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.

Immigrant Frugality

Two days ago I discovered a podcast called The Mash-Up Americans, a show hosted by Amy Choi and Rebecca Lehrer, two hip, culturally mixed first- and second-generation American women. I’ve only heard two episodes, but I’m pretty sure I’m already a big fan. So far I’ve heard them talk about their upbringings, choices in parenting their children, and heard them interview (among others) wunderkind Hasan Minhaj. The way they deal with the complex themes of race, culture and nation are nuanced, beautiful, and so so smart.

In each of the episodes I’ve heard the hosts have asked and discussed the question, posed to children of immigrants, “What do you spend money on that your parents don’t?” I suspect this is one of their signature questions, and is one that reveals a lot about a person’s experience with family and culture.

Vaguely Ethnic

My parents are not immigrants, they are second-generation Americans with a touch of first-generation, since my dad’s mother emigrated at the age of nine. All my grandparents spoke Yiddish which, typical for their generation, they spoke at home when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were saying. Even though I’m a third-generation American, I really resonated with the question about spending money differently from your parents. It tends to be a Jewish thing to retain an identification with being an immigrant, even if you aren’t. It’s part of the cultural identity and has a very long history.

For a little context on money-spending, my grandparents were working class, lived through the Depression, and raised their kids with the assumption that they would go to university. Both my parents were the first in their families to do this. When my dad was in school his father ran a janitorial service, that my dad and his brothers worked for. My grandfather eventually put himself through school, becoming a respected professor of education. The money question from the podcast highlights the frugality of the immigrant parents, and my family was no exception on this front.

Did you ever hear the joke “How was the copper wire invented?” Answer: “Two Jews fighting over a penny.” Ha, ha, right? Yeah, well that kind of joke isn’t funny at all. It’s just another joke based on stereotypes to keep minorities down. You could spend all day unpacking a joke like this, but one of the things it does is take the concept of frugality and turn it into something competitive, vicious, and laughable.

Once I heard the writer Sandra Tsing Loh, in a radio story, talk about how her Chinese immigrant father, though he was a highly paid engineer, used a Frosted Flakes box as a briefcase, or when the elbows of his sweater wore out he simply wore it backward. It’s funny, especially how Tsing Loh tells it, but memories of poverty die hard. I myself was raised with something akin to this kind of frugality. My dad has shirts that were once a cotton-poly blend, but that are so old that the cotton has, over time, washed away. They are entirely transparent, but as my dad says, “They’re still good!” My mom once had a shirt that was the big anomaly in her closet because, as she said, “I actually bought it new.” Their frugality, which I inherited as DNA, goes way beyond clothing, but you get the idea.

More than money-spending habits, frugality could be called a way of being in the world. It helps you make the most of your opportunities, shields you from disaster, views waste as shameful and keeps you from using more than your share. It has something of the “Waste not, want not” vibe, combined with the lofty “Live simply, so that others may simply live.”

The Kind of Frugal…

Thankfully I didn’t turn out to be a hoarder, actually I’m a bit of a minimalist, but I do notice a contrast with my partner Chris whose heritage is mostly Irish and whose immigrants came over a little earlier than mine. If Chris doesn’t want the crusts on his bread, for example, he throws them away. This is alien to me. First of all, in my book, you eat it whether you like it or not. But if you really don’t like it, you make it into something else. Our child, Asa, doesn’t like the crust on the sourdough bread I make and typically serve for breakfast. I don’t mind cutting those off, but I turn them into French toast when they’ve accumulated enough.

Some would read this and chalk it up as evidence that Jews are stingy. Maybe it’s one way we’ll never really shed that immigrant status. When one of the hosts of The Mash-Up Americans asked Hasan Minhaj what he spends money on that his parents don’t, he said sneakers. In a different episode, one of the hosts answered for herself that her thing was booze. I wonder though if, in other ways, they are frugal like their parents. I bet it’s a hard one to fully escape.

When I heard the podcast question I thought about it for myself. What do I spend money on that my parents don’t? For a long time I couldn’t think of anything. I’m just as frugal as they are. And by the way, they aren’t frugal as a unit. They have been divorced for 30 years, they are separate frugal individuals. Finally I did think of something, something I would guess constitutes as much of a contrast to the worldview of the parents as sneakers and booze: I go to a chiropractor, and regularly.

Since around 2001 I have regularly seen a chiropractor, different ones in different cities, but the same style, and spent many thousands of dollars to do it. All of these dollars have been personally life-saving, and I’m very grateful I’ve had the resources. Separately I’ve tried to get my parents to go too, when they’ve had back problems or other health concerns. I’ve tried to get them to go to acupuncture and other things I think would help them, but they won’t do it. They won’t even try it once.

Both of my parents have lived in California almost their whole lives. They lived in many communes in the ‘70s and ‘80s (see my childhood for more info on that). They eat organic, they vote Democrat, they felt The Bern, my mom is a lesbian. They are not strangers to alternative lifestyles. But bodywork? For their health? Forget it. It’s not on the radar.

Jenny’s Mom with Jenny’s Thrify Grandmother

When it comes to clothes, and many other materials in life, I’m exactly like my parents. My partner and child and I dress in second-hand clothing and sometimes even that’s not enough. Asa’s jeans last year were the previous year’s jeans (bought second-hand) with patches and extensions I sewed on myself. Asa was into the artsy look. But then those got too small, so a couple of weeks ago I found five pairs of jeans at a thrift store which, thanks to a sale and the dollar rack, cost a total of $12. I felt my Grandma Eve, my mom’s mom, who worked for years in a thrift store, smiling down at me from Heaven. With a little alteration (one of my super powers) they fit Asa perfectly.

So Asa is eating bread crust French toast and wearing recycled clothing and I’m confident I’m instilling frugality in the next generation. But we also both go regularly to the chiropractor, since I consider it an important piece of our wellness plan. “Save your pennies and your bread crusts, and see your chiropractor.” Maybe Asa will say one day, “Listen to Grandma.”

Summer Read

Just posting my latest review of fellow graphic novelist MK Czerwiec’s important work about the 90s AIDS epidemic. And just finished a working vacation where I took new author photos. Not my favorite thing to do, but we got a few shots I can live with.

Also, we finalized the cover and description for my forthcoming novel House of Rougeaux. See those here. If you are eager for this new book, I believe it will be available for preorder by the end of October, for an April 2018 delivery. Stay tuned.

 

 

Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 (Graphic Medicine)Taking Turns: Stories from HIV/AIDS Care Unit 371 by Mk Czerwiec
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another graphic memoir captures the heart and soul of a piece of history. Taking Turns follows MK, a nurse in an unorthodox care unit, Unit 317, of a hospital in Chicago in the 1990’s, the height of the North American AIDS epidemic. In simple, straightforward drawings and prose, MK creates a portrait of this devastating time, during which a community came together with great bravery and compassion to respond to the epidemic. A very personal, yet universal, meditation on life and death, sometimes funny and sometimes profound. MK does not paint herself as a hero, but she certainly is one.

View all my reviews

Spot 12 Wins Award!

Spot 12: Five Months in the Neonatal ICU has won the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards in the Parenting/Family category. This is a huge honor! I even won a small cash prize as part of the award. I’m awed. Here is the awards announcement.

The award ceremony took place in June in New York during the Book Expo America, which I hear is a big shin-dig. Just as I wrapped up House of Rougeaux, my first novel, I began writing the next book in what will be a series. I did not plan it this way, but turns out there is more to tell. I have been collaborating with the publisher and designer, working on getting the cover for House of Rougeaux just right. We’ve been working for months now. It’ll be nice to finally get to that stage where the advance copies are printed, hopefully soon. Stay tuned for more about House of Rougeaux, like a description and the cover! It’s scheduled to publish in the Spring of 2018.

 

 

Spring Reading

In April I was finishing the last edits on my forthcoming novel, House of Rougeaux. May has allowed me some time for reading for pleasure. Here are the highlights:

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hilarious, harrowing, heartfelt and heroic, Trevor Noah’s memoir paints a vivid picture of a childhood and coming of age pre- and post-apartheid, a picture of a brilliant, trouble-making young man emerging from a chaotic life, and a stunning portrait of his fiercely loving and powerful mother. Deeply insightful into life, love, the political and the personal, from every angle, and beautifully written, this book will grab you with both fists and drag you (willingly) for the full duration of its wild ride.

View all my reviews

 

Carry On: Two Young Men, a Journalist Who Wouldn't Walk Away, and the Creation of an Unlikely FamilyCarry On: Two Young Men, a Journalist Who Wouldn’t Walk Away, and the Creation of an Unlikely Family by Lisa Fenn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two disabled high school wrestlers from inner-city Cleveland, with a unique and powerful friendship, find an unlikely champion in a television producer. This difficult story of love and perseverance, in the face of crushing poverty and trauma, is deeply compelling from beginning to end, heartbreaking and inspiring.

View all my reviews

 

For the Love of Meat by Jenny Jaeckel

Award-winning author Jenny Jaeckel has a collection of stories out called For the Love of Meat. It is the perfect summer read: Literary but not cerebral, a bit of soft romance and lots of historical variety. Her ebook is on sale starting today and over memorial day weekend (2017). It’s never been just $.99, so if you haven’t already, download this gem!

For the Love of Meat ebook deal is available on: Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble (Nook) and iTunes (search on iTunes for Jenny Jaeckel). 

My Kid is in the NICU, Now What?!

Recently, I was asked on to the podcast ONE BAD MOTHER to talk about my graphic memoir Spot 12: Five Months in the Neonatal ICU. It’s a 100-page comic about my experience as a mother with a baby in the NICU, and how, in part, my mental health worsened over the course of the hospital stay.

When I was on the podcast, Biz Ellis asked me if I had advice for parents, friends or family with someone they love in the NICU. I found I had a lot to say about the subject! I thought it might be worth sharing this information here, just in case it might help someone else in a similar situation. There’s definitely more in the podcast interview, and you can find it in itunes or here’s the link to episode 189: ONE BAD MOTHER.

So here it goes, if I had known then what I know now… here is what I would have told myself:

1) Get as much help and support as you can.

When Asa was in the NICU I needed help with the basics. I needed help with food, with laundry, etc. and I needed someone to stay with Asa when I had to do other things. Chris and my mom and I took turns staying with Asa, so we were able to cover a lot of time, but we still needed other people. Chris was working, my mom was doing all kinds of errands, I was on the breast pump many hours a day, and once we started the tracheostomy training the three of us were away from Asa at the same time for 3 hours twice a week.

I also needed to get outside and take a walk every day, though I didn’t know it at first, I needed the fresh air, the exercise and a touch of normalcy. Every minute I was away from Asa felt like a heinous crime on my part, but the more I walked the better off I was. Unless a person is injured or too depleted, exercise is actually medicine for every known ailment, mental or physical, scientifically proven.

I also very much needed emotional support. All the focus was on Asa, the one in the picture who was in critical condition and who needed everything, so all that focus was entirely appropriate. On the other hand, I was in crisis, having been through a traumatic birth and then dealing with Asa’s ongoing medical crisis. What I really needed was to talk to someone every single day. At first I just talked to someone once in awhile. There weren’t that many people I felt I could call for support, and I didn’t want to over-tax anyone. A few months in I began talking with one of the hospital psychologists once a week. That was great, but there were a hell of a lot of hours in between those appointments. Finally I asked a few family friends if I could call them regularly for support and they said yes, so in the end I was able to talk to someone most days, even if it was only a few minutes. I asked my support people to help me with calming down and thinking positively, or sometimes I just cried my eyes out.

2) That baby is YOUR baby.

Having a baby in the NICU means that as a primary care provider you, the parent, are immediately ousted. Or at least it can seem that way. However, no matter what happens, that is YOUR baby. TRUST your instincts! The doctors and nurses are authorities in the situation, but you have instincts about how to care for your baby that no one else does. Find every way you can to be with your baby, talk and sing to your baby, touch your baby, find ways to hold your baby even if you can’t pick them up. Asa had some procedures that required holding still, we found that Asa stayed much calmer if we helped with the holding and spoke soothing word throughout. We found that some of the medical staff were very encouraging for us to participate in Asa’s care, and some acted like we were in the way and interfering. I was often worried about ruffling their feathers, I worried Asa’s care would suffer if I complained or asked for too much. What I would say to myself then, knowing what I learned in the process, is: don’t worry about pissing people off a little. Advocate for your child for what you think is best. Be as diplomatic as possible, of course, but do what you think is right!

3) Look out for signs of postpartum depression.

Prior to Asa being born I didn’t have a history of depression and I didn’t know the signs. For the first month or two I was pretty constantly upset and terrified, but I assumed I was just reacting as any normal person would react to the events that were unfolding. However, over time, and with all the accumulated stress and trauma, I descended down into a very deep depression. One of the things I noticed (in hindsight) was that at a certain point I got no relief from crying. Normally if I am upset about something to the point of crying, and I cry, then afterward I feel some relief, calmer, I can think better, and I can move into a happier emotional state. Once I was depressed I felt exactly the same after crying as before, which was terrible all the time, there was no emotional variation. Another thing that happened was that I could no longer do normal things, like wash dishes. When Asa was in the NICU, Chris and I stayed in an on-site residence at the hospital for parents of NICU babies. We had a sink in our room and it would get piled up with dirty dishes, and I would look at them but not be able to get up and wash them. I also had relentless dark thoughts. Thankfully I never became suicidal, but if I was crossing a street and saw a car coming, I did think “what if…” Lastly, though there were other signs, there was the moment when I clashed with my mom over something tiny, completely lost it, and attacked a Coke machine. Then, after hitting the Coke machine as hard as I could, I dropped to the ground and screamed. I screamed in a public place. Things had gotten pretty far. After that incident I made the decision to get on anti-depressants. Had I known the signs of serious depression I would have made that decision a lot sooner, and I believe it would have helped me be a little more sane.

How is Asa Now?

Asa is doing great and, since 5th grade, is using the pronouns they/them. They had the hole in Their neck that was made for the Tracheotomy repaired over a year ago. I did a series of blog posts that are more detailed about her childhood. You can find those here: Raising Asa.

Asa (left) with friend, December 2016

Spot 12, the book

My graphic memoir Spot 12 (memoir in comic book form) was published in October 2016, and is available In the US and Canada everywhere books are sold. There are also some copies in various libraries in the US and Canada. It is also available in Spanish (called Cunero 12). The ebook version of Cunero 12 is available now, and the Spot 12 ebook should be appearing soon. Thanks for your interest in my work!

Jenny Jaeckel

Genderqueer in 6th Grade

Close to two years ago in the fourth grade, Asa, my then exclusively-boy’s-clothes-wearing daughter, heard the term “gender-neutral” in a class discussion on gender. This term really resonated with Asa, who by this time was not feeling like a boy or a girl, but something like both, neither, or in-between. Asa wanted to “re-identify,” wanted us to start using gender-neutral pronouns, and did not want Chris (my husband) or I to use the word “daughter.” For Chris and I, no problem! We are very clear it’s our job to help Asa be Asa, whoever that is. We also know Asa to be a person who is dedicated to their values, and who sticks to decisions. Clearly this wasn’t just a whim. So we looked up some gender-neutral pronouns on the internet and started practicing using them.

Fast forward to the 6th grade: Asa’s teacher, who is wonderfully supportive, loaned us a book of short stories by an author from Vancouver who identifies as a “trans person.” This author has gotten the question “Are you a man or a woman?” so many times they wrote a story about it. Asa and I read the story together and discussed different ways to respond to the question “Are you a boy or a girl?” Soon after that talk, a boy at school asked Asa The Question and Asa told me about the interaction after school. Asa was pleased with the conversation, and we both thought it was comic material. Here’s what we came up with.

genderqueer_in_jr_high_100

For those of you who have been reading my posts about Asa because you were wondering what happened to them after Spot 12, we are now officially caught up to the present! I am posting this with Asa’s permission, and as they allow, I will post from time to time on the journey of parenting. Thanks everyone for tuning into my blog. Have a great Turkey Day!

Spot 12: Five Months in the Neonatal ICU

Spot_12_Cover_90Jenny Jaeckel is author of Spot 12: Five Months in the Neonatal ICU, the graphic novel coming out this October about Asa’s infancy. Visit the Spot 12 website for more information or visit the publisher’s website: www.raincloudpress.com. You can preorder the book directly from the distributor here: IPG (in English or Spanish). 

Or go to your favorite online retailer to preorder. Spot 12 will also be on the shelf in select bookstores, or have it special ordered.

The Way Back: Part One

The Way Back is a short series of comics I did several years ago. The characters are fictional, but the stories are all based on real events from my life. I have always been a big fan of those absurd and/or magical moments in life we all encounter sometimes. These moments aren’t always fun at the time, but as long as we survive they make a good story.

Here’s two panels for now:

way_back_soda

way_back_music_festival