A microphone stands alone in front of 300 empty seats.

The microphone waits to amplify your voice, shaky or strong, it doesn’t care. The empty seats don’t connect to your story, or laugh at your jokes.

Judgmental things, empty seats.

Microphone in front of empty seats

Jess Rotenberg Photography

Writers write because their emotional health demands it.  Writing isn’t necessarily the hard part; sending those stories unprotected out into the world of dangling participle bullies?  Harder.

Performers give voice to another’s words; talented performers give such good voice that the audience can hear the author.

That empty microphone, those empty seats– I’m not a performer, is this even a performance?  I’m not reading someone else’s fictional story; this is MY story, a piece of my nonfiction life.

The strength didn’t come from performing, but from the ripping off a piece of myself and leaving it flopping on a stage for a group of strangers.  I owned the words they formed into sentences, but I can’t force a reader to invoke my emotional attachment to them.

The power in participating in Listen To Your Mother didn’t exist alone in the writing, or even in the telling, but rather from the attention of strangers, listening and feeling.

It’s the importance of being heard, amplified.


Listen To Your Mother RDU

Over-caffeinated and nervous, dangerously close to being late, I hesitated at the bottom of the steps to this gorgeous historical home that I had admired many times in the past. I stood there, gathering myself up for the first group rehearsal for the Listen To Your Mother RDU. Could I do this?  What would the others be like?  The moment my inner dialogue started to fade, I noticed the children’s artwork decorating the antique leaded glass in the front door, and felt myself calm.

For about 10 minutes.

Introductions and label dropping– Executive/Program/Public Affairs/Interim directors, CEOs, Assistant Professors, Program Directors, Published-in-New-York-Times-Washington-Post writers, lawyers, and me- SAHM, sandwich crust remover.

Truth? Not since September 2002, in my first meeting in a room with Neonatologists and PhD Biostatisticians, have I felt so completely unnerved by others’ bona fides.  I read, listened to each of them read; laughed, and cried– all the time thinking, “how did I make it in here?”

I went home and I doubted; then I brushed off my inner Stuart Smalley.   You see, choosing to be a genuine part of this group of women with whom I would share a stage required that I see myself– and my story– as equally important. What I Learned, Take

1: Every personal story contains a sentence that will mean something to someone.  Someone will hear a line you’ve written about your own life, and assign a meaning based on their own story.  Personal stories are powerful–why do you think politicians enjoy them so much?

People talk, and write, a lot about life-altering experiences– total cliché’ right?  I can get lost in my head for days thinking about how individual, seemingly meaningless, choices created events of Great Meaning.

Those lone-moment-social-DNA-molecules stranding together to form my long-term memory helices.  It’s the momentum of a specific moment that goes forward to create– and recreate– my perspective on life.

What I Learned, Take 1:  I practiced my essay while washing dishes, folding laundry, vacuuming, showering;  whispered it to myself while grocery shopping.   I researched the clothing and shoe styles that best suited my body type and bought those items a full two weeks before the show.  In other words, my preparation for this experience came from the exact opposite of my normal. On the Sunday before the show my husband asked if I was nervous about sharing my story in front of a crowd of people.

“No,” I replied.  “I’m not nervous about that part at all.  I do worry about knocking over the podium.”

“Oh. When’s the last time you performed on stage?”

“Well, it was the 2nd grade, so 1983?  But it was a solo.”

The tech rehearsal?  Standing in front a room full of empty chairs, trying to deliver your words in a meaningful way?  Hard!  Standing in front of a room full of people in those chairs– people interacting with your story?  AMAZING.

I can’t tell you the first night’s show when I started to feel as if the 14 of us had stopped being individual stories, and had instead become a book of chapters.   Perhaps it was the copious amounts of lipstick and eyeliner, or a side effect of the lavender oil overdose, or the moon passing through the end of a comet– I don’t know.

What I do know, with an unflappable certainty, is that my participation on that stage at Peace University with those women and that audience forever altered my path– and I know, I KNOW, that has made all the difference. Post show group photo- Listen To Your Mother RDU

The Importance of Being Heard

I’ve been writing this post in my head for over a month, so sit back and enjoy the ride.

The importance of being heard?  What, hunh? It’s simple; once you strip away all of the nuance, the line-in-the-sand- advice, the pleas, the heartfelt and/or open letters to the media masses, the temper tantrums, the stubborn adherence to strict doctrine, the foundation mortared together with noise, what’s left is a grinding need to be heard.

I was chosen recently as part of the cast of this year’s Listen To Your Mother Show— and no, this post isn’t just a commercial,  though I do hope that you find yourself scrolling back up to click on this link for show information and to purchase tickets.  Or clicking it right now.  Okay, that was a tiny commercial.  Carry on.

I listened to the stories during our first read through and spent the rest of the evening completely overwhelmed at the depth of my emotional attachment to the stories of these women.

Imagine meeting your favorite viral post in person– it was like that.

In the weeks that followed I just couldn’t get the thought out of my head.  That from the first drawing on a cave wall, the first wail of a baby’s cry, the last breath before death, every moment in between centers around wanting to be heard.

Elliot and http://paperhand.org/

Elliot wearing one of the Paperhand Puppets

The newborn baby cries for all of the reasons babies cry– hungry, wet, tired, scared, bored. Prior to identifying anything else about its surroundings, baby, barely more than an un-uterused fetus, already instinctively knows the vital importance of being heard.

The toddler crashes full-body to the ground, face purple with rage, arms and legs jabbing at you like a prison shank.  Screaming with all of the twisted, powerful emotions coursing through his little body.   Indignant, righteous fury at this injustice– neither relevance, nor rationality need apply– toddler asserts loudly, publicly about the importance of being heard.

See where I’m going here?

The elementary-aged children, beginning to learn in earnest the adult method of self-containment.  My first grader reminds me of a can of biscuits– life rolls along, pleasant and calm and then BOOM.  I’m surprised even when I know the can’s about to explode; more so when it occurs spontaneously from the backseat.   It’s tricky, navigating this age. They struggle to balance the importance of them being heard, with the natural need for autonomy.

For two months I listened to my kid mumble grumpily about not having lots of stuff, about how haaarrrddd my husband and I are on him.  For two months, any moment of consumerism requiring his participation filled me with irritation beginning at the first click of the fastening seatbelt.  Until, finally, he confessed to being jealous of a classmate who had bragged about a 600 dollar a week allowance, and a 5-story house– neither of which containing a speck of truth.

Now from memory– mine– the middle- and high school children.   Struggling through the importance of being heard by the right people, at the right time.  At an age where being overheard by the wrong people, at the wrong time very much feels like the end of the world as you know it.  My parents offered the well-intentioned advice on a how a future me would be completely unaffected by these humiliating horrors in contrast to my pre-teen/teenaged insistence that the only solution involved leaving the state.   Their (true of most parents deep in battle with hormonal overlords) inability to hear me created a world where the importance of being heard transformed into the importance of remaining silent.

Nothing– none of this– goes away (or gets easier) as we grow older; as we settle into a young adult’s life of facebook, and twitter, and tumblr, and reddit.  We being to navigate interpersonal relationships, boundaries within our own control.  Sorta.  Little things become Huge Things; simple tasks, like proper towel folding become a metaphor for demonstrative emotion.

Becoming parents– or not–  we find ourselves banging against our drum of individuality, trying to reinforce the importance of being heard over a wall of background noise. The Pinteresting  vs The Pinhating; The Elf Elite vs The Shelf Scorners; The Safety Rotors vs The Abduction Riskers; The Indignant Attendants vs The Indifferent Iphoners;  The Village Dwellers vs The Validation Seekers.

When a gazillion people share a post about stopping holiday madness, and another gazillion people get self-righteous in their justification of house-destroying leprechauns, the original message of being overwhelmed gets swallowed by the static.

It’s not about everyone drinking a homogenized Hippie Peace and Patouchili smoothie, either.  I can be comfortable in my paint-covered shorts while another mom is comfortable in her designer white pants.  We can both wonder at how the other manages without the addition of scorn.

For me, the importance in being heard  has nothing to do with anyone else’s priority list at all.  It’s about strengthening my own voice, comfortably tucking into my own confidence, seeking my own council, and accepting that everyone just wants to be heard.

Now the challenge for me is not in the hearing, but in the listening.  Double bonus points if I could learn to listen without offering solutions or advice.

What? Nobody’s perfect.

Toxic Hot Seat

Y’all know how I feel about the chemicals… the **unregulated TOXIC chemicals that the chemical industry slides into infant pajamas because babies are oh-so-flammable**.

Any-who, Toxic Hot Seat happens to be playing tomorrow night at the Carmike 15 in Raleigh (5501 Atlantic Springs Rd., Raleigh, NC, 27616).   I plan to attend, even after spending the day at the zoo with 126 of my favorite first graders, and one Elliot.

I understand that it is overwhelming to consider the long-term side effects of the slow poison seeping from each speck of flame-retardant-contaminated dust bunny (me = bringer of joy and happiness this evening, yes?).  I am fully aware of how little consumer choice any of us gets– all thanks to the super, duper effective chemical company lobbyists.

I also understand that millions of dollars and scientific research hours were wasted on testing the safety of vaccines when a nation became horrified by the thought of injecting their small children with teeny tiny bits of chemicals.  What I struggle with accepting is that this is the same nation of people that overspend for their BPA-free water bottles, because SAFETY, without ever realizing that these plastics are all now BPS-full.

You know what? I refuse to accept that I have to just sit back and take my spoonful of toxic sludge with my petroleum-laden food dyed sugar.  Just. No.

At no other time in history have we the consumer had the opportunity to immediately point the finger at the corporations that are trying to dupe us in favor of their profit margin.

Here’s a funny– The American Chemistry Council works with PETA to make sure any legislation passed doesn’t needlessly harm innocent animals with unnecessary safety tests.   Why pay for lab rats when they get our children for free?

Would Mr Rogers ride in TARDIS?

Maybe you saw my new Intergalactic Planetary TARDIS office?   And wondered to yourself… um? Why?

Perhaps you, as one of my 15 loyal readers, remember that I spent spring break last year creating a fort of my own in the basement?  My quiet spot to write that book I’ve been working on (define “work”) for a year?

Living in the South + a basement + trees =  bugs.  And despite my bad-assery black widow hunting skills, palmetto bugs make me scream.  Elliot kills them for me now– under protest, because; “Mom, they are CLEANER bugs”.

I asked JB–all casual and theoretical– if he’d be willing to move his home office down to the basement.   I had his stuff downstairs before he stopped nodding yes.

Which left me back upstairs.  With a desk that I didn’t like (it’s now a hutch in the dining room– that’s for another day).   I wanted a standing desk– salvaged from an old table leaf and some other spare parts.  I needed a chair, but I didn’t want to buy a new one.   Oh look–I never did get rid of the crib I repurposed into a lego table that, once I admitted to the failure of my elaborately sorted lego storage system, sat in the basement waiting for death.

And if I ever get around to removing that paper pile off of my once-clean standing desk and sewing the grown up pillows for my new MTV crib (get it?  Because I’m a DIY rockstar and it’s a crib? I crack myself up) I’ll post pictures.  The DIY process isn’t what this post is about though.  Gotcha!

So why DID I need TARDIS?

Have you ever wondered why Mr. Roger’s put on a sweater and changed his shoes at the beginning of every show?   A symbolic nod to a shift of persona, of turning into himself into…well, himself.  These types of actions are a part of asserting situational control.   Notice next time you go to a big meeting– does the speaker lower (or raise) the blinds? Adjust the lights?  They are asserting their control over the room.

need to write.  My youngest enters kindergarten in 6 short months and the husband has started dropping hints about all of the ways I might start to earn an income.  I like employment;  I’ve really enjoyed opportunities that challenge my brain.  Being paid for my brain seems like the next logical step.

But I really don’t want to sit in a cube and write TPS reports.  Not again.

I’ve written many things that I consider  significant, thoughtful efforts– informative op eds on chemical safety; an investigative op ed on dirty NC politics;  an entry to the Listen To Your Mother competition (ack! Audition’s this Thursday!); a unique perspective on the Affordable Care Act and a Women’s Healthcare post, both for momsrising;

I’ve, of course, talked about my kids.  About why I involve my children in politics;  about How to Explain Martin Luther King for Carolina Parent; why I hang my kids’ art up–even in the living room; what it’s like to balance my own issues with raising critically thinking children.

I’ve always found the anti-mothering feminist represents a special brand of ass itchery; an attitude that reached out to attack Michelle Obama recently.  I find the constant plague of mothering self-doubt and continual need for reassurance, exhausting.  Especially when we get together to talk about how much easier women used to have it– you know, before birth control and legal rights.

One of my personal favorites included the leagues of people who want me to throw away my smart phone and devote 100% of my undivided attention to my small children.

Because. No.

I read those posts after I read my fiction.  Fiction?  Hard.

Last year I won an editing auction.  Meaning that Chuck Wendig would read, and then rip apart, 5000 of my words.   All I had (have) to do is write them.   I have my fingers crossed that there isn’t an expiration date because… cough.

You see, Chuck blogs a lot about how to write.  The first book of his I read was an amazon purchase– 250 Things You Should Know About Writing.   Then I read his Miriam Black series, Blackbirds, Mockingbird, and the latest– The Cormorant.

Over the course of a year, I wrote an outline and several really rough draft chapters of a novel that I can objectively declare as a 1st class passenger boarding the Sucking the Suck Suckage Train.

It is disappointing to realize your great contribution to literature promises to read as a formulaic, stereotypical, poorly written romance triangle.  And in between my pity party and my resulting rally, my state imploded with legislated stupidity demanding both my time and attention.

Do you remember Melvin’s line– “You make me want to be a better man”  from As Good As It Gets? Reading the terribleminds posts over the summer made me want to be a better writer.

I had characters, but no content;  personalities without prose.  Things in my head don’t like to shut up– even fictional things– and I eventually started scribbling lines again.  A story formed.  One that, if I sit my ass down and write it, bombs the fuck out of the Sucking the Suck Suckage Train.

Internal self-discipline– a huge problem of mine.  But it’s one that I can control.

Now I walk through my personal TARDIS to go write. I can symbolically shed the trappings that like to poop on my creativity.  Like having to clear the table before forcing children to eat food that I didn’t want to cook and that they don’t want to eat. Or feeding the bearded dragon that literally likes to poop on my things.

And see?  1000 words.


My Thoughts on HKonJ

I spent Saturday morning protesting the direction of NC politics with the HKonJ’s People’s Assembly.  Friday, I spent the day at a women-in-politics training given by Lillian and Emily’s List .

Fascinating stuff, politics.  It’s been a strange week.

A threat of cold and rain made me leave the boys home with Joel, which instead allowed me the freedom to tigger-bounce through the whole march, taking lots of pictures (like I do). I came home battling a migraine, but took a minute to flip through the files, noticing a clear story path written in the signage.   I do like words.  But it was while I slept in that hazy sleep/non-sleep of a migraine that I thought, “hey, I should make this into a movie real quick“.

Following the 2012 elections, North Carolina saw its first Republican-led one party government since the Reconstruction.  The amount of destruction that has followed makes us a regular laughingstock of the nation.  In so many ways our government has intentionally turned our reality the butt of someone else’s joke.

But it’s not funny, what has been done here.  Some of these legislators are people I view to be immoral, yet they try to legislate my morality. 

It started by redrawing voting district lines with the sole intention of perverting democracy.

Millions of tax payer dollars– and thousands of lawmaker hours– spent to pass a constitutional amendment against something that was already against NC law.  A law that broke the heart of my children and my youngest still identifies Chik Fil A as the place that doesn’t want his friend’s moms to marry. 

The allowed concealed weapons to enter the school parking lots and playgrounds where our children play.  It was already legal to open carry in these places—thus allowing for “heroes”—so why the new law that allows gun owners to hide their armed fear?

They have chipped away at women’s rights under the guise of health and safety; creating an environment that damages Planned Parenthood’s ability to provide birth control and mammograms to the economically disadvantaged women that dominate the rural areas of our state.

They have systematically cut Medicaid, food stamp and unemployment benefits proving again that it’s the fetus and not the child that deserves life.

They did not change the $1500 tax cap on yacht purchases.  The tax shelters and cuts made for corporations in this state could fill a… deficit.

Like pin-strip-suited Vikings they have raided public school budgets, demoralizing our teachers and students while increasing the availability of Charter Schools.

They have written ambiguous environmental laws, created giant tax shelters for developers and padded those agencies designed to protect our public health with members that make profit off of environmental disasters.

Not only are their actions an affront to common sensibilities, their heavy-handed, corporate-led legislation is driving our state’s economic decline (for those us not buying yachts) with a speed worthy of NASCAR.

Most importantly, these lawmakers have no issue with calling us morons, or refusing to listen to our valid concerns.  They have forgotten who they work for and it’s past time to fix that.


Cadillac Heath Insurance

Momsrising, an amazing grass-roots organization with which I volunteer my time, started a 3 day Let’s #Blog4Health campaign to share stories about the Affordable Care Act. So many stories.

Is the ACA perfect?  Of course not, life– and the government policies dealing with it– rarely approach perfection.  But for millions of people it’s close enough to count. 

Which leads to my story of how the Affordable Care Act has affected me.  In truth, not at all. My husband has a great job for a company that chooses to provide its employees (and their families) with that famed Cadillac health insurance.

As a matter of fact, in all of my years on Earth– 37 and counting– I have never been without health insurance.  My Dad’s military career covered me as a college student until I was 25.  When it finally expired–and oh, how I mourned the loss of my dependent ID– I picked up insurance through my full time retail job.  Less impressive, my insurance coverage cost me $60 every two weeks, which might sound like a pittance, but is a lot of money for a worker earning $9 an hour.

I carried that insurance to cover any potential catastrophic health crises.  However, high deductibles and co-pays still sent me to planned parenthood for my yearly gynecological exams and the birth control not covered by my prescription plan (though it DID cover viagra, which no amount of arguing with the claims department could change).

In between my retail years and my stay-at-home-mom years, I worked at the same company my husband works for now.

So how has a lifetime of having affordable health care affected me?  A few days after high school graduation I suffered reoccurring hives that spread across my whole body and down my throat.  I spent a little less than a week in the hospital, being pumped with high-dose steroids and anti-histamines.  They ran allergy tests, blood tests, and urine tests.  The total cost of that hospital visit– and I remember because my dad forgot his checkbook, so I had to pay– less than $15.

During the pre-kid working years when a really nasty cough and extreme shortness of breath sent me to a doctor, then to a lung x-ray;  my cost, $75 dollars.   My cost for the mental health provider necessary for medicating my ADD, and the cost for the ADD medication, both of which a requirement for my quality of life;  $35 dollars a month.

The cost of my husband’s surgery to remove a huge paratoid tumor in his neck; less than $500.

The entire maternity cost of my first child– $1100.  And I thought that was really expensive until I saw the line item cost on the EOB.

When intense uterine cramps sent me to both a doctor and a radiologist– both of which would have saved my life had that ovarian fibroid been an ovarian tumor instead, cost less than $100.  And the month I spent suffering from extreme dizzy spells that swept me off my feet? Several doctor trips and tests provided a solution:  I am the only person to whom my doctor has recommended eat more salt (I have low blood pressure).

When I went to an out-of-town-ER with pain that I was fairly certain would be fatal? Even after several hours in the ER, a CAT scan, IV drugs (y’all kidney stones–even small ones–are brutal) my cost was almost nothing.

So how has having affordable health care affected me?

I have never once had to hesitate to bring either of my children to the doctor, or the two times we’ve gone, to the emergency department.   I have never once had to worry about an illness bankrupting my family.  Now, thanks the Affordable Care Act legislation, I never will.


Alien Abduction

Would I lie about an alien abduction?   Choosing to run an ad-free, sponsor-free blog leaves me blissfully unfettered when it comes to posting, but even I wouldn’t neglect my precious for 2 months.

So yeah, alien abduction.  Just a few days after the turn of the New Year I laid myself out on the sun warmed concrete after failing to convince E that he wanted to help me weave a wreath from the grapevines I pulled off a gasping crepe myrtle. I watched my youngest child stack chairs to climb the tree and contemplated the symbolic meaning of circles.

Heavy stuff, circles.

A gust of wind whooshed my hair off my neck in time with Elliot’s gasp, and I felt the chill of a retreating sun even before noticing the increasing creep of a large shadow.  Grabbing a stick, I stood and turned, readying to attack whatever crazed mountain bear threatened my baby. On the street, parked like a dutifully registered motor vehicle, hovered the shiny metal spaceship of my Spielberg/Lucas/Roddenberry childhood.  I scooted to Elliot and pulled him out of his tree perch, whispering for him run and hide in the closet.

Straightening, I watched the door slide open; a warrior mom prepared to protect her progeny from what would surely be a warp speed attack from Reese’s Pieces gone to the Dark Side. But no amount of preparation could prevent the choking cough of reality.

It had attempted to mimic the most innocuous of humanity; a sweater, a blazer, casual pants.  The uniformed clothing of one meaning to soothe and reassure.

It could have worn an apron while delivering cookies to me in the street without achieving a reassuring visage. Its face as dominated by a mouth flapped open in a rictus of forced cheer, its skin mottled and discolored like that of a person with lots of access to toxins and no access to healthcare. It was terrifying even before it spoke– moreso after.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I might have lost a little tinkle from my bladder.  But its voice, gratingly mocking, delivered words of such jumbled insanity that I feared it spoke in a cipher whose decoding would determine my survival.

It skulked closer to me continuing to speak with increasing volume as its ire raised with my obvious confusion.   I finally blurted out that I knew of the words it spoke--concepts and strategy and theory and also facts— but that none of my university-acquired critical thinking and inference abilities could apply a sensible meaning to its statement.

Y’all, it became enraged; shrieking so loud that every dog in the neighborhood howled in answer. One bony hand reached toward me, waving in my face and demanding I show something that sounded like “identification”,  but surely meant something else in its language-that-sounded-like-mine-but-wasn’t.   I dragged my feet against the concrete wanting to slow its pull on my person, finally pushing away my fear to yell,  “Dammit, I have rights”.  Then it stopped, turning its dead eyes to my house muttering insensibly again; because what sense can be found in vaginal motorcycle education charters?

However the mention of education reminded me of my children thus I choose to enter its ship despite my fear of an unwanted probe.  As the doors closed behind me, it suddenly freed of its grip and disappeared. I stood, peacefully trying to assemble myself back to right when an intense vertical lurch had my loud exclamation of FRACK echoing off the ship’s granite walls.

My time as its prisoner was fraught with confused ambiguity.  Its friends came over for fancy parties, sometimes staying after as part of the ship staff.  And while I rarely understood their conversations, I knew I was not part of the inner circle, that my relative comfort existed only on their whim.  One night they all giggled as one of its friend dropped a bag of knitting supplies on my lap.  I never got the joke because I don’t knit, but they all laughed for hours.

When I was finally returned to earth, I was shocked to learn that what had felt like 4 never-ending years had really only been a few months.  But my experiences had forever altered my perspective; never again would I laze in the sun without fearing being taken hostage by one more powerful than I.

North Carolina, a riddle:  How do you know your state policy making has gone insane?   When a blogger can write an alien abduction story from the key outcomes.  

Chemical Safety. Someone Should Care a Whole Awful Lot.

It’s March 2001 and a British man steps out of a blue police box and says that I will someday be grateful for the acute myelogenous leukemia (Agent Orange- related cancer) that has just killed my father.   He promises that the next half-dozen years my mother and I will spend spinning in the revolving door of the Veteran’s Administration (VA) will benefit me later.  He whispers that I need to pay attention to the draft Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) legislation in 2013.

If only, right?  Almost 13 years and two children after my father’s death, I can appreciate how much that past informed the present.  His death fueled that first tank of moral outrage.  But it was the 7 years of cycling Request/Response/Wait with the VA, the writing and copying of a forest-worth of appeals, and the knowledge gained from working in the biostatistics department of a local CRO that kept the tank full.

In my efforts to understand (and convince the VA) of the why of his cancer,  I added new words to my personal dictionary: benzene,  2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic (2,4,5-T), which was contaminated with 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (2,3,7,8- TCDD), and  2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2-4-D).

From 2002 to 2004 the thousands of hours spent reading scientific articles full of words necessitating both conventional and medical dictionaries made three facts clear:

  1. chemicals are not required to undergo any safety testing before being sent out into the populace,
  2. the average human has far more exposure to toxic chemicals than they realize, and
  3. regular exposure to toxic chemicals is not healthy.

My family is safe because I buy organic foods.  None of this applies to me. 

Both of my children have food allergies; I can read a label to avoid the eggs that will send one of them to the ER.  As a consumer I can (and do) choose to avoid foods with food dye, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

I can choose to purchase organic diced tomatoes to avoid eating the pesticides, completely ignorant of the fact that no law that regulates what’s in the actual can.

Organic Tomatoes Toxic Can

This is why CSIA applies to all of us– even the eaters of organic foods–irrespective of race, political leaning, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality, or geography.  We are equal in our inability to opt out of toxic chemical exposure.

Those chemicals hang out next to you on the couchslap you a high-five every time you take a receipt, and dance with your dust bunnies.

Chemicals–meh. I don’t drink jet fuel, and I don’t work in manufacturing.  

Of course you aren’t drinking jet fuel. Yet scientists are finding persistent chemicals in the breast milk of average American women. Since you didn’t brew a k-cup of chemicals this morning, and you don’t work in chemical manufacturing, how do you suppose those chemicals got into your body?   

Do you sit on a couch with foam cushions?  Sleep on a flame-retardant mattress? Buy lunchboxes and bookbags for your children? Do you eat canned soup? Drink water from a contaminated well?  Drink any water at all?

Now is a good time for me to point out that being exposed to Chemical X does not mean you will die from Disease yy. No one factor determines whether an individual will develop cancer, even if a specific exposure explains a high proportion of the occurrence of a specific cancer.  

Why We Should All Care a Whole Awful Lot

I share a birth year, 1976, with the Toxic Substance Control Act– TSCA (toss-ka), the law written to regulate the chemical industry.  TSCA passed– and with it an automatic exemption for the 60,000 chemicals already on the market.  Since 1976, an additional 24,000 chemicals have come to market.  About 15% of the 24,000 new chemical submissions included any health-and-safety data.

Put another way: for 37 years Americans have invited about 83,800 untested chemicals into their homes, gardens, clothes, dishes, shampoo, soap, detergents, and mattresses.  About 200 chemicals in the past 37 years have had pre-market safety testing.

83800 Untested Chemicals

In an astonishingly abrupt difference, should I find myself diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, I cannot take a pharmaceutical drug without it first having passed trials for both safety and efficacy.   I can go online and read the data from the clinical trials of an approved drug. I can (and have) read thousands of pages listing adverse side effects of investigational study drugs.   Extensive examination of data is required before a drug can be sent to market and, should post-market safety concerns develop, the FDA can pull the drug.

I’m concerned that similar requirements haven’t been established for the chemicals that stain every surface of a modern America household.  I can’t flip over my couch cushion and see a listing of the chemicals used to make it flame retardant.  I can’t choose.  As a parent and a consumer, that’s not okay.

I gave birth to my first son in 2006.  During an infant safety class, the nurse looked out at the sea of mounded bellies, protected by elastic-waist pants and folded hands, and warned us that using soap would wash the flame retardant off baby’s clothes.

I asked her what it was about babies that made them more flammable, thus requiring flame retardant clothing.  Her answer was that “newborns, being immobile, can’t move themselves away from a fire.”   After nights of being woken by an indignantly wet, screaming newborn I felt confident that, should he find himself suddenly on fire, we’d be well-informed.  No longer concerned about his increased risk of spontaneously bursting into flame, we eliminated treated pajamas.

Then, as I nursed 3 month old Zach, I read an article that mentioned how disposable baby diapers contain dioxin—an unavoidable byproduct of the paper bleaching process.  I thought we had been pathologically cautious– testing the paint and pipes for lead in our 1969 home, choosing low-VOC paints, unscented baby shampoo and lotions, vaccinating, breastfeeding—only to find out that we had been laying dioxin next to his bare baby skin.

We switched to cloth diapers.

Zach spent a year playing with/chewing on what would later become known as Thomas the Toxic-Lead-Paint Engine.   2007, the year of massive toy recalls for lead paint (and other) violations, cemented my child’s natural love of cardboard boxes; it was difficult for me not to see each plastic toy as the next toxin-bearing Trojan Horse.

Why I’m grateful for cancer–

Wait- did you just say you were grateful for cancer?

Yes, I did.  My 18 year old father’s firebase experienced heavy deforestation from Agent Orange (AO) giving multiple AO-related diseases a chance at his mortality.  If it was going to be something, I’m grateful it was AML.   You see, my father’s death had already informed me of the chemicals that lurked– largely unregulated– in every corner of modern life.   But my peer group at the time– young adults whose parents had not been military– were unaffected, and therefore unimpressed, by the irresponsible behavior of the chemical industry.

I cheered over the public outcry against Bisphenol-A (BPA)—and, for a minute, felt pride over the chemical manufacturing industry’s response.  Victorious fist-bumps spread as baby bottles started to show up with BPA-FREE labels.



Unfortunately, the chemical manufacturing industry replaced the BPA with Bisphenol-S (BPS), which is, at best, comparably bad.

In their short lifetime—and despite my rigorous efforts to the contrary—both of my children likely walk around as unwilling hosts to multiple toxic chemicals.  The repeating statement in these biomonitoring chemical summaries (even for those chemicals identified as probable carcinogens) is that: “Human health effects from [INSERT CHEMICAL] at low environmental doses or at biomonitored levels from low environmental exposures are unknown.”

That’s true—we don’t know the human health effects of long-term exposure to low level chemicals, because safety tests are not required of new chemicals, and for the past 37 years the only data available have been those voluntarily given by the industry writing the rules intended to regulate it. 

No, I’m not going to go all Jenny-McCarthy and say that I know for certain that living with  low levels of multiple chemicals deemed as “possible” and “probable” human carcinogens causes negative health outcomes.  It’s hard enough to identify association, let alone causation.  What I do know for a fact is that children have more years of future life than adults; more years for their developing bodies to accumulate the byproducts of almost 80,000 untested chemicals.   I also know exposure measured for a 37 year old is different from that measured for a 7 year old, a 3 year old, a 2 month old, and a fetus.  I know that measuring the chemicals causing early puberty will not yield accurate results for an adult well beyond puberty.

I know that children are at a current—and future—risk for unknown health effects simply because we do not require safety testing.

Now I’m terrified of my couch and grocery receipts, and I think I saw a tumor growing on my foot.  What is my government doing about this?

Which leads us to 2013 and the introduction of the “bipartisan effort to update embarrassingly outdated legislation”, aka the Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA). Bipartisan cooperation, being the shiny snowflake twinkling against the Unicorn’s horn it is these days, is both appreciated and even encouraged by the voting public.  Notwithstanding, I do NOT intend to encourage the passage of tepid, ineffective legislation for the sake of bipartisanship cooperation.

As it’s written—and yes, I read each overly comma’ed and semi-colon’ed paragraph— the first draft of the CSIA scores big for The Bill Most Likely to Define Governmental Ambiguity.  The current version of CSIA sacrifices the opportunity to protect health and environment in favor of protecting profit.  CSIA forfeits my freedom as a consumer to make informed choices.

CSIA prevents States from passing chemical safety regulations, limiting the rights of individual states in favor of a large federal government.   Sorry Californina voters, DC will be taking over now.  This ceding of regulatory control to the federal government is a complete dissension from S. 1482, a bill written recognizing the primacy of States for setting chemical regulations with regard to hydraulic fracturing.   Fascinating, really.

CSIA legislation requires the EPA assess exposure in vulnerable subpopulations (such as children and at-risk workers) for the safety assessments.  It fails to define what should be done to protect a subpopulation should they be found to be at an increased risk.   This is similar to acknowledging that children are a greater risk for lead-exposure related illness and then doing nothing about lead.

CSIA creates multiple layers of bureaucratic red tape for the EPA with the use of phrases like “time to time” (my favorite), “timely”, and “within a reasonable time”  as the definition for key deadlines and timelines.

CSIA requires that a chemical product be defined as either high or low risk.  If the EPA cannot prove a chemical to be high risk, then that chemical is automatically categorized as low risk.   I don’t consider unstudied to be the same as low risk.

This is not an example of a socialist agenda against free enterprise.   A fair number of chemicals are vitally important to the continuation of humans world-wide.   I don’t want to write legislation that cripples the innovation of the chemical industry.  But I do want legislation written that stops toxic chemicals from slithering all over children.

I want legislation that promotes public and environmental health, and protects consumer freedom.  We need legislation that puts health over profit.  Contact the members of the Environment and Public Works Committee and tell them that you want them to keep working.

We all have the right to know that we’re not accidentally poisoning our families with the products purchased for our homes.