A Middle-Aged White Woman’s Encounter with Two State Police Officers. Or: How I am unbelievably privileged, and it’s still hard. Or: Some of our laws are CRAZY!

Disclaimer, right from the start:  I realize in today’s world, this is hardly worth writing about – for more serious, intellectual reflections on race, see my friend Toddie Peter’s blogs –

Toddie’s post

Or check out my friends Rev. LeAnn McDannel Hodges or Rev. Cindy Cushman on facebook, mothers of rainbow-hued children, or my friend Rev. James Ellis III, whose pastorship is invisible but whose skin color is obvious.  None of this is theoretical or a laughing matter.  It’s their lives.

Otherwise, read on:

Here’s my daughter, Sadie:  The day was August 12, two days before her 16th birthday.

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We went to the MVA for her learner’s permit test.  After long hours, she passed, picked up her temporary permit, and we got into my car.  And I backed out of my spot, right into another car.  An old Crown Victoria.  An unmarked police car.

I got out, investigated the damage, of which there was NONE.  This is important:  NOT EVEN A SCRATCH.  Bumpers kissed.  I started to walk back to the driver’s side, when I started getting yelled at.  Because the driver of that car, a State Police Officer who worked at the MVA, happened to walk around the corner and hear the bump.  He was angry.  And big.  And yelling.

I was like “What?”  Because yes, I was about to drive off without leaving a note because remember, NOT EVEN A SCRATCH.  Apparently, I was threatening his job:

if he didn’t report this, he would blow 20 years on the force;

didn’t I understand how serious this was;

anytime a state police vehicle gets into a crash it must be reported;

another person heard the crash so there was a witness.  And on and on.

Amy’s amygdala at this point, which HATES to get in trouble, is on the verge of tears.  Amy’s prefrontal cortex, which hates illogical authority, was sputtering, politely, but yes, with an edge.  Because NOT EVEN A SCRATCH.  And I’m being told – yelled – that the State Police from the nearest precinct must be called, they must come and investigate and report this as a crime.  You are KIDDING ME.  (sorry for all the caps, but seriously…..)

So, we wait.  No, we cannot move our car, which is now not only blocking prime parking spots at the MVA, but the entire roadway.  It is hot.  I’m vacillating between tears of getting in trouble, and frustration at HOW RIDICULOUS this is.  My daughter takes a nap.  It occurs to me this could have been worse – She could have been driving.  My daughter wakes up.  She asks, “Why can’t we just take a picture, send it to the precinct, let them determine if it’s worth reporting or not?”

One hour forty-five minutes during which I get berated a wee bit more before the “victim”of this crime goes back into his comfy air conditioned seated post.  I remain perplexed as to why he is so freakin’ angry, because his life is not disrupted in the least.

The State Police Officer comes.  It takes another hour, at the end of which I am told that even though this is absurd, ridiculous, illogical, a COMPLETE WASTE OF EVERYONE’S TIME, I have to go to court.  Yes, you read that right:  I am going to court; the state ticketed me; they may ask me to pay hundreds of dollars to repaint the 20 yo, 200K + miles Crown Victoria bumper; and this poor police officer has to go to court as well.  If I just pay the fine, and skip court, my insurance company will raise my rates.

He was so incredibly kind, breaking role to let me know that he too found it ridiculous, and there was an overturned tractor trailer on the DC beltway and a child trapped in a car, and he would much rather be there.  So now I feel horribly guilty AND indignant.

But:  I am white.  I have more or less decent emotional regulation (I didn’t get hysterical with weeping or screaming.)  I am female.  I am small.  I was professional dressed (well, on-sale REI and Title Nine clothes – but obviously middle class)  I am well-spoken.  I admit I did indeed back into the other car, so I readily admit my guilt (although I did have to add, “But seriously, the punishment here does NOT fit this crime!  NEAS!)   I have got to be about the least threatening specimen of an adult human being a police officer can ever expect to deal with.  In this interaction, I was privileged 6 ways to Sunday.

But here is what matters:  I  know just how differently this could have unfolded:  If I were poor.  Black or undocumented.  If I couldn’t control my amygdala or my mouth (not that it wasn’t a struggle, mind you!)  If I were a large male in an old t-shirt and flip-flops.  If I were missing teeth.  If I got belligerent.  If I verbalized my thoughts:  This is the DUMBEST law I have ever heard of, and I’m not staying!  If I were losing pay, and maybe my job, because what should’ve taken 2 hours was now closer to 5.  If I wore a burka, or hijab.  Spoke another language.  And all the other ways I take so for granted I don’t even realize.  Our brains are wired to stereotype, categorize, take short-cuts.  Sometimes it falls our way, and when it doesn’t fall someone else’s way, we are wired to assume it was their fault.  But those same brains are wired to analyze, if we just use them.

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Sexist Blindspots: I hate running into them in people who should know better

We all have them – blindspots, that is.  I’m not arguing that point in this post.

And the pastor in me does try to have some compassion for others’ blindspots, because I know I’ve got them as well.  (The log versus the speck and all that.)

But when I see a blind spot in the world of academia, in the social sciences, in popular history books like “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” in the one chapter that directly addresses the pervasiveness of patriarchy – AUGH!  My heart is already beating harder as I write.  (And that’s because anytime I’m reminded that sexism is alive and well, my amygdala feels threatened.)

The guilty party?  Yuval Noah Harari, history professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and author of the newly popular New York Times best-seller “Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind.”  (Don’t let the accuracy of “humankind” vs “mankind” fool you.”

Yuval Noah Harari's book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind"

It’s not that I didn’t like the book – And no, it’s not about patriarchy or feminism or equality between the sexes.

BUT.  He does point out how cultures have used the biological differences (aka wombs) as the foundation for cultural reasons why men should be in charge.  Then he goes on to perpetuate that same stereotype and hierarchy in the language he uses to refer to people.

Yes, in some places does he use the more precise and clear “humanity” and “humankind,” but in other places he reverts to “mankind,” or even, ugh, “men of science.”  At the very least, where was his editor?  And how can he possibly miss how his language is perpetuating the problem?  BLINDSPOT.

He sees the vicious circle clearly when addressing how men – yes, I mean men – of color were excluded from white collar jobs and therefore since no men of color held white collar jobs, clearly they weren’t capable of white collar jobs.  But he’s blind to how he does the exact same thing when it comes to women.

And at the ending chapter of the Part 2: The Agricultural Revolution, titled, “There Is No Justice in History,” he says:

“If the patriarchal system is based on unfounded myths versus biological facts, then what accounts for its universality and the stability of the system?”  Good question.  And he inadvertently answers it two pages later:

Part 3: The Unification of Humankind, opens with this sentence:  “Unlike the laws of physics, every MAN-MADE  (in case you couldn’t guess, emphasis all mine) order is packed with internal contradictions, and cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions.”  Hmmmm.  Women aren’t part of culture?

And then “….(The modern political order) … guarantee(s) that every individual (is) free to do as HE wishes, (which) inevitably shortchanges equality….”  Ah, yes, women are not “free to do as (they) wish….”

And he continues to use the inexact and prejudiced male referent throughout the rest of the book to the very end, where he says, “And it’s not just pious monotheists who object that MAN should not usurp God’s role”  (Heaven forbid women should try.)

I guess what irks me so much is that he is addressing the very problem he is blind to.  And yes, I know I am tilting at windmills.  But “MAN” means just that:  “males.”  Which are NOT the normative.  People are normative, even to quote Harara himself:

“(The words) “man” and “woman” name social constructs, not biological categories…..” “because biology is willing to tolerate a wide spectrum of possiblities.”  To get all Jesus-y, “In Christ there is neither male nor female.”

“Don’t TELL me to CALM DOWN!” Why it won’t work

Ever heard these 6 words when you’ve been upset?   Ever said these words because someone else was upset?

And how did that go for you?  I’m guessing, from personal experience, not well.

I admit I’ve lost it probably more than my fair share of times – You know what that looks like and sounds like:  In my case, a screechy voice, troll-like red dripping nose, zombie-like eyes spouting fountains of tears, hiccups, maybe throw in a foot stomp or two.  Shall we say, not a pretty picture?  I can’t form sentences, at least not ones that are coherent to humans.  But more to the point, I cannot hear you.  Especially if you are calmly telling me to “just calm down.”  Even though I’m guilty of saying it to my own teenaged daughter.  Even though I know it won’t work.

But why is this so ineffective?

When the limbic system takes charge, it hears your pre-frontal cortex command to “calm down” as a personal affront.

When my pre-frontal executive rational logical functioning mind goes off-line because all my mental energy is consumed with anger, betrayal, injustice, hurt, fear rumbling like a volcano spewing forth, I cannot hear your words.  At least not the way they are intended.  Those words get filtered through the lava of anger, betrayal, injustice, hurt, and fear so what I hear when you say, “Just calm down,” is:

Judgment:  Why are you so upset?

Critique: There’s nothing to be THAT upset about.

Impatience: You are just over-reacting.

Belittlement:  It is not a big deal.

Disgust: What’s wrong with you, anyway?

Dismissal: What you are feeling is wrong, out of control, and not nearly as important as you think it is.  IE: You and your feelings are not important.

Of course this is NOT what you are trying to communicate to the person who’s lost it in front of you!  But what you may be communicating when you say, “Just calm down now,” is:

Your amygdala’s display of such uncensored and apparently out-of-control emotional volatility is making me uncomfortable, and I can’t help you when you are like this, and that makes me uncomfortable, so please calm down and we’ll all feel much better.

So what to do?  Imagine that apparently out of control limbic system in front of you is a scared, wild animal.  Because honestly, it pretty much is.  Soothe it – don’t command it.  Reach out to comfort it – don’t dismiss it.  It’s skittish, and scared, and lonely.  Don’t threaten it.  Let it know you won’t hurt it, you understand, because to them, in that moment, the world is not safe, and they aren’t convinced you are safe.  Under no circumstances say, “Just Calm Down.”  That’s like fuel to the fire.  And no one feels better.

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Name it to tame it: Upstairs-Downstairs and Left-Right

What exactly is going on when we throw a hissy fit?  What can we do about it?  And what can we do to help our kids handle their own tantrums?

If you’re the parent of a small child, you’ve been there.  We were at the mall, my kids were three and one, and for whatever mysterious reasons, the three year old had a conniption fit.  In public.  Not even in a store, but in the open-air walkway.  I was sleep-deprived the way only a working parent of toddlers trying to write a dissertation can be.  I gave up; we all collapsed in the walkway, and I let him cry it out.

If you’ve ever lost your temper at work, or yelled at your kids or spouse, you’ve been there, too.

We all lose it at one time or another.  We all have borne the brunt of someone else’s temper.  What is going on?

This video :

http://www.kidsinthehouse.com/video/how-storytelling-connects-both-sides-brain

is for my West Coast friend Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, who runs the Jewish mindfulness network (see http://www.ravjill.com/the-jewish-mindfulness-network/)

since she asked me ages ago how naming our emotions helps calm us down. (I apologize for the ad at the beginning.)

Here, Daniel Siegel explains how a parent can respond to a child who trips and skins her knee.

The right side of the brain is the “experiencing” side, where all our emotions and physical sensations are registered. It is the left side that uses linear, logical, and language thought to make sense of the world.

Okay, yes, this is simplistic, but it helps to conceptualize what is happening.

When we are overwhelmed by what the right side is experiencing – The emotions, the pain – then the right side is in charge. Another way of thinking about it is upstairs versus downstairs, with the downstairs representing the amygdala, which sparks the fight-flight-freeze- faint response.  The upstairs is the executive of the whole operation, the prefrontal cortex.

So, if the right-experiencing side and the downstairs-amygdala of the brain are in charge, well, it can get ugly fast. That’s when tantrums and yelling and outbursts take over, and we feel out of control. Because our emotions are in control.

But, upstairs, the prefrontal cortex provides emotional regulation, and puts the brakes on the impulsivity of the amygdala, keeping us from flipping our lid.  Bring the left hemisphere of the brain on board, to use language to make sense of what is happening, and you can now integrate the experience using all the tools available in the brain.

The linear-language-logical left brain and the executive prefrontal cortex can calm the raging alligator downstairs and soothe the pain felt in the right.

No we can use our minds to decide the best way to respond. All assuming, of course, that our lives are not literally being threatened. If your life is threatened, by all means, let the brain do what it’s designed to do: Fight-flee-freeze-faint.

So, as Daniel Siegel says, you “Name it to tame it.”  Which means paying attention to what you are feeling – physically and emotionally. Help your child name what is happening – that is, what they are experiencing.  The sooner you are aware of what is going on inside you, the sooner the alligator can be soothed.  This takes practice – and it’s best to practice when all is calm.  Right now, this second, how do you feel inside your skin?  Name it.  Make a habit of checking in.  Then you’ll have the skills to use the tools already in your brain.  Name it to tame it.

 

I woke up one morning and thought:

 

OMG:  I’m DYING!!!

 

 

And then,

Wait a minute!  Didn’t I have fresh beets for dinner last night?  And lots of them?

(If you don’t get the connection, see this description: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beeturia)

 

I don’t normally eat beets.  My whole life, in fact, I avoided them.  I did not like beets.  Then, we started having beets in the house, for dinner, in soups, with vinegar, in salads, all sorts of ways, because my husband LOVES beets.  And he grows them.  And I’ve started developing more of a taste for them.  But that explains why the next morning I thought I was dying.  I didn’t have much experience with beets’ digestive effects.

So, what exactly was going on inside my brain in between the “OMG – I’m DYING!!!!”  To, “Wait a minute here….”

Well, if you guessed our dear ol’ friend the amygdala, DING DING DING!  You’d be right!  Well, half right.  Yes, the amygdala is the ultimate helicopter parent, keeping an eye out for any teensy tiny thing that might threaten our survival, safety, and comfort.  And the warning bells go off, in a millisecond.  We each differ, due to genetics, and experience, and brain wiring, and a whole host of complexities of how our brains work, in just how sensitive we are to these (imaginary?) threats.  Some of us (who are you?  I want to be like YOU!) stay cool, calm, and collected, and carry an enviable resistance to over-reacting.  (Okay, so do psychopaths, but that’s another topic.)  Others of us manage to respond in ways that most people would deem appropriate, given the level of threat.  And then there are the SFS-suffering folk.  (Remember my post on “Sensitive-Flower Syndrome?)  Yes, those of us in this category, we jump at the slightest provocation.  So, no surprise, my brain spotted something unusual, and I jumped to the WORST CASE SCENARIO.  (But I didn’t jump as high or as frantically as I might have in the past – I can tell the scientists and theologians are right!  Meditation IS good for helping us stay calm!)

But there’s a Part 2 to what goes on inside our brains when we face something new:  We are wired for story.  There has been so much information we have needed to have at our beck and call, our brains devised a nifty trick of storing key survival tips in the form of narratives.  So, while my amygdala is getting me all jumpy, another part of my brain is scanning the memories stored in my hypothalamus for any possible relevant bit of info that might help me make meaning of what I am seeing.  Any book, movie, tv show, friend of a friend of a stranger’s experience, a bill board, a commercial – Anything at all.

As it happens, two folk in my congregation are being treated right now for bladder cancer.  You can bet that information beat out all the other narratives to rise right to the top of my consciousness as I’m trying to make sense of what I am seeing.  Then, right behind that comes the memory of my first dog, Amadeus, who peed straight dark red blood right before we had to put him to sleep, after 10 wonderful years together.  

So, my amygdala hops to, followed by these two bits of narrative information, and THEN my prefrontal cortex has a chance to weigh in with the most logical answer for this disturbing phenomena.  Beets.  Ah.  Breathing again.  And all is well.  Maybe I’ll stick with this meditation thing!

Hijacked by (the memory of) the Dentist

“Amy, I talked with the kids, and they are fine switching dentists,” says my spouse Paul.

Me:  “No.  I don’t want to.”

“Can you just explain why?  I’m not asking you to switch – I know you won’t switch – But the kids are happy switching.”

Sullen silence on my end of the phone.  I know I’m being ridiculous, but I just can’t get ahold of myself.  I know I”m not being reasonable, but I DO NOT WANT THEM TO CHANGE DENTISTS.  

“Did you have a bad experience with a dentist?  Can you just talk to me?”  he asks.

“No.  I just do not want them to switch.  I can’t explain it.  I just don’t,” I say, stubbornly, resistant, irrational, end of conversation.

“Okay, look.  I don’t have to decide about our benefits for two days.  You’re at work; I”m at work.  Let’s give it a day or so and talk about it again.”

“Fine.  But I’m not changing my mind.”

Have you had these sorts of conversations, where you KNOW you aren’t making any logical sense, but it makes perfect sense to you at a deep core level, deeper than rational reasoning, and you can’t explain it?  Yeah – It happens to all of us.  And it’s because while we can’t always access the narrative memories held by our hippocampus, our amygdala is like the elephant who never forgets.  We may not remember the details or story, but we sure do remember the emotions.  And the past sneaks up on us, and it feels, and is, so daggone REAL, and our amygdala doesn’t care that our prefrontal cortex can’t explain it, even to ourselves.  Because in our deepest core, we KNOW.

Yes, I knew in that moment I was being crazy.  I recognized the signs, but that didn’t make me want to talk about changing dentists.   I dug in my heels, and resisted and refused with alarming intensity:  Sure signs my amygdala was in control.   Even I knew my reasons were flimsy:  The kids and I have been with the same amazing dentist for 13 years.  But we can’t get insurance that he takes, so each visit costs us out of pocket around $200/person for a basic cleaning.  Times 3, twice a year.  It adds up.  My husband switched several years ago, and now only pays a $5 copay.  It’s not like his dentist is using wrenches and saws; I”m sure he is competent.   But how can I put this?  I DO NOT WANT TO CHANGE DENTISTS.  Irrational, maybe. Okay, definitely.  But very, very real.

The next day, I realize – O!  I DID have some bad experiences with a dentist!  I had completely forgotten, but now that I remembered, my inarticulate stubborn “I do not even want to TALK about this!”  makes some sense.  Our current dentist, Dr. Scott, is kind.  He is gentle.  The day he told me I needed a filling and I went from being a put-together professional woman to a toddler sobbing in his chair, he understood.  He did not think less of me.

However, in that non-conversation I had with my husband, who had tons of good, rational reasons for us to switch dentists and I had nothing but stubborn, sullen, silence?  Well, even if my hippocampus couldn’t access the facts of  the memory, my amygdala sure did.  And the next day, I remembered the Howard brothers.  (Not sure if that was their surname or not, but it will work.)  When I was 13, they teased me mercilessly:  The blamed my painful TMJ that kept me from opening my mouth wide enough to bite a sandwich on my overachieving A-student drivenness.  The message I heard was that it was all my fault, and I felt shamed and belittled.  And still in pain. Every single visit, twice a year.

When I was 14, I was in the dentist chair in a room by myself waiting for them to pull two teeth (I needed braces.)  One of them came in, demanded, “Are you crying?”  And I snuffled, “No,” in a timid voice, and he yelled, “Yes you are.  I can see you.  Why are you lying to me?  There is no reason to cry!”  Of course, that made me cry harder.  Why I did not ask for my mom to come be with me I don’t know.   But I was terrified – I’d never had a filling, let alone teeth pulled.  I suffered from SFS (see my post on “sensitive-flower syndrome.)  Overachiever, maybe, but people pleaser?  Especially to those in authority?  Scared – no, petrified – of getting in trouble?  Definitely.  

My stomach-aches at going to the dentist lasted for years.  Until, really, I found Dr. Scott, who treated me and the kids professionally and kindly and understood my fear and low pain threshold.  

So, my husband and I compromised, once I was able to get my prefrontal cortex on board and explain it all to him – We’re sticking with Dr. Scott for now, but not going every 6 months.  Kids and I have great teeth; going every 9 – 12 months will suffice.  And once again, I’m reminded and awed by the power of our brains to protect us when we perceive threat, even when it makes no logical sense.  

Next time it happens to you or someone you care about?  Be gentle with yourself and them – Deep down, your amygdala is just trying to protect you.  And in that compassion, maybe your hippocampus will offer up some clues as to what is going on.  

Why (as a person of faith) I’m Grateful to Macy’s and Target

When it comes to subtlety, our prefrontal cortex is at a disadvantage.  That’s where the “executive functioning” happens in our brains, and it’s much, much slower than our amygdala, which is trained to be on constant alert, ever vigilant.  Within milliseconds, our amygdala (in cooperation with other brain systems) has scanned the external environment and our internal state, and responded, often in ways that don’t make sense to us (read: make sense to our prefrontal cortex) assuming we’re even aware of our response.

So, this Thanksgiving, with all subtlety gone, my prefrontal cortex has an easy decision.  Why should my amygdala get all righteously angry, raising my blood pressure, my heart rate, flooding my system with cortisol as though my very survival is threatened, all because Macy’s and Target are open for business this Thanksgiving?  No, I am rejoicing that the dominant culture has shown its true colors so overtly.  There is no debate.  What better way to distinguish myself as a person of the Christian faith instead of the Marketplace faith, than to have that consumeristic, insidious, seductive, pervasive faith rise up and say, “Follow me this Thanksgiving!” in such a non-Christian way that my prefrontal cortex is on board.

I’ve often been a tad envious of my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, whose faith has for the most part flown under the shopping-advertising radar of the marketplace culture.  Christianity and patriotism and consumerism have become so tightly woven, it has felt impossible to separate the strands.

But thank you, Macy’s and Target, for while Thanksgiving is not a Christian holy day, it is a day set aside to practice gratitude, a spiritual discipline central to most all religions and spiritual paths.  This year, you’ve made it easy.  Jews have Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah; Muslims have Ramadan and Eid, and now all people of all faiths can distinguish themselves as following a different path. We who are not at your door or cash register on Thanksgiving are different from, or “holy” in the Hebrew sense of “set apart from” the dominant culture.  

Dominant Culture?  You’ve lost this battle for our souls.  And maybe freed us enough to consider this “Holiday/Shopping Season” as a chance to loosen your stranglehold on our brains.  For you try, and are often successful, at priming our non-thinking amygdalae with the anxiety and worry that keeps us shopping these many days.  Maybe, this Thanksgiving, our prefrontal cortex, as a gateway to our hearts, minds and souls – will stand a chance.