Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mourning Cosby

There is an autographed, glossy, 8x10 photo of Bill Cosby on my mantle. It has been there for years, although in the last several months it has been face down so I don’t have to see it every time I sit down to watch TV with my kids.

Many of the most cherished moments of my childhood involved Bill Cosby.  Much of my childhood was tumultuous, peppered with divorces and multiple moves and brothers and sisters split up into different households.  My parents hated each other, but in the years before their divorce, at least once a week my siblings and I would lie belly-down on the shag carpet in anticipation while Dad packed his pipe with sweet-smelling cherry tobacco, pushed the 8-track in, and settled in his favorite chair. We spent hours listening to tales of Fat Albert, rolling around in hysterics and trying desperately to stifle our giggles so we wouldn’t miss the next hilarious line about the dentist or Buck-Buck Number 5. Those evenings were magical. There were few things that we could all agree on – vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s syrup and Cosby’s routines being the only two I can recall now – and we listened to those tapes until we could recite them verbatim. I used to delight in spontaneously rattling off a line in the middle of a boring road trip or somber meal just to see everyone crack up.

After an ugly divorce from my mother, Dad and I had issues. He was a complicated man who didn’t always do the right thing. He cheated on my mom. He cheated on his second wife. He had a terrible temper and ruled with shame and fear. He was also committed to teaching us to be better people, coaching my brothers’ soccer team and letting me help him wash and wax the cars and change the oil. He was serious and meticulous and didn’t laugh easily, but when he did it was like Christmas morning and my birthday all rolled into one. I was simultaneously terrified of him and desperate to make him proud of me. For much of my life there was no more powerful force in my world than Dad.

 Mom had a lot of really terrible things to say about him and nearly a decade after their split when his second marriage began crumbling, my stepmother added to the accusations. I was a senior in high school and a budding feminist. I was disgusted by the tales of my father’s cheating and indignant in my defense of my mom and stepmother. I began to distance myself from Dad, which was fairly easy since I was soon to be off to college, anyway. I never confronted him, certain that he would deny their allegations, and kept all of our interactions purely superficial.  I didn’t trust him and wasn’t about to put myself in a vulnerable position.

When I was 29 and expecting my first child, things changed. I had been too afraid to formally disengage from Dad’s life since that would have required having an honest conversation about why I was choosing that route. Instead, I held him at arm’s length, determined to protect myself. But as my belly grew, I began daydreaming about the life I wanted to give to my child. I recalled my own family Christmases smack in the eye of a tornado of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents; torn tissue and ribbons and smiles all around. I remembered that allies don’t always come in the form we expect them to and, regardless of how fiercely I hoped to be the one my child came to when she needed help, it dawned on me that I may not be the one she chose. I decided that I wanted to give my baby the biggest, most loving family in the history of the world. I wanted her to know her aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. I wanted her to hear their stories and see their hilarious antics. I wanted her to stand in the center of a room full of her people and feel loved and protected and cherished, and I realized that that group included Dad. My heart melted as I recalled some of my favorite moments with him  – playing Heart and Soul together on the piano, hiking in the mountains on a sunny summer day, lying around cracking up to Bill Cosby routines. I had forgotten how safe I had felt with him as a kid.

But I was unsure how to go about it. I would have to steel myself for this conversation, this decision to let him into my life for real. I figured I would have to confront him with all of the accusations Mom and his second wife had made and ask him to answer for them. I lay in the darkness, one hand on my belly, my anxiety ratcheting up as I imagined the awful fight we would have. The baby started kicking furiously, turning somersaults and flipping around.

Gradually it began to dawn on me: was there anything he could say that would appease me? Could I imagine a scenario whereby he would say, “I cheated on your mom because of ‘x’” and it would be okay with me? Could I come up with any plausible explanation for some of the crappy decisions he made as a parent? Anything that would make me nod my head and say, “Oh, I get it. I totally would have done the same thing.”

The baby stopped moving and I went cold. It was in that moment that I realized I had been vilifying my father for decades and he was simply a human being. He hadn’t had a set of rules or guidelines for being the perfect parent any more than I would.

Yeah, but did he do his best? the devil voice on my shoulder sneered.

The answer surprised us both. Yeah. I think he did.

When faced with this question I was forced to admit that I didn’t honestly believe anything my dad ever did was motivated by hatred for me or my siblings or even my mother. I don’t think he was ever trying to hurt any of us. Not that his actions were excused or excusable, but it wasn’t my job to make my father pay for his mistakes, especially those he made with his wives.

And so Dad and I started over. From that moment, as adults, we began again, without mention of or atonement for past mistakes, with an acknowledgment that we were both human and fallible. Our relationship as adults was based on mutual love and respect and while I still wanted him to be proud of me, I no longer needed his approval. Most importantly, I stopped judging him.

We had eight fabulous years as father and daughter. We spoke on the phone a couple of times a month about anything and everything and he never hung up without saying, “I love you, Kari.” Watching him get down on the floor with my girls and play Polly Pockets and build Lego houses and sing goofy songs, I often thought my heart would bust wide open. He was funny and irreverent and would have done anything for his granddaughters. He was amazed at how smart they were and wanted them to have every opportunity in life. More than once, I saw threads of him woven into the fabric of my children – their tenacity and determination came straight from him through me, I’m sure. Because of my children, I was able to recapture the good memories of Dad. Before that, I only saw the cheating and lying.

My father died in my arms after a brutal battle with lung cancer six years ago. I spontaneously offered to write and deliver the eulogy at his memorial service and for a few terrifying hours I sat on the guest bed at my in-laws’ house searching for inspiration. What came to me was Bill Cosby. As a kid, Dad was stern and serious except for those nights when he lit his pipe and put his feet up and laughed at Cosby’s routines until tears rolled down his cheeks, and that is what I told the room full of people that came to pay tribute to my father. I chose Dad’s favorite routine – the one where God is trying to convince Noah to build the ark – and wove the humor and persistence of that bit into my acknowledgment of Dad’s gifts.

Today, I mourn for the tainted memories. I am relieved that my daughters never took to my attempts to hang out and listen to Bill Cosby CDs as a family because now I don’t have to dismantle that family tradition for them. They are too young to have watched The Cosby Show or have seen any Jell-o adds featuring Cosby, so all they know about that autographed 8x10 on the mantle is that it belonged to Papa. I will throw away the CDs I’ve had tucked away in my car for long road trips, naively thinking that the girls would stop listening to their own iPods long enough to hear the “snakey lick” routine that still makes me giggle, but I’m torn about how to handle the photo. Do I burn it and repurpose the frame? Do I throw the whole thing out? And what do I do with the memories? How do I reconcile the bonding that occurred over his comedy routines with the possibility that, during that time, he was drugging and sexually assaulting young women? 

Oddly enough, I’m very clear on how to handle such things with my children. They are very aware of which music I refuse to buy because the musician is not someone I wish to support.  The misogynist characters who build their reputations on objectifying and, at times blatantly threatening women and girls are not welcome to be heard in my car. One day as we drove to school, a PitBull song came on the radio and my youngest quickly reached for the dial to change the station.

“You know, it’s sad, Mom. He is a horrible human being, but he is a really good rapper.”

In our current era of social media and citizen journalism, I suspect we know far more about today’s celebrities than we ever have before.  It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that many of the artists I listened to as a teenager did awful things but were lucky enough not to get caught by the general public, and it makes me wonder whether I would rush to get rid of all of their music now in response. If I discovered that Robert Plant or Jimmy Page had committed terrible acts against women or gay people or Latinos, I would be devastated. Would I never again listen to “Stairway to Heaven?” I don’t know.

Can I separate the individual acts from the performance? In the case of entertainers like PitBull and Eminem, it is clear from their music that they espouse certain beliefs and claim particular entitlements. It has been claimed that there were indications in Cosby’s routines as far back as 1969 that he wanted to drug women. I remember the Spanish Fly bit and, honestly, I don’t remember thinking anything of it at the time, mostly because the whole notion of Spanish Fly seemed confusing and “adult” to me.

I am a firm believer in consequences and if it turns out Bill Cosby did the things he is alleged to do, he deserves to pay harsh penalties and he has a lot to atone for. But the organizer in me wants to know which file to put those memories in, or whether I ought to just bag them up and throw them out with the dog poo. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Fear and Excitement

What a week! I am putting the first touches on the website for my new project (that I've been hinting about here for a while, now), and it is a lot of work, but it's really fun. You can visit the site here and give  me any feedback you have on what you see/what I might change or add.  The endeavor is called The SELF (Social-Emotional Learning Foundations) Project. The goal is to bring social-emotional education to tweens and teens at schools, after-school programs, and other places where they gather.  The curriculum is divided into six areas:

  • mindfulness
  • living with joy
  • dealing with stress, anxiety, and fear
  • developing self-worth
  • compassion
  • big questions of life
I'm offering one-off events as well as entire workshops based in these areas and hoping to do a few summer camps this year.  I will also facilitate groups for parents and others raising tweens and teens to talk about mindful parenting through this tumultuous time, again either as ongoing meetings or as one-off speaking/facilitating events.  Eventually, I hope to develop the curriculum so that it can be licensed to other people who want to teach it in their own communities.  Each focus area has discussion prompts, worksheets, activities, and guided visualizations/meditations in order to offer different ways of looking at the same ideas.  It is based in research I've done over the past eight years as I raise my own girls and strive to help them develop as whole human beings, and most of the meditations and worksheets are things I created to help my girls through challenging times. If you know of schools or other organizations (YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs, etc.) who might be interested, please pass on the link to the website so they can check it out.   I am happy to travel in the Pacific Northwest to speak and teach.  


Also, in case you missed it, I had a piece published this week that I have worked on for a while and I'd love it if you headed over to read it - especially if you know tweens or teens that have questions about sex and sexuality.  You can find it here.

Friday, January 16, 2015

No Easy Answers

FhaC protein of Bordatella pertussis
In December, Eve had whooping cough.  We didn't realize it at the time, but when I finally took her to the doctor three weeks later to see why her cough hadn't resolved, we figured it out. Of course, by then, she was 90% recovered with just the lingering chest-rattling hack as evidence. Me? I was instantly chastened and laughed to the Physician's Assistant, "HA! Sign me up for Mother of the Year!"  She was quick to let me know that I shouldn't worry - there wasn't much they could have done for her anyway. And, hey, now she likely has natural immunity, so it's all good, right?

The thing is, it didn't really occur to me that whooping cough was a possibility, mostly because Eve was vaccinated on schedule.  I had peripherally heard about whooping cough outbreaks - mainly in high schools around the area - but they never really penetrated my consciousness enough to worry about it.  (That said, I will relay the memory of one time a few years ago when a local private high school was closed because of a widespread outbreak of whooping cough and my Facebook feed suddenly reflected a whole lot of vitriol directed at "those people who don't vaccinate their kids" despite any sort of hard evidence that it was an unvaccinated student who was the cause of the outbreak. That was a little shocking to see, but since I didn't have a dog in that fight, I left it alone.)

So how the heck did my kid (and all the other high school kids in the area) get whooping cough, especially those who have been vaccinated against it?

There seem to be no simple answers.  At least not any based in medicine.  I was told (on Facebook) by a friend that my daughter likely "got exposure from another who had not been vaccinated," but I don't see how that's the most likely explanation.

Certainly, it seems that the whooping cough vaccine that kids are getting is not as effective as it was meant to be. Most kids get their final booster around age 11 or 12, and the outbreaks are happening to high-school aged kids - the vast majority of whom have an unpleasant week or two and then are absolutely fine.  The CDC speculates that it is possible that the kids who have been vaccinated against whooping cough can harbor the bacteria in their system and when the vaccine efficacy wanes, as it is wont to do, it rears its ugly head and voila, kids get sick.  Of course, they also speculate that it is possible that there are some unvaccinated kids out there who get it and pass it along.  And they also speculate that the bacterium itself has mutated just enough to render the vaccine itself useless.

Like I said, no simple answers.  Folks who like to believe that there is an anti-vaccine conspiracy often say that if everyone were vaccinated, there would be no virus/bacteria left to mutate and that is why everyone ought to just go get their kids every shot offered.  Except that many of these shots are NOT SAFE for babies of a certain age, so there is no way to ensure that the virus/bacteria is gone forever.  And there are some folks whose medical status is too fragile for them to get the vaccine, which means they have to weigh the odds of potentially dying from getting the shots against the potential that they might one day come in contact with the virus/bacteria in question.  Again, no such thing as 100% vaccination and, thus, eradication.

In the days before vaccines, people did get sick and die from diseases like whooping cough, although generally that was because their health was not great for other reasons - malnutrition, immune disorders, age.  More often than not, people got viral or bacterial infections and recovered from them and built natural immunity. Nursing mothers could pass this natural immunity on to their children in many cases, and there was very little need for a vaccine, much less a boost of immunity later in life.

All this is to say that I don't think we can continue to place an inordinate amount of faith in the vaccination system. Yes, smallpox was eradicated by a vaccine. We all know the story. But one success story does not mean that this solution fits everything. And it also doesn't mean we ought to stop asking questions about vaccine efficacy for other, different, less deadly diseases (READ: HPV). And it certainly doesn't mean that we ought to feel free to vilify and radicalize people who are rightly concerned about their own children's individual health.

Eve most certainly caught whooping cough from someone at school.  Whether or not they were vaccinated against it means nothing to me. That kid came to school infectious, whether they knew it or not, coughed on Eve, or at the very least in her close vicinity, and the rest is history. Should I go on the school website and rail against the parents who send their kids to school with a fever or a nasty cough because it resulted in my kid getting really sick? I don't think so. Generally, the only people who end up needing hospitalization for whooping cough are babies, the elderly, and those whose health is already compromised, so there was almost no chance she would suffer long-lasting effects from her illness.  Going to school where there are other people - heck, going out in public, touching a door handle, using an ATM machine, breathing on an airplane - is putting you at risk for catching all sorts of things from other people who are either knowingly or unknowingly sick.  We cannot ever hope to eradicate all possibility of getting sick from other people unless we choose to live in a bubble and that is a pretty sad, pretty fear-based existence.  I'm not pissed off at the person who shared their whooping cough with Eve. I consider it part of the price of 'doing business' as they say. I'm only a little bit sad that Lola didn't manage to catch it at the same time, if only so I know they're both immune.  Shhh, don't tell her I said that.

Monday, January 12, 2015

What Does This Say About Our Culture of Busy-ness?

"Smart Clip Reminds Parents of Babies Left in Cars"

I don't even really know where to go with this. I know that the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas showcases all sorts of innovative and crazy technologies, many of which are altogether unnecessary but cool. I get that in the spirit of seeing what can be created, companies often try to design markets around things that nobody needs, but might want. 

But this? A clip that fits on to your child's seat belt to remind you that they are there when you exit your car? Yes, I have heard the (extremely rare and baffling) news reports of harried parents accidentally leaving their children in cars while they go to work all day. And I agree that if even one life can be saved by installing a "Smart Clip" on your child's carseat, it's worth it.  

But more profoundly, this speaks to me of the increasing lack of attention we pay to the things that we do every day. How far does your mind have to be down the rabbit hole of to-do's that you forget about the living, breathing human beings around you? How much could some small shift in attention and mindfulness affect our ability to remember what we're doing while we're doing it?

I'm not judging. I am as likely as anyone else to forget what I'm doing in the moment. I leave my keys behind, my grocery bags in the car about every third time I head to get food for the week, and I often get into another room and have to stop a beat to recall why the hell I'm there.  All of those things point to me not being present, and generally all it takes is a thoughtful intention to be mindful of what I'm doing to bring me back.  

I am reminded of something that I heard Dr. JoAnn Deak say once in a lecture she delivered.  If a girl isn't making eye contact with you, she isn't processing what you're saying.  I wonder how often I don't look up when my loved ones come into the room and start talking to me, my head buried in a book or staring at my computer screen.  I wonder how that makes them feel, or if they are so used to people not making eye contact with them that they don't think a thing of it.  And I wonder how many nuances of conversation I am missing by not taking a nanosecond to be intentional about my attention.  It is so easy to think that we are paying attention simply because we do something by rote (nod and murmur, "uh huh" at a break in someone's sentence, buckle our child into their carseat and drive to work), but it takes more than that to truly be part of that action, and ironically, it doesn't take much more time. It simply requires that we be mindful of what we're doing at any given time, a task that is becoming increasingly challenging for all of us as we succumb to the rhetoric about 'productivity.' Personally, I'd rather see more people doing things with intentionality and purpose and attention than people doing more things on balance.  A culture that requires a "Smart Clip" to remember its children are there isn't one that I can be terribly proud of. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Something To Do

I am sitting in my cluttered kitchen contemplating a new vision for today. I had plans to go to yoga and then lunch with a friend to catch up a little on her new career endeavors and mine, but she "called in sick." For the time being, I've put two spaghetti squash into the oven to roast so I can have a head start on making dinner tonight and I'm at the kitchen table eating leftover enchilada filling with avocado and thinking about the extra hours I've been given today.

Yesterday I called my mom. She recently quit her job for a variety of reasons (she is 70+ years old and won't call it a retirement) and is struggling with memory loss.  She has good days and bad, and she seemed cheerful yesterday when she answered the phone, although she quickly confessed that she had a headache so she was sitting on the couch with the cat, hoping it would go away.  She lamented the grey shroud of fog outside her family room windows and went so far as to blame her headache on that. I wondered if it had more to do with her blood sugar, but didn't say that aloud.

Frankly, I'm feeling a little guilty that I am so excited about gaining a few hours today to get things done. I'm feeling badly that there are so many things to do on my list that it might take me 15 minutes to decide which of them to begin with. Mom doesn't really have anything to do and it shows. Her husband gets up every day and heads to their carpet store and while I don't know how much he enjoys the work, it's something. I don't know what Mom does. I know she doesn't prepare any food for herself anymore. She doesn't remember to take her Metformin on her own. She doesn't make her way efficiently through paragraphs of legal mumbo-jumbo as she helps clients buy and sell their homes. I think, mostly, she sits with the cat.

My list runs the gamut from picking up (and then installing) two new parts for my dishwasher, settling a bill with the chiropractor and dropping off donations to the homeless shelter nearby to creating a business plan and website design for a new venture I'm creating. There is also laundry, dog-walking and cleaning out the litter box to accomplish, among other things. I'm not feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. Instead, I'm feeling purposeful and energized, knowing that these things are by turns mundane and vital and wondering how Mom can get some of that in her life.

After chatting for nearly an hour yesterday, we were winding down the conversation and Mom suddenly said, "THANK you SO much for calling!  Thank you!"  And, although she didn't sound sad or lonely, my heart broke a little bit at the thought of her sitting on the couch with the cat, alone in the fog with nothing to do today. I guess I don't blame her for not calling it 'retirement.'
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