“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” –Thoreau

22 May 2015

Game of Thrones: The Break Up

Hi ladies and gentlemen.

Look, I get it. I really do. You're going through a tough time right now, and sometimes tough times call for tough love. Tough love is one of the things my nearest and dearest rely on me to deliver, and that is probably why so many of you have asked me to respond to this heartbreak.

You're sad, and you're mad, and you don't really know how to move forward. Or whether you ought to run backwards. We've all been there. Sometimes, relationships end in terrible, heart-wrenching ways. It's so hard to be disappointed in the people that we love.

I am only going to express my honest opinion here because I have been repeatedly asked to do so. If you aren't ready to hear the truth yet, then come back later--when you can handle it. I'll be here.

Because, friends, I have to tell you: Game of Thrones was always totally shitty.

I'm sorry, but it's true. It's not what you want to hear right now, but it is true.

I'm speaking for the television show, here, not the novels by George R.R. Martin which I have not read: Game of Thrones has never been anything but a dark, dank sinkhole of despair and bodily fluids. From episode one--when Viserys Targaryen decides to trade his sister to a violent warlord in exchange for an army and, also, don't forget the incest--until this most recent of three (THREE) gratuitous rape scenes, Game of Thrones has been nothing but cruel to you. It has used the bodies of the most beautiful white women in the world as either a) collateral in a war that seems to be mostly pointless or b) set-dressing for throne rooms, brothels, and the occasional battlefield.

I'm not saying the women aren't smart, and cunning, and manipulative, and fascinating. They are. That's just not, within the realm of the show, their point. The point of women in Game of Thrones is to motivate men's greed, jealousy, and revenge. This has been their function from word-one. It is, after all, a game of thrones. Thrones that women can't sit on, except as accessories.

Ok, yes, Daenerys. She earned her throne through the death of both her husband and son, and, while she is a badass, she is also gradually losing what power she's earned, and, oh yeah, remarrying again because politics. Some of the women, like Daenerys, have made bold choices, self-motivated choices, but ultimately they always ended up as the basis of some man's triumph or defeat. Daenerys has been the catalyst for many a man's downfall, and looks to be headed that way again. Plus, she's probably going to go crazy, and insanity is outside of anyone's control. I'd lay down cash that they strip her of her own mind before the show ends... just sayin'.

Hell, Penny on The Big Bang Theory has more to say about her own life than these (royal) ladies.  Women on this show can't control where they live, whom they marry, or whom they have sex with. To be honest, it's just boring. This is piss-poor writing of women characters, folks. This isn't good TV.

So yeah. Rape.

Here's where I have to throw some credit to George R.R. Martin. Apparently, the first two rapes on the show (the rape of 15-year-old Daenerys by her new husband Khal Drogo, and the rape of Cersei Lannister by Jaime Lannister) were actually consensual, if rather icky, sex in A Song of Ice and Fire. The writers on Game of Thrones turned consensual sex into rape not once but TWICE, and you were still watching it. You are undervaluing your own time. Read the books instead.

Before I get lambasted by all the TV-rape enthusiasts--trust me, they exist--let me state that it doesn't matter who the audience was looking at while the rape occurred. It really doesn't. Only two things matter:

1) This rape happened to Sansa Stark, but in the books it happens to Jeyne Poole. They eliminated a character but decided to hang on to her rape scene. Awesome, guys. Jeyne's story was merged with Sansa's because individually they were considered, by the showrunners, to be too insignificant for it to matter. I seriously wonder how many male characters have been cut and/or combined because they are too insignificant to matter.

2) This treatment of women may be commonplace in the world created for Game of Thrones (again, the show, not the books), but it is NOT realistic. Nothing about Westeros is realistic. They have dragons. It doesn't matter what happened in the real human past because this is just a TV show, and that show could have chosen not to feature three women getting brutally raped. More to the point, people in the middle and dark ages didn't understand too much about the human body. They believed that very rough sex with a woman could damage her baby-making parts (they weren't totally wrong about that) and, since making babies was pretty much the point for aristocratic families, violent rapes were not a very good idea. They tried to save the rape for women whose babymaking abilities weren't important--slaves, servants, and the like. Which isn't to say there weren't sadistic bastards in the middle ages. Sure there were. But acting like rape was somehow normal among people of the same class is just idiotic.

Actually, yeah, Game of Thrones is just idiotic. You can do better.

You deserve entertainment that makes you laugh, and cry, and zone out, and think big thoughts. You deserve to be shocked and challenged, and to come away with questions that only you can answer. You deserve to watch television that questions the status quo rather than reenforcing it. You deserve entertainment that respects you. Game of Thrones has never, ever done that.

I know. The actors are brilliant. The production values are lush. The relationships, the intrigue, even the horror are compelling. And the costumes? EPIC. But what you get, underneath all that window-dressing, is a show that tells us what we already know: that life is really, really shitty, that power over others is the most important thing in the universe, and that pretty white people are always in charge, even in fictional worlds where there is no reason everyone ought to be white.

Have you ever finished up an episode of Game of Thrones thinking, "I feel so good right now" or even "I need to reevaluate how I feel about _______?" Does it give you nightmares?

Why are you doing that to yourself? Why?

This relationship should have run its course after the first season, but any one of us can get caught up in an abusive cycle like this one. We stay because we're attracted to the beauty, the danger, the sexily damaged characters. We watch it because not watching it feels like you're missing something, like you might not get to have what everyone else has (in this case, a common revulsion). Maybe Game of Thrones will do better next time if you give it a chance, right? Maybe, if we love it enough, we might be able to fix it.

Don't go back to that train wreck. I'm begging you, as a friend.

There are going to be those who try to tell you "it wasn't that bad." They'll try to convince you that you're overreacting. They're doing this because they, themselves, can't walk away from the show. They don't want to--not yet. They're excusing their own actions by minimizing your concerns. Just tune them out. They'll get to where you are, too, and then they'll be pretty damn sorry that they gave even more seasons of their life to this cesspool.

Breaking up with a TV show this compelling is really hard, but it's also really necessary. We can't keep telling the entertainment industry that sex sells, even when that sex isn't consensual. We can't maintain this steady diet of violence and degradation without hurting our souls. We can't keep telling ourselves that the things we consume don't alter how we see ourselves and others. Game of Thrones was always, always shitty. You've just finally opened your eyes enough to see it.

It was time. You've done the right thing. I'm here for you. Stay strong.

16 May 2015

Let's Talk About Our Periods

You read the title correctly.

Yes. I am going to talk about MENSTRUATION. At great length and in detail.

Why? Because nobody ever does it.

Women make up roughly half of the world's population, and we have spent most of our lives menstruating. Our periods are as regular as the moon and as unexceptional as sneezing.

And yet...

We can't seem to talk about it. We can't even say the word menstruation. We use euphemisms like "women's problems" and "monthly visitor" and "Aunt Flo." (Gag me.) Both men and women get nervous and restless whenever period-related issues come up-- and they come up, on average, every 28 days for 38 years. If a woman lives to be 76, she'll spend half her life dealing with menstruation. It is absurd to avoid a topic which affects half the world's population for half of their lives on Earth.

And, anyway, it isn't just women who are affected by menstruation. We live with men, and men experience some of the realities of our periods too. They might notice a change in mood, appetite, or sleepiness. Women are often in pain during some part of the menstrual cycle, and that can require assistance. Men might be sent out for pads or tampons, or called upon to assist their daughters when they begin menstruating for the first time. Heterosexual men might choose not have sex with a woman while she's menstruating (although, of course, it is perfectly safe). If a couple is trying to prevent or create a baby, they both need to understand how the menstrual cycle works. Unfortunately, they just don't. Very few women and even fewer men have adequate information about menstruation.

On the whole, we like to pretend that our periods don't exist. That's just dumb.

This will be part one of a two-part post on the topic.
Here are a few important things to know about menstruation.

1) This is a uterus:


2) The menstrual cycle has four parts. Part one is called the follicular phase, and this is when an egg begins to prepare for release from the ovary. This phase varies a lot in length from woman to woman, and even from cycle to cycle. A woman is only fertile during the last part of this phase, for the five days leading up to egg release. Part two is ovulation, when the egg is released from the ovary and begins to travel through the fallopian tubes to the uterus. This phase is very fertile, but only lasts 1-2 days. Part three is the luteal phase when an egg has not been fertilized (if it is fertilized, we call this "conception"). This phase is very consistent in length-- around two weeks for most women-- and causes a spike in both progesterone and estrogen hormones, which quickly drop again until a woman's body starts to menstruate. Part four is menses. This is when the body sheds all the uterine lining it created to sustain a fertilized egg. Menses last, on average, 3-6 days. We call this our "period."

3) To be clear: the average woman is fertile for approximately 10-18 days out of every 28. If a woman is very regular-- meaning her cycle comes consistently and her menses last the same number of days each time-- then it can be possible to track her fertility, either to promote or prevent pregnancy. Some women even use thermometers to measure their temperature every day, in hopes of better predicting ovulation. This method can work for creating a pregnancy, but as far as preventing one... well, it sucks. Our bodies just aren't predictable enough to rely on this method for birth control. With normal practice and normal sexual activity, the fertility awareness method will result in a 25% pregnancy rate. 25 out of 100 people using this method will get pregnant every year. So I can't, and no doctor should, in good conscience, recommend this method if a couple really wants to prevent pregnancy. But knowing more about how menstruation works will allow both men and women to make an educated decision about it. The more you know, the more effective the method will be.

4) The blood released during menses is actually the lining of the uterus. It's made up of mostly tissue, a relatively small amount of liquid blood, and also some mucus. If that sounds gross to you... yeah, I guess, get over it. This happens to most every woman you know every single month. A woman's menses can include what look like blood clots, but these are actually clumps of solid uterine tissue or solid bits of mucus stained by blood. The menses can be bright red, but it can also be every shade of copper and brown, sometimes nearly black, and even occasionally yellow. It can come lightly, heavily, or start and stop. And this is all normal. What isn't normal is an extremely heavy flow, which we tend to think of as "blow-out" periods. These wreck your clothing through pads and tampons, cause anemia, and/or last more than seven days, and they are caused by menorrhagia. For young girls, this is pretty freaky stuff-- they are generally expecting a liquid stream of bright red blood, and that's not what they are going to get. And how are they supposed to find out whether something is amiss? If we don't speak openly about this very normal part of adult womanhood, how can expect our girls to feel comfortable asking us questions? We need to tell them what normal looks and feels like, so they can recognize if something is wrong.

5) Unless you are experiencing menopause, it is not normal to miss a period. For women, our periods are one of the most obvious indicators of our physical health. Missing more than three is called amenorrhea, and it is a serious health concern at any age. Irregular menses can be the result of a lot of issues-- pregnancy (of course), but also very high stress, anxiety disorders and/or clinical depression, infections in other parts of the body, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pre-diabetes, sexually transmitted disease, medication side effects, issues with blood circulation, hormonal imbalances, very low or very high body weight, and a whole host of serious reproductive concerns. Men out there, take note: If your female loved one is missing her period, or it is too light or too heavy, or it is causing her unusual pain or illness, something could be wrong. Don't blow off these symptoms as "women's problems." Don't brush aside her feelings by calling them "dramatics" or "PMS."

Someone you love may be ill.

Part two of this series is coming up. In the meantime, let comedian Cameron Esposito tell you even more about what a period really feels like. It is NSFW, but so amazingly funny.

Questions? Comments? See you soon.

04 March 2015

My Yearly Reality Check

After my annual physical check-up last week, I got a call from my physician. This is never, never a good sign. She is referring me to a cardiologist, and I get to add a new diagnosis to my repertoire.

I have high cholesterol. Very high.

What does "very high" mean? It means that, while less than 200 mg/dl is considered healthy, my cholesterol is over 270 mg/dl. My blood is very nearly a solid. (I jest. Sort of.) Additionally, my HDL cholesterol (the "good" kind) is under 40 mg/dl, which is extremely low. My numbers are what you might reasonably expect in an overweight, smoking man in his 50's or 60's.

And there's nothing I can do about it except medicate the condition for the rest of my life. This is not the result of my diet or lifestyle. It is not a function of aging. This is just wonky genetics.

(I am counted among the diseases these studies say are caused by food choices.)

Am I the paragon of healthy living? No. I walk nearly everywhere, and I live in a third-floor walk-up, but I don't exercise. Do I make healthier choices than the majority of people in the United States (and the rest of the world)? Yep. I eat very well, pay attention to the chemicals I come in contact with, do not drink, smoke or use drugs, and always take my medication as prescribed.

My doctors consider me a model patient. If healthy living could guarantee wellness, I'd be well. But the idea that a "healthy lifestyle" will result in a healthy person is a lie, and a very hurtful one.

(#45 is "Hang out with healthy people." Didn't you know that you can catch Crohn's Disease through hugs? You've been warned.)

Let me tell you what "healthy lifestyle choices" have gained me.
I am alive. Full stop. That's it.
But for someone in my position, that's a lot.

My doctor's appointments generally do not go well. I have not walked out of an appointment in the last five years or so with good news. This diagnosis is the latest in a long string of medical conditions, most of which already impacted my diet. None of these conditions are "curable," and the combination is extremely challenging to treat. I'll lay out the problem as simply as I can, and these are only the conditions which directly affect my diet...

High Risk of Diabetes: limit your carbs and sugars (bread, cereal, pasta, regular and sweet potatoes, rice, corn, all fruit, and sweeteners)

High Cholesterol: limit your fats, especially saturated fats (most kinds of meat, dairy products, eggs, vegetable and nut oils, peanut butter, many kinds of beans and nuts, and most sauces)

Crohn's Disease: limit your lactose (dairy products), limit your gluten (wheat products, especially whole wheat), limit your veggies (especially beans of all kinds, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and other greens, uncooked carrots, and brussel sprouts), limit your nuts and seeds (of any kind, although almonds are the least irritating), limit acidic foods (olives, many nuts, citrus fruits, coffee, cocoa, any canned or glazed fruits, and tomatoes)

There is nearly nothing I am allowed to eat. I have to limit every food group. It is an impossible task.

I've switched over to as much organic as I can afford, because I believe it is better for me, and I've added a few foods I didn't eat before (like chia seeds and spinach). I limit my dairy and gluten intake, eat one serving of meat per day, and try to gauge how I'm feeling all the time so I can adjust what I take in. I eat whole foods, consume very few chemical additives, and eat small amounts throughout the day to regulate my blood sugar.

But none of this is healing me. It can't. I have a set of complicated genetic disorders and predispositions, and I can't fix that with "healthy lifestyle choices." I'm telling you all of this not because I need to justify myself, but because I think it is important to understand that these conditions we consider "lifestyle choices" are actually much more complex than that.

(It's that simple, right?)

Health isn't always a choice.

In addition to this "healthy living" fallacy, I find the whole idea that "God heals" very offensive. We know that people often don't heal. Babies still die of SIDS. Little children starve to death. This isn't limited to physical ailments either; diseases like schizophrenia and depression claim lives all the time. Young people, adults, old people are all dying of survivable diseases every day, and nobody is healing them. Not God. Not fruits and veggies. Not you or me.

Healing isn't a matter of faith.
It isn't a reward for righteous living.
It is so cruel to say that it is.

Our lives are precarious. We can make all the right choices, and still get sick. We can make the wrong ones, and live long lives. The world is not fair. Justice is a choice we have to make, day by day-- not the natural state of the universe.

If it sounds like I'm belittling people's hope, then I am not communicating well. Hope is lovely. I'm certainly not trying to talk anyone out of their efforts to get healthier-- mentally, physically, or emotionally. But we have to push back against the idea that illness, of any kind, is weakness of character. That if people would just eat the right foods, do the right exercise, stop smoking and drinking and watching TV, pray enough or in the right way, take the right combination of pills and supplements, then they would most certainly heal. We should do our best to care for the vessels we live in; that doesn't mean that those with damaged vessels are to blame for the damage. Illness is not laziness.

(Thanks, insurance company, for that helpful reminder.)

My gastroenterologist is a plain spoken guy, and I'll paraphrase him here: "You should do what you can to live comfortably with your disorders. This is incurable, so don't waste your life trying to cure yourself. A lot of people are so obsessed with finding universal cures that they can't appreciate anything less." I wrote that last part down, verbatim. I carry it in my wallet.

When it is suggested to me that I can "cure" what ails me with essential oils, or eating more fish, or weight training, or meditation... that hurts. That suggests that I am not doing enough, not trying hard enough to make myself better. That my physical condition is my fault. It isn't.

I have a right to live my life with dignity, without the constant struggle to try to "get better." The parts of me that matter aren't broken, and I want to spend my time appreciating and sharing those parts. My vessel is damaged, but my mind, my heart, and my soul are just fine.

I will never be a "well" person. I can live with that.
I don't need to get better. I am enough.