ALS Ice Water Challenge

I first learned what ALS was, when I was a kid in the car with my parents, driving past this old landmark:

http://www.slphistory.org/history/als.asp

als1969

I asked what the letters in the sign stood for. My parents explained both meanings (though I’m sure the builders of the sign didn’t have Lou Gehrig’s Disease in mind).

I kinda wish this place was still in business, so I could go there, order a glass of ice water, and pour it on my head.

Oh well. Might have to make do with Al’s Breakfast on University Avenue.

A year of Sirius Marley Black: Starlings in review

Several months after our parrot Rain Man went to his new home, the mixture of sadness and relief turned into empty nest syndrome. I had expected that I would want to adopt a new pet someday, and after all that time I was finally starting to feel ready.

I knew we had to choose carefully. I still felt guilty that we had given up our previous pet, even though his life and ours had become irreconcilable and he was undoubtedly happier with his new family. I knew how much of an upheaval it is for an animal to move from one home to another, and I wouldn’t wish it on any creature. I wanted my next pet to be for life. I wanted a bird– birds are what I relate to– but it couldn’t be a bird with the same needs Rain Man had.

John’s parental instinct, like mine, is focused mostly on pet birds, but he didn’t feel as strong a need for a bird in the house as I did. Nevertheless, around the time I felt ready, he agreed he was ready too.

Secretly, I had wanted a starling for a long time. It wasn’t a secret from John, but I didn’t discuss it with a lot of people at the time, because starlings are such unpopular creatures, and almost no one I knew would consider one as a pet.

From childhood, I’d been aware that they are kept as pets sometimes. One of my favorite books as a kid was “Arnie the Darling Starling”– which, despite having a title like a children’s book, is actually a pet memoir like “Oogy” or “Marley and Me.” I grew up knowing that starlings can do quite well in captivity, and that they can learn to talk like parrots, and become very affectionate with their human adopters. I knew that in the wild they’re considered horrible pests, and so there is no law against taking them from the wild and keeping them, as there is for protected bird species.

Early in our relationship, back in 2005 when our pet was the dear departed Popcorn the cockatiel, John and I once found an injured starling on the sidewalk. It was disoriented and moving slowly enough for us to pick it up, despite having no visible wounds. There had just been a storm. John hypothesized that the bird had landed on a wet, insufficiently insulated power line and gotten a bad shock.

The poor thing didn’t live long, but in the few hours it was with us, we went online and found a starling Yahoogroup… enough for us to learn that there were lots of others who had taken in starlings, and places where people shared information and resources on how to care for them. I remembered that, even though adopting a starling wasn’t a practical option for us until much later.

And last year, it became real.

Times had changed a bit. The starling Yahoogroup no longer came up when I searched for starlings online. But there was a website, www.starlingtalk.com, with a message board for starling discussions. There was a recommended diet, comprised of dog food, poultry mash, and powdered egg. There were guidelines on what sort of cages and toys a starling needed.

And there was a board for people to post if they wanted to adopt a starling, or give one up for adoption.

Unlike parrot-owners, starling-owners are mostly people who found a mysterious baby bird, managed to keep it alive, and then were surprised and delighted to find that the grown-up bird could talk, made a pretty awesome pet, and didn’t want to be released into the wild. Starling-owners usually stumble into the whole thing without asking for it, but they are, for the most part, a happy and unregretful bunch.

With good reason. Starlings are friendly, funny, loving, talkative, easy and cheap to care for, and so little that they couldn’t hurt you even if they wanted to.

On the message board there were some people looking to rehome their starlings, but they tended to get adopted quite fast. The balance between people trying to give up a bird and people trying to adopt one was much more equal than it was on parrot forums. And, of the few who wanted to give one up, I didn’t see any who were rejecting their bird because they couldn’t get along with it.

Other birds not getting along with it– that wasn’t unheard of. When someone finally contacted me about my wish to adopt a starling, the bird she offered was a four-year-old male who was up for adoption because he fought with one of his cage-mates.

Marley, as he was called, had fallen from the nest as a baby and been raised by a wildlife rehabber. She had intended to release him, and avoided petting and cuddling him as a baby, for fear it would cause him to bond with humans instead of his own species. But, cuddling or no cuddling, he bonded with her anyway. When it came time to release him, he refused to go.

So for three years or so, he was her pet, along with another starling she’d raised, named Thurston. But she became unable to care for them, for health reasons of some kind. He and his cage-mate were taken in by another woman who was seeking a companion for the starling she had.

Thurston was a good friend for her bird. Marley wasn’t. He and the stranger attacked each other again and again, pecking and plucking out each other’s feathers. Marley was the main aggressor. His face developed a few bare patches, but in this picture, he’s clearly thinking, “You should see the other bird.” From what I’m told, that one’s face became almost completely bald.

After a year of this, I got an email from his adoptive family.

I had prepared for this like crazy. Before I even knew when or from whom I was going to adopt a starling, I had stocked up on dog food, chicken food, egg powder, applesauce and dried mealworms to feed him, and all the recommended elements of an avian first aid kit. After two failed attempts at buying a suitable cage and one failed attempt at making one, I had managed to put together a pretty good aviary out of chicken wire, latchable dog doors, natural branch perches from a nearby park, and the frame from an old folding wardrobe.

I had even picked a name already. In fact, I’d picked the name years ago, around July of 2010 when John and I were dreaming pipe dreams of moving to Tower, Minnesota and starting an art gallery. I had imagined the focal point of the gallery being a huge aviary with talking starlings in it. They would all be named after stars: Alpha Centauri, Arcturus and Sirius (Alfie, Arkie and Siri for short).

By this time, I had settled on the name “Sirius” for the one starling I could realistically have. Since our Tower fantasy, “Siri” had become an even more fitting nickname for a talking bird, with the 2011 launch of the iPhone 4S. Besides, it was the year of my 32nd birthday, which is 100,000 in binary. The starling I adopted was going to be my extra-special gift for this mathematically significant birthday… and Sirius is a binary star system.

My eagerness was overwhelming at this point. I’d been disappointed once already, when someone in another state had thought she would be able to send a friend to bring me a young bird she’d rescued, but the travel plans fell through and I never heard from her again.

And I was disappointed a few more times as we tried to figure out a date for Marley’s adoption. But after two or three rain checks, a woman and two young girls finally showed up at my door, with a frantic little bird scurrying around inside a tiny carrier.

I believe this was the first photo I ever took of him. With effort, we had just relocated the panicked little creature from his carrier into the big cage I’d built for him, and he was perched on one of the branches near the top, getting his bearings.

That was how he entered my life, a nervous and disoriented little thing with bald patches on his face, a funny upward-curling feather under his chin, and chunky overgrown scales on his feet. Sirius Marley Black.

The lady who gave him to me said that he didn’t adapt well to new things. Perhaps he hadn’t, in her experience. She also said that his previous owner had considered him a not-very-tame bird, but with her, he had opened up and was happy to follow people around and perch on them. Perhaps his personality depends on his environment.

With me, he seemed to adapt just fine. Within an hour of entering his new cage, he took a blueberry from me as I shoved it through the chicken wire. Soon he was eating his ground-up dog-and-chicken-food mix from the bowl, sipping his water, and sampling his applesauce.

Starlings are extremely social. In the wild, they live in enormous flocks called “murmurations,” which move like living clouds. Look it up; there are videos online, and they’re amazing to watch.

Sometimes I feel sad that Sirius will never get to be part of one of those. But he doesn’t want to; he was raised by humans, and feels that we are his flock.

A starling in captivity is kind of like a human in modern society. Humans, too, are a very social species by nature. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent nearly all their time in each other’s company. But in modern times, humans often live lives where we spend most of the day alone, or at a job where we do mostly-solitary work. It’s unnatural, but we get by. We live for the time when we get off work, and spend the evenings and weekends with people we care about.

Sirius has adapted to a similar life. When we’re away, he keeps himself entertained by singing, playing with the toys in his cage, and listening to music I leave on for him. But when we get home, he’s always happy to see us.

Within a few days after his adoption, he was tame enough to perch on us and all our friends. Starlings aren’t cuddly, but they’re very friendly. One day four of us played a game around the dining room table, all wearing safari hats so he wouldn’t poo on our heads and get his feet tangled in our hair. He happily jumped from hat to hat all evening. Heads are a starling’s favorite perch.

Some starlings will sit on someone’s head and act as if they’re taking a bath in the hair. Sirius doesn’t do this, but water baths are one of his favorite things ever.

I made a bathtub for his cage out of a big plastic pitcher with a hole cut in it, so he wouldn’t get water everywhere when bathing. He uses it often, but he prefers the bath bowl we keep in the shower.

A starling bathing is amazing to watch. It’s a blur of fluttering and splashing, faster than a human could ever move– kind of like a dog that shakes itself after a bath, except the starling is doing it to get wet, not dry. In the absence of barriers, a person ten feet away could feel water drops from it.

And just as quickly as it began, it’s suddenly over, and zoom! The starling is done bathing, and rockets from the bath bowl across the room to another perch. Usually he’ll make several flights from place to place immediately after his bath, all with the same sort of frenetic, hyperactive too-fast zooming motion– maybe as part of his effort to dry himself off. He’s on the cage! He’s on my head! He’s on the cage again– now he’s on the door!

Hyperactive, inquisitive, curious– that’s my Siri. When he’s not flying crazily around, he’s poking his face into everything, looking for treasure or bugs or whatever. If I’m lying in bed watching a movie, he’ll come and crawl all over me, poking his beak at my clothing. He’s even tried to look down John’s pants.

Starlings love to pry things open with their beaks. Folds in clothing, spaces between your fingers, your mouth (especially when you’re eating), any small crevice they can find. His favorite toy now is an Advent calendar I got him during the Christmas season. I hide small treats in the pockets, and he happily goes around poking and prying in each one.

Like most starlings, he doesn’t like being touched. He’ll cuddle on his own terms: perched on my shoulder, snuggling against my neck, playing with my hair, just as long as he’s in control and no hands get anywhere near him.

Only rarely will he let me pet him without complaint:

He doesn’t always hate hands, mind you; he’ll play with them if he is the one doing all the playing. One of his sweetest expressions of affection is to land on my hand while I’m working at the computer, and start poking at my fingers. Sometimes he saves me from wasting my whole day on the internet; sometimes he just messes up my typing.

Poke a finger at him and he’ll make the most hilarious sounds of starling rage. A weird thing about starlings: they don’t express anger with instinctive sounds natural to their species. They almost always seem to use mimicked sounds. I heard of one person whose starling would make an angry parrot sound she’d learned from the other pets, whenever a finger was poked at her. I heard of another starling who would say the words “I’ve got a question!” when its nails were being trimmed.

As winter approached, Siri’s new plumage came in, and his face was no longer bald. His feet have also become healthier, having shed the overgrown scales with the help of aloe gel rubbed on his toes every day. God, does he hate when we do that! He forgives us afterwards with a grace that Rain Man could never approach– but when we’re doing it, he’s a noise-box of angry and adorable protests.

Sirius doesn’t have many words to say, and the ones he says are mumbled baby-talk. He says things that sound vaguely like “Hello,” “Hi sweetheart,” “Pretty bird,” “Birdy,” “Crackers,” and something that might be “Pretty Chester.”

We have no idea who Chester is, if anyone. He might have made it up, out of sounds from other words. He does love to rearrange sounds. Sometimes his “Pretty Chester” sounds more like “Poor Chester,” sometimes like “Peaches,” sometimes like “Purchase,” sometimes just the word “chess” amid a bunch of mumbling.

A starling song has some instinctive starling noises in it, mixed with sounds the bird learned from various things in its environment. When Sirius sings, it’s a fantastic medley of chatters, whistles, clicks, shrieks, melodic bubbling-water sounds, a phone ring, a dog whine, and some yapping and growling like a little dog that’s having a lot of fun playing tug-o-war. Plus a few “Chesters” thrown in here and there.

And, singing or talking, and especially when scolding us for poking a finger in his face, his little pointy wide-open beak is one of the funniest-looking things ever.

If I eat in front of him, he shows an almost hilarious level of greed, zooming to my shoulder and shoving his beak in my mouth to try and get my food. Some foods he acually seems to prefer when they’re in my mouth. He’ll try to eat anything if he sees me eating it; I have to have my non-bird-safe snacks in a different room.

The starling forum recommends a certain diet for adult birds, but it can be varied depending on people’s needs. Some feed their starlings the dog food and chicken feed in one bowl, and chopped hard-boiled eggs in another. Some put water in the mix because their birds won’t eat it dry. But this is the recipe I use:

2 cups dry dog food. (The protein amount should be in the 25-32% range, and the fat should be in the 10-14% range. Make sure the first ingredient is some type of meat. Poultry is fine; a starling is no more related to a chicken or turkey than you are to a cow or pig.)

1/2 cup chicken feed (the pellets for egg-laying hens, often called “layer mash”– not the medicated mash for chicks. Yes, starlings can eat chicken food even though they’re not closely related to chickens.)

2 tablespoons powdered egg (available in large cans; I use the Honeyville brand. Yes, they’re chicken eggs; see above.)

Mix all ingredients together, and blend to a powder in food processor.

Every day, feed two tablespoons of the dry mix in one bowl, two tablespoons of unsweetened applesauce in a separate bowl, and about 2/3 cup of water in a third.

Treats can include bugs, bits of cornbread, chopped nuts, and especially blueberries– which Sirius attacks and tears to pieces with a frightening level of energy.

That’s the icing on the cake of starling-parenthood joy– how sustainable it is. A bag of dog food, a bag of layer mash and a jar of powdered egg will feed a starling for a long, long time, saving money and minimizing any effects that pet-food production has on the environment. Starling droppings aren’t messy and smelly like dog poop; they dissolve almost instantly in water. I use polar-fleece fabric as a cage liner and machine-wash it. But using your junk mail is fine too; it’s free and biodegradable.

Dried crickets and mealworms from a pet shop make good treats, but your free and plentiful household bugs can serve the same purpose. In the wild, starlings eat mostly bugs. (Just avoid any bright-colored ones, which are often poisonous. And stay away from worms and caterpillars; they’re the most common things for parasites to lay eggs in. Small moths and beetles are usually fine.)

Even the procurement of the starling itself is earth-friendly. Starlings aren’t bred in buildings that draw power, produce waste, and affect the ecosystem around them. They’re bred by their parents in nests in the trees. And most starling-keepers don’t even upset the parent birds by taking in the baby, because it’s usually one that the parents rejected anyway.

Nature can be cruel. In wild bird nests, the smallest and weakest babies are often pushed out, because birds can’t afford to expend the effort of feeding unless the offspring shows great promise of survival. Sometimes it’s the parents who eject the unwanted baby, sometimes it’s the siblings, but almost always it will be pushed out again if someone tries to return it. (This is probably the origin of the myth that birds will reject any nestling that’s been touched by humans.)

But even if taking in a starling did reduce wild starling populations, it wouldn’t be any kind of ecological disaster, because starlings are not in the least bit threatened. They are a plentiful bird, living on small amounts of plentiful and easy-to-obtain necessities. It’s almost ridiculous how small the carbon footprint of a pet starling is.

On Youtube, there are starling-haters who go around posting trollish comments on any cute videos of pet starlings. Things like “I’d shoot it if I ever saw it,” and “Starlings are rats with wings.”

They’re picking the wrong target. Pet starlings are harmless. Fine, so they think wild starlings are a menace to the ecosystem… well, so are humans. Anything they accuse starlings of doing, humans do a hundred times worse. How would you like it if that tired old science-fiction trope played out in your home: an alien appears, recites a list of atrocities committed by humans, and threatens to execute you for the crimes of your species?

Hey, Youtube trolls threatening to shoot someone’s cute pet starling– you are that alien. Our pet starlings don’t threaten native birds or eat farmers’ crops, any more than you personally have committed genocide. In fact, you should thank us for keeping a starling out of the wild, where you think it will do so much horrible damage.

He likes it better here anyway.

Some thoughts on autism spectrum disorders and violence.

On the one side are news stories that keep claiming that the latest mass shooter “was autistic,” even when there is little or no evidence that they had such a diagnosis or any traits matching it.

On the other side, there are people rightly protesting this portrayal of autism, pointing out that “autistics are gentle, peaceful people” and “there is no correlation at all between autism and violence.”

I feel I have something to add to this.

The rest of this essay has been taken down for inclusion in my next memoir. Stay tuned for updates.

How I backed up my personality on paper

(Updated with the more recent version of the project. I redesigned the books to be prettier, fit better in the box, and hold more data.)

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A recent art project, of sorts. My attempt to cope with fears: the fear of death, the fear of societal collapse. My fantasy that my personality could somehow survive both my death and the downfall of civilization.

In an apocalypse, digital media are of questionable use. I toyed with the idea of microfiches for a while, but then realized that paper, kept in a safe place, can last just as long. Lulu.com prints on acid-free paper, and can print very, very small.

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Text of the back of the book:

I am Erika Hammerschmidt. I am an author, artist and speaker from Minnesota. I am terrified of dying, but far more terrified of being forgotten. Being forgotten is true death, the death not just of the body but of the information that makes up the personality.

The information that makes up a human personality is more bountiful and complex than any book can hold, but this is my best try. This is my novels, my poems, my private emails, my art, my journals. It is my secret perversions, my selfies, my websites, my handmade jewelry, my travel snapshots, my diaries, my childhood scrivenings. Please let me live.

*****

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People’s ability to change


Sometimes change is what we need. People know this, deep down, even when they tell you that you should always be happy with the way you are. Even by saying that, they’re trying to change you from someone who wants to change into someone who doesn’t.

But is change always possible?

The rest of this essay has been taken down for inclusion in my next memoir. Stay tuned for updates.

Sometimes a lizard is just a lizard?

Another reposted old blog post, from November 18, 2006. Yet another bizarre dream, and some psychological thoughts.

*****

Forget Freud and his book of what things mean in dreams. Yes, dreams have symbolism, but it is different for every single freaking person.

The other night I had a dream where a lizard symbolized an aloe plant. Seriously. In the dream I had a couple of pet lizards that kept running around and getting their tails cut off in various ways. Like, I tried to keep them in my locker while I went to work, but I closed the locker on their tails and accidentally cut them off. I suppose they must’ve grown back, because they got cut off a lot of other ways too.

But the point is that when they lost their tails, the tail stump wasn’t red, it was translucent green, like when you cut a leaf off an aloe plant. And then when I woke up, I noticed that my aloe plant had fallen off the shelf and was lying in a big pile of dirt on the floor. I mentioned it to my husband, who said that it had fallen off the previous day, but I hadn’t noticed it and he hadn’t gotten around to telling me.

So I must have noticed it subconsciously, and my subconscious mind was trying to let me know that my aloe plant was in trouble. Except instead of telling me directly, it had decided to symbolize it with lizards getting their tails cut off.

I have no idea why it chose that particular symbol, except that I dream about lizards a lot, and I also have a lot of dreams about pets suffering horrible fates due to human neglect or stupidity. (I suppose that has to do with the fact that I had a lot of pets as a child, and some of them did get hurt or killed because of errors on my part.)

Freud said that dreams use symbolism because there are things your mind can’t handle thinking about directly. Supposedly almost anything sexual was in this category– which is stupid, because people think about sex more than they think about anything else, and I’d certainly rather think about sex than think about lizards losing body parts. I personally think that dreams don’t symbolize for any good reason, they just do it because they’re confused and mix things up with each other.

Or maybe it was just a coincidence. But in any case I’m not asking Freud what it means when lizards lose their tails in a dream.

Creepy midnight memory

This is another repeat post from my old blog, this time from July 2012. It was weird enough that I thought it was worth sharing. (To me, weird = valuable. Your mileage may vary.)

*****

I’ve been having strange experiences with dreaming lately.

In the spring, when I was a few seasons into watching the Tenth-Doctor episodes of Doctor Who, I had a dream about being his companion. Up until then, I had had a totally asexual appreciation of the show. But somehow that dream triggered something akin to my teenage obsession with Mr Spock– I realized with a sort of blinding flash that David Tennant was sexy (something every other geek girl had noticed long ago) and spent the next few months with a very intense crush on him, much to my husband’s irritation.

Then, recently and perhaps unrelatedly, I had a much stranger and more morbid midnight epiphany.

I woke up to the sound of a thunderstorm, with something in my mind that felt like a memory. As far as I could tell, it had nothing to do with the dream I’d been having, which was sexy and Doctor-Who-related. It was vague, but it felt like a memory from real life, not a piece of a dream.

It seemed to be a memory of a time in my childhood or teens, when I was living at my parents’ house. It was composed of images of me going through boxes that belonged to my parents, and finding a box that had been sent to them or given to them by some acquaintance. I don’t specifically remember a name on the box, or any papers inside it– there’s just a feeling associated with it, a feeling that it came from someone who lived somewhere else, maybe one of our European relatives.

And inside the box were some bones and dried tissues that appeared to be human remains.

I don’t remember what part of the body they appeared to be, or how many pieces there were. I don’t remember what I did with them. But there was another strong feeling associated with the memory– a feeling that I did the wrong thing, that I hid them or buried them or threw them away, without talking to my parents about it. I don’t clearly remember why, but there was a feeling of fear, maybe fear that my parents would get in trouble for having them around. I vaguely remember wrapping them up in several layers of paper and tape, or some other sort of covering, before putting them wherever I put them.

Despite how vague this whole thing was, it stuck with me very strongly for at least a few days after it happened. I was thinking about it at work, for most of the next day.

I still don’t know what it was. It could very easily have been a memory of a dream after all– maybe a scary dream I had as a child, so long ago that the memory of it is no more vague than my memories of reality at that time. It felt real, but I know that under certain circumstances the brain can sometimes get confused between dreams and reality.

If it was real, I suppose there are quite a few possible explanations. It wouldn’t be the only time there were human remains in my parents’ house. They’re doctors; they had a real human skull on a shelf in the living room for much of my childhood. I’m not sure why someone else would send them parts of a dead person, but given their professions and widely varied interests, it could have been anything from a medical sample to an archaeological specimen.

Anyway, I find it a very interesting example of how the brain can work so very differently in the middle of the night. When waking up from a dream, people can get so many inspirations, realizations, and new perspectives on the world, even ones unrelated to the dream itself. It must be something about the state of the brain as it shifts from dreaming to waking– maybe it’s overactive at that moment, in prime condition for dredging things up from the subconscious.

I don’t know if my what I dredged up was a false memory, or a repressed memory of a long-ago dream or reality. But another interesting thing: putting together this blog post has changed the quality of what I remember. As I put it into words, it began to feel less vivid as a real memory, and more as if it could have been a dream.

This is actually something I’ve noticed before: putting my memories into words reduces their clarity as memories. It’s as if my brain realizes that describing a memory in words is a way of compressing it to save space in my brain– not lossless compression, but like resizing a family photo to a lower resolution. Actually, more like replacing the family photo with a text file saying “Christmas party, 2009. Left to right: Grandma Ruth, Aunt Carol, Mom, me.”

My brain realizes that once I’ve summarized a memory in words, I don’t need the visual, sensory and emotional detail of the memory anymore, and so it fades. I’ve hears that the people most likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder are the people who think about their traumatic experiences in pictures instead of words. I’m a strange type of person– someone who does much of her thinking in pictures and abstract concepts, but frequently puts them into words later.

Prejudice and promiscuity, and my own fictional archetypes

I’ve been thinking with some concern about two issues relating to my webcomic “Abby and Norma.”

One is the simplicity and one-dimensionality of some of the minor characters; their tendency to serve as cardboard cutout counterpoints to Abby’s arguments, and whether I should just let them be what they are, or try to build them into something more complex and interesting, if not realistic.

The second is one particular facet of that simplicity: the sexually promiscuous nature of Abby’s enemy Cathy.

The term “slut-shaming” has gained a lot of ground in recent years. People are becoming more and more aware that the world is cruel to those who have many sexual partners. Promiscuous women are labeled as “sluts” who have no self-respect. Promiscuous men are generally treated better, but still not great: they’re often seen as sexist “womanizers” who have no respect for their partners.

These characterizations are, of course, unfair, though they’re based on grains of truth. It’s totally possible to have lots of casual sex and still be careful, responsible, and respectful of everyone involved. Sex is perfectly fine as long as you’re honest about what you’re getting into, and considerate of other people’s happiness and well-being. It’s true that many promiscuous people break these rules, but that doesn’t mean promiscuity in itself is bad.

Certainly I didn’t intend for Cathy to be a slut-shaming stereotype. As I’ve said before, the character of Cathy is a mixture of all the things my school-age self found distasteful in other students. And back when this mixture was being formed, I had little or no knowledge of slut-shaming. In fact, in my own personal high-school and college experience, the very opposite seemed to be happening.

Maybe my view was warped by my social difficulties, but to me, in school, it always seemed that having a wildly active sex life was considered normal, and that I was considered a loser because I didn’t; because I focused my attention on nerdy, uncool things like art, writing and schoolwork, instead of sex. Everything I observed in high school and college indicated to me that being a slut was cool, popular– all the things I wasn’t.

I don’t remember ever seeing any slut-shaming. Maybe I just couldn’t recognize it, or maybe it wasn’t common in the state I grew up in or the schools I went to, or maybe the popular kids never did it around me. But I do remember a lot of virgin-shaming, aimed at me and other geeks.

Back then, the only social distinction I really saw was the distinction between nerds and non-nerds. From my perspective, the girls who had one long-term boyfriend, the girls who had a different boyfriend every month, and the girls who had one-night stands every week were all blurred together. To me, they were all just “the girls who looked down on me for having nothing.”

I realize that they probably didn’t look down on me as much as I thought, at least not for that reason. But at the time, I had a very long memory for all the moments when it seemed as if they did. I felt as if sluttiness was the prevailing world order, and I was the downtrodden underdog who dared to consider my grades more important than my sex life.

When I learned the word “slut,” it felt like a weapon of the resistance, a way for oppressed geeks like me to fight back against the insanity that was considered normal. It felt like learning that I could use the words “sheep” and “conformists” to insult those who followed social rules. I didn’t feel that I was oppressing sluts, I felt I was rebelling against their oppression of me.

Of course, being who I was, I didn’t actually go around calling anyone a slut. For the most part I stayed buried in my books and drawings, ignoring and ignored by my so-called peers. But sometimes I thought dark thoughts to myself about the popular and promiscuous. The word “slut” may have made its way into some of my internal rants.

I did eventually outgrow this simplistic hatefulness. As I grew up and built a more diverse and sophisticated circle of friends, I began to distinguish between promiscuity and virgin-shaming. I learned that people are complex, and not everyone who sleeps around is a nerd-abusing cheerleader or jock. But somewhere inside me remained the old, simplified view, the traces of how my schoolgirl mind had divided the whole world into geeks and antigeeks.

And even once I knew better, Cathy rose up out of those ancient feelings and took her place in the comic, because the feelings were too old and ingrained to stay out of all the things I created. The more I write Abby and Norma, the more I realize that Cathy is not like any real person I know, and that some people might even be hurt by her portrayal of promiscuity.

Cathy is evil not because of her slutty ways, but because she tries to force them on others, insulting and belittling Abby for not being slutty like her. She is what I used to think all normal students were like, back when I was in school and trying to figure out the world.

Abby is often a caricature of me, expressing opinions that are exaggerated versions of opinions I have or used to have. Abby’s mom is a caricature not of my own mother, but of the annoying traits of some other mothers I’ve known. Likewise, Cathy seems to be a caricature of non-autistic students, taking some of the things they occasionally do and exaggerating them to ridiculous extremes.

I don’t know how, or if, I could ever develop her into a more realistic character. I don’t know if “Abby and Norma” is even supposed to be the kind of comic that has realistic characters. But I felt I should write something to shed light on the origins of Cathy, and how the way the world looked to me as a teen and young adult is quite far from the way it looks to people today.

Having a sh!t-in: Why sex-segregated bathrooms hurt all of us

When I was a grade-school kid, having just learned the history of Jim Crow and Rosa Parks and sit-ins, I became inspired to protest segregation in my own way.

I started hanging out in the boys’ bathroom.

To me, dividing bathrooms by sex didn’t seem any less bigoted than dividing them by race. People were uncomfortable using the bathroom in the presence of the opposite sex? Well, in the days of Jim Crow, people were uncomfortable using the bathroom in the presence of another race; that didn’t make segregation acceptable. Sexual crimes happen in bathrooms? Well, so do racial hate crimes, sometimes, but that’s no reason for racial segregation.

No one listened to my arguments. I saw the inside of the principal’s office more often than the inside of either restroom.

At the time, I wasn’t even very aware of transgender issues. I was focused on the ways that segregation hurts everyone. The girls like me who didn’t try to look boyish but always got mistaken for boys anyway. The disabled adults who needed help to use the bathroom, and whose only available helper was someone of the opposite sex.

Have you ever been denied the right to use a public restroom because the restroom for your sex was closed for cleaning? Then you, too, have been a victim of segregation.

And now, in this era of slightly increased transgender awareness, society is finally starting to realize that the issue even exists.

All over the news are articles about transgender people fighting for the right to use the public restrooms intended for the gender they identify with. The struggles they have to go through to fulfill this basic need are heartbreaking.

One issue that always seems to be ignored: This discrimination can be ended only by eliminating segregation entirely.

It’s a simple line of reasoning. If you have a rule that men have to use the men’s room and women have to use the women’s room, then:

1. Having that rule is pretty useless unless you can enforce it.

2. To enforce it, you have to be able to define who is a man and who is a woman.

3. And you have to be able to identify people as men or women just by looking at them, or some other test that can be performed in the moments before they enter the restroom.

Pretty impossible.

You could define it by who looked male or female to you, but that leaves tons of potential for error. I would have been kicked out of the girls’ room as a kid, if it had been based on people’s ability to tell I was a girl by looking at me.

You could define it by the clothes people were wearing, so that anyone who was presenting as a woman could enter the women’s room… but how do you define women’s clothing? Would I not be allowed in the women’s room if I’m wearing a gender-neutral t-shirt and jeans? And how do you tell a transwoman from a cis man who puts on a dress so he can legally go in the women’s room and ogle people?

There was a city that tried to enforce it by looking at the gender printed on people’s state IDs. But this discriminated against transgender people who had not had their IDs changed to reflect their reassignment– as well as people who didn’t have an ID with them.

The only solution is not to segregate the bathrooms in the first place.

Before you criticize this option, and rail against me for desecrating women’s privacy and encouraging sex crimes… take a look at this picture of an actual unisex restroom.

This is a drawing I did from memory, of a bathroom in a local theater here in MN. See how each stall is its own little room, with thick walls, and a door that goes all the way to the floor? See how the common area with the sink is out in the open, so anyone who wanted to harass someone would be in plain view of pretty much everyone?

A unisex bathroom gives you more privacy than a segregated one.

And it solves all the other problems too. It removes the debate over which bathroom you should use when people disagree on whether you’re a man or a woman. It provides a welcoming environment for disabled men who need the help of a wife or mother to use the bathroom, or vice versa. And each stall is cleaned individually, so no one ever has to wait for the “correct” bathroom to be cleaned before they can use it.

If you agree that all bathrooms should be like this, spread the word. Perhaps we can make a difference.

My ostracized childhood self, leaning against the wall in the boys’ room greeting every visitor with “Hello, I’m having a shit-in!” may have been taking the wrong approach. It may have been more a plea for attention than an earnest expression of my beliefs. But I did have those beliefs, and they were on the right track. Maybe someday they will finally be vindicated.