Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Life Lessons on Holiday

Holiday breaks are a great time for me to learn new things about parenting. As an introvert who has crafted her life to include working at home with no other companion but the dog and the occasional lunch or coffee date if I feel like it, having my kids and my husband home all day every day for two weeks feels a bit overwhelming.  Add Bubba's family to that for one of those two weeks and you can be sure to find me 'meditating' at the sink as I do dishes a few times a day. It's the one place where I know my kids won't come near me for fear of being asked to help clean up after fourteen hungry family members.

I won't bore you with the details, but here are a couple tidbits I picked up over this year's break thus far:

1. The use of superlatives is altogether unhelpful.  In particular, I am referring to the words "always," "never," "everyone," and "nobody." I am just as guilty as anyone else of using those words to make a point, but the problem with them is that they are rarely true and they serve to escalate the emotional intensity of any situation rapidly.  When my kids come to me claiming that "nobody ever includes me in ________," or some such notion, my first tendency is to dispute the claim and point out all of the other times that she has been asked to join in the fun. It may be true, but it certainly isn't helpful. Generally the best thing I can do in that situation is to acknowledge hurt feelings or frustration and ask what their preferred solution might be.  

Those words also have the added effect of convincing us that things are worse than they actually are. In my case, when my kids tell me "everyone hates me," I have little else to go on. While I think it is highly unlikely that each and every single person around them wishes them ill, I don't honestly know if it's true, or even if my kid really believes that it is. But sometimes, if I'm not fully paying attention, I take them at their word and then I get all wound up in the belief that it's true. The more I react to those kinds of statements, the more I reinforce for my kids that I believe what they're saying and that's how destructive patterns get laid down. When we all start buying into the always/never/everyone/nobody stories, it's a dangerous time.

And so, I have asked my kids not to use those words about each other or their friends or family, especially when emotions are running high. It gets me wound up, it winds them up, and we all go down the path of darkness and gloom on a false belief.  They agreed to do their best. And then they busted me when I did it the next day, whining that NOBODY EVER offers to help with the kitchen clean-up after dinner. I guess they took the new rule to heart.

2. The use of apologies, especially parental ones, is incredibly important when it comes to trust-building. I don't recall the parental apology being a thing in my childhood and I have yet to talk to anyone from my generation who does. When my dad was dying, he told me several times how sorry he was for certain things that he did or said when I was a kid and I can't even begin to say how important and meaningful that was to me.  That said, I often wonder how different all our lives might have been if we had learned to apologize to each other early and often.

I was in my thirties before I fully realized that my parents were human beings and always had been. During my childhood, they subscribed to the school of thought that said you didn't back down to your kids, didn't show a chink in your armor, didn't let 'em see you sweat. While I often questioned my parents' wisdom and choices, I never thought of them as fully fallible human beings who might be unsure of themselves as parents. It never occurred to me that they weren't 100% sure of what they were doing. It certainly occurred to me from time to time that they were evil or hated me or were hell-bent on making my life miserable, but I never considered that they could be just making mistakes along the way. Until I had kids. Then that reality hit me full force.

I started letting my girls know from the beginning that I am human, mostly for selfish reasons. I didn't  want them to expect too much from me, so I made sure they knew I was doing my best, but would be mistake-prone until I figured things out.  The best way to let them know I was fallible was by apologizing when I really messed up. When I freaked out disproportionately and screamed at them, I came back later to say I was sorry and tell them how I wished I had dealt with the situation. After falsely accusing them or punishing them without all the facts, I would later admit my mistake and ask for redemption. Now that they are teens, this policy is paying off with trust. Not only do my girls know it's okay for them to mess up and lose their cool, but they know how to apologize for it as well.  I know parents who balk at admitting their mistakes to their children and I understand how hard it is, but I have to tell you that there are not many more powerful ways to connect with your child on a truly authentic level than to let them know you're sorry for hurting them. Even if I feel like my girls have over-reacted to something emotionally, the fact is that perception is reality and if they don't trust me to empathize and acknowledge their feelings, they aren't likely to come to me with other emotionally charged topics.  Apologizing is a small price to pay for keeping the lines of communication open. And, fortunately or unfortunately, I've had enough fights with my kids to have had lots of practice saying I'm sorry.  I can tell you that it gets easier with time and rarely (I can't say "never" anymore) has there been a time where they didn't apologize right back.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Absurdity of Violence

I have so many sad thoughts running through my brain after yesterday’s attack on a military school in Peshawar, Pakistan. Most of them are surface thoughts, mourning for the loss of life and the feeling of fear that must be in the air for families, for children going to school, for teachers who put their lives in danger by just going to work. The deeper thoughts run to the absurdity of war, of “conflict,” of targeted attacks and drones and the ongoing back-and-forth in so many parts of the world.

“We want them to feel our pain,” said one Taliban commander as a justification for the attack.

Well of course you do. Regardless of your politics or religious beliefs, you are human and you feel pain. And the relentless attacks on North Waziristan have most likely caused much collateral damage.

Instead of contemplating that statement (which I only heard on one news outlet one time despite the nearly constant coverage of this incident), the Pakistani government – no doubt with a significant amount of support from our country – retaliated almost immediately, sending air strikes to Taliban strongholds.

Rather than answering for the innocent women and children they have killed and the “tens of thousands” they have displaced, the Pakistan military decided to take it up a notch.

Let me be clear. Nobody is right here. This continued escalation of violence with no nod whatsoever to the loss of life, the impotence of the entire endeavor, the impossibility of the stated goal (Pakistani Prime Minister has said that they will keep fighting until “terrorism is rooted from our land”) can only serve to further entrench both sides. There is no weapon that can secure peace. I know that there is no simple solution, but I do know that this is no solution at all. It feels to me like two teenage boys punching each other in the arm.

“Take that!”

“Oh, yeah? Well I can punch harder than that. Take that!”

“That’s nothing. Here, how does that feel?”

Eventually, one of them will get tired of the one-upmanship or too hurt to go on, but if they’re mad enough, they might come back with a different weapon later on. And what has been proven? The one with the most might is not necessarily the one who is right.  Continued escalation of violence, state-sanctioned or not, falls under the definition of insanity as far as I’m concerned. How long will we continue to take this same approach to no avail before we acknowledge that it isn’t working? And how many more people have to die during the learning curve? War is a failure of imagination, of creativity, of willingness to find other solutions. We can’t lose much more by stopping the violent attacks and trying something else than we already are by escalating things.


In the meantime, I will continue to breathe in suffering and breathe out compassion. I will feel their pain, the suffering on all sides of this issue. Someone has to.

Monday, December 08, 2014

When That Publication Wasn't What You Thought it Was

I just had to go and check whether my essay had been published yet.
I couldn't email the editor or wait for her to email me. I had to visit the site and see it.

I submitted a piece to an online parenting magazine after multiple rejections from other places at the urging of a Facebook writers group. I didn't know much about the ezine and I did a cursory check of it before submitting to make sure it wasn't populated with articles about the Kardashians and "mom-jeans." I figured since other writers I know from the group had published their work there that it was probably fine, and so I didn't dig too deeply.

Last week when the editor emailed me with a few suggested changes, I was pleased. Her ideas were great and, in one case, she said she thought I should cut something because she thought it was victim-blaming. When I pushed back a little, she explained further and I saw that she was right. After I thanked her for her perspective, she said she was just looking out for me - that their commenters are pretty smart and can be murder on a writer.  I was tremendously grateful.

Today when I went to the site to see whether the piece was up or not, something caught my eye; namely, an essay with the word "Anti-Vaxxers" in the title. My heart sank. I read the article to the end, the bile rising in my throat with every word. As if that weren't enough, I chose to read the comments. I'm not sure what I was hoping for - perhaps one or two voices that took the author to task for being nasty, for reducing the issue to black-and-white, some sort of intelligent conversation? I wanted to see that this was a community of parents who were thoughtful and compassionate, educated and nonjudgmental. Unfortunately, that isn't what I saw. I saw eighty-plus comments from women cheering each other on for their choice to vaccinate their children for everything under the sun, egging each other on as they characterized anyone who wouldn't do the same as "stupid" or "pro-death." I saw not one comment defending a decision not to vaccinate (even against the flu). I saw not one compassionate response that called for an understanding of the difficulty of the issue.  In fact, at one point, the comment thread devolved into vilifying families for choosing organic food or avoiding GMOs.

Sigh.

One woman commented multiple times and seemed particularly gleeful when she was hating on "those people." She wrote that she loved this particular site because "this place is so pro-vaccine/pro-common sense/pro-community...[it is] my vaccine safe space." Oh. Well, then.

The last thing I want is to be part of a community that is one-sided. I don't want to write for a group of readers who are so convinced that they already know everything there is to know about Subject X that they refuse to think about grey areas or nuances or what someone else's life might be like. And so now that my essay hasn't yet shown up, I have the dilemma of whether or not to ask them to pull it. It isn't a subject that's terribly controversial for this particular ezine and I'm not worried that I'll get trashed in the comments (in fact, I may not even read them, after this), but I hate the idea that this particular site is known for polarization or nastiness. I don't want my writing associated with that, especially if I'm being paid for it.

When I looked at previous articles by the author of this one, I was surprised at what I found. Honestly, many of her posts were funny and/or interesting. One or two were even helpful. I guess I was struck by the passion that this particular issue can incite in what I would consider to be an otherwise reasonable person. But if there is something that I can't stand, it's reducing a complicated issue to black-and-white and then using that as an excuse to call names and make fun of other people who disagree.  And so, here I find myself, in the crux of a dilemma. I think I'll go sleep on it.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Some Thoughts on Fear

It is increasingly difficult not to feel lucky that I am white, that my children are white, that they are girls who are not likely to incite fear because of their size and their race and their gender. Somehow, it feels horrible to think that way, to feel relief that, while we may as women and girls suffer some indignities and challenges, at least we don't have to worry about an overzealous response to a real or imagined crime.

The girls and I have talked off and on in the last weeks about the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York City, all of us baffled at how a group of impartial individuals could come to the decisions they did. I am careful to acknowledge that I don't have all of the details and I can't judge the  outcomes or the people without having first walked in their shoes, but it doesn't keep us from feeling despair about what these incidents are doing to our communities.

I have resisted doing much research because I don't believe it will give me any vital information that I don't already have and I suspect that if I did discover egregious errors such as are being alleged by many, especially with regard to the Ferguson case, it would only lead my heart to ache more.

I am sad that the takeaway from President Obama's response to the Ferguson grand jury decision was his encouragement of the wider use of body cameras by police officers as a way to build trust between communities and the police.  If I told my girls that I trusted them, but I was going to put video cameras in their bedrooms so that I could capture footage of them at all times, I doubt they would believe my expression of trust. I think that the president is correct in his assertion that the breakdown is the lack of trust, but in order to have a trusting relationship, there has to be a relationship and it is there where things have broken down.  If there is no sense of commonality, no investment in each other, we cannot hope to combat the fear that exists on both sides of this equation. If there is one shared goal, that is where the conversation needs to start and stay grounded. Yes, everyone needs to be held accountable for their actions, and in that respect, perhaps body cameras have some place in the solution, but first there has to be serious work toward preventing altercations that result in physical violence.

In an interview with NPR, Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney who works with the LAPD to overcome trust issues, Ms. Rice talked about how many of the police officers she interviewed expressed fear of black men. While she says those officers don't "experience that as a racist thought," it absolutely screams racism to many in the black community and that very real fear often translates into overzealous physical contact with black suspects.  Addressing that fear has to be the first step in relationship building. Understanding varied viewpoints and coming together around the common goal of safe communities is a much better strategy than arming police with body cameras. Especially in the case of Eric Garner, there is no guarantee that video evidence will lead to accountability or trust. In fact, if there are more cases where the video evidence seems clearly in favor of one story over the other and the decisions made fly in the face of that evidence, we risk causing even bigger rifts in our communities.

Ms. Rice cites one program that "brought LAPD officers into projects to set up youth sports programs and health screenings, things that made people's lives better and brought police and predominantly black communities together," as being particularly effective. That is because those efforts clearly endorsed a common goal and unless we begin there, we have little hope of effecting positive change.  It is time for civic leaders and police departments to step up and talk about the fears that lead to this kind of violence. Because police officers are put in harm's way nearly every day, it is important for them to acknowledge which fears are grounded in reality and which ones are not. Because they are trained to react in a split second, they need to know which instincts to trust and how to draw on alternative methods of conflict resolution before making a decision that will have ripple effects for us all. We need to put more resources into finding common ground than we invest in body armor and cameras and the justice system. Moving forward with conversations and positive acts within the communities where there is deep mistrust of the police department will go a long way toward building bridges that we can all stand on together.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

How NOT to Talk to Your Teenage Niece (or Grand-daughter or Friend) This Holiday Season: Updated


  1. Don't assume that just because your niece/granddaughter/friend is a teenage girl, she is interested in watching your children for hours on end while you go drink wine with the rest of the family and get a break. She may well enjoy spending time with your toddlers playing games, coloring and watching Frozen for the 437th time, but she also enjoys being part of the adult conversations going on. That's how she learns to interact with adults and her opinions are important for the adults in the group to hear as well.
  2. Please don't ask her where she wants to go to college and what she thinks her major will be (or any other questions related to that, including what she wants to be when she grows up). If she wants to talk about those things, she will bring them up on her own. Generally, though, this is a great source of stress for many girls in high school - they spend a lot of time thinking about their future and being told that their high school grades matter a lot when it comes to where they will go to college - they don't need more pressure during their holiday break.
  3. Please don't ask her if she has a boyfriend, especially if you do it with a certain tone of voice or a wink and a smile. Again, if she wants to talk about her love life, she will bring it up on her own. Intimating that you are truly interested in this aspect of her life will either feel incredibly personal and a little too familiar (even creepy) or it will put her on the defensive wondering whether you'll follow up by telling her she's too young to be in a serious relationship.
  4. Don't comment on her wardrobe or physical appearance before you ask her how she is or tell her it's good to see her again. In fact, unless she has a new haircut (or hair color) or a pair of boots you want to try on because they are so awesome, it might be wise to abstain from talking about her physical appearance at all. Girls get so much reinforcement from the world that their looks are of paramount importance that if you want to connect with them on a personal level, it would be really great to talk about who they are and what they're interested in.
  5. Don't comment on her plate. Don't point out that she is eating mostly carbs or five desserts or avoiding the greens at the table. Again, teenage girls are so conditioned to think about food that spending a holiday with people who love them ought to be devoid of any of that nonsense. Trust me, anything you say will only make most girls feel badly about themselves.
  6. Don't offer your advice unless it is specifically solicited. Much of what these girls need is a compassionate ear and your comments about "when I was your age..." aren't tremendously helpful in general. When you begin talking about what you think without being asked, they feel judged and belittled and are not likely to open up to you again. Listening carefully and keenly will endear you to her, I swear.
  7. Don't make back-handed comments about her phone or tablet use. Girls this age are committed to their friends like nothing else and it's important for them to feel connected to them. It may  make you uncomfortable to see the glow of the screen on her face for most of the day, but unless her parents have an objection, your sarcastic judgments about how much time 'kids these days' spend with technology will not help her relate to you.
  8. Do not compare her to any other teenage girl, real or fictitious (or you when you were a teenager). There are far too many opportunities for girls to measure themselves against the photoshopped, airbrushed celebrities and come up short, or to weigh themselves against the unbalanced information their friends and cohorts post on social media and find their own lives lacking. These girls are all individuals and just because there might be another 'ideal' teenage girl in your life or your mind doesn't mean they aren't great, too. Get to know them, you might be surprised.
  9. Don't, don't, don't belittle or make fun of their interests in music or movies or books. PLEASE. I'm begging you. Think back to when you were a teenager and you loved KISS or "Sixteen Candles" or thought that comic books were the best thing since acne medication. They have a right to their own tastes and if you want to connect with them on a genuine level, you should ask them questions (honest, not sarcastic or snarky ones) about why they love "The Fault in Our Stars" or have that enormous Justin Bieber poster on the ceiling above their bed. 
DO: 

Listen. A lot. Ask open-ended questions about what is going on in her life (not her favorite subject in school - ask her about the most fun she has had in the past week). If she complains about school or friends or the stress of the holidays, listen. 

Invite her to do something with you that she enjoys doing, even if you couldn't care less about it. If she senses that you are truly interested in who she is as a person and willing to spend time with her on her terms, she will be grateful and engaged. Better yet, ask her to teach you something - the lyrics to her favorite song, a goofy dance kids her age are doing, or anything else she is particularly knowledgeable about that you are clueless about. She will feel empowered and intelligent and you just might have fun together.


Monday, November 17, 2014

The Difference Between Catcalls and "Being Polite"

I had the great good fortune to spend five days in NYC last week, walking some of the same streets that the woman from this Hollaback video walked while she videotaped the response. If you haven't seen the video, it is essentially the distillation of ten hours of footage as she walked around Manhattan in jeans and a t-shirt. The reason it is worth watching is because of how she is treated by strangers as she strolls the streets alone. Some of the unsolicited attention is very disturbing.

Like I said, I walked those same streets last weekend and, with the exception of street vendors trying to sell me something or hand me a flyer for a bus tour, nobody talked to me at all.  Because I'm patently unattractive? I don't think so. Because I was walking with a man. 

He happened to be my husband, but he could have been my brother or my uncle or just a friend. And that is what I think makes all the difference.  The two of us witnessed many incidents of street harassment of other women as they walked alone or in groups and I may or may not have told one man as he repeatedly increased his volume and pled for one woman to respond to his "compliments" that I thought he was an ass and he should just shut up.  Bubba may or may not have squeezed my hand and started walking faster.

Since this video was posted, there has been much debate on the subject of catcalling and street harassment and many of the usual players have cried foul. On Fox's show "The Five," host Eric Bolling said he didn't see anything wrong with most of what happened in the video and his co-host agreed so wholeheartedly that he catcalled her from the set of the show. In addition to the more famous folks weighing in, there have been scores of others who have defended catcalling as "polite," and a legitimate way of greeting people on the street.  It is this notion of 'people' that I take issue with.

If you are a straight guy on the sidewalk and a couple walks by, are you likely to greet them both with "good morning," or a leering "God Bless You" if they are a particularly handsome couple? When a single guy walks by, would you look him up and down and say hello or comment on his choice of clothing? If you answered yes to either of those questions, you might live in the Pacific Northwest or some other locality known for its neighborliness or polite culture. But if you are in a big city and the only people you "greet politely" on the street are young women, either walking alone or in a group, then you are likely giving them unwanted attention.  If you persist by asking them for something (a phone number, an enthusiastic response, acknowledgment of your physical prowess or simple glee that you noticed them), you have crossed the line into creepy and aggressive and inappropriate.

If you, like men's rights activist Paul Elam, believe that men who catcall are simply as "innocuous" as "panhandlers, strangers who talk too much...salespeople, survey takers and even officious video makers," you might want to realize that these obnoxious folks on the sidewalk are Equal Opportunity Offenders. These folks are starting unwanted conversations with people of all ages and genders. Their motive is generally to make money and, occasionally, to incite discomfort. Folks who catcall are not neighbors simply trying to connect with other human beings. I cannot say exactly what their motives are and I suspect they are complicated and not necessarily universal, but the fact that most of the remarks are sexualized in nature or tone adds an insidious element to them that is not present when a shiny pamphlet or petition is being shoved in your face.

There are already too many situations where a woman can be uncomfortable in public given the culture of objectification in this country. I fully admit to being very nervous in an elevator by myself with a man I don't know or walking down a dimly lit street alone when a man or two is coming toward me. That may be unwarranted, but the balance of power is shifted such that I, as a female, feel vulnerable in those instances. Add in comments such as the ones Shoshana Roberts heard in her daytime stroll through a crowded city, and I don't think you can fault women for crying foul. If it isn't something you would say to someone you aren't sexually attracted to, it isn't something you should say at all.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Dialogues in My Head

Often, as I wrestle with a parenting dilemma, the ghostly voices of my parents come to me. Often, we have entire conversations in my head. Most of the time, I win. That is a function of age and defiance and some therapy over the years, I think.

Today I pondered the role of punishment and consequences versus empathy and compassion. I thought about whether the most important thing is to STOP a particular behavior or to let my children know that I used to act the same way because I used to feel the same way. I wondered whether acknowledging the intense emotions raging inside my girls might help to decrease their effect or at least provide a balm. I recalled learning that my strongest feelings were to be hidden and not used as an excuse for bad behavior and also that it was very important not to get caught doing something your parents didn't want you to do. I learned that hiding both my emotions and my actions was better for everyone involved unless I was feeling giddy or euphoric. I think I decided that I would rather tolerate some minor bad behavior that "could lead to something more" in my father's words and commiserate with my children, let them know that I see what they're up to and that I think I know why. Give them an opening to acknowledge and air their feelings instead of poking them down that deep, dark hole. When I came to this resolution, the silent dialogue Dad and I were having while I brushed my teeth this morning abruptly ended. I think he saw my point and decided it was silly to argue.



Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Sweeping Without a Broom


"Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.” Josiah Charles Stamp

Ahh, personal responsibility. We are a nation enamored with the concept. We are also enamored with the notion of individuality; individual freedoms (to a certain extent), individual rights, individual responsibility. We expect people to clean up their messes if, for some reason they haven't managed to avoid making them in the first place. Unfortunately, we don't always provide them with the tools they need to do either of these things. And therein lies the rub.

We are a nation that loves instant gratification and thrives on the ability to "keep up with the Joneses." Hallelujah for credit! Visa and MasterCard give us the opportunity to spend money we don't have on things we want now. Sub-prime mortgages and "zero down" financing offer us chances to spend money we won't likely ever have. Our children and grandchildren see the economy collapsing under the weight of such ridiculousness, and hear every day on the news that the economy would rebound more quickly if we just went out and spent more money. Huh? Is it any wonder they're confused? And how many of them will learn about money management in school? How many of their classes will educate them about saving money and contingency planning? If these classes aren't available, how many of their parents will be able to talk to them about these things? I remember two of the "life skills" classes I took in high school: Personal Finance and home economics. We talked about calculating interest rates and were taught the proper way to write a personal check in Personal Finance class. In Home Ec, we did a little sewing, a little meal preparation, and one very memorable day, a cosmetics expert came in to teach us the proper way to apply our makeup without creating wrinkles around our eyes. I didn't feel precisely qualified to manage the finances of a household upon graduation. I'm certain I'm not qualified to teach my kids money management skills based on those two "practical life" classes.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed yet another bill that is aimed at blocking access to reproductive healthcare for millions of American women. They claim that their intent is to reduce the number of abortions (hopefully to zero) in our nation. If this is an attempt to force women to live up to the consequences of their mistakes (ie. premarital or unprotected sexual activity?), I fear that they are asking women to sweep up a mess without providing them a broom or proper instruction on its use. Defunding Planned Parenthood and making access to other facilities where women can get objective, non-biased information about their own bodies is worse than that. It is actively denying them access to the broom and the class on sweeping. How can we expect people to avoid mistakes or learn from them when we don't offer them information? If we fight against sexual education classes in our schools and rail against birth control, we are expecting people to gain this vital education by what, osmosis? If we don't teach each other what we know about the more difficult things in life, we can't expect any change. You can't hold someone responsible for making a mistake they had no way of preventing.

Individuality is important. Differences are often what creates color and vibrancy in life. But not enough can be made of the power of tapping into a collective base of information. There will always be people who learn best by making mistakes over and over again, but for those who could benefit from the wisdom of others, isn't it our responsibility to pass that information on?

Albert Einstein once characterized insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." This applies to entire cultures as much as it does to individuals. We can't keep telling generation after generation that we expect them to clean up their own messes if we don't provide them with the tools to either do so, or avoid those messes in the first place. Rebuilding our economy by asking people to spend more money only props it up for the next generation to overspend again. We will find ourselves right back in the same position, just as we have so many times before. And telling women and girls that they ought not to get pregnant without giving them ways to prevent pregnancy won't affect the rate of unwanted pregnancy in our country. Personal responsibility is a good thing, but it is impossible to sustain without knowledge.

“Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.” Dalai Lama

Monday, November 03, 2014

Making the Case for Social-Emotional Learning in Our Schools

         The fact that the phrase “school shooting” exists is clear evidence of how we are failing our children. The fact that we have systems in place to mobilize grief counselors within our communities, that there are protocols and sample dialogues to help parents talk to their children about gun violence in their schools tells us we are doing something wrong.  That a “popular,” “happy” high school student from a “prominent” family could post his anguished feelings multiple times over a period of weeks on Twitter prior to shooting his friends and turning his weapon on himself and the media headlines read “Motive Still Unknown” is shocking to me.
            I am not blaming the family and friends of school shooters for not intervening, not anticipating that they will react this way to their deep sadness. I am saying that we as a society are failing our kids in an elemental way by waiting until something horrific happens to talk publicly about difficult emotions instead of teaching our kids how to recognize and process those emotions throughout their lives.
            Two vital things we know are at play here. First, adolescent brains are literally wired differently than adult brains. The brain of a teenager is subject to emotional storms that are not yet mitigated by logic, primarily because that portion of their brain is not yet fully developed. When a teenager is feeling strong emotions, they are not being ‘dramatic’ or ‘over-reacting,’ they are simply responding to the chemical reactions swirling around in their heads. To expect them to push aside or disregard those biochemical impulses is simply unrealistic. Instead, we have to teach them to mitigate those responses, to acknowledge their feelings and process them appropriately, but all to often we expect them to “get over it” or we feel uncomfortable when they are upset and we minimize their feelings to make ourselves feel better.
            We spend billions of dollars each year teaching our children to read and write, to apply mathematical formulas to complicated problems, to find patterns in history and science, and we neglect to talk to them about what it means to be human. While it is vitally important to have these kinds of conversations within family systems, it is equally as important to acknowledge these emotional challenges within a wider audience, to normalize them as much as we can.  If we continue to send the message that learning to identify and process deeply painful feelings is a private endeavor, we are missing the opportunity to show our children that they are supported within a wider community, that they are not alone.
            The second thing that we know is that violence is often rooted in disconnection. People harm others when they feel powerless, often because they are struggling with ideas of their own worth or their place within the community. When an individual does not feel part of the system or supported by it, they are more likely to objectify and dehumanize the other people around them. It is through that objectification that the threshold for violent acts is lowered – it is much easier to harm someone you don’t feel connected to, that you have demonized. Our educational system emphasizes individual accomplishments and competition, values independence, and isolates students who are ‘different,’ both academically and socially. Without some sort of social-emotional education that acknowledges the developmental stages of teens and tweens within the context of the demands placed on them, we cannot expect them to flourish. We may be raising a generation of students who can compete in the global economy, but without teaching them what it is to be human, to experience pain and rejection, to accept discomfort and work through it, we are treading a dangerous path. Every time our children cry out in pain we are presented with an opportunity to listen, to validate those feelings, to model empathy and compassion and to teach them how to navigate those difficult times. This isn’t about individual or family therapy, this isn’t about mental health treatment, this is about acknowledging that our children are whole human beings who are developing physically, mentally and emotionally and ignoring their social-emotional development is creating a problem for all of us.  Our children are killing each other to get our attention. What is it going to take for us to start listening to them?


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hang in There, Baby, Change is Coming

I know a lot of folks who have been feeling what I call "churn." For me, that is the sensation of being in the middle of a giant wave as it curls, completely underwater and surrounded by movement and sound and sand rolling all around you.  So much turmoil - not all of it bad - and the only thing to do is wait it out, sit tight until the water and debris have crashed over the top of you and you can see clearly once again.  I have heard it attributed to Mercury in retrograde, and I know folks that subscribe to that belief. I honestly don't know what it is, but I do know that in the last year or so people I know and love have experienced a lot of big changes in their lives, felt huge emotional swings as they follow uprisings in other countries, outbreaks of illness, seeming epidemics of gun and sexual violence, and giant leaps forward for social justice like the swell of marriage equality laws and folks like Wendy Davis and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders standing up to speak their truth loudly.  I have watched loved ones experience big ups and downs in their personal lives and sometimes it feels as though this wave will never break on the shore, but I think it is imminent.  I have felt optimistic for a long time that all of this churn is heading toward something monumental, some sort of breakthrough for all of us that will eventually offer a clean slate of beachfront upon which we can begin to rebuild. I see strong, smart people working hard to create peace in ways big and small, parents having difficult conversations with their kids and kids stepping up to the challenge.  I see a genuine openness to have lively debates about personal freedoms and community values.  The pushback is fierce from those who are comfortable with the status quo, but that is to be expected and I think it's a good sign.

Last week when Gloria Steinem spoke to the group at Ghost Ranch, she put it in a way I had never considered before, but I quickly copied her words down in my notebook. They have been bouncing off the walls of my skull ever since like that little pixelated square in the video game of my childhood, Pong.

Gloria said that she thinks it is informative to look at our civilizations in the context of growing up, that if we are afraid to look back historically and have honest conversations about what happened to us in our 'childhood,' we are doomed to repeat the same patterns over and over again in the future. In my opinion, we are at a crucial time in our country's history where we are confronting those patterns and really talking about those things. We are speaking up about campus domestic violence, recognizing the toll that gun violence is taking on our families and communities, looking at the ways that we have marginalized and oppressed entire groups of people over the last hundred years. This churn is stirring up every grain of sand and holding it to the light for examination and the result is messy.  Perhaps the most powerful part of Gloria's observation concerns the research that shows that women who are victims of domestic violence are most likely to be killed or seriously injured just as they are escaping or just after they have escaped.  She likened this recent uprising of conversation and activism around domestic violence and women's rights in the United States to our culture readying itself to break free. We are sitting in a precarious spot, in the middle of this giant wave, and we have to remain very aware as we wait for it to break.  We cannot stop now, even though we may be afraid, because we are about to shift into a new place of liberation.  I hope you'll hang in there for the ride with me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why Gloria Steinem is Still My Hero

It is not often that we get to spend time with our childhood heroes, if at all, but I was lucky enough to do that last week.  Thanks to folks at the Women's Funding Alliance, I had the opportunity to head to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico and steep myself in the deep knowledge and energy of three iconic feminist leaders.

Gloria Steinem


Alice Walker

Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung


It was a 'conference' like no other I have ever attended for so many reasons, chief among them the fact that all three women stayed for three full days. They spoke individually and came together to discuss ideas and answer questions. They were available during free time for us to approach them for autographs and photos as well as conversation and it all felt very intimate, especially given that these three women have known each other for years, and worked together on important projects and ideas. Their collective Q&A sessions had an air of ease and camaraderie that extended to the audience.

Alice Walker kicked off the week by talking about fear and mindfulness and transitions. She has a fiery edge to her that raises passions, points out injustice and prejudice and stirs up deep emotions. She is a brilliant orator and it is clear that she is always thinking, answering spontaneous questions with a deliberate message. She read poetry and expressed strong opinions and stood on the stage looking slightly regal.  She was that fiery grandmother who is not about to keep quiet.

Gloria's presence was anchoring. When Alice sent us up into the sky with her talk of war and politics and race, Gloria grounded us all back in our own skin. She was calm and clear, offered concrete examples, and urged us all to decide what was important to us in our own communities. At the age of 80, she continues to travel the world listening to people, reading books and essays, constantly deepening her understanding of the patterns and connections that are both healing and harmful. She possesses a historical and global knowledge of gender violence and was careful to bring it full circle, reminding us that taking the 20,000 foot view is paralyzing, that we must all strive to find the thing we can do that is right next to us.  She urged us to be aware and active, to use the power we have right now (our dollars, our votes, our openness to connecting with others), and to really listen to others.  She was funny and irreverent and consistent in her message.

And just when we were all feeling quietly inspired to go and be change agents in our own communities, Dr. Chung came up and offered us joy. I had never heard of her before this week, but the first time I saw her I couldn't help but break into a grin. This woman absolutely radiates love and warmth. Her smile is luminous and crackles with energy and she seems entirely undaunted by anger or doubt despite the hard work she does every day to liberate women and create peace. She talked about compassion and empathy, about connecting with others on the most basic levels in order to crate a sense of shared humanity, and she offered astonishing examples of how this has played out in her own life. She laughed and danced and brought us all along on her wave of optimism, cracking jokes about orgasms and kicking butt.

With the addition of a large group of folks from the Women's Funding Alliance, the week was perfect. We hiked and talked, turning the ideas over and over again. We sat and drank wine in the evenings, discussing ways to implement the most salient pieces in our own part of the world. We felt inspired every morning as we awoke to the prospect of another fascinating exchange. I came home floating, my brain absolutely overflowing with plans, quotes from these three powerful women bubbling up here and there.  I know that I haven't yet fully integrated all of the wisdom I received last week and I expect I will continue to turn it all over in my brain for weeks to come, but I will leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from the week.

"Hope to be imperfect in all of the ways that keep you growing." Alice Walker

"Where love exists, it is hard for jealousy to sprout." Alice Walker

"Mothering is an art AND a practice." Alice Walker

"Religion is politics in the sky." Gloria Steinem

"As long as God looks like the ruling class, we are all in deep shit."  Gloria Steinem

"Our children only know they have something to say if someone is listening to them." Gloria Steinem

"If you want 'x' at the end (ie. joy, laughter), you have to have it along the way." Gloria Steinem

"Who wants the Golden Rule administered by a masochist?" Gloria Steinem

"Hope is a form of planning." Gloria Steinem

"If you connect, there is peace. Disconnection leads to violence." Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

"All the things we do not want to confront within ourselves, we project those onto others and we call them terrorists." Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

"There are two ways of being broken - being broken apart so you lose your soul or you are broken open, wider, bigger, fuller. So you become a container for suffering, an alchemist who can change your suffering into joy. Don't be afraid of being broken. Surrender into brokenness but don't be broken apart." Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

"I am a theologian because I have to save God from patriarchy." Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Around and Around We Go

I've got something stuck in my craw. And ironically, the song that has been going around and around in my head for the past two days is "Pompeii" by Bastille. Specifically, the following lyrics:

  • But if you close your eyes,
    Does it almost feel like
    Nothing changed at all?
    And if you close your eyes,
    Does it almost feel like
    You've been here before?
    How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
    How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
Yeah, I've been here before. And, yeah, I'm asking myself how I'm going to be positive and forward-thinking about all of it.  Bubba is on board, as are several other folks. We all agree the situation is untenable and something has to change, but the wheels are moving very slowly and if history is any indication, they will stop the vehicle well short of a solution.  Several times in the past week I have noticed my jaw set, my breathing shallow, my thoughts rotating in the same old pattern, wearing a path in my brain.  While we were making dinner together on Sunday night, I told Bubba, "I'm trying really hard not to get emotionally tied to a specific outcome."

"Why not?" he stopped what he was doing and turned to me. "I think you SHOULD be."

I was surprised. He is usually the guy who knows exactly what his boundaries are and how to engage with things he can control and disengage from things he can't. He is always cautioning me that I'll make myself crazy if I get too connected to one particular scenario in my mind.  His reaction this time only served as a reminder of how long this has gone on without any resolution, that he is just as frustrated as I am that we have acted in all the ways we know how with mindfulness and honesty and concern to no avail.

And yet, I am making myself crazy. His passion and the passion of other folks who have heretofore been quiet and complacent is only serving to reignite my commitment to sparking change. While it feels good to know that I'm not alone, that something is really wrong here, ultimately I have no say in whether things change, and I'm not willing to quit being part of the institution that so desperately needs to change. The person who has the power is a dear friend of mine and I can't understand why he won't do what needs to be done, but I can't force him to do it. I have my suspicions that he is acting (or not acting) out of fear, and my intuition about these things is generally pretty clear. I know what a powerful motivator fear is and I truly understand why he would feel that way. I also have to acknowledge that, despite assurances that the wheels are turning, my faith is quickly eroding.

This lack of power to effect important change in someone else's life is definitely a theme in my world right now. I had to laugh this morning as it occurred to me that perhaps this is a training ground for dealing with my girls and the life choices they will make without (or despite) input from me or Bubba. Right now, my boundaries are nearly nonexistent and I'm struggling to imagine what they might look like. I am certainly in need of some sort of buffer as I figure out how to be involved with the parts of this organization that are doing amazing work without feeding the part that is toxic and destructive. I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the realm of love and acceptance but the cloud of frustration that is hanging over my head is pretty vast right now.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Chalk One Up For Positivity

Frankly, I would rather be neither of those things. I'm not interested in being the guy who flattens others, and I certainly don't want to be smushed face-first against a windshield.  I know there are days when my kids feel as though those are the only two options, though, and you can't blame them with all of the social dynamics they are navigating in high school and middle school.  But, as the Chief Positivity Officer in our household (well, Bubba's pretty good at that, too, but frankly, I'm willing to be more in-your-face about it), I'm always looking for ways to re-frame their experience.  When you're surrounded by kids jockeying for position, stressing about homework and quizzes and their place on the team all day long, it can be pretty easy to feel as though life is a constant fight.

Enter my new invention: The Appreciation Board.  Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not crazy enough to have actually called it that. Nor am I naive enough to have presented it in some sort of formal way. I simply commandeered the chalkboard in the kitchen and altered it a bit.  This is what it looks like now

 I kicked things off quietly by circling Eve's name with a piece of white chalk and finishing the sentence. By the time everyone got home from school and work, the board read, "Eve is SO awesome because she is such a great friend." Eve noticed the change when she came in for dinner and shook her head quietly. She is not a sentimental person (or at least that is the story she tells herself), so she looked at me, cocked her head to the right and rolled her eyes, BUT she couldn't suppress the twitches at the corners of her mouth. It felt good to be called out for something like that. She was smiling despite herself.

I am an idealist, but I am also realistic, so I didn't expect an instant sea-change.  I left the first message up for a few days and then quietly changed it again, this time circling "Dad" and reminding everyone that he is so great because he cracks us all up.  This time Lola was the first to notice when she came down for breakfast.  She immediately picked up the chalk and added some reference to an inside joke the two of them have, chuckling to herself.

On Saturday night, Bubba and I had plans for dinner with some friends, so we made the girls some food and headed out. I was hoping the two of them would have a relaxing evening watching movies and eating popcorn and talking about all of the things they don't want their parents in earshot for.  When we came home around 11pm, we all headed straight for bed without doing much of anything but hugging each other goodnight. I was the first one up on Sunday morning and as I headed to the coffee maker, I stopped and saw the board.  It read, "Mom is SO awesome because she is such a good mom (and a good person in general)." What was so staggering is that it was in Eve's handwriting. My cynic. My practical, non-sentimental kid took the initiative to write something that brought tears to my eyes. Of course, when I thanked her for it later in front of her sister, she denied writing it at all, but later she confessed that it was her and shrugged it off like it was no big deal.  Except that it was.

We have settled into a routine of changing the board every few days with someone spontaneously erasing and writing in some new lovely compliment for another member of the family.  Lola has been reminded that we love her adventurous spirit, and on Monday morning as she was packing up for a three day camping trip with her class, she wrote that she appreciated what a good sister Eve is to her. My heart melted.

I love this simple way of reminding our kids that looking for something positive about others is important and powerful. So often our communications at home are centered around things that have to get done or small conflicts we have with each other. Yes, we thank each other for small kindnesses (getting someone a glass of water when they're already at the dinner table or carrying something up the stairs for them when their hands are full), but it isn't often that we take the time to call out the things we really admire about each other and there is something really profound about seeing it in writing. To have someone take a moment to put into words how amazing you are is a pretty cool feeling.  Who knows, maybe this small boost of public appreciation is just enough to help carry us through stressful times of the day with a more realistic assessment of how awesome we really are.

Friday, September 26, 2014

What Would You Do if You Knew You Would Not Fail?

Patience is a virtue, but so far, it isn't one I possess. Unfortunately for me, I just happen to be hard-wired to make decisions only after I sleep on them for a while. I have learned, on some occasions quite painfully, that when I make quick decisions about big things, I often regret my choice. There are people (my husband and Eve, for example) who can check in with their gut and know almost instantaneously what they ought to do. I am not one of those people.

For a few months now I have been trying to define my next steps. The girls are getting increasingly independent and I am getting restless, looking for something more substantial to do besides freelance writing here and there.  I put the word out to some trusted allies this summer and have begun scouring the internet for volunteer and job opportunities that might fit my passions. On several occasions, I have been tempted to apply for positions with organizations I admire, despite the fact that the position itself is not quite right. Either the hours are wrong or I know I would be bored in a few months, or the organization does great work but it doesn't light a fire in my belly.  Thus far, I have resisted, hoping (but not really knowing deep down) that the right thing will present itself.

This week, one of the folks who knows I'm looking forwarded a job posting to me, noting that it was full time (which I don't really want because I still want to attend the girls' sporting events and be flexible for their school days off), but that it was a local non-profit we both know and love and I would be very qualified for the position.  I read through the job announcement a few times, getting excited because it is a job I know I could do.  And yet.  There was something. If I'm being totally honest (and a little bit woo woo), I have to say that all of that excitement was lighting up the left side of my brain. I actually felt as though my head was listing to the left - no kidding. I put off applying for the job and emailed Bubba to see what he thought about it.  Before I received a response from him, I headed to a gathering of women who are going to a leadership retreat together in October and pretty quickly, I found myself talking to two of the women there about this job. They both know the organization and the folks who work there and, more importantly, they know me, so I asked what they thought.  Within moments, I realized that I had spent most of the day trying to talk myself out of applying.  Another moment passed and we were talking about a project I've been quietly working on all month that is scaring the crap out of me because it's such a big leap. And even as we spoke, I realized I had a fire in my belly. That despite the fact that I'm scared and my left brain doesn't believe I have the credibility or the qualifications to pull off this secret project, my right brain is all twinkly Christmas lights when I think about it.  Needless to say, my body language convinced both of these amazing women that I know what I really need to do.

I won't be applying for the job that was forwarded to me.  Bubba got a 'gut hit' off of it that, while it's a terrific position and I would do a great job at it, it's not right for me. And twice in the last two days, I have heard the phrase "what would you do if you knew you would not fail?" - not directed at me, but in the context of other things I've read or seen.  Both times, I stopped and asked myself this question and sat twisting my fingers in my lap as I answered, "the secret project that scares me." I can't say where it will go, but I will say that I'm a little closer to leaping. Wish me luck.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Borrowing Trouble

It occurred to me this morning that I've spent much of the last three weeks borrowing trouble. I am feeling a little frantic, fairly depleted, and terrifically confused and I have brought it all on myself.

I have been relying on my tendency to be a 'fixer' instead of sitting back and owning what is mine to own. To borrow a phrase, I have been "leaning in" far too much.  As a parent, it is difficult for me to separate what is mine from what belongs to my daughters, but every time I get entangled in their stuff, I learn the same painful lesson - namely, that nobody is getting what they need when I jump in and try to make things better.

Over the last three weeks, I've been fooling myself that I wasn't really getting involved. Instead of telling my girls what to do, I simply went and did a ton of research and offered up the Cliff Notes versions as potential solutions. I have done a great deal of listening, given many hugs and words of encouragement and left them with strategically-placed notes that I fervently hoped they would take to heart.  And then I have left the room and entered my own head. I have spent hours debating strategies, ordering and reading books that I thought might give me important insight, reached out to other mothers for ideas, and basically ignored all of my own stuff in an effort to help my girls.

I understand that it is important for my kids to experience pain and disappointment and come out the other side.  It is horrible to watch, but as a parent, I know it is more harmful to try and shield them from the slings and arrows of life than it is to let them feel the sting and discover that they will survive despite it.  That much I am clear on.  What I realized this morning is that because it is uncomfortable for me to see them suffer, my agenda involves them acknowledging their suffering and moving on quickly. I want them to take the fast lane to enlightenment, drawing on my experience and knowledge instead of taking the time to form their own, and have an "a-ha" moment in record time. I want their wounds to heal completely within days or hours and leave a scar that will help them incorporate this wisdom into their lives forever. Voila!

Ridiculous.

The other night when I pushed my way into Eve's room to offer all of the information I had gathered while she was at school, she got angry with me.  She tolerated my 20-minute download, but just barely, and then asked me to leave. My feelings were hurt. I felt unappreciated and instantly angry that she didn't see how I had sacrificed hours of my day to ruminate, investigate, and collate on her behalf.

Within minutes, I got a text message from her that made me sit down hard.

"I'm sorry I was rude. But I didn't ask you to do all of that. I have a plan. I am figuring out how to deal with this and you have to give me a chance to do it my way."

She was right. In running around searching for answers and spending time and energy fixating on how to help my girls deal with the disappointments they experience, I am serving my own need to be useful, to solve a problem, to fix something.  There is a fine line between giving thoughtful advice when it is asked for and projecting my own stuff onto someone else. In my experience, it is always easier to see how to solve someone else's problems than it is to work on my own.  When I hover over my kids and offer solutions, even if I'm not advocating for one over another, the message I'm sending is that I don't trust them to figure it out on their own (at least not as quickly as I would like). I am also not giving them the chance to truly integrate the lessons of these challenges into their lives. They can't remember pain from the scars I carry and as much as I might talk to them about my personal mistakes, in order to learn, they have to make their own.

All of this isn't to say that I can't love my girls fiercely and worry about them and offer my two cents. I will also not hesitate to jump in if I think there is a situation they absolutely are not equipped to handle yet, but getting emotionally tied up to the point where I set aside my own life in order to spend hours thinking about how to help my kids is a waste of energy. This morning I found myself exploring several scenarios in an effort to help Lola with something she hasn't asked for help with and it stopped me short. I have a lot to do today and Lola's got this. If she doesn't, she'll let me know one way or the other, but indulging my desire to have things tied up neatly and see my kids happy is only going to make us all crazy.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Mothering Moments I Dread


I’m going to tell you something you already know: it’s easier to be angry than it is to feel sad. It is harder still to acknowledge the fear that lies behind both the sadness and the anger without becoming entangled in it and letting it take over.  And the most challenging scenario I’ve yet encountered is when the fear and anger and sadness spring from incidents that involve my children.  There is a certain intensity to the feeling, the difference between a freshly-honed butcher knife and the paring knife you’ve used for everything from slicing apples to cutting bread to peeling cucumbers. That sharp edge makes all the difference and it gleams in the light.

Even though fear underlies both sadness and anger, the anger comes with a drive to act, a sense that I can do something to mitigate or repair or eradicate. It feels like a positive force, propelling me forward. The sadness feels like a pit, a low spot in the landscape where I have to just sit and see my limited view of the horizon for a while. That feels hopeless and helpless, especially when it comes on behalf of someone else, someone who will benefit more from quiet compassion and understanding than any action I could possibly take.  I am much more comfortable being the Mama Bear, putting out a forearm to block incoming trouble and uttering a frightening roar because it feels proactive and empowering. Sitting in that ditch with my kid while she sobs is not so satisfying.

If I were a caveperson, I would understand. Sitting in that sad pit will get you eaten. Injury to the soul is of little consequence when you aren’t sure whether or not you will find a meal or be the meal. And so I suppose it is a consequence of our relatively luxurious life that I can feel so acutely the emotional pain of my children and long for a solution that will instantly make things different, or at least one that will give me the illusion of control.  But the backdrop of luxury doesn’t make my heart hurt any less. And reminding my kids that they’re not the only one this has ever happened to doesn’t make their hearts hurt any less. It is nice to know you’re not alone, but it sucks to know that you still have to make your way through the hurt in your own way, in your own time, no matter how many people have been there before and how many others are sitting cross-legged in that damn pit with you.

And as a mother, it is far more difficult to watch my children make their way through, in fits and starts, with frustration and doubt and, sometimes, utter desolation, and know there isn’t a damn thing I can do but love them and love them and love them until my heart feels like it will burst with a single touch. As I walked the dog this morning I wished for anger, for someone or something to project my fears onto because holding this emotion is exhausting and anger is exhilarating in its power, even if it is often destructive.  Anger feels galvanizing, strengthening, and when I go all Mama Bear, I am certain my kids know I’ve got their backs and it feels good to express it publicly. Telling them quietly that I acknowledge their pain and sadness and letting them see my sadness feels supportive but falls flat because it doesn’t have all the attendant bells and whistles of action. It isn't necessarily in my nature to choose the easy way out but, man, do I really want to sometimes. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Why the Questions are More Important Than the Answers

I haven't posted anything in a long time, but it isn't for lack of material. There is so much going on in the world right now, from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO to the ongoing wars in Syria and the Gaza Strip and Ukraine to the CDC whistleblower coming out to say that statistically significant data sets were withheld from studies on the MMR vaccine over a decade ago.  I'm exhausted and overwhelmed and saddened by the ongoing polarization I see every single day. That said, the fact is, I am guilty of adding fuel to the fire from time to time.

A very close friend of mine helped me realize that yesterday.  I had posted a video on Facebook related to the CDC whistleblower case and remarked that the notion that a group of government scientists purposely omitting an entire set of data from a study was something I found horrifying.  This friend of mine, whom I've known since we were 15, commented that she didn't believe a word of it and went one step further to post a pretty snarky essay written by someone who not only doesn't believe it, but resorted (in the first sentence of his piece) to name-calling and went on to write sarcastically and with true nastiness about "those people" who put any stock in this story.While my friend and I ultimately had a very civil (very public) discourse about the issue, I was prompted to recognize that the video I posted was incendiary and I spent a great deal of time thinking about how I could have done it differently throughout the rest of the day.

On a very related topic, there was a study published in the New York Times that made its way around Facebook yesterday stating that most people are not willing to post controversial things online for fear of creating debates that might turn ugly. My concern is not that people won't post those things, but that when they do, they are fully unprepared to have a respectful exchange of ideas with regard to them and it quickly devolves into hateful rhetoric where there are more answers than questions.

When I meet people in my daily life who are utterly convinced of their own positions on everything, I am prompted to steer clear. Anyone who says to me that they know that something is absolutely true is someone who hasn't asked enough questions. Anyone who is willing to disregard any new theory that might raise an area for further study because they think we know enough isn't someone I need to talk to. I am most often amazed by folks with very little scientific background or training beyond high school biology or chemistry classes who are steadfast in their determination that some ultimate truth has been proven somewhere and everyone who disagrees ought to just be quiet now.  I am wary of folks who assume that deeper inquiries are a personal challenge or that they are altogether unnecessary.

The video I posted was designed to be incendiary and attention-grabbing and even, perhaps, fear-mongering and that is something that I have spoken out against many times in the past. I can see how my posting it would seem to be an endorsement of these tactics and, for that, I apologize.  But I will never apologize for continuing to be inquisitive, for keeping an open mind and struggling to understand why any scientist worth his or her salt would choose to avoid asking or answering certain questions. I will never apologize for believing that corporate interests ought to be kept as far from scientific discovery and testing as possible for fear that they will create undue influence. And I will never apologize for supporting others who are simply asking that their questions and hunches and parenting instincts be taken into consideration by those who could potentially make a difference. We can be stronger and smarter together forever, but only if we start listening with the express goal of understanding each other instead of simply waiting our turn to spout our own position. If you can't be bothered to read an entire article or essay (or watch the whole video) without assuming you know what I'm trying to say and responding with dismissive, sarcastic, snarky comments or name-calling, then you don't deserve to be part of the conversation and you probably don't want to, anyway. I suspect you're just angling to be "right" about something and I'm not interested.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What's Missing in the Push for STEM Education?

Trends in education come and go, like anything else. Letter grades, number grades, no grades, "old" math, "new" math, multi-age classrooms, inclusive classrooms, AP classrooms. It's hard to keep up, but one trend that has been around for my girls' generation is the STEM focused curriculum and while I understand it, it does give me some pause.  Mostly because I think that doing anything in a vacuum, for the sake of doing it or jumping on that moving train is not necessarily a good idea.  It seems that the United States has fully embraced the notion that we can all live better lives if we pursue jobs in math or engineering or science fields. We have all drunk the Kool-Aid that tells us that technology is the saviour of the future and those individuals who understand it and shape it will be kings and queens.

Within this push for STEM education, there is a mini-movement that is focused on girls. It is true that women are very poorly represented in the fields that rely heavily on STEM education. These also tend to be the jobs that offer more flexibility and opportunity and higher pay.  And while I am absolutely not opposed to the emphasis on STEM (or, as they put it at Lola's school, STEAM with an A for the arts), I hope that these students are also learning just as much about the application of this knowledge and the ethics involved as they are about how to build a better robot.  I hope that they aren't being seduced by the possibilities of this knowledge without considering the ramifications of it. When Albert Einstein helped spur the development of the atomic bomb, he had some inkling of what he might be unleashing, but it wasn't until many years later that he said, "I have always condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan."  He defended his involvement by noting that the research was available and, if it hadn't been built and used by the United States, he was certain that the Nazis would have developed the technology, but this is precisely what I think of when I imagine legions of scientifically-literate students graduating from American high schools without any sort of ethical framework for the work they are suddenly capable of doing.

One of the phrases I use with Lola and Eve that drives them batty goes like this, "Just because you can doesn't mean you should." I hope that I haven't said it so many times that they tune it out, but just often enough that it echoes in their heads from time to time and encourages them to ask, "Why? Why am I doing this? Why am I making this decision now? What will come of it?"  I honestly believe that this is the most important question we can ever ask ourselves, and often the most difficult to answer.  I think that as a culture we could save boatloads of money and time and effort if we stopped to inquire about why we choose to do certain things in particular ways.  Technology and science, engineering and math have certainly changed our lives for the better in multitudes of ways, but there are also egregious examples of STEM-gone-wrong, used for exploitation or corporate financial gain, and turning out an entire generation of students who blindly believe that STEM is the way to job security and financial success without any ability to question their own motives or morality is a frightening prospect.

I remember taking a bioethics course in college and wondering why it wasn't required for pre-med students (I was pre-med, but I took it as credit toward my bachelor's degree in philosophy, not biology). I was lucky enough to sit on the ethics committee at a local hospital for one term and see how large institutions debate questions of morality when it comes to research and equity for all patients and I was shocked at how many physicians never bothered to ask those questions in their daily practice unless it was required for some study or potential lawsuit. They were content to let the "experts" in ethics decide for them and dictate what they ought to do.  I am not condemning them for that. They were likely never taught to ask those kinds of questions or how to think about them.  They were taught to look critically at things that had "right" and "wrong" answers, how to perform tests to determine which was which, and move forward. If we don't find ways to give our children a language of ethics, a way to talk about the choices we make and understand the effect those choices have on others, we are sorely mistaken.  If we don't attempt to focus on the application and consequences of our scientific discoveries, have honest conversations about the reasons for engaging in the work we're doing (beyond making money or 'to see if we can,') we are missing a vital piece of educating our kids.  I am much more interested in my children becoming thoughtful citizens of a community who can envision and work toward some common goal than I am in seeing them get advanced degrees in STEM fields and go on to create the next genetically-modified food product that could wreak havoc on our ecosystems beyond anything we can imagine. And while I do think that some of the responsibility for teaching that lies with parents, to have our educational system acknowledge the necessity and importance of it is vital. I'm not advocating for schools to provide any sort of absolute ethical framework (although some religious schools do that). Rather, I think they would do better to teach students to ask "why" at each important juncture, to flex that ethical muscle, to keep them examining the reasons and ramifications of their actions when it comes to all of their learning.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Paying it Forward

One of the things I love best about the middle school my girls attend is their focus on service and community. They are encouraged to find something they are passionate about, big or small, and use that energy to connect with others and make a difference in the world.

Three years ago, Eve partnered with a friend of hers who started an organization focused on kids with serious illnesses who were spending large chunks of time in the hospital or places like the Ronald McDonald House.  The group is called That Lucky Bracelet and the girls put together customized "Smile Packages" for sick kids. It has been a terrific thing for Eve to be part of and the girls have a lot of fun making gifts for kids based on the things each one tells them they love. The weekend before Easter, we hosted a gathering of four of the girls in our backyard and they spent hours stuffing and decorating hundreds of plastic Easter eggs with candy and bracelets and stickers and bouncy balls that they would drop off at our local Children's Hospital and Ronald McDonald House for the kids and their families.  If you know of someone who would love to get a smile package from these bright, determined girls, hit their website and fill out a questionnaire. Some of the kids who have received packages continue to communicate with the founder for a long time after getting their initial package and it has been a really rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Three weeks ago, Lola was thinking about school supplies, not because she is anxious to go back to school, but because we were talking about the homeless shelter we worked in last Spring. One of the things the girls did while they were there was to volunteer in the childcare room and watch the toddlers while their moms took parenting classes or ESL classes or went to job interviews.  Ever since then, Lola has been talking about those kids and thinking about what it must be like to be homeless as a young child.  She asked me, "How do those kids get school supplies if they can't afford food?" and I replied that I figured it was probably pretty hard.  That they probably had to look through the donated items to find what they needed.  An idea was born. She got together with her best friend to create Education Belongs 2 Everybody, a place where folks can go and donate money to help these kids buy school supplies.  We started thinking, and between backpacks and calculators and binders and all of the other things that kids really need to get for school, the cost can run into the hundreds of dollars easily. And what a great feeling it would be for these kids to get to go to the store and choose their own lunchbox or folders based on the things they love!  If you're so inclined, go check out their website and donate a few dollars through PayPal. Each and every penny donated will go to the shelter we have worked with in the past so that these kids can be better equipped to start their school year off right.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

bell hooks, Love, and Building Peaceful Communities


I am reading my first book by bell hooks. I have read quotes of hers before and come across people who think she is absolutely brilliant and yet, I have never once picked up a book by her. Until now. And to be honest, I don't even really remember what made me pick up "All About Love: New Visions," but it is quickly becoming a tome to set next to the likes of David Whyte's "The Three Marriages" and anything by Brene Brown to read over and over again.  I have taken so many pages of notes I'm running out of space in my notebook and I am only about 70% of the way through it.

hooks' meditations on every kind of love from friendships to family to intimate, romantic relationships to self-love are so simple and profound that I am stunned again and again. And, as I often do, I find myself stopping mid-page to muse about the ways in which her philosophy pertains to different aspects of my life and pop culture.  The fact that her thoughts feel so incredibly universal to me is one reason why I suspect I will be able to read this book many times and find some new perspective during each and every reading.

She begins by defining love in a way I've never heard it spoken about before and, yet, it feels absolutely right to me.  She uses M. Scott Peck's definition, the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth, as a springboard, and adds, "To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients - care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication."

She has chapters on every imaginable application of love but in light of what is happening in the Middle East right now, I am particularly struck by her chapters on community and what she calls a "love ethic."

I have been called hopelessly idealistic and a dreamer most of my life. I own it. And so, in that spirit, I began thinking about what the world would look like if we embraced the notion of a love ethic, cultures rooted in mutual respect and acknowledgment instead of materialism and consumerism and money and power.  In this kind of society, it would be absolutely necessary to address our fears and take daily leaps of faith. In this kind of society, we would be required to forego the possibility of having everything we want in order for everyone to have some of what they want.  In our current model, we are encouraged to think constantly about what we as individuals want which sets up this endless cycle of desiring and attaining and assessing and desiring more. We are always comparing what we have with what we don't have, what we have with what others have, and we will always come up short. In our current model, where possessions equal success equal power, we are tricked into thinking that more stuff will make us happier and we dehumanize other people who get in the way of us having more stuff.

When I think about the daily violence happening in Gaza and Syria, I see a cycle of fear and entitlement. I see groups of people desperate to have exactly what they think they need and willing to go to any length to get it.  I see militaries who have embraced the power of fear to make others do what you want them to do and one of the big problems with that is that, while fear is a terrific motivator, it is only ever a temporary one.  And fear doesn't allow you to have relationship with others, so if you're intent on controlling them for long, you either have to continue to ratchet up the fear factor or you have to worry about their retaliation. (Of course, one other solution is to entirely eradicate the "other" so that you don't have to consider being in relationship at all.)

In hooks' love ethic, everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and to live well.  Everyone expresses themselves honestly and openly and with a view toward living their ethic in everything they do and, in doing so, they are investing in their own individual growth and the growth and happiness of everyone else.  Individuals in these kinds of communities recognize the humanity of the other individuals at every turn even if they don't agree with them. In acknowledging the humanity of others, there is no desire to "win" or rule over another, there is only a concern for the good of all and the acceptance that nobody can ever have all that they want because that is not good for the community.

The irony in the present situation in the Middle East is that everyone's actions are rooted in fear, even as they are doing their mightiest to instill terror in the hearts of their opponents. And when we act out of fear, we cannot hope to accomplish anything but inciting more fear and anger. This cycle is endlessly destructive and while we may gain momentary feelings of righteousness as we claim small victories, we
have not made any lasting, sustainable efforts toward peace.

In the case of the violence in the Middle East, Benjamin Netanyahu has been very clear that the goal of attacking Gaza is to shut down the tunnels that Hamas has built from Gaza into Israel's territory. They are afraid and, goodness' knows I don't fault them for that. Their fears are justified, given the violence Hamas has rained down upon Israel thanks to the tunnels. But in disproportionately attacking the civilians in Gaza, what Israel is doing is showing that they can instill fear in Hamas, that they can be scarier than their enemy in hopes of what - convincing them that Israel is mightier and they ought to just give up? Even if Hamas did concede that point for now, if they ever hope to get any power again, they will have to invent some way to be even more frightening in the future. And the Palestinians are not likely to ever forget the horrific numbers of innocent civilians who fell prey to Netanyahu's military which means that the prospects for a peaceful solution are even farther away than they were before.

There will always be someone who will come along and threaten to take what you have - your feeling of security, your home and possessions, your family. And we can set up fences, locks, alarm systems, but as long as we are operating from a place of fear, we are focused on what we might lose instead of what we already have, what is most important. If we can learn to retreat to a place of "enough" instead of continually visiting the well of "I need/deserve more," we won't feel threatened by others and worried that they will take what is or might one day be "ours." And if we can build communities based on everyone taking the courageous, incredibly difficult step of extending a hand and trusting in each others' humanity, we might just begin to find solutions that are rooted in love one day.
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