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Between the suburbs and me

I had a very typical white suburban upbringing. My graduating class of 250+ people had a handful of people of color. I didn’t meet a Latino person until college, which I called to report to my mom (“He speaks Spanish, like he grew up speaking Spanish!”). I have a distinct memory of a classmate making jokes using racial slurs in fifth grade.

The only time that I remember riding a city bus as a kid was with an adult relative. After a few stops, a young black man got on the bus. He was well-dressed in a tailored suit and sharp shoes – the same kind of outfit my dad wore to work every day. My relative watched him get on the bus, looked him up and down, and cheerily exclaimed to no one, “Good for him.”

The fact that I remember that vignette so vividly tells me that even at that young age, I realized that what she said was a loaded statement. It meant that a young black man in a suit was abnormal. It meant that this young black man was doing something right when the other young black men were not. It meant that he was fitting in to my relative’s standards of success as an affluent white woman.

I don’t think my relative said what she said in any sort of malicious way, and I don’t think she thought about any of this when she said it. I think she was genuinely pleased that her fellow human being appeared to be doing well and was dressing the part. But that scene has stuck with me my entire life because it made me realize, even as a child, that the way that my relative perceived man was different. I knew it wasn’t because he was wearing a suit. My dad wore a suit. The only thing I could see that was different about this guy was that he was black.

I’ve been thinking about this memory a lot lately. Thinking about how our upbringing affects our perceptions, particularly in regards to race. About how our country’s natural instinct in times of racial turmoil and injustice is often to goodheartedly insist that we’re all the same, when in fact, we’re absolutely not. There are good things about our differences – our different cultures, histories, insights, food, music, literature – and there are very bad things, like the way that as white people, we often use those differences to justify the way that we treat people of color differently, both in the macro and micro senses.

In thinking about these things and asking myself lots of questions, I’ve been compelled to read articles like this, and yesterday I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me in one sitting. If you haven’t read it already you are, like me, super behind the times, but it’s on sale for $5.99 for Kindle so you now have no excuse.

Between the World and Me coalesced a lot of the thoughts and feelings that I’ve tried to process about race for a very long time. For example, Coates talks about the false construction of race. He never refers to “white people,” but “people who believe they are white.” This sounds silly until you realize, as he notes, that “white” in America is a construction that has changed dramatically over time. 100 years ago, “white” excluded tons of racial minorities that now comfortably reside under and benefit from that designation, including Irish, Italian, and Polish people. 100 years ago, as an Italian-Armenian-German person, I would not have been “white” in America. The whole point of whiteness is to create an other, so that we are not the other. As Coates says, “We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.”

And if you’re not one of those people who “believes that they are white” in America, you are an other. You are different. And, according to Coates, that means you are valued less, particularly in regards to your body:

… all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.

It’s very easy to think of examples of this – what white people often call “black on black” violence, police brutality, etc. And there are other examples that we don’t often think about, like the ones in Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body, about the control of black women’s reproductive autonomy.

And as Coates says, and I’ve learned from reading a lot lately about the American Revolution (thanks, Hamilton!), this is America’s heritage. We’ve been working to simultaneously ignore and confirm race for our entire history. We don’t want to talk about it, but we do we want to make sure that behind the scenes, nothing changes, so that as white people we don’t have to risk our dominance.

Maybe this sounds like total BS to you. I’m probably not going to change your mind, and maybe no one else is. But whether this sounds crazy or correct to you, do me a favor: always ask questions. Challenge your beliefs and perceptions. Don’t accept things at face value. Don’t believe what the people in power – your parents, your teachers, your bosses – tell you. Read Between the World and Me. Read Black Boy. Read everything you can about people whose experiences have been different from yours. Because we are all human beings, but we are very different. And our best hope for averting mass chaos and destruction is to at least attempt to understand and appreciate each others’ differences.

And guess what? There are times where it will feel like there are only questions and no answers. That’s how it feels for me right now when it comes to the way we deal with race in this country. But, as Rainer Maria Rilke said (in my favorite quote ever):

Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Dear service industry

On Friday night, my sister and I took my dad to a fancy Italian restaurant for a belated Father’s Day dinner. Our meal – including wine, an appetizer, entrees, desserts, and tip – was almost $300.

Unfortunately, our experience was really frustrating and disappointing, and it was because of the way that the restaurant’s staff treated my dad. My father had a significant stroke in January 2015. As a result, he walks with a cane because his right side is affected, and he speaks slowly.

When we arrived for our reservation, we were told that we were going to be seated upstairs. This wasn’t an outright dealbreaker; dad can handle stairs within reason, so we figured we’d check them out and see what our options were. That’s where the trouble started.

Our hostess sped off at the speed of light to supposedly show us to our table. I always thought that showing you to your table meant you, you know, walked with the people you were taking to the table. That’s what I was taught and did as a hostess. But she apparently found it too taxing to walk at my dad’s pace, so I had to tell my sister that I was going to run to keep up with her and would come back to them to direct later.

We turned the corner to the stairs and found two long, narrow staircases that only one person at a time could comfortably use. I went back to my sister and said I didn’t know if he could make it up the stairs, but he wanted to try. Our hostess continued to speed away toward the table, and I followed.

The table was in the cocktail bar, and it was a high-top. My dad has sat at high tables before, but they’re difficult for him to get into. At this point I started intimating to my sister that we probably needed another table, so once she got dad to the table, she left to find a manager.

I spent five minutes trying to help my dad into the high-top seat. None of the staff asked if I needed help, or if they could offer an alternative. The only time anyone said anything to me was when I finally got dad into the chair and a server came by to brusquely tell me that “he can’t be this far out; you need to push his chair in” because we were in a tiny bar area. He then proceeded to push my dad’s chair in while my dad protested.

By the time dad got into the chair, my sister had spoken with the manager, who said she didn’t have anywhere else to put us and we’d have to figure it out. Someone else came to our table after a few minutes to say they don’t have any more tables, and it was up to us to tell them if we needed accommodations because their restaurant is three stories.

Should we have asked about the seating arrangements? Maybe. Usually when my sister makes reservations for us, if the restaurant is multiple floors, they will ask if anyone in the party can’t handle stairs. This restaurant didn’t, and instead of offering us any kind of help or guidance or even apologies, they basically said “well, you should’ve known better than to bring your dad here.”

The food was really good. It’s a bummer that I never want to go back there again.

So, dear service industry, based on this experience, I’d like to make some suggestions to you on serving someone with a disability:

  1. Talk to them, not to me. My dad is a grown-ass man. Not only can he hear you, but he can understand every damn thing you say. Don’t ask me if he needs help; ask him.
  2. Politely offer accommodations, but don’t push. The restaurant should have said “We had you penciled in for a table on the second floor. Will that work for you, sir? If not, we can offer you an appetizer while we wait for a table to open up on the main floor.” That way, dad can make his own decision. On a related note:
  3. Ask before you offer physical help. My dad is very proud. He does not like to be helped unless he absolutely has to be. And if he does, he will tell you. Which leads to #4:
  4. If he doesn’t want or need your help, leave him alone. Well-meaning people will often try to help dad. They often do this by holding on to his side or his chest when he’s trying to navigate stairs or a tricky area. While it’s not meant to be invasive, it absolutely is. You know that feeling when someone you don’t know touches your arm to emphasize point? Feels awkward and icky, right? Now imagine someone you don’t know grabbing your entire side – that you’re trying to use to balance – or touching your chest.
  5. The person with a disability is your customer and needs to be treated as such. My dad’s drink took awhile to make. While the server told us our wine was coming, he never told my dad his drink was on its way, and he didn’t apologize for the delay. It can be intimidating dealing with something you don’t understand – a lot of people don’t have experience with someone who’s had a stroke, so they don’t know what their level of cognition is. But always remember that this person is a person, they are your customer, and they are paying your tip. Even if (unlike my dad) they’re not able to process what you’re saying, it will make everyone feel better if you treat them just like anyone else.

Have you had similar experiences as a person with a disability or a loved one of a person with a disability? Share in the comments, and let me know if you have other tips!

The beginning

I bought this domain almost three years ago, and I have not done much of substance with it. I’ve changed its theme and style at least three times in the last six months. Every time I did it, it was with the intention of turning the site into something – a professional website that I could share at conferences, a blog about one particular thing, a basic one-pager about me that I could use as a learning tool for my day job.

Every time, my plan failed, because I didn’t do anything once I changed everything. Didn’t add any content, didn’t write any posts. It was frozen in time.

I was thinking about why this was the case last night as I installed yet another new theme and played with more CSS. It’s actually pretty simple: it’s easy to change the looks of a site. It’s a lot harder to maintain. But most importantly, it’s a lot harder to write and to make something that is your own on the Internet. Your own space to talk about whatever you want, even if it doesn’t fit tidily into a particular category.

So my hope is to start writing here much more often. Like many people, I am loath to call myself a “writer” – that conjures up images of someone sitting at a desk with a typewriter and a pipe and devoting their every waking moment to their words. But I read somewhere (and now, of course, I can’t find the quote) that the only thing that makes one a “writer” is that they write. To that extent, we’re all writers. We just have these silly ideas about what a writer is and why we don’t fit the description, and that keeps us from writing.

My plan is to write about the things I love and care about. I don’t particularly care if anyone reads it. I just want to write regularly and I’m doing something to keep the part of my brain that generates and edits and pores over words active.

(That said, if you’re reading this, I hope you’ll continue to read. I write good. I promise.)

Beer

Beer. Like lots of other people, I really like it.

This wasn’t always the case. In college, every party I went to had one beer option: the Chicago standard cheap terrible beer, Old Style. I have never and hope to never taste urine, but I can only imagine that Old Style bears a similar flavor profile to it. It is weak, bland, and kind of metallic. So I drank Smirnoff Twisted instead, because it tasted like soda.

Eventually, my college boyfriend introduced me to both Stella Artois and Boddington’s as alternatives. I liked Stella because it at least had some flavor, and it was fairly easy to drink. And I loved Boddington’s because it smelled and tasted (to me) like fresh-cut grass. It was the perfect spring and summer beer.

By late 2008, craft beer was becoming a really big deal, and I was lucky enough to live in a city with a huge craft beer scene. Boddington’s wasn’t great for fall and summer, so I started to try pumpkin beers, stouts, and porters, all of which I loved. I found tons of bars with amazing beer selections and tried as many different beers as I could.

At this point, I would say I’m a beer enthusiast, but not an expert. I’ve never bothered to learn much about the process of making beer. I never waited in long lines for Bourbon County or other limited edition bottles. But I do make it a point to try lots of different types of beer from lots of different breweries, especially when I travel. So since November 2011, I’ve tracked almost every beer I drink using Untappd. I say “almost” because:

  1. Sometimes I end up drinking a beer in a place with bad cell reception and forgot to track it later, and, more likely,
  2. Sometimes I drink so many beers that I.. shall we say.. lose my ability to remember to check in to them.

This week, I finally become an Untappd supporter, which allowed me to do an export of every check-in I’ve ever made on Untappd. That’s 1,498 check-ins, 810 of which were unique beers. So about half of the beer that I drink is new to me, and half is repeats.

Untappd supporters get some cool stats and charts, too. For example:

The Untappd stats only scratch the surface. I now have a ton of data about the beer that I drink. So, being a data nerd, I started thinking about how I could use said data. Do I have beer “blind spots” – styles of beer that I haven’t had much of? Are there certain breweries that I drink a lot of beer from, maybe without realizing?

The cool thing about Untappd’s stats is that they break down into two types: unique check-ins vs. total check-ins. Unique check-ins count a beer once, whereas total check-ins count repeats. This allows for an interesting perspective for considering how often I drink a beer, style, etc. vs how many different beer, styles, etc. I’ve tried.

Styles

I love IPAs. I love anything that tastes bitter and makes my tongue hurt. (According to this study, I may be a psychopath.) So I was expecting IPAs to be high on my list in terms of the number of beers that I’ve had of particular styles.

Unsurprisingly, the top two types of beers that I both try and drink regularly are pale ales. But I apparently also try and regularly drink fruit beers a lot, which I would not have guessed. That said, if I’m at a bar with a good beer selection and I see a fruit beer I’ve never had before, I’ll often try it. Fruit beers are interesting to me because they can vary so widely – I’ve had some that taste sickeningly sweet and others that are totally true to the fruit they’re supposed to represent (New Glarus makes amazing fruit beers, for example). This also true for ciders, which I think is partially due to the fact that ciders tend to be either very widely distributed (think Redd’s) or made by very small meaderies/cideries (like Arsenal here in Pittsburgh), so I like to try different fruit beers because of these differences.

I also try a lot of saisons, but don’t drink them regularly. They’re another type of beer that I’ll try when I’m out, but won’t buy for home. It also makes a lot of sense that I try a lot of American Imperial/Double Stouts, but because of the high alcohol content, I don’t drink them often.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are my friends Radlers and American Amber Lagers. When I lived in Chicago, I would make it a point to drink a lot of Yuengling when I came home to visit, since I couldn’t get it in Chicago. Now that I live in Pittsburgh again, I still drink it often – to me, it’s  a very good very cheap beer. And I’ve had a ton of Stiegl Radlers over the last two summers, since they’re very low alcohol and very refreshing. That said, I don’t stray from those two particular beers, so my “try rate” for those types are low while my consumption is high.

Breweries

So what about different breweries? Do I tend to stick to one or a handful of beers from a brewery, or try lots of different stuff?

The data shows a similar trend to what I saw with styles. For certain breweries (generally macro breweries), my “try rate” is very low. For example, 96% of my check-ins to Yuengling beers are for their Traditional Lager. For craft breweries,  my “try rate” tends to be much higher. I’ve repeated beers less than 20% of the time from Pipeworks, Stone, Russian River, and Firestone Walker, for example.

The breweries that I’ve tried the most different beers from are an interesting mix:

  • Revolution – used to live down the street from their brewpub, so I tried lots of different stuff
  • Goose Island – because I lived in Chicago and they are everywhere
  • New Glarus – Wisconsin’s finest, and I begged anyone who went to Wisconsin to bring some back for me
  • Pipeworks – they produce tons of large formats in interesting flavors
  • Boston Beer Company (Samuel Adams) – say what you will about Sam Adams, but I think their seasonal and variety pack beers are pretty decent, and great to bring to a party in a pinch

This list will be interesting to look back on as I live in Pittsburgh longer, since it’s very Chicago- and midwest-heavy right now.

Most Consumed Beers

I’m not calling these “favorites” because there are a lot of beers that I love but don’t or can’t drink often, either because they’re hard to find or are no longer produced.

I obviously drink a lot of craft beer, but Yuengling and MGD are in my top 10 most-consumed list, so…

The thing is, I think if you did this kind of analysis on most craft beer drinkers’ consumption, you would find something similar. Craft beer is much more widespread than it used to be,  but if you go out a lot, you’re going to go to a large number of places that don’t have awesome craft options. Yuengling and MGD are often the cheapest options at a baseball game. In Chicago, Green Line and Anchor Steam were often the only “craft” options at dive bars.

Because such a high percentage of my check-ins are to beers that I’ve never had before, though, this data isn’t terribly exciting.

Lessons Learned

So what I can take away from this analysis, other than the fact that I am a giant nerd?

  1. I haven’t tried a ton of lighter beers like lagers, weizenbocks, hefeweizens, and pilsners. Not surprising to me at all, since I avoid those mightily if I have other options. But I’d like to learn more about those styles so I can appreciate them and try them more often.
  2. I love the fact that I try lots of different beers, but I also kind of wish I had more standbys that I always keep in my fridge. I’m not sure my very easily distracted palate would go for that, though.
  3. I’m counting down the days until my liver fails.

Do you use Untappd? Friend me, please!

What made you depressed?

A few months ago, I moved from Chicago to my hometown of Pittsburgh, which necessitated finding a new primary care doctor. In Chicago, I used Yelp to find my amazing PCP. But now that I live in a smaller city and I have an HMO, I had a tough time finding reviews on doctors. I chose my new PCP from a listing from my insurance because 1) she was fairly closeby, 2) she was a woman, and 3) she had a few decent ratings on Healthgrades.

When I arrived for my appointment, I filled out the standard new patient paperwork. I ticked off the boxes for depression and anxiety, and listed the medication that I take for these conditions.

I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression for my entire life, though I wasn’t formally diagnosed until college. I talk about it. A lot. People are probably sick of hearing me talk about it. But I talk about my experiences so much because a lot of people don’t. I strongly believe that a lot of the problems with mental healthcare and treatment in this country start with people refusing to talk about it. Our puritanical society has decided that we can talk openly about all sorts of things that I’d rather not discuss, but someone saying that they’re depressed or have a diagnosed personality disorder is just too taboo.

So I was more than prepared to talk about my medical history in this regard. But then my new PCP asked a really stupid question that did not bode well for our discussion:

“How long have you been depressed?”

This is a really stupid question. It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how depression works. It indicates that depression and anxiety have a starting point and an ending point. That one day you woke up and felt sad and/or anxious, and you measure your feelings from that day. “How long have you been depressed?” looks like this:

In reality, depression and anxiety look like this:

Image via Frostehzehdragon on DeviantArt

Depression is a two year-old’s scribble. It’s not a straight line. It’s up and down and diagonal and all over. Good luck finding a starting point and an ending point. And anxiety hangs out over your shoulder telling you that everyone thinks your scribble is stupid and ugly.

But fine, whatever. It was a stupid question, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt — maybe it was just bad phrasing. “Well,” I said, “I’ve been depressed all my life, but I was formally diagnosed about ten years ago.”

Then it got worse.

“What made you depressed?”

Again, this line of questioning says when your depression started on [insert date here], what was it that started it? There is such a thing as situational depression, where a particular event directly leads to depression. But most people I know who are depressed have “clinical depression,” which means there is no inciting incident for their feelings. In fact, they may go through a rough time at work and home without any depressive episodes, and they may be doing extremely well at work and have a great new relationship and be depressed.

Sensing an opportunity to educate, I very kindly told my doctor that, “Nothing in particular made me depressed. I just get depressed sometimes.”

“And have you always been on medication?”

“No, I started that more recently. Maybe five years ago.”

And then came the kicker.

“Well, it must be working because you seem pretty chipper.”

Okay. First of all, my medication has absolutely no bearing on my personality. I am a chipper person. I am very nice to strangers and people regularly tell me that I am friendly and outgoing. Which is funny, because I am none of those things. I am an introvert and talking to strangers for too long makes me need a nap. But I know how to turn the friendly part of myself on when I need to.

And even in my most ugly depressive and anxious state, I would still say “thank you” to the bus driver and ask the grocery store cashier how they were doing today. Because my condition has no impact on my ability to be friendly and kind. I try really hard to make sure of that.

And just for the record, my chipper self had a whole slew of anxious thoughts on the way to that appointment, ranging from you’re going to be late to you’re too fat and she’s going to yell at you to what if my insurance doesn’t work? to what if she makes fun of me, so my chipper disposition with my doctor, essentially a stranger, has nothing to do with the anxiety and thoughts that are roiling in my head.

Well-meaning but completely wrongheaded questions and comments like this are why I talk about my mental health. I shouldn’t have to teach my doctor what depression is and is not. I shouldn’t have to educate a physician on what antidepressants do. The more people speak openly about their mental health, the more everyone will understand it better.