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
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