Dark Socks

One of my favorite quotes from The Simpsons is when Lisa says, “I learned that beneath my goody two shoes are some very dark socks.”

In my early teens, I was sent to juvie for eight months for self injurious behavior. Before that, I was a bit of a goody two shoes, compulsively following most rules I was given. But one of the first things I learned from the juvenile correctional program was that some rules are made to be broken. By my third day there, I learned that I had to break the rules in order to poop.

One of the rules there was that we were required to shower every day. My first shower was prompted by someone saying, “You, shower now.” I did as I was told, and when I stepped out of the bathroom 15 minutes later, I was met by my enraged peers, closing in on me like a pack of angry dogs. By occupying the bathroom for more than ten minutes, I had apparently communicated that I’d decided I was more important than anyone else there.

The next day when it was my turn in the bathroom, I spent about five minutes on the toilet before hopping in for a quick shower. I got out, dried my head enough to put in my hearing aids, and vacated the bathroom in just under ten minutes. This time, everyone looked at me with disgust, like I had shit on my face or something. I got in trouble for being unsanitary because I had spent less than five minutes in the shower.

The day after that, I tried to poop faster, but I couldn’t. I stopped in the middle to go turn on the shower so I wouldn’t get in trouble again. When I finished on the toilet, I had just enough time to wet my hair so people would believe I’d showered. It worked. I didn’t get in trouble.

I began to see the dark socks peeking out from beneath my goody two shoes. I learned to feign showers regularly so I could poop in the toilet without getting in trouble for being selfish or unsanitary. It makes almost as much sense as sending me to juvie to punish me for punishing myself.

Not Smoking

Whenever I take the train, I bring a painting respirator with me. It’s the only place I wait around outside under “no smoking” signs, so I know I’m almost guaranteed to have people blowing cigarette smoke in my face. Tobacco smoke makes me sick, and dust masks don’t keep it out. When I wear a breathing mask, some people blow smoke in my face intentionally. When that happens, a dust mask will actually trap the cigarette smoke in and make things much worse. I love how my painting respirator protects me from tobacco smoke, even if people are blowing it right in my face.

A few weeks ago, I got off a train where a group of people was hanging out on the platform next to an overturned shopping cart that was really in the way. One guy in the group was intentionally obstructing the flow of people getting off the train while blowing smoke into as many people’s faces as he could while we squeezed past him. I walked by with my painting respirator on, and he looked me in the eye and said, “Fuck you, white bitch.” He was obviously looking for a conflict, and kind of a turd. I wasn’t surprised, but I have some major problems with what he said.

I am comfortable with people resenting me for being white, but there was a lot more than that going on. He singled me out from the other white people because my body’s needs are different from the average human body’s needs. That’s ableist. Also, he used a misogynist insult, which triggers my gender dysphoria. But what upsets me the most is the context in which he called me a bitch. I prevented him from putting something into my body that I didn’t want there, and he responded by calling me a bitch. He was obviously an asshole, so it makes sense that his words had rape culture in them. But plenty of less objectionable people have said the same thing in similar circumstances, which is a bad pattern.

I think a lot about how white I am when I wear a painting respirator to take the train. Lots of people stare, but the worst thing I seriously worry about is having an angry smoker burn me on purpose. In the grand scheme of things, that isn’t very scary. Cigarette cherries burn at a low enough temperature that it takes at least a couple seconds of sustained contact to cause any significant injury.

If I were a POC, though, I would be seriously worried about getting murdered by police for having a health problem and taking public transportation. People might think I was a terrorist, so I probably wouldn’t wear the painting respirator at all and would simply tolerate my illness and be discreet when I have to puke. POCs who have health problems like mine don’t have the same freedom to protect their bodies as I do.

Wearing a painting respirator to ride the train is a really white thing to do. Not because I’ve seen other white people do it, but because if I wasn’t white, I’d get harassed by white people for doing it. And that would almost certainly lead to police involvement which is inherently dangerous. I wish more smokers would consider who they might be hurting that can’t safely do anything about it.

Waste Not

I am frequently given the message that I waste resources by being disabled. Healthcare is treated as a luxury in this country (USA). Welfare recipients are vilified by politicians and the media. When social security gets cut, some older folks rant about how all the money they paid in got wasted. My social security disability benefits have kept me alive, so I feel bummed when I hear people complaining about what a waste that has been.

In my efforts to earn a bachelor’s degree, the majority of my professors have refused to accommodate me in the ways disability services staff have recommended. One professor even forbade me from advocating for myself in class when other students’ behavior was interfering with my ability to learn and participate. (Interestingly enough, that was the professor that taught me the basics about social justice.)

I definitely internalize and perpetuate these attitudes toward myself. I consistently treat others’ needs as more important than mine. When I do jobs for money, I pay myself less than minimum wage because I know I don’t work as quickly as other people do. I have a hard time feeling like I have any value when I’m not doing lots of volunteer work.

I love the Earth and I am passionate about reducing litter and waste. I’ve been picking up litter in various places for about seven years. I buy bulk and bring my own containers and bags. I bring my own dishes to events with disposable dishes. I always try to have a water bottle with me.

In the past year or so, I’ve come to realize that my passion for waste reduction has become entangled with my internalized ableism. When I don’t feel worthy of having my basic needs met, I frame it as a waste issue. If I am hungry but I can’t prepare food from scratch today, is it OK to produce plastic waste by eating prepackaged food? If I forgot my water bottle at home, is it OK to buy a bottle of water to stay hydrated during a meeting? If I forgot my coffee cup at home because I was so drowsy from my meds, is it OK to get coffee in a disposable cup to help me wake up?

People who love me would probably answer any of these questions with, “Yes! And remember, you still produce way less trash than most people.” I’ve been working on being more gentle with myself about these things.

A month or two ago, I saw an article about how banning plastic straws disadvantages disabled people. It turns out that compostable straws disintegrate in hot liquids. Before reading the article, I hadn’t considered this issue because most of us don’t use straws with hot drinks. But people who need to use a straw to drink want to enjoy a hot beverage sometimes, and common alternatives to polystyrene don’t work well for this. Compostable straws melt, and stainless steel or glass straws conduct heat, thus increasing the risk of burns.

When I ask myself if I should be allowed to get a coffee even if I forgot my cup at home, I really want to be able to say yes. But when I think about this, I can’t help but also consider the people who need a straw to drink their coffee. If they forget their titanium or silicone straw at home, should they still be allowed to drink coffee at a restaurant? I’m worried that plastic straw bans are legislatively answering, “No!”

I am very concerned about plastic waste, and straw overuse is a significant part of the problem. However, I am not comfortable with a proposed solution that has the greatest negative impact on a marginalized group of people.

Ande’s Phone

I legally changed my name almost two years ago. Yesterday, I finally took on the task of updating my name with my cell phone provider. It was a huge challenge. I understand why I put if off for so long.

My old phone hardly worked anymore, so yesterday I headed to the T-mobile store four blocks from my house to update my name and shop for a new phone. I couldn’t remember where I put my court order for name change, so I took my old driver’s license and my current one with me, hoping they’d be enough.

I got to the store and waited about ten minutes to get a salesperson. I told him I needed to update my name and he said, “OK, we need to get that updated before I can even access your account for you here. Hang on a sec.” He consulted with a colleague about what to do, and came back. “You’ll need to bring in your birth certificate, social security card, and driver’s license.”

I told him my birth certificate still has my old name, but that I had an official court document from my name change. He said he thought I should bring that then. Another coworker interjected and said I needed to call customer care. Apparently the procedure for updating customer names had changed. So I went outside and stood next to a “No Loitering” sign to hang around and talk on the phone.

I called customer care and told the representative that I legally changed my name and needed to update it on my account. She asked why it changed, “Did you get married or divorced?” I said no. She asked what my name changed to, and I started to answer, “My first name is now Ande, A-N-D-E,” and she answered, “Oohhhhhh, I see what’s going on here.” My old name was more feminine so I think she figured out it was a gender thing.

She put me on hold for a bit and then told me since it wasn’t a marriage or divorce, I might have to go to a store to update my account. I told her I was standing outside the store that had just told me I needed to call her. She put me on hold for a while again. She came back and said I needed to mail “any applicable legal proof” along with a photocopy of my driver’s license to a P.O. box in Albuquerque. She said if I mailed them right away, they should be able to update my account within a month. I worried about the timeline since my driver’s license expires in a week and a half, but I kept that concern to myself for the moment.

I told the customer care person that my phone was in really rough shape and might not last a month. “Is there a way I can access my account at a store sooner than that?” She told me to bring in a legal document with my old and new names. I asked if my old and new driver’s licenses would be enough and she said probably not. I went home and searched frantically until I found my court document. I brought it with me back to the store.

I waited 5-10 minutes for my turn to talk to a salesperson. As I told him my phone number, I pulled a folder out of my bag. He asked for my ID. I opened the folder and said, “Here is my original court order for name change from the name on my account to my current name which is printed here on my current state-issued ID.” I set down my driver’s license. He looked at my documents for a moment and asked if I happened to have my old ID with me. I took it out and set it next to my current ID, which has the same photo of me that still looks like me.

He poked at his tablet for a minute or two and then said, “OK, I’ve got your name updated on your account. What else can I do for you?” I asked him in a few different ways if he had really just straightened that out for me. He had. While he helped me with my phone upgrade, I said I was glad I was able to dig up that court order that day. He said, “Oh, you could have just come in with your old and new IDs and we could have taken care of that for you.”

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Being a Quercus

My name is Ande Quercus. Last April, I got a book called The Magic of Trees as a gift from my friend Erin. I learned that oak trees (genus Quercus) are associated with various thunder gods because of their reputation for getting struck by lightning more than other trees. Elysa and I had a good laugh and called me “Ande the thunder tree” because of my impressive gassiness. But the association of Quercus with lightning soon came to have deeper spiritual meaning for me.

Last year was my first year at Midway Green Spirit Garden, the big awesome community garden in my neighborhood. Signing up was a big deal for me. I love plants. I love gardening. But a big part of community gardening is interfacing with other humans. A lot of them. Fifty-one plots’ worth, if I remember correctly. I’m afraid of humans, so this was really overwhelming for me. But I’m getting to know the people there. The most intimidating part has been the humans I encounter while traveling the mile between my house and the garden.

Last May, I had just picked my plot and gotten my volunteer assignment in tool maintenance, and I was really excited to jump in. One day, when I was biking home from the garden on a marked bikeway, some asshole in a pickup truck towing a large utility trailer cut me off to pull an aggressive but slow u-turn. I honked my air horn while skidding to an abrupt halt. He blocked me from traveling down that street for a minute or two. When he finally parked and let me pass, he shouted a rape threat at me.

This incident was really upsetting for me. I imagine it would be for most people. Less than a week after it happened, I had an appointment with my psychiatrist. I told him I was still upset about the rape threat that had recently been directed at me. He laughed and told me I was inviting that kind of treatment by choosing to look the way I do (i.e. conspicuously gender non-conforming). To be clear, my doctor, who was supposed to be helping me manage my PTSD symptoms, told me I was inviting violent threats by not shaving my face when others wanted me to.

He went on to tell me that I’m basically a lightning rod. What is a lightning rod? It’s a thing humans build to attract dangerous lightning strikes away from important things. Its purpose is to get struck by lightning so other things don’t. I dislike being called a lightning rod.

After my upsetting appointment, I was a mess. Elysa let me cry on her and shout in anger at being blamed for the violence I endure. “I’m not a lightning rod,” I wept, not quite believing it as I said it. “You’re not a lightning rod,” she assured me. “You’re an oak tree, Ande Quercus.”

MacGyver the Storm Drain

The storm drain in my alley needs regular help to keep up with its job. I noticed this during my first winter living here. The alley became a lake during a thaw and it took an auger truck half a day to get it draining. It was a huge operation. I felt a little sad about the money and waste that went into fixing a problem I might have been able to prevent. I set a personal goal to prevent our block from needing that service again.

When my city started an Adopt-a-Storm-Drain program, I immediately adopted that drain. The program let me name the drain, so I called it MacGyver, in honor of my recently deceased pet rat. I think MacGyver is a higher maintenance drain than some of the others, which makes my job extra important.

When MacGyver has a crisis, the alley floods, and then I run around giggling in my rain boots until I fix it. Unclogging that drain is one of the funnest things I do in life. MacGyver gets clogged with two main things: pine needles and ice. Pine needles aren’t the type of leaf one rakes, so sometimes it takes a heavy rainfall to get them all in one place.

Several months ago, there was a rainstorm so fierce that it clogged MacGyver with pine needles and then flooded the alley to the point that people’s trash carts started floating away. I threw on my rain boots, grabbed my tiny rake, and got to work. The water was so deep at the storm drain that it spilled over the top of my rain boots, which are a foot tall. It was tough to pull the clumps of pine needles away from the drain because of the extreme suction. I squealed with glee when a vortex formed in the draining water. And just like that, I likely saved one or two neighbors from catastrophic basement flooding. I may have even prevented flood damage to a neighbor’s car engine, because it was too deep to drive through.

This morning, Elysa brought it to my attention that MacGyver required my assistance. I could hardly wait to get to work. I grabbed my ice chipper, put on my rain boots and hurried out to the alley. This was a special opportunity. Breaking apart ice that’s under a puddle is a unique experience. I can’t really see the chunk of ice I’m working on, so I have to go by feel. Poking around with my ice chipper gives me a general idea of the shape of the ice.

my feet in rain boots, standing in ice water that's almost eight inches deep
Before: here are my feet standing in ice water that is almost 8” deep.

Finding a storm drain under four inches of ice is tricky. The first thing I do is get down to the pavement somewhere nearby. As a hard-of-hearing person, I get a lot of important information from the vibrations I feel through my feet. I’ve spent enough time with MacGyver to know how the ground vibrates nearby. Once I get my boot on the pavement and tap around it with my ice chipper, I have a pretty good idea where MacGyver is. I had to clear a few slots on the drain cover before the water started to flow. The initial trickle helped erode the ice and improve the drainage.

my feet in rain boots, standing next to my ice chipper on the storm drain I just cleared
After: here I am standing in the same place, on the newly visible storm drain.

I watched and listened to the draining water for almost 45 minutes before going back inside. Today has made me enjoy being hard-of-hearing. My deaf ways helped me find the storm drain, and I still got to enjoy the the amplified sound of the flowing water when I’d achieved my goal.

Queer Disabled Activism

I am genderqueer and disabled. I don’t consider these to be my main traits or even my most interesting ones. But when I interact with groups of people, they often feel like my only traits. I’m so busy trying to make space for my gender and my disability that I have a hard time finding room for my values, interests, and ideas.

My conspicuous gender nonconformity is one of the first things most people notice about me. Many people stare, point and laugh, throw things at me, or ask me misguided and intrusive questions. Sometimes random strangers come up to me and tell me they are totally fine with me being the way I am. Sometimes people make a big show of calling me a woman to demonstrate that they are OK with my beard.

There are some groups of people that are totally unfazed by my nonbinary gender. This is always nice, but it only helps so much. Transportation is a huge challenge for me. I’ve been treated badly because of my gender presentation while walking, biking, driving, taking the bus, and taking the train.

Bathrooms are also frustrating for me. When there are gendered bathrooms, I don’t look like I belong in either one. And I still feel awkward in lots of places that have a gender inclusive bathroom. Some gender inclusive bathrooms are labeled “family bathroom.” I’ve gotten dirty looks from people with children when I’ve used those. I used to frequent a building that had gender inclusive toilets at the end of a dark hallway in the basement. A few years ago, I attended a climate change preparedness training in a building that had gender inclusive bathrooms, but going the training didn’t give me access to the part of the building where these bathrooms were.

When I manage to safely get to an event that is attended by people who are respectful about my gender and that is held in a place with a toilet I can access safely, my next concern is disability access. I am invisibly disabled so I have to be very vocal if I want to be accommodated. I am hard of hearing and neurodivergent, and I have an assortment of ankle, knee, hip, and shoulder problems.

My hearing impairment is typically the hardest thing to get accommodated. I get nervous when I have to give my phone number to register for an event because I hate trying to talk on the phone. In most environments, I have a difficult time following what people are saying. Background noise is very hard for me to tune out. I rely heavily on visual cues, so I do best when I can clearly see whoever is talking. I can’t usually follow anything when multiple conversations are happening near me, so breaking into small groups to discuss things doesn’t work well for me. I am not fluent in ASL, so an interpreter would not fix things.

I have a really hard time asking for disability accommodations, because it makes me feel disruptive which makes me feel panicky. I have an easier time advocating for others’ access than my own. I usually miss a lot of what is said and keep my frustrations about it to myself, but I want to get better at asking for what I need. Whether or not I work to be accommodated, my disability plays a big role in my attempts to get involved in my local community.

Much of my activism is driven by my desire to reduce my community’s negative environmental impact. But I’m learning, after addressing my queerness and disability, I don’t have much energy left to express my values. Any activism I do is queer disabled activism before it’s anything else.

The Telephone “Game”

I hate the telephone game. That’s the one where a message is passed down a line of people via whispers. The first person whispers the message to the second person who then whispers it to the third person, and so on. The idea is to get the message down the line intact, but it usually gets changed as a result of people mishearing each other. I remember being required to play it many times during my childhood. Adults always made us play if we had to wait in a line for very long.

If someone wanted to invent a game that would make hard-of-hearing kids feel like crap while encouraging others to dislike them, I think they would have come up with this game. I hated being expected to hear people without being able to read their lips at all. I often couldn’t decipher any of what was whispered to me, so I had to just make something up to keep the game going. The other kids would get upset when the end message was too different from the beginning message too many times. Eventually they’d figure out that I was the one screwing it up, then everyone would get frustrated with me for playing the game wrong.

I wish I would ever have been allowed to opt out. My hearing impairment was documented. I hated playing that crappy game, and everyone hated playing it with me. I wish I had been allowed to quietly hone my mental math skills instead.

Laura Gail Landmeyer

Today is Laura’s birthday. She would have turned 35 this year, but she died when she was 18. I knew her for less than a year, but she had a huge impact on my life. We were in foster care together. She was nine months younger than me and she was like a little sister to me. We loved each other even though we didn’t always get along.

We bonded a lot over our shared appreciation of the little bits of freedom that many teenagers take for granted. We had both been institutionalized for mental illness, so we got excited about things like being allowed to wear shoes, listen to the radio, and have private conversations. When Laura and I first met, I said something profane, and her face lit up and she exclaimed, “Wow! We’re allowed to swear here?!”

Being allowed to go outside by ourselves felt like the ultimate freedom. I have fond memories of warm autumn nights when we’d walk to the public boat launch on the lake. We’d sit on the dock with our toes in the water and look up at the stars. I’m glad we got to do that together. When you’re in an institution and you get to go outside at all, you don’t get to see the stars.

Laura idolized me. I liked it at first because it made me feel important. But after a while I got sick of her always smoking my cigarettes and wanting to go everywhere with me. I needed breaks from her sometimes. We had been fighting when she died. I had wanted space from her, but then she was gone. I was absolutely devastated. I fell into a deep depression. I went over a month without changing my clothes or bathing.

One important thing I learned from Laura’s death was that losing a loved one unexpectedly is extremely painful, even if you haven’t really enjoyed their company lately. That is to say, even if everyone is sick of me, a lot of people would probably be really devastated if I died. When I have felt suicidal, I have not been able to convince myself that it wouldn’t hurt anyone if I died.

Laura suffered a lot in her short life. Her mental illness made her life scary. The illness itself frightened her. “Getting help” always felt like a punishment. People were mean to her because she was strange. My memories of Laura have shaped my activism. I like to imagine a world where she could have felt safe.

I think about her when I try to encourage others to be respectful with how they talk about people with mental illnesses. I think about her when I try to raise awareness of the punishment camps we call mental health care facilities. I think about her when I try to make my neighborhood more walkable.

Raising Intensity

When I was 14 (and 15), I spent 8 months in the non-secure part of a large correctional facility. I was in a building called the “shelter.” I had been told it was a residential mental health care center, but it was the unlocked building on a prison campus. The shelter primarily housed discarded young people who hadn’t committed any crimes. It was bad there. It was a punishment-centered program, and I got punished several times a day for being hard-of-hearing and for experiencing side effects from my medications.

Twenty years later, I continue to experience PTSD symptoms from that placement multiple times every week. Sometimes it comes up in my weekly therapy. A month or so ago, my therapist told me that she thinks there are a few ways in which the Lino shelter is a little better than it was a decade ago, but they still do some really messed up stuff, such as “raising intensity.”

I came home from therapy, talking about how raising intensity is not a way to help anyone. Elysa asked about the practice, and I said, “Oh yeah, that’s when everyone stands in a circle around the accused and screams and swears at them and calls them names. Sometimes staff members even throw furniture. If you get spit on your lips from someone screaming in your face, you’re not allowed to wipe it away.” She was kind of horrified. I suppose that’s a healthier response than my learned indifference.