From left: Twiggus, Flerjoob, Snorgustuflox and Zmoojius
Number 37 in the Cryptids Large and Small Series of Monster Care Guides by Dr. Skeezix Fremulon, World-Renowned Monstrologist
Welcome to the Wonderful World of Monster Care!
In order to keep your baby monsters healthy and happy during their crucial early months, Dr. Skeezix Fremulon has formulated this short-form guide to baby monster care based on his original three-volume classic guide to a monster’s first year. We at Téras Publishing have provided Dr. Fremulon with key details about your particular monsters so that we may provide you with this customized guide.
First, Meet Your Monsters
All four of your monsters are crepuscular fneedids, and each first emerged from its hanging cave pod at twilight during a January full moon. As you know, crepuscular monsters prefer to dine at twilight and absolutely avoid noshing during the noon or midnight hours. Because they are young, they need more sleep than adult monsters. They prefer to rest suspended upside-down like bats, but they are versatile beings and can adapt to resting in any position given practice.
Being flabjescent (finger-dwelling) monsters, they sleep with their eyes open so that they can always be aware of micromovements that might require them to rearrange their eyes, claws, antennae or fingers. Do not be alarmed if you awake to find them staring at you. They may actually be sleeping. If they are awake, you are likely to find that they are simply admiring your good looks.
Monster #1: Twiggus
Twiggus is a Jaundiced Pricklebelly. A gentle, jovial soul, her favorite foods are gooseberries and Triscuits. Her gelatinous eye pockets are light-sensitive and they act as night-vision goggles that allow her to see in perfect darkness. Her antennae are ticklish, so be careful that when you flex them, you do so delicately. Twiggus likes nomming lightly on fingertips and rolling in cotton balls. Her favorite performer is Charles Mingus.
Likes: Ginger-lemon tea, being read to during late-morning snack time, doing needlepoint, engaging in philosophical discourse
Dislikes: Chervil, mangoes, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, the letter M
Monster #2: Flerjoob
Flerjoob is a Tangerine Zogulanthropus. Anxious and easily startled, he needs frequently soothing. Though he does not own an automobile, he is always worried that he has misplaced his car keys. Has a tendency to shriek quietly when startled, and he startles easily. His shrieks are barely audible, but they rattle Snorgustuflox, so they are best avoided. When he is nervous, he finds tapioca pudding and golden raisins very comforting.
Likes: Having his teeth counted, being told that he’s a good boy, doing jigsaw puzzles featuring photos of rubber ducks, sharpening crayons
Dislikes: Loud noises, strobe lights, polyester blends, bar soap
Monster #3: Snorgustuflox
Snorgustuflox is a Celery Queezix. Singularly lacking in self-awareness, Snorgustuflox thinks he is easy-going and friendly because he waves at everyone all the time, but his gruff barking voice and aggressive manner often put people off. He is desperate for friendship and will wiggle his ferny antennae with glee when having a conversation with a new friend, but his direct questioning and habit of interrupting may be considered rude. He reacts badly to time-outs and benefits from a more relaxed approach. Gentle reminders and pleasant distractions when he becomes overbearing work best.
Likes: Cilantro-based herb blends, under-ripe bananas, hang gliding, luna moths
Dislikes: Fox News, cough syrup, backgammon, socks
Monster #4: Zmoojius
Zmoojius is a Flangified Multiocularian. A practical joker, she likes bending her eyestalks around corners, sticking them into things and commenting on what she sees. As a rare aubergine-snooted variety, she tends toward self-importance, but she has a good heart and is more likely to pick flowers for you with her clasping flangicles than to pinch you with them. A romantic monster, she enjoys eating Valentine heart candies and listening to soft-rock ballads while staring up at the moon.
Likes: Rom-coms, cornstarch, the way people’s eyes scrunch up when they smile, sphagnum moss
Dislikes: Cider vinegar, dust mites, egg salad, stand-up comedy specials
In Conclusion: Relax and Enjoy Your New Friends
It is normal for baby monsters to sleep for up to 23 hours a day and to cluster together in strange combinations. They play a mini-monster variant of Twister that requires no mat or spinner, so don’t be surprised if you find them gathering and piling up in unexpected ways. They are quite fond of bubble baths and underwater toe rides. They play hide and seek whenever possible, and particularly enjoy hiding in medicine cabinets, refrigerators, sock drawers and glove compartments.
While your monsters have strong opinions, they are gentle souls at heart. You will find that as long as they receive frequent smiles, kind words and good snacks, they are quite easy to live with and will provide years of enjoyable companionship.
The Little Man movie rating system has been used by the San Francisco Chronicle since 1942. The excited Little Man above signifies a critic’s greatest satisfaction and is equivalent to a four-star rating.
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The following is one of a series of six film review parodies I wrote for the Sunday Punch section of the San Francisco Chronicle some years ago. In each piece I wrote about outrageous, nonexistent foreign films and reviewed them in the voice of a pompous film critic. This was the second parody of the six.
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Among the new foreign film releases this season are two films by female directors: Bebe Francobolli’s ode to Dada, Ciao Chow Chow, and Christiane de Geronimo’s children’s thriller, Nightlight.
Francobolli is the daughter of the Suprematist painter Mazlow Molotov (“The Black Russian”) and Constructivist painter Kiri de Kulpe Kloonig (a former courtesan known as “The Dutch Treat”). Bebe’s parents met in Rome at an international stamp-collecting convention and became Italian citizens before their only child was born.
Named Bebe Francobolli (literally Baby Postage Stamps) after her parents’ avocation, she refused to become a philatelist and rejected the art of her ancestors. She turned to Dada, the nihilistic movement that created “non-art,” laughed at overly serious artists and spawned Surrealism.
These influences can be seen clearly in Ciao Chow Chow, in which Bebe herself stars. Translated from Italian into English, and then back into Italian again, with no subtitles, the film begins and ends with Bebe waving goodbye to her beloved Chow dog, Antipasto, symbol of her lost youth and of her ridiculous early films.
Ciao is a parody of a self-parody, masterful in its simplicity and in its bold statement that life is to be laughed at, and that nothing is serious or sacred.
Basically nihilistic, with Dadaist subject matter and camera angles, this film is convoluted and uneven, personalized and stylized, and will make no sense to anyone who has not seen Bebe’s early travelogue films. Yet, Bebe promises that it will be her last film work, and that alone has prompted critical acclaim.
Avant-garde director Christiane de Geronimo’s Nightlight tells the terrifying story of the night the Mickey Mouse nightlight burned out in the Turner household. Little Bobby Turner is forced to face The Clown Puppet, The Vicious Animal Slippers and The Dreaded Man from Under the Bed.
Filmed in black and white, Nightlight captures the shadowy horror of every child’s bedroom, and forces even the adult viewer to come to grips with The Thing in the Closet. Not for the squeamish.
De Geronimo’s earlier attempts at children’s thrillers include The Teddy Bear with No Face, Scream, Barbie, Scream and Revenge of the Katzenjammer Kids, in which comic-strip characters from the past are set loose on an unwitting Nebraska farm town.
Nightlight, the third of her bedtime stories series, features the late French film star Estella de Lumiere in her final role before the dreadful accident on the set of Murder on the Trampoline.
Next month, two recent remakes: Canadian filmmaker and ice-hockey champion Pete Steed’s sport-oriented version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Fujiko Shiatsu’s sumo wrestling remake of The Music Man.
In 1908, Pathé invented the newsreel, a short-subject film shown in cinemas prior to feature films. The Pathé Brothers of France owned the world’s largest film equipment and production company, and they saw the benefit of bringing news to life for moving picture fans and thus padding out an afternoon or evening’s cinematic entertainment. In the years before television, people grew to rely on newsreels during their weekly cinema visits to keep up with royal visits, war news, sports, fashion and celebrity events and travelogues that took them to far-away places.
Over time, many short subject films took on a nationalistic bent, and they were used as propaganda tools during World Wars I and II. Some showed women on the home front how to make do with rationed food and fabrics during and after World War II. Others showed teens at play, making them seem like laughable aliens, underscoring the generation gap that caused such rifts between teens and their parents in the 1950s and 1960s and played out in major culture clashes in both cinematic and real life.
News reels often depicted the people of other nations as quaint and exotic, and made women look like vain, silly, laughable lightweights. But they were wittily narrated, well-edited and often visually sumptuous, so they make for fascinating views into 20th century cultural history today.
Pathé short-subject films reached the height of their appeal in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in Britain. Many of these shorts involve women being made to look foolish while demonstrating outlandish fashion or beauty trends and inventions, all accompanied by an orchestra playing a peppy tune and a wry male narrator making snappy sexist comments.
It’s always interesting to see how much effort has been put into inventing odd machinery to distract women, perpetuate stereotypes and keep women “in their place.” It still goes on today, of course, but now women’s voices are used to make the narrated hype more palatable and to seem more “empowering” and less demeaning.
Several of my dearest friends have lost loved ones recently; other friends have faced difficult anniversaries of loss. This has been an especially challenging time for many of my favorite people. I want to send special love and thoughts of support and hope to all of you who have suffered great losses recently, or who lost loved ones or relationships some time ago but still feel the sting of those losses every day.
Even after estrangements or difficulties, or when death is expected, such losses can be extremely difficult and sometimes surprisingly destabilizing to our mental and physical health. Even if a friend or family member was challenging, or if we were no longer close, facing their deaths usually makes our own lives feel more fragile. We can also feel as if we’ve lost a part of our own histories when they leave this world. When we lose another person (or an animal friend) who has witnessed important times in our lives, we may feel as if we’ve lost those times forever, and given up a part of ourselves, too.
But we still carry those people, companions and experiences in our hearts, and our relationships with them don’t die when their bodies stop breathing. Our relationships can even grow over time as we gain new insights into their behaviors or their pains or fears. We may grow to forgive, or even to get angrier for them for the way they behaved—and that’s okay. It takes time to process and understand relationships and feelings. We may even think we’ve finished grieving for them and find that a wave of great sadness and loss overcomes us at strange times, scaring us with the strength of our emotions. That is normal, too.
If you have suffered a great loss and the weight of it is still heavy or the pain feels very fresh, I am so sorry. Though time does ease it, getting to a point at which memories feel more pleasurable than painful can take much longer than we expect, and working through grief is exhausting. For now, I hope you will ask less of yourself for the time being, while your suffering is fresh. The stress of grief is one of the greatest stresses a body can bear, so allow yourself time to rest and recover from the shock of loss. Treat yourself as you would treat any dear friend who was in pain—with extra sleep, nurturing food, enough quiet time, and, when necessary, comforting distractions. Emotional breaks are important, and finding moments of lightness or laughter during times of grief does not make you disloyal to those whom you have lost. There is no timetable that you must follow in order to be “normal” or “right”—take your time, get your rest, and don’t feel guilty if you need extra time away from others, or if you can’t respond to others’ kindnesses as quickly as you’d like.
Remember that you are loved, and that those whom you love don’t disappear from your life as long as you carry them with you in your heart. Sharing what you love most about them with others can be healing, and it can pass their goodness along to others; I still speak of my grandmother’s love and grace frequently, and it comforts me and makes my daughter feel close to Grandma Emma, even though they never met.
You are not any less valuable or lovable just because those who have loved you deeply are no longer near you. You will always matter, and so will they.
Photo by Mike Labrum, Unsplash
Today is Boxing Day, a day traditionally set aside to remind those who have been blessed with comfort to share their bounty with those to whom life has been less generous. The tradition seems to have begun in the 1600s in England when the more well-to-do put together boxes of money, gifts, hand-me-downs and leftover food for their servants who had worked on Christmas Day. These servants were given the day after Christmas off to spend with their families and enjoy the contents of the box.
One of the central tenets of the religion which takes Jesus as its lord is expressed in the following passage from the New Testament’s Book of Matthew: “‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’’
The true character of a human being is shown in the way that she or he treats those who are in need, those who are suffering, those who have no power. People of character don’t spend time determining that some people are unworthy of human decency. The Jesus lauded as the redeemer of Christians did not trample on the weak or crush those who had erred. He saw no poor as “undeserving,” nor did he believe that some prisoners deserved kindness while others deserved a boot in the face. Jesus said that the way to show reverence for that which was pure and good was to show reverence for and generosity to “the least of these”—those most degraded, despised, troubled and troubling people among us. He said we should focus more of our love, mercy and understanding on these people than on the fortunate few. His concern was not with the inhabitants of any shining city on a hill; he saved his blessings (and, Christians say, his miracles) for those who had the least and needed love most.
We can celebrate the spirit of Boxing Day without using boxes; just choose a favorite charity or two and help them to help others, or do a good deed for someone in need. In the spirit of Boxing Day, I’m giving to my local food bank today. If you’re looking for an especially effective nonprofit to support with your Christmas cash, Hanukkah gelt or secular humanistic savings, CharityNavigator.com is a great place to start.
Blessed are the merciful. Peace be with you today and throughout the new year.
I was talking with my daughter the other day about something I enjoyed that was a little creepy, and we laughed about that creepiness. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who doesn’t really DO creepy—I detest horror and zombies and vampires and gore. I loathe scaring people. I hate practical jokes and nasty surprises and causing people fear.
But then it dawned on me that I love The Twilight Zone, which I think of more as a source of slightly chilling campiness than creepiness. When I received a box set of every Twilight Zone episode as a Christmas gift a few years ago, I actually burst into tears, I found it such a touching and generous gesture.
I thought a little further about what constitutes creepiness and I realized that I love cemeteries, which I see as beautiful memorials to lost love. I seek them out in my travels and I have hundreds of photographs of headstones. Indeed, on the walls of my home hang several small casts of particularly lovely elements from New England’s grave markers.
I followed this train of thought a bit further down the track, and I had to admit to myself that I get a kick out of hiding weird disembodied hands and arms from antique baby dolls in my houseplants. I see them not as frightening but as absurd and laughable when they’re stuck randomly in nonsensical places. I also love them because I collect hand-related art—it reminds me of creativity and connecting with people and holding out one’s hand to others. To me, those creepy little hands are actually a mental shorthand for being willing to lead people toward something funnier, less expected, better. I don’t assemble them into horrific tableaux; I use them to accessorize my home and inspire me to stay close to those I love, to beauty, to my muses. My creepy baby hands also keep me from taking myself too seriously. They remind me to stay goofy, which I think is vital to staying human.
Then came the epiphany: Creepy people never think of themselves as creepy.
It turns out that I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. But I’ll bet I’m the perkiest little creep you know.
In December 2005 researchers at England’s University of Bath released the results of a study that found that children, especially girls, see torturing and mutilating their Barbies as a common and enjoyable form of play. An article in the London Times stated that “mutilation ranged from cutting off hair to decapitating and putting the dolls in microwaves.” Children ages seven to eleven were said to “see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a ‘cool’ activity,” according to the article. The children were aware that they were being exploited by “over-marketing and over-charging” and that rejecting the doll was a “rite of passage” engaged in by children who felt they’d outgrown their Barbies. “Barbies are not special,” said the researchers. “They are disposable, and are thrown away and rejected.”
I’ve thought about my history with Barbies, and my daughter’s, too, and I take issue with some of the article’s findings. Cutting Barbie’s hair isn’t really an act of mutilation in the way that putting her in the microwave is. Children know that cutting their own hair gets them in trouble, and cutting Barbie’s hair gives them the satisfaction of distorting her appearance and messing with the standard and approved way of viewing her, it’s true—it also lets them know what it feels like to cut hair without getting in trouble. The Barbies I grew up around often had missing toes; this is not because we wanted to bind their feet golden-lotus–style and further fetishize their sexual-fantasy-based bodies, but rather because chewing the rubbery plastic felt good. Gnawing away at them resulted in their coming off completely in the mouth in a pleasant if slightly disturbing fashion. Pulling Barbie heads off was common when I was a child, not because we were acting out scenes from Robespierre’s Reign of Terror but because we wanted to trade them around among dolls with different features and outfits. We also pierced our dolls’ ears (leaving them looking grey and infected) and bent their knees back and forth so much for the sheer pleasure of hearing the click click click of their joints that their skin tore.
But do people take pleasure in creating their own torture tableaux featuring Barbie, Ken and all their plastic molded-bodied friends? Of course. Their constantly perky expressions and injection-molded perfection do invite children to challenge their prefab poise. They look so inviting in the box, but take them out of the vivid fuchsia packaging and their clothes are hard to put on, and their hair gets bunched up and never lies flat again and gets permanently dull and stringy when Barbie is invited to play in the bathtub. Ken’s spray-painted hair wears off and he ends up with flesh coloring showing through in patches that have nothing to do with standard male-pattern baldness. Barbie is not only free of genitalia, but sometimes has molded skin-colored patterns simulating underwear built right into what would be her buttocks if she had any gluteal musculature.
Barbie’s original design was based on that of the Bild Lilli, a sexually suggestive German doll from the 1950s. A German brochure from the 1950s states that Lilli was “always discreet,” and that her wardrobe made her “the star of every bar.” When Barbie debuted in 1959, many parents found her obviously sexual nature disturbing. Of course, this aspect of her is partly what has always made her so alluring to children. She’s the premiere socially sanctioned sexualized plaything, and she allows young children to engage in pre-sexual roleplay and pretend to embody the roles they think are expected of them as they mature. Children live out stereotypes with Barbies, but they also challenge and laugh at them.
The widespread delight that children take in trashing their Barbies when they feel they’ve outgrown them might be a reaction to the stereotypes, the expectations and the mass-merchandizing overconsumption extravaganza that Barbie represents, at least in part. But often Barbie’s mutilation is an unintentional byproduct of trying to personalize her and make her more interesting and individual. When such an attempt results in a Barbie who is less appealing, her loss of allure and inability to be made into something uniquely appealing make Barbie a sorry remnant of a time of earlier naivete, as well as a reminder of failed attempts at creating more individualized beauty. Rather than feel bad every time we see what our attempts at beautification have done, it’s easier to dissociate her from her former status as beauty icon if we take her destruction even further. If she’s ugly and all the gloss and perfection that we once admired in her is gone, why not turn her into a doggy chew toy, or see what happens if we take nail polish remover to the paint on her face? If we turn her into a science experiment, we feel less disappointed in her lost glory.
Barbie’s reputation for mindlessness was bolstered by the 1992 release of Teen Talk Barbie. This talking Barbie spewed forth phrases like “Math is hard!” and “Will we ever have enough clothes?” A group calling itself the Barbie Liberation Organization soon became famous for engaging in acts of Barbie sabotage, exchanging Barbie’s talking guts for the voice hardware found in Mattel’s Talking G.I. Joe dolls. The BLO repackaged three hundred dolls and slid them back onto store shelves. When unsuspecting little girls tried their new Barbies at home, the fashion dolls grunted out “Vengeance is mine!” and “Dead men tell no tales,” while little boys’ new G.I. Joes cooed “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”
Of course, some toys are less than glorious to begin with, and only become more disturbing or ridiculous with time. Others begin attractively and grow frightening with disuse or misuse. Such are the toys found at DisturbingAuctions.com. The site’s home page states that Disturbing Auctions “is dedicated to the research and study of the most bizarre items found for sale on Internet auction sites. Not the obviously fake auctions, like the infamous human kidney, but truly tacky stuff that people really, honestly, believed that someone would (and in some cases did) buy.”
DisturbingAuctions.com features home furnishings including the velvet painting of Jesus blessing an 18-wheeler; accessories like the purse made of a bull’s scrotum; clothing like used gym shorts and a matching used jock strap; and haute cuisine, including 200 freeze-dried pork chops. But nothing can compare to discovering the hideous figurines, including the “Check Out My Ass Clown” (make sure to look at the optional magnified view for ultimate flamboyant clown perusing pleasure), the items classified as Terrifying Dolls, or, my favorites, the Emotionally Scarring Toys.
The Terrifying Dolls category features the pained, shriveled and body-part-challenged Puppet Assortment, the pinheaded Li’l Head Doll, and Baby Tears-Your-Flesh, a.k.a. Little Dolly No-Head. Big Hands Baby and the Saddam Hussein puppet also get honorable mention.
Clowns have a special place on Disturbing Auctions; here you’ll find a clown brooch, a clown ashtray and a vicious Cranky Clown Lava Lamp, among other items. Dead stuffed frogs also have their places, as does the stuffed and mounted genuine Deer Butt. The Clark Gable candle puts one in mind of a wax-covered severed head, and why the seller of the Inflatable Ladies’ Legs had to mention that they fit in the mouth when not inflated is anyone’s guess.
Still, the Emotionally Scarring Toys is the biggest, juiciest treasure trove of outrageous kitsch. From the Dean Martin Hand Puppet to our beloved Big-Ass Donkey, from Darth Small to the marvelously named Pooduck, it’s hard to find an entry that isn’t deeply, horribly, hideously wrong down to its very core.
While most of the site has stayed static for years, there is a related site, DisturbingAuctions.com/daily, where visitors can post their own horrific online auction discoveries and attach their own witty (or, more frequently, just vulgar) commentaries. There are occasional gems to be found here, but the older, original DisturbingAuctions.com site has the most consistently hideous and perfectly captioned offerings. All hail the Pooduck!
[Revised from an article which originally appeared on Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]
An incomplete but representative list of my experiences of sexual harrassment and assault:
• The obscene phone calls that started when I was 13.
• The coworker who stalked me from floor to floor in our Cupertino Apple building, cornered me, grabbed my hand and licked my wedding ring.
• The flasher at the park.
• The museum guard who followed me around the museum gallery in Washington DC and then came up to me to comment on my ass.
• The coworker in Menlo Park who moved his work station underneath the stairs so he could look up my dress when I went upstairs.
• The construction workers in Palo Alto who made loud bets about what I’d be like in bed.
• The bully sitting next to me in seventh-grade math who loudly accused me of stuffing my bra.
• The Livermore yahoos in pickup trucks who shouted obscenities and made kissing noises at me as they sped by me on the street when I was eleven years old and walking to the grocery store, the record store, the movies or just about anywhere. That kept up through high school, and a new crop did the same thing to me when I visited Livermore again in 2013.
• The San Jose coworker who asked about my breast size in front of my colleagues and referred to me as Sweet Buns until I made it clear that THAT wasn’t going to be tolerated.
• The coworker at a temp job who went to the lunch room when I did but brought no lunch, sat at the table next to mine and stared me down while I ate, refused to stop when I asked him to, and ultimately forced me to eat my lunches in my car for several months.
• Yet more, highly disturbing obscene phone calls that I received during my twenties, some of which included violent fantasy commentary and one of which incorporated a recording of my own voice taken from my outgoing work voicemail message.
• The supposedly liberal and forward-thinking Portland artist and friend of a friend who openly and blatantly assessed my body and spoke only to my breasts when introduced to me at a gallery opening.
• The man whom I supervised at Apple who announced that his wife was away for the weekend but that he had an open marriage, so I was welcome to come home with him.
• The beggar at the crowded Seattle bus stop who responded to my giving him bus fare by telling me what he’d like to do with me in the nearby building’s stairwell until I loudly told him to leave me alone, drawing the attention of 40 people or more, not one of whom spoke up or asked whether I was okay.
• The man in Rome who walked directly up to me on a very crowded sidewalk and grabbed both of my breasts hard before rushing away, which surprised not a single Roman.
• My daughter’s school bus driver who assumed that my daily “good morning” and the cookies I gave him at Christmastime constituted a come-on. This resulted in his grilling my neighbors about my marital status and hugging me close and hard against my will when he ran into me at my daughter’s school, resulting in my having to stop going to the bus stop and driving my daughter to school for the rest of the school year.
• The old man sitting behind me in the cinema in Nice, France, who stuck his hands through the gap in my seat and groped my ass when I was 16 and watching a movie with my friends.
• The Apple coworker for whom I babysat who suggested that the cure for his boredom was to have an affair with me.
• The harassing ex-boyfriend who texted and called endlessly to tell me that despite what I said, I actually loved and needed him, then stalked me, then wrote me to comment angrily on the book he saw me reading (in a city he had no business being in) and to tell me what my choice of book said about our defunct relationship, what my thoughts about him were, and why I was wrong.
And on and on and on.
So yeah. Me too.
From Bill Watterson’s classic comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes”
“At least” is a mitigating phrase used to begin a response to another person’s expression of difficulty, distress or dissatisfaction. The phrase is often followed by a statement that minimizes the extent, importance or validity of another person’s unpleasant feelings: “At least you weren’t hurt when the hit-and-run driver totaled your car.” “At least you have insurance to pay for the things stolen from your apartment.” “At least you’ve got enough savings until you can find another job.” This is a phrase a listener uses when trying to discount the seriousness of another person’s concerns.
The phrase “at least” may also be used to try to lighten the tone when a listener is uncomfortable dealing with someone else’s difficulty. It may introduce a sentence about how someone else has had worse problems, or may lead to a joke about how much more awful the outcome could have been, both of which undercut the validity and depth of feeling held by the person who expressed dismay.
When a listener stays with the discomfort of the speaker for just a few more seconds and responds with an empathetic phrase like “Wow, that must have hurt!” or “That’s so frustrating,” or just “I’m sorry that happened to you,” the speaker feels respected and acknowledged. Allowing a person to sit with his or her discomfort for a few seconds and responding not by shutting the speaker down but by letting that person know that you wish things were different provides comfort, a sense of support and a validation that yeah, this is a cruddy thing and we all have a right to feel disappointment when things go badly. This fosters camaraderie and feelings of having been understood. This simple shift in response to another person’s difficulty can help those who express dismay to move forward feeling supported instead of thwarted or ignored.
People who use “at least” as a way to discount others’ feelings may believe they are lightening the load of others by being funny or by looking on the bright side. However, their unwillingness to acknowledge others’ pain without immediately providing a distraction acts as a distancing maneuver. Some feel that people who complain are weak or self-indulgent for expressing pain or disappointment. Those who find such honest expressions discomforting justify shutting down others’ expressions of difficulty or upset by telling them they’re lucky things weren’t worse. Those who are uncomfortable with honest expressions of disappointment say they’re just trying to get others to buck up and find their inner strength and move on instead of “wallowing,” by which they mean acknowledging and expressing true feelings. Some people who use “at least” to respond to bad situations with comic rejoinders may feel that providing comic relief will make others see that their problems aren’t as bad as they thought.
Either of these responses is inherently unsympathetic.
Sometimes those who rely on “at least” do so because they find sticking with their own discomfort too great, and they feel immediate awkwardness when others are suffering. Others’ complaints or hurts look to them like weakness, or remind them of their own vulnerability. Many people are terrified of looking weak, and they look down on those who embrace and acknowledge vulnerability in any form. Those who have difficulty showing empathy for others may feel scared of showing vulnerability, since for them empathy is a form of shared pain and thus shared weakness.
Instead of seeing that showing empathy is an essential element of diplomacy and building healthy relationships, and is something that leads to tolerance and peaceful negotiation in both private and public spheres, some believe that life is a zero-sum game and one can never let down one’s guard without risking defeat. They don’t understand that when we lend others our strength by being willing to help them shoulder their load, we build bonds and make others feel safer with and more trusting of us.
Those who lack empathy see vulnerability as a failing and sharing others’ pain as weakness. But true and lasting connection, whether between human beings or nations, comes from refusing to diminish the importance of others’ feelings, beliefs and experiences. And that means not belittling others by dismissing their concerns, whether on a national level or when speaking one-on-one. So please, no more “at least.”