Mistakes and Humility

Once I farted into a phone. I swear to God. In the early 2000s Chris and I were newly in Vancouver, living in a place with a shared landline, and one day there was a call for our housemate, Sean. I answered the phone, a cordless, went to knock on Sean’s door, and as I was waiting, absentmindedly let my arm relax, so that the receiver was hovering by my rear end, and I passed a little gas. Oops.

Live and learn. The problem is that if you are a perfectionist, as I tend to be, you think it goes, “Live and learn, so that at some point you stop making mistakes. Forever.”

About four years ago I made a different embarrassing mistake, and in the midst of berating myself, I uncovered the previously unconscious expectation that I should have already reached the age (40?) of no more mistakes. It was logical. Spend the first 40 years of your life scrupulously learning from your mistakes, so as never to repeat them, and then it’s all smooth sailing from there.

Of course, that logic breaks down very quickly because of, you know, reality. I went on making mistakes left and right. In fact, certain kinds of mistakes I make more frequently now than I used to, which is starting to get me accustomed to it. Once, well before the phone incident, I was verbalizing my incredulity over a mistake to a friend, saying, “How could I have done that?” and she said, “Um, because you’re human?” I’m not so shocked anymore, so maybe that is what life is really teaching me.

You should see me try to do simple math. I did fine in math, in school (my dad is a math genius and he helped me) but now the math part of my brain is so atrophied it’s like it had polio. I’ve been working on it though, ever since last year when I was trying to keep track of some correspondence and I failed to count to nine.

The writer Elizabeth Gilbert says perfectionism is just fear in really good shoes. It masquerades as a virtue, and is a way we can strive to be good enough when deep down we think we aren’t. Learning from mistakes is useful, even key to living a decent life, but I will say it took a touch of maturity for me to realize that I’m going to continue making them.

Every epiphany of my life turns out to be a no-brainer. Something remains hidden until it somehow pops out and is suddenly so obvious I can’t understand how I didn’t see it before. And there’s always more. Mistakes do more than highlight a better way to proceed in the future, they teach us humility. Perfectionism may come from fear, but it comes wrapped in the hubris that perfectionism is even possible, and the subtle narcissism that believes spending time in excessive rumination on mistakes is a good idea. It’s an elaborate tool for control—control, the ego’s life’s work and hobby—made in an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Humility takes down all of that. It leaves us empty-handed, vulnerable, and, finally, honest. If perfectionism is fear in really good shoes, maybe humility is love in bare feet, made for walking with acceptance.

Jenny Jaeckel is the author of the forthcoming novel, House of Rougeaux. To learn more about her book, click here. To learn more about Jenny, here’s her bio.

A Study in Cluelessness


Like many of my peers, the summer I was fifteen I entered the beyond-babysitting workforce. I had two jobs, a stint filling in for a secretary on vacation, at the office of two lawyers my dad knew, and one scooping ice cream at my town’s Baskin-Robbins. My first week on the job at Baskin-Robbins I worked three days, learning the in’s and out’s of making the various cones and sundaes. One kindly patron, after watching me struggle for ten minutes to get a wad of grand marnier into a ball, asked, “Are you new?” The other staff members, though more seasoned than I, were also a bunch of teenagers. Everyone stuck plastic spoons into the tubs and ate the ice cream when there were no customers or managers around, and one girl did whippits off the empty whipped cream cans.

Filling in for the secretary, I worked with the office’s other secretary. I learned to file papers, work the photocopier and answer the phones. One of the lawyers heard me on the phone once and told me to answer more cheerfully. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I thought my flat, tired tone could get the job done just fine. This wouldn’t be the last time, in years of boring jobs, that a boss would tell me to be friendlier to customers. I had the triple-problem of lacking a bubbly personality, of succumbing easily to the malaise of understimulating work, and having zero clue as to how I was appearing on the outside.

Another day at the law office I had to make a number of photocopies of maps of a neighboring county, Butte County, and I kept calling it “Butt County,” until finally the other secretary corrected me. Despite my flaws, the lawyers told me I was doing a good job—they even hired me again, and for longer, the next summer—and the secretary asked me if I wanted to be a secretary when I grew up. Raised in a petri dish of Northern California 1970s feminism, I scoffed and said, no way, I was going to be an archeologist. This might have been an appropriate response had I been asked the question by my high school principal, and not by the professional secretary at an office nice enough to employ a kid who didn’t know the difference between Butte and “Butt” County. But no, clueless again, I had to turn the moment into an insult. I wish she had gone on and told me that if I was going to be an archeologist, maybe I could just go on a dig in Butt County.

The first Friday of my job at Baskin-Robbins was an evening shift, and in the day I went to my office job. Part way through the day I started feeling slightly ill, as if I had a cold coming on. It was only my third day at Baskin-Robbins so I didn’t want to call in sick, even though by the time I got there I was feeling decidedly worse. Since it was a Friday night, and Baskin-Robbins was a happening place, it was crowded and there were lines out the door. Two of my friends came in to laugh at my uniform, and order peanut-butter-chocolate, which was the hardest flavor to scoop, and I thought they did it on purpose.

I was fatigued and achy, but I knew I could make it to the end of my shift. What were these blisters on my hands? I wondered, picking at them between orders. When I went to bed that night it must have been 90 degrees out. We had no AC in the apartment where my dad and I lived, and I guess he’d never heard of a fan, but even under a pile of blankets I was freezing. I shivered and shook, and in the morning I had a fever and a full-blown case of the chickenpox. This was way before the chickenpox vaccine, and what I didn’t know then was that those little blisters (the newly emerging pox) were concentrated virus bombs. I must have infected a hundred people that night.

I called Mr. Right, the store owner, the next day to tell him I’d be out for a week, and he was nice about it. He told me to stay out of the light. The next week I laid around while the virus ran its course, watching TV and cutting up my dad’s old Time magazines into pointless art projects. At one point, going stir-crazy, I stripped naked in front of the bathroom mirror and drew a diagram of my whole body, front and back, mapping out each red crusty blister. Then I named them all. There was one called “Radar O’Reilly,” so you can guess what one of the TV shows I was watching was. At another point I had a freak reaction to the virus where I started laughing for no reason, and couldn’t stop for fifteen minutes. I was sitting on the couch, laughing even though nothing was funny, and my dad kept stepping out of the kitchen to peek at me. A few times I tried to stop laughing, and I would succeed for one second, then it would start up again.


The following week I was back to work, and everything was fine. But the week after that they changed the schedule at Baskin-Robbins and didn’t tell me. Apparently they changed the schedule every week, but no one told me that at the beginning, and since I hadn’t yet worked two consecutive weeks, I was still unaware. It was Monday morning and I was at home, expecting to go into work at 2:00, like I had done the previous Monday, and the phone rang. It was Mr. Right informing me that I had not shown up for my 10:00 am shift. I stammered that I thought I was supposed to start at 2:00 like last week, but he wasn’t having it. “Bring in your uniform, and let’s be friends,” he said. That was it, I was fired.

There are some moments in life I wish I could go back to. If I could go back to the moment the secretary asked me if I wanted to be a secretary, I would try not to be such an asshole, but, though I regret it, I’ve never lost actual sleep over that one. But funnily enough, there was one moment, during one of my six working days at Baskin-Robbins, that stands out among all the moments in my life I wish I could go back to. It was a moment when someone came in, a middle-aged woman it took me a minute to recognize.

Here’s the backstory:

            For two years, in the 6th and 7th grades, I had a close friend named Leah, who was two years older than me and had cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that mostly affects the lungs. Hanging out with Leah I learned a lot about CF, especially the fact that, since this was the 1980s, and treatments being what they were, she was likely to die in her teens. Leah lived with her mother and stepfather, and younger sister Nicki, who was my age but went to a regular school. Leah went to the hippie school, Mariposa, that I went to, because at regular school she got teased for being so skinny, a typical effect of having CF. Skinny or not, Leah had no problem attracting boys. She probably had ten boyfriends in the time I knew her, which was interesting to hear about during our many sleepovers at her house.

One of the Mariposa teachers once commented to me that he thought having a lot of boyfriends was how Leah dealt with being sick. I remember thinking, well how else is she supposed to deal with it? Plus, it wasn’t like she went after the boys. It was a moth and flame situation, and she was the flame.

Leah knew she was going to die young. At that time, the oldest someone with CF had lived was thirty. Thirty years old seemed very far away to me, at that age, and I could only hope that Leah would at least live that long. But most people with CF didn’t. Leah went to summer camps for kids with CF, and so, during the school years, she heard regularly that another one of her friends had died. Really, how were you supposed to deal with that?

And how would someone deal with it as a parent? Leah and Nicki talked sometimes about their mother’s drinking. I remember Nicki picking up a water glass her mom had left in the living room and sniffing it. In all the time I spent at their house I never saw any evidence myself that their mom, Julie, had been drinking, but it was something Leah and Nicki worried about. Now, a parent myself, it’s unfathomable to me how one could cope day to day, with treatments and medicines and grueling stays in the hospital and life in general, knowing their child would likely die in just a few short years. Bring on the booze.

The summer I was thirteen and Leah was fifteen she went into the hospital for the last time. I hadn’t seen her for several months, since we’d both gone to different schools the previous year, and I went to see her with my mom. She was there in a darkened room, leaning forward propped up on pillows, with an oxygen mask, and barely able to breathe. Julie was sitting next to the bed in a chair, gently petting Leah’s hair. My mom and I sat there for a little while and I don’t remember saying anything. When we got up to leave, I said, “Bye Bea,” my nickname for her—she called me “Benny B.”—and she struggled to say “Bye” also. She died a few days later, and not long after that the family moved away.

The point is…

Fast forward two years, Julie came into the Baskin-Robbins, and as I said it took me a minute to recognize her. She looked so much smaller and thinner than when I had seen her last. She said to me, “Is your name Jenny?” She had recognized me first. I was a kid the last time she had seen me, and I had changed a lot.

“Oh, hi!” I said. I would have said how are you, but I didn’t dare. She might have asked me if I remembered her, and said that she was Leah’s mom, and I probably said, “I know!” and then didn’t know what the hell else to say.

And then she said, “Thank you,” flat out. “Thank you for being Leah’s friend.”

Then she left, and I never saw her again.

So if I could pick a moment in life to go back to, that would surely be one. Because I wish I had asked how she was. And I wish I had stepped over to her side of the counter and given her a hug, and told her how much being Leah’s friend had meant to me. What a good friend Leah was. And that I missed her. And that I was so sorry for what happened. That it wasn’t fair. And that I hoped she (Julie) and Nicki were ok.

What I hope is that Julie could have guessed all that, being far older and wiser, and not the clueless kid that I was. But either way, I’m glad that the moment happened at all. It might easily not have. I’m grateful for that two-week job at Baskin-Robbins, because thanks to that, we crossed paths, and I believe that what Julie said was an extraordinary kindness. That moment is a treasure to me, flawed and painful and afflicted with regret, but a treasure just the same.

Jenny Jaeckel is the author of the forthcoming novel, House of Rougeaux. To learn more about her book, click here. To learn more about Jenny, here’s her bio.

A Tale of Two Classmates

The first boy I ever liked was a boy named Todd. I was eight and at a new school, a hippie school called Mariposa, in the hills outside the little town of Ukiah, in Northern California. The school wasn’t new, I was new to it. My mom and I, and some others, had moved to Ukiah from Berkeley, so the adults could do the back-to-the-land thing. My class was a combined fourth and fifth grade, but I had started school early and was the youngest in the group. Todd was older by a year or more. He had a big cowlick over his forehead, a staccato laugh, long eyelashes, and I thought he was the ultimate.

Some of my memories of that time are random and vague, and I don’t know how they fit together, such as the time I found myself on a bus with Todd and his older sister. I’m guessing it was a Greyhound and we were on our way to other places to visit our respective fathers. Todd’s sister tried to set us up as a couple. She switched seats so I could sit next to him, after telling me that he and I could “go” together. I asked her what that meant exactly and she said we would sit together, maybe hold hands, and that sometime he could take me to Love-N-Spoonful, which was a candy store in town.

Todd didn’t like me that way, I’m sure. I was little and I wasn’t pretty, but he went along with sitting with me on the bus. What I don’t remember is something he told me about later, that I had picked a big booger out of my nose, held it out to him, and said, “Here.” Classy move. Did I think boys were into gross stuff and that that would impress him? Maybe. In any case, it didn’t work. That bus ride was the extent of our romance.

The next year though, we became great friends, possibly even a form of best friends. We hung out a lot after school, in the classrooms, and made forts out of cushions and the tumbling mats. We spent hours creating slapstick optical illusions that we performed for each other. My best one was creating the effect of going down an escalator, by standing on a bench placed behind a bookcase. The trick was to stand with your legs apart and slowly lower yourself down and forward by bending one knee, while casually gazing around. It was gold. Todd’s specialty was making like he was falling down a flight of stairs, again with the benches behind the bookcase. He’d trip at the top corner of the bookcase, disappear behind it with all kinds of yelling, and then reappear at the opposite, bottom corner with a somersault on the floor. Pure genius.

The other kid I’m remembering right now was a boy I’ll call Ben. Ben was nerdy and into Dungeons and Dragons, and he had his own talents. The year I was in the fourth grade our class produced a literary magazine, and we had to present our contributions while sitting in a circle. Ben wrote an amazing poem with several verses that began,

Where does the Fire Dragon sleep?

And who is the master of his keep?

Todd wrote a poem too, his was called “Cats”. It went like this:

Cats are stupid little stupids,

That scratch and bite.

That was the whole thing. Todd was popular, and his poem earned him cheers and applause.

When the teacher suggested we call our magazine “Where the Fire Dragon Sleeps” there was a general outcry. I’m sure no one objected to the poem, it was more that Ben wasn’t well liked. Kids can be real shitheads, and I was certainly no exception. In the end we chose “Marmaduke’s Masterpiece Magazine” for the title, after the class rat, a big white thing that lived in a cage in the corner.

Around the time Todd and I got to be friends, Ben and I became enemies. I’m sure it had a lot to do with me taunting him. Along with friendship and romance, there was a lot of antagonism among the kids, most of us got nailed by it and dished it out too. Lots of drama. More than once Ben and I got into playground tussles that ended up in some kind of stalemate, like, “You let go of my hair, and I’ll let go of your nose. On the count of three.” But all that evolved. I was friends with Trish, Ben’s older sister, who hated him half the time too, and Ben and I were eventually sort of frenemies.

Both Todd and Ben moved on to the middle school in town before I did, since Mariposa only went until grade seven. But later we all went to the same high school. We weren’t friends or frenemies anymore, by then the Mariposa days seemed like another lifetime, but there weren’t many degrees of separation between us either. If I remember right, Todd had flings with a couple of my friends, and then got heavily into drugs. The last I heard of him was some years later, from a high school friend living in San Francisco, that he was a heroin addict. My friend had seen him on the street a couple of times and said he looked like an old man.

What a horribly sad thing. If Todd ever got into recovery maybe he’s still alive, otherwise, 20 years later, I can’t imagine he is. Back when we were kids the seeds of addiction must have been there already, genetics that made him vulnerable, or other internal demons that could get out of control. Cat poem aside, Todd was really sweet, really smart, really funny. A really really good friend. Wherever he is now, I hope he’s at peace. I seem to have a thing about me where once I really love someone, that part of my heart never goes away. I may not visit that place for years, but if I do I find it alive and well, still there.

I never loved Ben in that same way, but I do value shared history. We connected on Facebook a few years ago and it was sweet to catch up. Ben is an exceedingly nice person who has been through alot, and is now married and raising a daughter. I had a chance to apologize for being such an asshole when we were kids, and tell him I remembered, among lots of other things, his Fire Dragon poem.

I went to Mariposa for four years, and I lived there for three, because my mom became a teacher there and everyone who worked at Mariposa lived together, commune-style. Four years is almost nothing in adult time, but in kid time it’s long and full of formative experiences. There’s one memory that particularly stands out, a night in spring when Ben and Trish’s parents were out of town, and Trish invited a handful of girls for a sleepover. I was 11 and Trish, two years older than Ben, must have been 14. We got up to all kinds of ridiculous things, and then, late in the night, we went outside and crossed the road. Trish and Ben lived in a rural spot and across the road from their house was a big sloping field full of lupines, a sea of lupines in bloom as high as your waist.

The sky was clear and the moon was out, and we played hide and seek in the field. All you had to do to be completely hidden from view was lie down, and we ran around delirious it was so fun. Todd wasn’t there that night, but he wasn’t far away, and I think he would have loved it too: the black sky, the bright white moon, your friends a bunch of shadowy shapes and the field of flowers a ghostly blue. Finally no one is fighting, just laughing, or trying not to laugh, while you’re crouched down on the damp, fragrant earth, and someone is nearby, looking for you.

Jenny Jaeckel is the author of four books, including the forthcoming literary novel House of Rougeaux. Read more about her books, or order wherever books are sold.

Princess and the Pea ~ A Writer’s Take on Being an HSP

If there’s one thing I can’t live without, it’s earplugs.

            Everyone knows the story of The Princess and the Pea, right? A prince searches the land for a princess to marry, and to make sure the candidates are the real deal he makes them sleep on top of a stack of 30 mattresses underneath which he has placed a single pea. If she sleeps fine, she’s not a real princess, but if she tosses and turns all night because the pea disturbs her, hurrah! She’s real! And he will marry her right away.

            If you think about it, why would the prince want to marry someone that easily disturbed? If she can’t sleep on a pea, how’s she ever going to be able to sleep with him? But those are the rules. Marry at your socioeconomic level or the power structures will collapse, and we can’t have that.

            There’s another meaning in this story though. Of all the fairy tales, this is the one with a secret message for a certain small subset of people, the neurologically “highly sensitive person” (HSP). According to some who study this subsetinevitably individuals who belong to it, desperate to understand themselvesabout 10 percent of the population is highly sensitive, while the other approximate 90 percent are not. There’s not much in between the two groups, they say, neurological sensitivity is not evenly distributed on a spectrum, so what’s left is a gulf of misunderstanding. Regular people totally don’t get the HSP, and vice versa. What happens though is that the regular people, because of their sheer majority, always win. The culture is designed for the majority, and if that makes you suffer, you’re told you are weak, defective, and a loser.


            If you are a highly sensitive person, you know what I’m talking about. The world is full of peas of every sensory, energetic and emotional kind. For a regular person, imagine someone stuck a pea in your eye. You’d suddenly be in a very compromised situation. So just imagine your whole body was covered with eyes, and the whole world was full of flying peas. Gross, I know, but it illustrates a point.

            Just like the princess, a pea can ruin your night. Ruin enough nights and there goes your life. That’s why, among some other things, I prize earplugs so highly. HSPs are bothered by things the rest of the population doesn’t even notice, so if part of the message to the HSP ends up being that you’re a loser, the other part is that you’re crazy. Put enough peas in your eyes and you will certainly feel crazy. But wait, before going off the deep end, realize that this fairy tale is for you. The secret message is that you are not crazy and/or a loser: what you are is special.

            As with all neurological subsets, an HSP comes with particular gifts. We tend to be extra perceptive, good at empathy, attuned to the inner world, and very creativemaybe because we have to find stuff to do while we’re busy hiding away from the rest of world. There’s a lot of overlap between HSPs and introverts, but don’t get the two confused, introverts are a much larger group. Possibly all HSPs are introverts, but not all introverts are HSPs.

       So look, we’re special. We might be hard to live with, but isn’t everyone? The important thing is that we take care of our needs in appropriate ways. Years ago I heard an interview on This American Life with the beloved Fred Rogers, a.k.a. Mr. Rogers. In a discussion about noise and neighbors, Mr. Rogers recounted how once, in a hotel with loud traffic outside, he slept in the closet. That’s an HSP brother right there, and that was a smart, innovative solution to the problem. It’s also a compassionate thing to be out about in a public forum, because it supports other people when they have to do that kind of thing. And it’s also funny. Let’s all have a good laugh at the ridiculous things we have to do to get by.

            HSP or not, I’m guessing we all have some weird needs. For all our commonalities and differences, neurologically speaking every person is a subset of one. That’s how diverse we are. It’s mind-boggling and mysterious. Maybe we can just celebrate that.

Jenny Jaeckel (bio) is the author of four books, including the forthcoming House of Rougeaux, a highly anticipated historical and literary novel for 2018.

Foreword Reviews says, “Perhaps the greatest achievement of the book is that in spite of the inescapable presence of slavery and prejudice, it isn’t really about either of these things. Jenny Jaeckel’s House of Rougeaux is about people–varied and fully realized individuals who make the flawed world their own.

Available for preorder now.

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The Book of Embraces

The Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, says in The Book of Embraces, that he walked out of his native Montevideo because he didn’t “like being a prisoner,” and that three years later, he left Buenos Aires because he didn’t “like being dead.” In this way, in the early and mid-1970s, he escaped two military dictatorships, the Uruguayan and the Argentine, and went into exile in Spain, with his wife Helena. Many of his friends were not so lucky.

Eleven years later, in 1984, after the bloody dictatorship in Argentina had ended, and the one in Uruguay was on its way out, he returned to visit Buenos Aires. He writes:

And so I walked for a while, aching with forgotten memories, searching for places and people I didn’t find, or know how to find, and finally I crossed the river, the river-sea, and entered Uruguay… Montevideo, boring and beloved, smelling of bread in the summer and smoke in the winter. And I knew I had been longing for home, and that the hour for ending my exile had struck.

Exile, and the end of exile, on many levels, is a central theme in The Book of Embraces, a work composed of intimate vignettes from the life of the author and the lives of many people whose stories he renders with the equal intimacy and awe. The stories may be equal parts beautiful and painful, illuminating moments that are ordinary or magical, violent or tender, humorous or tragic, but woven together so that none of the qualities can be separated from the others. It is exile, and the end of exile, and when you read a book like this it leaves you naked, so that you are defenseless before all of it, and so that you laugh at your own image.

Many years ago, in the early 1990s in California, I heard Eduardo Galeano read from this book, and speak to its title, saying that embraces were what he wished to create, when writing these stories, because, “we are so alone.”

The audience, one or two hundred people, fell under his spell, dead silent at times, bursting into laughter at others. When the reading was over a mob of people surrounded him, asking for him to sign their books, wanting to say to him how much his writing had meant to them. He greeted each person like a dear friend, and when the mob had dissolved, I, who had hung back until the end, could see he was exhausted. At the risk of bothering him further, I approached him and said I just wanted to say thanks. I think I said it sadly. I was in my early twenties, still a kid, and a person who had never experienced anything remotely like he had, but maybe, like all people since the expulsion from Eden, I knew something in my heart about exile. Eduardo, tired though he was, gently grabbed my head, as Uruguayans do, looked me in the eyes and planted a fatherly kiss on my cheek.

Eduardo Galeano left us two years ago, at the age of 74, but leaves behind a magnificent body of work. Every time I read The Book of Embraces, which I do every several years, I have the feeling that this great writer, through his words and stories, gently grabs my head, looks me in the eyes, kisses my cheek, and leaves me naked, with my petty defenses burning in a heap, with a fire that keeps me warm.


Jenny Jaeckel’s forthcoming book House of Rougeaux is coming out April 24th, 2018. Here’s what readers are saying:

I love a good family saga, and this is an excellent example of a well-written one. -LibraryThing

Love, love, love it! -Goodreads

At times the book is sad and heartbreaking and at other times inspiring and triumphant. -Goodreads


A Book Review of CITIZEN: An American Lyric

Just a short book review post this week in preparation for posting once a week for a while until House of Rougeaux publishes!

Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Claudia Rankine’s gripping, compelling prose poetry on the subject of what it means to be a black citizen of the United States, conveys the stark, soul-injuring, relationship-injuring, experience of life-long microaggressions, from classmates, coworkers, neighbors, teachers, friends, and strangers. Addressing racism beyond the microaggression, into its most aggressive form–murder–Citizen also includes images of artworks and photographs that speak to poems. Rankine’s writing is as beautiful and intimate, as her subject is devastating and far-reaching. This is a vitally important work in the cultural conversation around racism, a must read.

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Jenny Jaeckel is the author of House of Rougeaux, forthcoming novel (April 2018). Check out the advance reviews on Goodreads.


Gender Diversity and Family Traditions

This spring, in an interesting confluence of time-honored traditions, my child Asa will become a man. To explain the transformation, I need to start by backing up about 13 years, to when I was pregnant. I always wanted a girl child, and when I was pregnant with Asa I wanted a girl so much I thought for sure it would be my karma to have a boy. I made lists of all the boys and men that I really liked, and thought a lot about them, attempting to break down my biases. I wanted a girl because in general I liked females better than males. Aside from my partner Chris, my close relationships were all with women. I didn’t understand sports or the appeal of sports, and even though I’ve never been particularly girly myself, I thought it would be fun to have a child whose hair I could braid and put barrettes in. This last one wasn’t the main thing, of course, what I really wanted was a child I would have a close relationship with, and in my mind that was female. Asa has since told me that these were sexist notions, and that is true.


So, I was pretty thrilled when I got the ultrasound a few days before Asa was born, and the technician told me the baby was a girl. I was so sure I would be having a boy I doubted her words. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yep,” she said, “those are labia.” Asa is actually a boy’s name, but it was the one we chose, partly because it means healer, and Asa was born very medically complicated.

Jenny with Asa 2007

As I said, I have never been particularly girly, and in the early years neither Chris nor I were interested in dressing Asa in clothes all tricked out with pink and glitter and demeaning slogans like “Born to shop,” as is all the rage in capitalism these days. Also, Asa was mostly bald until the age of three, so many people–out at the parks, library, etc.–assumed Asa was a boy. We assumed Asa was a girl, given the anatomy, but, as it turned out, we were also wrong.

Gender Diversity

Asa enjoyed a variety of clothing as a kid, but by grade three was exclusively wearing “boys clothes.” I didn’t think much of it, that’s what I preferred at that age too, but then in grade four, in a classroom discussion, Asa heard the term “gender-neutral” for the first time, and a light bulb went off. Asa did not feel like a boy or a girl, and this was a term that fit. These days, three and a half years later, Asa prefers the term “non-binary.” Asa is not a girl, but luckily for me I did get my wish, in that I have a child with whom I have a close relationship, which is what I actually wanted, the anatomy is so beside the point. And luckily for all of us, we live in a time and place where there is a tremendous amount of support and acceptance for gender diversity, so Asa can be who they are without it being a problem.

We also are lucky to have an accepting extended family, and, at least on my side, one in which queerness is a family affair. My mom came out as a lesbian when I was eight years old. She told me, a little nervously, one day after school when we were walking up the driveway. I didn’t care either way, it was all the same to me, though I already felt more comfortable with women than men, so if she had girlfriends that would be easier on me. When my mom told her mother she was in a relationship with a woman, my grandma was unfazed. “Is she Jewish?” she wanted to know. She was Jewish (the first one, anyway)–hurrah!–and she was exceedingly nice to me. And my grandma told my mom that if she’d had the option, back in her day, she might have gone that way too.

As I grew up I identified as a “tomboy,” and I also liked boys, but, having a queer mom, it stuck in my psychology that heterosexuality was something a woman should grow out of, like a developmental stage. In high school when my friends’ moms were married to men or had boyfriends, I somehow thought, “How immature, aren’t they over that yet?” Even so, I myself remained straight, though a small dose of bi came in for a few years, and I eventually married a man. A man who likes sports! But also a man who was a women-studies major in university, who is a dancer, was into theater as a young person, and who, when speaking to a crowd—as his work often requires—can be mistaken for gay.

Non-binary Theater

Asa is also very into theater. Asa is not just non-binary, Asa is an actor. Asa has been in a number of plays, including the ones we stage in the summer in our front yard, and always prefers male roles. About a year ago we watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof and Asa fell in love with it. I had seen it many times before, and I always cry the entire way through. Then we found out that this year’s spring musical at Asa’s middle school was going to be Fiddler, and we pretty much died and went to Heaven.

Asa loves musical theater, I’m not particularly a fan, but I do love Fiddler, because it’s really good, and it’s really Jewish. It’s the musical of our tribe. Asa prepared long and hard for the auditions, so much so that we had to put limits on how many times in a day Asa could sing the songs. Any song, no matter how gay or Jewish, with enough repetitions, will drive you insane. Asa auditioned for four parts: Tevye, the lead, and three smaller male roles, suitors of Tevye’s daughters. Marriage and tradition are central themes in Fiddler. The musical opens with a big number, a song called “Tradition,” which lays out the roles of each person in the family, according to gender, the roles that constitute the backbone of the society, in their village of Anatevka. Then the rest of the musical is devoted to the challenges to tradition, the breakdown of tradition, the changing of the times around tradition and its adaptations, and the adherence to tradition as a saving grace, and the tensions between these various dynamics.

As the drama, in our house, of the months of preparations, and the two weeks of auditions unfolded, I kept in close conversation with my cousin Leora. Leora is her own kind of queer and gender-diverse, feeling very strongly, spiritually, that she is a gay man. She lives as a woman and has not chosen to make any external transitions, but that doesn’t make her any less queer or trans. What matters, at least in the book of our family, is how you feel and identify. It’s the same for me, the queer community is also my community, even though I’m straight. Queerness is something I personally have in common with queer people, even though it actually isn’t.

Leora was very excited for Asa, and even invoked something metaphysical from her own past to bolster Asa, The Spirit of Queer Tevye’s, because when she was a teenager, and very into theater, she had a role in her high school’s production of Fiddler, and her gay friend landed the lead. She sent us a picture of the two of them in costume, with a few others of the cast. In Asa’s gender journey, Leora has been a terrific ally.

At last the auditions were over, and two days ago the decisions for the casting came down, and… drum roll please… Asa got Tevye! Not too shabby, especially for a grade seven kid, who had competition from grade eights, who were taller and possessed deeper voices. Yes, yes, not too shabby at all. The whole mishboucha is pretty excited.

Barat Mitzvah

Coincidentally, there is another queer and Jewish family event happening this spring, in that we will be celebrating Asa’s “barat” mitzvah, our non-binary take on the traditional Jewish rite of passage, the bar mitzvah (bat mitvah for girl), wherein the child, upon their thirteenth (or twelfth, depending) birthday, becomes an adult in the eyes of the community. Asa has been long preparing for this too, studying Hebrew with my dad over Skype each week, and beginning to write their speech on the portion of the Torah they will be chanting. Like many things with us, this will be a DIY affair, at our house with a small number of friends and relatives, a papier mache Torah, and a rainbow tallis (the traditional prayer shawl) sent by cousin Leora. There will be music, there will be food, and there will be a rendering of tradition adapted for the times. In this way, this spring, Asa will be a man on stage, a ritual adult at home, and as always, the child of my dreams.

Jenny Jaeckel is the author of forthcoming book House of Rougeaux. This historical family saga will be available everywhere books are sold in April, 2108. See description here.

Also coming out in audio, performed by Bahni Turpin.

A Conversation Opener

The holidays are coming and that means parties, and parties mean party conversations. If you are in need of a new conversation opener, why not consider the following. In the realm of brain chemistry, we know that drugs work because we have natural receptors in our brains that will interact with them. The compounds in cocaine, for example, whatever those are, are close enough to compounds naturally generated in the brain—by happy or exciting circumstances—so that the drug can interact with our natural receptors. This is my layperson’s understanding. So let’s extrapolate. This will go unscientific, but never mind that.

Let’s think about our taste for things as having receptors. Most of us have chocolate receptors, though some do not. Many have receptors for the smell of roses, and some do not. If you ask someone about what receptors they do or don’t have, liking chocolate or roses won’t be very interesting. But what if we get a little more obscure? It could lead to a compelling conversation. It’s a different question than simply discussing what you like or don’t like, because there are things we think we should like.

Certain lack of receptors that I notice in myself leads me to conclude that I am inferior to those who do possess them. I have no receptors for Shakespeare, for example, or jazz, or sports, or gardening, or the deep, dark forests of British Columbia. I have a great respect for all these things. Jazz, for example, or those forests, both have a majesty, complexity and importance that I just barely grasp. I would never want them to go away. But I have no receptors for them. I can’t enjoy them. I can’t connect with them.

Malibu Chicken?

Some receptors can be pruned away over time; we’ve all had the experience for losing a taste for something. When I was little I had many receptors for television advertising. There were toys that in commercials looked like the ultimate never-ending fun, and foods that were surely doorways to a mouth-watering paradise.

I didn’t usually come in actual contact with things I saw advertised between cartoons, but I remember one time it did happen, when I went with a group of adults to a Sizzler restaurant for someone’s birthday. I had seen a Sizzler ad for a dish called “Malibu Chicken” and was sure it was the most delicious thing ever created. What I found on my plate was a dry chunk of chicken, with a congealed slice of cheddar cheese fused onto the top. It was ok, it was fine, but it was a lesson in the discrepancy between advertising and reality. Thankfully I no longer have receptors for advertising because the kinds of things I want or need are virtually never the subject of advertising campaigns.

As with losing a taste for something, we have also all had the experience of acquiring a taste, ie. the receptors. The first time I ate a piece of sushi was at a friend’s house. I was eight, I’d never heard of sushi and I didn’t know what I was looking at: little round slices of something white with a dark green edge. Was that zucchini? The next thing I knew I had something grainy, squishy and fishy in my mouth, and I felt my eyes bulge out. No receptors yet.

Sushi became more well-known in my part of the world in my late teens and early 20s, and I tried it a few more times, feeling neutral. But at some point, and quite suddenly, a massive growth of sushi receptors sprouted in my brain, signaling that this was heavenly food. This was no Malibu Chicken.

I haven’t yet had a chance to test out whether or not this is a subject you could broach at parties. What may happen is that people will not have receptors for talking about receptors, and what kinds they do or don’t have. Rather than launching into an animated conversation with me, they may just mumble something about needing to refill their drink and walk away. Then I will be alone next to a plate of olives, and I will whisper to them that I am full of olive receptors, and, at that moment, I won’t need anything else.

Jenny Jaeckel is the author of forthcoming novel House of Rougeaux, to be published April 24th, 2018. House of Rougeaux is available for preorder here, or find out more at www.raincloudpress.com/house-of-rougeaux

Me Too and My Characters Too

Where to start? Well, why not start with pussy-grabbing?

When I was seven years old I had a school friend my age named Zach. We totally hit it off, and bonded over things like singing along to Beatles songs on the class record player. We called ourselves “The Junior Beatles” and our favorite song was “Run For Your Life”, which is all about how the man will kill the “little girl” if he “catches her with another man”. Ironic, yes. Somehow I didn’t realize what the song was saying at the time, I just loved the music. I still do, except for the lyrics.

Anyway, Zach and I were great friends until the day came when we played a game outside with another boy, where we straddled the slide and took turns going through each other’s legs, like bridges. I went under the boys’ legs, then it was my turn to be the bridge. As Zach went under my legs he reached up and swatted me on the crotch. We were seven years old, and one could look at this as a harmless action, but there was harm done in that moment, and after it we weren’t friends anymore. The Junior Beatles disbanded.

In the realm of sexual harassment, if you put this moment in that category, and I do because of it’s impact on me, this was very minor. It was not the first, nor the last, nor the worst, of the harassment that I’ve experienced, but it communicated something very essential to me: that Zach did not view me as “Jenny” but as “a girl”, not a unique person but a person with a vagina, which was something he wanted to grab. I knew he wouldn’t have gone for my crotch if I was a boy. I didn’t tell him not to grab me there, I had no words to articulate what I felt, but I couldn’t be friends with him anymore after that, because in the context of the friendship I felt erased as a person.

The most misogynous joke I ever heard was this: What do you call the skin around a vagina? Answer: A girl. It’s a sick joke, right? But it does boil down the psychology to its bare essence, the one that underpins all acts of sexual violence.

My Characters Too – Sexual Assault/Harassment in Fiction

Some famous writer once said that as a writer you have to love your characters, and then you have to do terrible things to them. This was definitely the case for me in writing House of Rougeaux, where three of my seven protagonists survive sexual assault, harassment or misconduct. I included incidents of this kind of violence in the lives of these characters because women in their circumstances were much more likely than not to encounter it. These events were painful to write, one of them especially, and while I attempted to avoid anything gratuitous in their description, I had to try to make them seem real. Sexual violence is not a principal theme in the book, but the incidents do drive the plot and have an impact on all the characters.

Historically, and I think we can include the present era in history, all females living under patriarchy have been subject to sexual violence, and the less power we have in society, due to race, class and/or other factors, the more subject we are. Currently, as we know, there’s a lot of media attention on celebrities and powerful men in Hollywood that are known to be sexual predators, with women bravely coming forward to speak out, and some of these men are finally facing some consequences. It seems like a step in the right direction. Why sexual predators are routinely granted impunity and protection, by both men and women who surround them, is a big fucking mystery to me, and I think is, frankly, the worst part of all.

Case in point, as if anyone needs another one: Jian Ghomeshi, the former host of a popular radio show on CBC (Canada’s equivalent to NPR), a supposedly progressive organization. For years, Ghomeshi aggressively harassed and assaulted numerous women, coworkers included, and the CBC management did nothing. Finally, when he faced criminal charges –again, after some brave women spoke out and took action– he was fired. As a radio listener I myself was duped. I liked the show and actually thought the guy was a feminist. But apparently he had a reputation all over Toronto, and women who had gone to the police, or to their supervisors at CBC, were routinely ignored.

Let’s imagine one of these exchanges:

Employee: “My boss just grabbed me from behind and said he wanted to ‘hate-fuck’ me.” (This really happened BTW).

“Yeah, well, he’s a celebrity, so… I will just ignore you now.”

Wait, what?

Like Cosby, Ghomeshi was found not-guilty in the end and faced no penalty, but personally I take comfort in the fact that his life and reputation are trashed. He may not serve any jail time, but I can’t imagine he hasn’t finally had some real consequences.

As we all know, it’s not just rich and powerful, and/or celebrity men who carry out this kind of behavior, it’s anyone who exploits whatever power differential is at hand. Most of us never deal personally with the rich and powerful, but all females deal with males, and there are a lot of misguided and predatory males. It is true that there are female perpetrators and male victims, I would never discount the truth and suffering there, but the numbers are drastically different. So, being female: Me too, and my characters too. Of course I’ve been harassed. Is there a woman out there who has not been harassed for being female? I myself am not a survivor of sexual assault or abuse, but many women close to me are. For some reason I got lucky.

I’ve been lucky in all kinds of ways, including having parents who defied patriarchal norms: my mom was strong and independent, my dad was gentle and kind, and I spent my childhood in the Free-to-be-You-and-me 1970’s San Francisco Bay Area. Even so, the messages that sexual violence was normal (like the Beatles song, uncritically played in the classroom) were all around, starting early with Saturday morning cartoons. Was it entertaining when Bluto carried off the yelping Olive Oil? Was it funny when Pepe Le Pew forced himself on the cat? No, it was repulsive. And I don’t mean that intellectually, I felt repulsed as a child. In the pantheon of male superheroes there was only Wonder Woman to look up to, and she, unlike the guys, had to parade around virtually naked. By the time I was four years old I had internalized so many messages about the weakness and objectification of women that I refused to wear dresses. I didn’t want to be a weak victim, I wanted autonomy, so I responded in the only way I could at the time.

As an adult, and as a writer, I continue to respond in the ways I think I can, and these themes show up in my books, because I am principally interested in the empowerment of women. In House of Rougeaux, for example, the young Martine Rougeaux, working as a domestic in the home of an upper-class white family, in Montreal in 1925, finds herself alone one day with her employer, who crosses a line and scares her to death, setting events in motion that alter her life.

On this altered course, Martine encounters and old school friend, Lucille Travis, a young woman who makes her living as a dancer in a nightclub. Having lost her older brother in The Great War, and her father before him to illness, Lucille becomes the sole breadwinner for the rest of her family –her ailing mother and her ten year old brother. Financially, being a dancer is the best of the few options available to Lucille, but she pays the price of being shunned by her church-going community—the community to which Martine and her family belong. Reconnecting with her friend, and in light of their respective situations, Martine is forced to reexamine her notions of morality, and must negotiate with her family when she and Lucille devise a plan together that is both small and radical.

So, me too, and my characters too. But I would also like to propose an alternate “Me too” here, because the women I know who are survivors of sexual violence are also incredible responders, who have spent years courageously speaking out, healing themselves, empowering other women, and raising compassionate, empowered, responsible kids. I can’t claim to have ever done anything heroic, not like many women I know, and not like my characters. But I do what I can to support other women, and do what I can to raise an empowered kid. I’m pretty proud of that.

Jenny Jaeckel is the author of forthcoming novel House of Rougeaux, to be published April 24th, 2018. House of Rougeaux is available for preorder here, or find out more at www.houseofrougeaux.com.


Plenty of Purpose

The first time I felt that life had no purpose was the summer I was twelve. It was terrifying. I was living in a lackluster apartment with my dad, in a complex behind a Payless, in the small, Northern Californian town of Ukiah, which in summer was a baked-dead wasteland. I was too old for camp, too young to work, and the few friends I had were gone for the summer or had moved away. Unlike previous summers, mostly spent living in Berkeley, I had nothing to do and no one to do it with.

While my dad was at work I ate cereal and watched a series of TV shows until about two in the afternoon, when there was nothing on but soap operas, which even I couldn’t tolerate. Then I would go swimming by myself in the complex’s little pool for a couple of hours. Then I would go back inside and watch TV again. I had no wherewithal to create or sustain my own projects for the span of a whole summer, and no one to help me, and life very quickly lost all flavor and meaning.

I know now that if I had raised hell, demanded that my dad send me to camp, or find me something to do, he likely would have done it, but it didn’t occur to me that that was an option. The next summer was exactly the same. It was dreadful. Now, at forty-six, I’ve have had some bad times in my life, but I have to say those two summers still rank among the worst. Having read something about the adolescent brain, and its intense need for stimulation and new experiences, I have a better understanding of why those summers were such torture, and why they left me forever with a certain fear of summer in general. Of course, it’s not really summer I learned to fear, but the feeling of purposelessness.

At some point later in my adolescence, afflicted off and on with the feeling of purposelessness, I noticed that if I was having a good time I never thought about purpose. If fun wasn’t available, school and work—if not always fulfilling—at least staved off that lurking feeling.

In our culture there is much ado about finding your purpose. Some formulas for this seem hopelessly self-serving, pursuing some “passion” that does nothing to contribute to the betterment of the community. Other formulas focus so heavily on selfless service (in the face of the world’s overwhelming suffering) that they seem like recipes for total burnout. In the camp of non-dual spirituality, of which I’m generally a fan, purpose (Ekhart Tolle-style) is often simply whatever you are doing in the moment. If you are peeling a carrot, at that moment the purpose of your life is to peel that carrot. I like this one in theory, but since I’m not enlightened I don’t get a ton of mileage out of it.

On the other hand, all these formulas have a side of the coin (a three-sided coin?) that seems essential. J.P. Sears, the redhead who makes those funny Ultra Spiritual videos, says that it’s his delusional opinion that perhaps the purpose of our lives is to fully embrace our own special weirdness, because that leads us to our authentic selves, and thus to living the lives we are meant to live. He says his favorite commandment is one that didn’t make it on the tablets: Amuse Thyself. I think this is also a really nice way to look at it, so let’s make that coin have four sides.

All of this musing leads me precisely nowhere. One thing I can say is that (at the time of this writing) tomorrow is Halloween. My child, Asa, who is twelve, and, as far as I can tell, has not yet encountered the feeling of purposelessness, has decided to be “Greek Mythology,” which is a costume composed of many elements. Yesterday, for about twenty minutes of the afternoon, the purpose of my life was to make a trident for the costume, using cardboard, masking tape, and a long stick. A few years before I learned to know the feeling of purposelessness, I learned a more essential life lesson: that you can make just about anything with enough cardboard and tape. This, at least, is wisdom I know I can impart to Asa. For now, I’ll just cling to that.