Significant Dates and New Years (x15).”***   These are all going in CREEC’s calendar so we can do our best to respect these diverse holidays.  And also find ways to enjoy culturally significant food throughout the year!

***************

*Or “Gong Shi Gong Shi” if you were lucky enough to study Chinese at Middlebury summer language school sometime in the late 1970s and become completely unable to read any other, much more popular, system of Romanization.

**Why Taiwan and not China?  Because I lived there for three years in the early 1980s and still miss it.

***In this post you will find another of the many reasons I love Fakequity.  In listing the holidays, it says;  “Below is a graphic to share. … I’ve listed the text below [the graphic] for people who want to use a text-to-speech reader …”

What’s in YOUR drafts file?

Panama Jackson of Very Smart Brothas asked his readers, “what do you have saved in your drafts?”  He then listed ten draft posts, each of which provided a brief insight into a brilliant topic.  (At least the ones I understood; his music references went over the head of this middle aged white nerd.)  He urged readers to share their top ten unpublished drafts in comments.  Here are mine — could only find seven worth listing:

  1. “Unlearning” about all the racist, colonialist crap I learned in high school, and since, that I’m working hard to unlearn.
  2. “Professionalism” which so far consists of one sentence: “I care about all the wrong things — and all the wrong people — to ever be considered ‘professional’ or ‘respectable.’ I don’t belong here.”  Hmm.  Bad day in court, perhaps?
  3. “Announcing WhAMBAM: White American Male Bad Actor Manifest:” My attempt to counter the Trump Administration’s list of criminals who are immigrants.  I’m guessing I never finished because the news kept supplying new examples of White American Male Bad Actors.
  4. “Why my freak-out shows my privilege.”  An undeveloped essay about why my post-Trump freak out shows how ignorantly privileged (and privilegedly ignorant) I was pre-Trump.
  5. “Facebook reactions we really need.”  Disability-rights version.  I did the graphic, but didn’t really write anything

Series of graphics titled "Facebook Reactions for Disability Rights Posts." 1. The words "Stupid Questions" surrounded by the red-circle-and-slash sign for "no!" with the caption "No Stupid Questions. 2. The international symbol of accessible inside a flash-like icon, with the text "Presume Competence, Asshole!" 3. Clip-art of an ankle being wrapped in an Ace bandage, with the text "The fact that you sprained your ankle does not mean you get what it's like to be disabled." 4. Text box with the following letters, spaced by dashes "F - U - C - K Y - O - U" with the text, "The lady in accounting who knows how to fingerspell is not an interpreter." 5. Icon of a middle finger flipping the bird with the text, "Please reconsider your microagression," and 6. Cartoon drawing of an older man with tufts of white hair on either side of his head, wearing a flannel shirt, with the text, "No, your building is not grandfathered in."

  1. “Before ‘we’ were so easily offended”: Picking up on a meme noting that fragile white people used to be unwilling to drink from the same water fountain as black people, so the whole safe space sneer is bullshit.  Ended up writing this instead:  “You want a safe space? How about Yale College, 1924.”
  2. “Fatal Disability Discrimination:”  Calling bullshit both as a disability rights lawyer and linguistics major/nerd (and major nerd) on the concept of “after birth abortion” for disabled infants.
  3. “The Orange Dog:” a photo essay on an orange plastic poodle that my father and I exchanged as a gift in the most awkward circumstances we could dream up for the other. For example, me at some just-pre-law-school-graduation event:

Image: Photo of me at age 28, white woman with short dark hair wearing a flowered dress, holding an orange plastic poodle with pink fuzzy rabbit ears. I'm sitting at a table with a bottle of beer in the foreground.

You want a safe space? How about Yale College, 1924.

Thomas Chatterton Williams joins a long line of whiners complaining that taking basic steps to make our public and academic life more inclusive is Just. Too. Hard.  In his review, entitled “Does Our Cultural Obsession with Safety Spell the Downfall of Democracy,” he argues that it is “fraught” for marginalized people to object to the appropriation of their language or to the use of their bodies as metaphors.  He describes an allegedly new generation of college students who “are ‘obsessed with safety,’ which they define to include expansive notions of ‘emotional safety.’”  He asserts that this “safetyism culture” started when this generation “began arriving on college campuses in 2013.”  These students apparently have the audacity to want respect, to want a classroom in which their existence, freedom, and standing as citizens is not open for debate.  Oh the drama!

You want safe?  I’ll show you safe.  I’ll show you a truly fucking safe college experience — 89 years before 2013.

When it was time for my white, Christian, Southern,* formerly-wealthy-but-still-pretty-fucking-privileged, two-generations-away-from-enslaving-people grandfather to go to college, he found a very, very safe space.** In 1924 — according to a story my father often told*** — Yale College accepted the entire graduating class from Hotchkiss, my grandfather’s prep school.  Talk about safety schools!

Image: Yearbook photo of a white man with brown hair in a suit and tie. Text reads Arthur Clendenin Robertson. Age 19. Yale College. Home address: 12 Coolidge Hill Rd., Cambridge, Mass. Prepared at: Hotchkiss. Activities: Hawaiian Trio, Freshman Cabinet Dwight Hall.  What Granddaddy found when he got to Yale must have felt very safe, too. His entering class of 823 students had (::checks calculator::) zero women.  It also had:

  • one (1) Black student;
  • by my very unscientific count (*cough* lastnames *cough*) approximately 20 Jewish students;
  • one Armenian-American (again, per my unscientific analysis of the guy’s last name);
  • one Greek-American (same), and
  • one (likely) Syrian-American (same).

The “Yale Freshman Yearbook” for the Class of 1928 claimed that the class included six “foreign” students, which turned out to be six white guys who happened to be living outside the country when they were accepted at Yale, for example, Willard Tisdel Hodgsdon from Guatemala, and George Robert Carter, Jr. from Hawaii (remember the year!).  And of course a token Canadian — so diverse!  There were no students with names that appeared to be even remotely Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Malaysian, Vietnamese, etc.).

If the Yale class of 1928 was not safe enough for Granddaddy, he could always retreat to his fraternity or, if that was still too diverse, to his “secret society,”  Skull and Bones.  There, I said it.  A bunch of white guys with weird rituals whose childish need for safety, sorry secrecy, was so profound that my father warned us NEVER, EVER to so much as say the words “skull and bones” in front of my grandfather.  Guess this made our family an “emotionally safe space” for Granddaddy.

This cocoon of unisex, monoracial safety was the default setting for the American university for most of our history.  These white dudes did not have to encounter classmates with different gender, racial, cultural, or linguistic experiences.  They did not have to worry that speakers invited to campus would call their very existence a “disease” or “a disorder comparable to sociopathy” or explain that they were genetically inferior to individuals of a different race.

Sometime between 1924 and 2013, colleges began to integrate.  My guess is that, for much of that time, female and minority students were (and were expected to be) sufficiently grateful just to attend college in the first place that they did not dare or did not know how to demand a space that respected their existence.  By the time I started college in 1978, we were griping about the white male canon and marching for divestment from apartheid.  Even then, though, I don’t think we gave much thought to how welcoming we were to students of different backgrounds.

But let’s examine the whole “safety” thing from a broader perspective. White people’s need to feel safe has given us lynchings, the modern police state, and BBQ Becky.  A white woman felt emotionally unsafe in the presence of Emmett Till.**** His penalty was not cancellation of his speaking tour or criticism in the college newspaper.  It was violent death at the hands of a white mob.

Do students from marginalized backgrounds demanding respect at university “spell the downfall of democracy.”  Oh hell no.  They will help us build a democracy that is truly democratic. But I’ll edit Williams’s question and answer in the  affirmative. “Has White People’s Cultural Obsession with Safety Almost Spelled the Downfall of Democracy?”  A resounding yes.

****

* I’m not really sure how he ended up with a Cambridge, MA address.  I think I know the story, but it’s not really important.  He was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a family with deep roots in the south.

** I hate telling this story.  Granddaddy is not who I am.  Within his generation, the family fortune was lost in the Depression and he was a very deeply flawed, highly entertaining failure.  My father, also a privileged WASP, married my mother, the daughter of a middle-class Jewish family, and my public school upbringing in the DC suburbs was a far cry from Hotchkiss.  But who am I really fooling?  I went to a small liberal arts college that my aunt and uncle had also attended, and then to Yale Law School, which my father had attended.  My path, too, was plowed by white affirmative action.

*** My father often told this story because he lectured widely on employment discrimination and specifically affirmative action.  He would explain “you want affirmative action?  Let me tell you about Yale’s admissions policies in 1924.”

**** Edited.  I originally wrote, “Emmett Till made a white woman feel emotionally unsafe.”  As Anita Cameron pointed out, Mr. Till himself did nothing.  His accuser ultimately confessed that “she falsely testified he made physical and verbal threats.”

You know who I feel bad for? Alger Hiss.

Alger Fucking Hiss.  Egghead State Department bureaucrat thrown in jail for his fairly tenuous Soviet contacts.*  Also Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner, Lester Cole and others blacklisted in Hollywood for Communist “sympathies.”  Pete Seeger — my musical hero — who was a member of the Communist Party and went to jail for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Image: middle aged white man in a suit jacket with a banjo case over his shoulder.

Pete Seeger arrives at court for sentencing with his banjo over his shoulder, April 4, 1961. Source: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002709318/

Every schmuck who was called before HUAC and stood their ground or didn’t.  Every government employee — like my Grandpa Clarence Blau —  whose loyalty was questioned for the job they held, a newspaper they subscribed to, a meeting they attended, or a petition they signed.  Every American whose FBI file Herbert Hoover created and padded.  Everyone who was ever on the receiving end Joseph McCarthy’s or Richard Nixon’s bloviating.

We were terrified of people who read newspapers or sang songs or attended meetings full of other newspaper-readers or song-singers.  We made people’s lives miserable and ruined careers based on false and flimsy allegations.

Hell, I’m sort of sorry for the Rosenbergs, even if they were guilty.

Why do I feel bad for the entire spectrum — from pale pink to bright red, from folk singer to spies?  Because none — not one — of those individuals stood on stage before a worldwide audience and handed over our country to the Russians.

*****

*According to my Granddaddy Clen, Hiss was framed by Whittiker Chambers.  Granddaddy probably had a rip-roaring case of OCD, undiagnosed.  He spent much of his adult life gathering files and articles, creating maps and timelines, and filling stacks of 3×5 cards about this conspiracy.  This will mean something to approximately 16 living humans.