Tuesday, November 25, 2014

10 Ways I Am Trying to Raise White Male Allies

After the expected but disheartening news that Officer Darren Wilson will not be indicted in the death of Michael Brown, a friend reposted this article from August on 12 Things White People Can Do Now in Reaction to Ferguson.

Upon thinking about this, I've decided that I would like to add some things white parents can do to help raise allies. Because unless and until America as a whole is willing to stop and look long and hard at our ugly ugly history, improvement will be incremental at best and we can expect nothing better than each generation doing slightly better than the one before. Knowing this, I want to be intentional in raising my kids to be both feminists and black allies.


These are 10 things that I do or plan to do to that end:

1. I have taught LO the word "agency" and I try to use it regularly.
Whether he is being too rough with our dog or is trying to hug his little brother when BB wants none of it, when I correct LO's behavior I try to explain that the object of his affection also has agency. I want LO to grow up with the understanding everyone has the right to their own body, and that right trumps LO's wants.
2. I talk openly about race.
Several years ago, I read the book Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. One of the important points they talked about was the fact that our kids are sponges. They see that race makes us uncomfortable, and since we don't talk openly about it, they draw their own conclusions. And generally that means they internalize racist attitudes because we don't shine a light on those attitudes in our society and ourselves.
Talking openly about race is SO HARD. As is the case for many whites who are nervous about being allies, I am afraid of causing offense or saying something insensitive or being clueless. But it's much better for my sons to see me say that I'm uncomfortable because of those things, and that I am willing to apologize and listen when I am wrong, than for me to remain silent and have them learn only from my silence.
3. I let my boys watch The Daily Show, John Oliver, and other media dealing with issues of race and gender with me.
There is a part of me that is ridiculously pleased that LO knows Jon Stewart's name. And that's not just because Jon Stewart is one of my heroes for consistently calling out hypocrisy. I'm also pleased that LO likes to watch my shows with me because I know that he is being exposed to the issues that I care deeply about.
This might be a controversial parenting decision, considering the adult language and jokes on The Daily Show. But I don't have an issue with my children hearing salty language, and I know that the jokes sail over their heads. What I know my child is seeing when he watches this kind of media with me is that I care deeply about speaking truth to power.
4. I let my boys see my reaction to current events.
On the day that Robin Williams died, I cried in front of LO and told him that I was grateful for a very sweet and funny man.
As I have rewritten a great deal of my childhood over the past month because Bill Cosby is not the man we all thought he was, I have let LO see that I am upset. He does not know more than the fact that a man I admired has disappointed me, but he does know it has made me sad.
In the aftermath of Michael Brown's death, I would tell LO when he asked that I was sad because something unjust had happened.
My little boy is four years old and I tailor my explanations to his ability to understand. But I don't protect him from my shock, sadness, and anger as terrible things happen in the world. He needs to know that injustice and violence affect all of us.
5. I apologize to LO and BB when I am wrong.
This Sunday, I overslept and had to hurry to get to our Temple's Religious School (which I teach and LO attends) on time. LO was in a bad mood and threw a tantrum when I tried to get his coat on. I don't deal well with time crunches, and I yelled at him.
In the car, after I had calmed down, I apologized to LO for yelling. He told me he really does not like the yelling, which of course pierced my heart. I asked him if we could work on it together. He tearfully agreed.
Not only do LO and BB need to see that I am fallible, but they need to understand that everyone is fallible. Being able to apologize when you are wrong is an important and difficult-to-master skill, particularly when coming to the understanding that you were wrong is painful. It's much easier to double down on your wrongness. I want LO to learn to listen when he is wrong, so I am trying to model that behavior.
6. I proudly call myself a feminist.
This is both easy and hard for me. I am happy to self-identify as a feminist. But I am also loathe to bring attention to myself in public.
For instance, I worked as a volunteer at Planned Parenthood when I was in high school (a fact which I often keep to myself, even though I'm proud of it and it was a wonderfully eye-opening experience.) The workers there once gave me a tee-shirt with Rebecca West's quotation: "People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat." I never wore it for fear of being called on it in public, even though I believed it whole-heartedly.
In our home, I call myself a feminist. I am working on doing so in public, as well. If I want LO and BB to self-identify as feminists and allies, that's what I have to do.
7. I tell the boys what I am grateful for every night.
As Janee Woods points out in the article that inspired this one, the twin pillar of racism is economic injustice. (And I would opine that financial abuse on both the micro and the macro scale is one method of keeping women submissive.)
I personally feel that the opposite of economic injustice is gratitude. When those of us who have plenty recognize our plenty and are grateful for all the goodness in our lives, we can let go of any resentment we might feel about how much others are receiving. Those who are angriest about the poor collecting government benefits or earning higher minimum wages are often afraid that they personally will have less if others get more. The only way to recognize the fact that economic justice is not a zero-sum game is to stop comparing. Being thankful for what you have brings serenity for yourself and allows you to be more compassionate to others.
For that and other reasons, part of my bedtime routine with the boys is telling them three things for which I am grateful every. single. day.
8. I (try to) listen when LO is sad.
While I love the Reasons My Kid is Crying blog, and I enjoy the absurdity of what can throw a small child into an existential-level nuclear tantrum, I also try very hard to remember that my sons' feelings are valid and should be listened to. His feelings matter, even if he's mad because the dog just ate the food he held out to him.
Just because a child's world and interests are different from an adult's does not make that world and those interests invalid. Learning that they are welcome to feel their feelings will help LO and BB understand that no one's feelings should be belittled.
9. I will teach LO and BB our full cultural heritage.
As is common in Jewish tradition, both LO and BB are named after relatives who have passed away. BB's middle name also commemorates an important Jewish engineer who was the father of the Corvette. I love this naming tradition, because a child's very name is the beginning of the story of their heritage.
But in addition to the lovely stories from our family and cultural heritage, I will be sure to teach the boys about unpleasant aspects of our family history, our religious history, and our American history. As with current events, I will tailor these lessons to the kids' ability to understand and take in. But I want them to know the full story of how they came to be living in the world we inhabit.
 10. I try to be the best person I can be.
J and I are the boys' first teachers. They will learn more from us than from anything or anyone else. And what they are learning--from every interaction and every observation--is how to be an adult in this world. Though I fail often, I want to be a mensch in all things. I hope to provide an example to my kids in how to be a good person who is compassionate, strong, committed to justice, and able to look at ugliness without flinching.
These are just the strategies that I have come up with. What have I missed?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Whatever Happened to Cliff Huxtable?

When I was between the ages of about 5 and 7, one of my favorite things to do on rainy days was to ride my bicycle in circles around my father's apartment while listening to some of Dad's comedy records. While part of me can't believe Dad let me do this (although I understand anything that keeps a kid occupied and out of your hair on a weekend is a good thing), I mostly have nothing but pleasant memories of this circular pastime.

Dad owned several comedy records. It was from him that I learned my love of standup. I remember listening to George Carlin (again, I can't believe he let me do that!) and Steve Martin. But by far, my favorite comedian was Bill Cosby.

Like many an 80s kid, I saw Cosby as a kind of additional dad. His humor, his clean non-cursing curses, and his slightly patronizing demeanor were all dad-like, and my own father and I would laugh together over his descriptions of chocolate cake for breakfast and thinking his name was Jesus Christ.

But Bill Cosby wasn't just a standup. He was Fat Albert, too. And he drew the Picture Pages--the theme to which I can still sing despite not having thought about it in 25 years.

Mostly, though Bill Cosby was Cliff Huxtable. The every-father in the 80s. Rudy's dad and Elvin's father-in-law and Theo's dad and Clair's husband and Russell's son. He was part of the family I grew up with in 30-minute installments once a week. I can recall his living room more clearly than I can remember details of the apartment I once rode a bicycle around in endless circles.

I know that Cliff Huxtable is fictional.

What I now realize is that Bill Cosby is, too.

The man I thought I knew--the one who loves children and pokes fun at himself and works tirelessly to improve the image of blacks in America and tells charming stories about childbirth and sledding and exacting revenge with a snowball--he was a carefully constructed fiction. Nothing more than a mask.

Underneath that lovely every-dad visage lies a monster.

***

I had heard the allegations about Cosby for years.

In 1997, not long after his son Ennis was tragically murdered, a woman named Autumn Jackson extorted Cosby for money, claiming to be his daughter. She was not, although he had had an affair with Jackson's mother. 18-year-old me was non-plussed that my fictional TV dad had cheated on his beautiful wife (who I imagined as looking like Phylicia Rashad since I had never seen a picture of her.) But I was mostly disgusted with Jackson for trying to extort a great man who was in the midst of a terrible grief.

In 2005, I learned as little as I could about Andrea Constand and her allegations of rape. I didn't want to know. Plugging my ears and singing was easier than looking underneath the every-dad mask.

In 2005, I changed the channel when Tamara Green went on The Today Show and claimed that Cosby drugged her and sexually assaulted her years before I was born. I was too much of a feminist to say (even to myself) that clearly these women were just trying to bring down a titan of our times. I would never say that or even think it. But this was my TV dad they were talking about! It was easier to just let the information quietly slip out of my head.

Now it is 2014, and there is no denying the awful truth: my beloved fictional dad is a rapist.

I have read Barbara Bowman's piece for The Washington Post. I have heard Cosby's refusal to engage with questions about the allegations. I have seen the Cliff Huxtable mask fall to the floor, and I am heartbroken.

***

When Robin Williams committed suicide back in August, I was overwhelmed to learn of his clay feet. Learning of the devastating strength of his depression, in a man so capable of giving joy to others, was a terrible lesson for all of us. I mourned for him, even though I never knew him.

But.

But!

Mr. Williams' clay feet hurt no one but himself. He lived and died gently, angry at himself but loving toward others. I can remember him fondly and be thankful for his life and legacy. His memory will always be a blessing.

Bill Cosby, on the other hand, lied to me. He lied to all of us. He created a false face of gentleness. A loving and lovable image of what a perfect father should be--when underneath there is something wrong with him that allows him to believe he has the right to women's bodies.

I am so sad and so angry. Although the violation against me and all the other individuals who loved the Cliff Huxtable face is nothing compared to the violations he committed against the dozen plus women who have come forward, I still feel incredibly betrayed.

My memories are tainted now. Many of those memories include my real dad who is gone and unable to make new ones with me. And I can't apologize to the man who I might have sometimes wished was more like Cliff Huxtable.

Dad was the real deal, through and through. Bill Cosby just has excellent makeup.

I circle around and around this issue, wishing I could apologize to the women Cosby assaulted for my part in ignoring their plight.

I'm sorry I held onto Cliff Huxtable for so long. He was such a lovely dream.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Memory and Its Codas

In 1985:

I stand in the kitchen of my father’s apartment at Carriage Hill. I am about six years old, my sister impossibly older at nine. Dad has bought a treat for us. A strange red fruit that cannot be eaten in your hands like an apple or a peach.

“Pomegranates are ancient,” Dad tells me as he cuts into the fruit, staining his hands with the purplish-scarlet juice. “They’re the reason we have winter every year.”

He plucks a handful of seeds from the center and hands some to me. I suck out the sweet/tart juice, then roll the seeds around my mouth.

“No way,” Tracie says around her own seeds. She is used to Dad’s stories. He once told us that there were cockroaches in Texas that were big enough for a toddler with a saddle to ride on, and he promised to build a kite with a seat that Tracie could fly on. She has earned some skepticism.

“Well, that’s what the Greeks said,” Dad says, pulling apart the rest of the pomegranate. “The goddess Demeter, who was in charge of the harvest, had a beautiful daughter named Persephone. Hades, the god of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone and stole her away one day while she was picking flowers. Demeter was so sad that she made it winter all the time.”

I look down at the juice stains on my fingertips and wonder if Persphone’s flowers were the same color. I imagine beautiful pomegranate-colored flowers growing out of the snow.

Dad continues, “Zeus, the king of the gods, convinced Hades to give Persephone back, but Hades had tricked her. You see, if you taste food while you’re in the underworld, you have to stay. Persephone had been so sad she didn’t want to eat. But Hades convinced her to eat three pomegranate seeds. That was enough to ensure that she had to go back to the underworld for three months every year. Guess when those three months are?” Dad asks.

“Winter!” I shout excitedly.

Dad nods, his smile crinkling the sides of his face. “While Persephone is in the underworld every year, Demeter pines for her daughter and makes it winter.”

I reach for more seeds from Dad’s hands. Now I know that this fruit is magical. I suck out the juice from the tiny seeds, marveling that something so small could imprison a goddess.

In 2008:

I am teaching high school English at an insular little school in Central Ohio. The kids can be tough and I am always stressed. But I love teaching Greek mythology to my 9th graders.

I have assigned each student a different god or goddess. In my third period class, the girl who was assigned Persephone (or perhaps it was Demeter) brings in a pomegranate to share with the class while she tells the story of her goddess. We have a difficult time cutting open the fruit with the only implement I have on hand—a plastic butter knife. I get juice all over my hands and on my shirt. The stain will not come out.

That evening, I call my father.

“Dad, do you remember the first time you gave us a pomegranate? You told us the story of Persephone.”

He doesn’t recall. One of the many parent/child interactions that simply disappear from the memory of one or the other or both. It reminds me that you can never tell what will stick in a child’s mind, which is why you have to try to always be the person you want your kids to remember.

He does have an opinion, though. “I think there is something about how dramatic it is to open up a pomegranate for the first time. It looks like a fruit from an alien planet. Maybe that’s why you remember."

I think back on the sawn-in-half pomegranate on my desk at school and agree with him, even though I know it was the story that stuck with me.

In 2014:

I see a display of pomegranates in the grocery store. I stop to look at them, wondering if each and every one represents someone's grief. Each seed a month without someone they love. Each prolific fruit representing years and years of loss.

I pass by the display without putting any of the fruits in my cart.

Pomegranate image courtesy of Fir0002 from Flagstaffotos

Saturday, November 8, 2014

More LOisms

Last night, LO asked J if he wanted to sit next to Mommy.

"Yes, I'd like to sit next to Mommy," J replied.

LO grinned and said. "I'm sorry, Daddy. She's sitting next to me."
After swimming the other day, LO was so cold that he just threw his (white) towel over his head and snuggled in. One of the instructors said that he looked like a ghost. In good Scooby Doo fashion, I asked him if he was a "g-g-g-g-ghost."

"I not a g-g-ghost!" he shouted, his voice somewhat muffled by the towel. "I'm LO!"

***

Several times, I have tried to help LO with any number of activities which he is certain he can do himself. After forcibly removing me the vicinity, he will stop what he is doing, turn to me, and say very solemnly, "Mom. That was Not Good."

***

LO's mispronunciations warm my heart. Here's a partial list:
  • jamamas for pajamas
  • smokesnacks for smokestacks
  • bumerella for umbrella
  • chicken for kitchen
  • bunt for button
Theoretically, I should be correcting him (per his speech therapist.) But I just can't bring myself to. It's too dang cute.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Enough

I recently read the book Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. The authors spend a good portion of the book discussing the idea of enough in terms of material possessions.

That's because there is a phenomenon economists refer to as hedonic adaptation: basically, the sheen comes off of any new experience or material item, which means we easily adapt to any betterment in our circumstances (or worsening, for that matter.) This is why it feels awesome to drive your new car off the lot, but your delight in your car generally fades sooner than the new car scent.

I love the idea of determining my enough point, as Robin and Dominguez suggest. I want to have enough to be comfortable and contented--and I want to leave anything more than that unbought/uncollected/unexperienced/uncluttering-up-my-house. It's an excellent way to live without waste or guilt.

But I've been thinking about enough in another context, as well.

You see, since my dad passed away, I've been thinking more about what happens after we die. I'm a pretty stubborn and hard-headed rationalist, and I simply cannot make myself believe that there is any kind of survival after death. It does not fit with my world view to believe that a sense of self can survive the death of our bodies.

In normal life, this is not anything I spend any amount of time thinking about. It just is, there in the back of my head. I agree with Roger Ebert: "I do not fear [death], because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state."

Several times after I have lost someone I loved, I actually thought of death as a kind of gift--a kind of contented oblivion that ended my loved one's pain.

But Dad is different. I miss him. I miss him like hell. I wish I could believe that I will see him again someday--but I just can't believe it.

So I was turning this over in my head, along with Your Money or Your Life's idea of enough when the answer hit me: if you live so that your life is enough, it doesn't matter what comes after. You have enjoyed enough.

That realization was incredibly comforting. I can certainly live so that I enjoy every drop of the life I'm granted. Squeeze out the joy and the wonderment, take the time to snuggle and run and pursue my passions, and love whole-heartedly and completely. Enough is within my grasp, no matter how many or how few years I get to spend on this earth.

But even though I draw comfort from the idea of getting enough in my own life, it still seems like my dad got cheated out of his enough. He didn't get to meet BB. His granddaughter, my niece Little Cousin, will not remember him. LO, his eldest grandchild, will only have hazy memories of his Grandpa. When Dad was diagnosed with the glioma that took him from us, he told me that he just wanted to live long enough so that LO would remember him. His life wasn't enough.

And when I think about the long, wonderful lives in front of LO and BB, and about J, I want more than enough for them. I want abundance and overwhelming joy. I want their cups to spill over.

Sometimes, I find myself on a thought merry-go-round, where my worries spin round and round, with no relief in sight. Why did I have this epiphany about living your life as if it's enough if I am still hurting over what's not enough for those I love?

An important realization crept up on me during all of this wheel spinning. It wasn't like my sudden enough epiphany. It came slowly, as I thought about the people I've lost and the people we've all lost:
I don't get to decide what is enough for anyone but myself.
And with that understanding, I was relieved of the worry. I don't know if Dad got enough. Only he knew. I don't know if my boys and my husband and my family will have enough. That is up to them.

All I can do is worry about my own enough and hope that it will help to show them the way.
These guys are definitely enough. More than.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

I've Failed as a Second Child Parent of a Second Child

I am the second of two, which means there are very few pictures of me prior to preschool, at which point people other than my parents were in charge of recording my childhood.

Now, to be fair to my parents, there aren't a whole heckuva lot of pictures of my older sister, either, but they definitely outnumber pictures of me.

As the second of two, I am very sensitive to any feelings BB might have about being an also-ran. Though I knew that I was absolutely loved and adored by my parents, there are certain aspects of coming second that can rankle when one is a child.

Despite this knowledge, I seem to have already muffed it.

For instance, as you might be aware, yesterday was BB's first birthday.

We have a tradition with LO where I take a picture of him every year on his birthday at the exact moment when he was born. This tradition started because I happened to be up at 6 a.m. on LO's first birthday, and I love the idea of having a whole collage of these photos.

The trouble is that LO was born early in the morning, and I tend to be an early rising type to begin with.

BB, on the other hand, decided to make his entrance at 13 minutes to midnight on Friday the 13th of September, 2013. He gets extra credit for flair, but minus points for arriving at a time of day during which I am pretty much never awake.

See if you can notice a difference in the quality of LO and BB's first birthday "time-of-birth" photos:
6:17 a.m. on August 31, 2011
11:47 p.m. on September 13, 2014
Other than the fact that LO's picture looks like it could have been taken by Annie Leibovitz and BB's looks like a still from a poorly lit "found footage" film, there are further differences. For one, I have about five photos of LO that I took during the minute between 6:17 and 6:18 that first year, whereas I snapped two hasty pictures of BB with my phone last night and crawled back to bed without even looking at them.

Of course, my photographic failure is not my only BB birthday misstep. There is also the issue of cake. When LO turned one, he got a mini layer cake on the day of his actual birth, and then he got a smash cake/giant cupcake on the day of his birthday party.


LO and BB celebrated with a shared birthday party last Sunday, meaning BB did enjoy his smash cake (and he got to eat it/smear it in his hair, too).
However, I somehow made no plans for a birthday treat for his actual natal day. (Since I am not to be trusted with cake in the house, we took LO out for ice cream on his birthday day, and I simply did not think about what we would do for BB's birthday.)

Last night, upon realizing that I really could not let the child have an actual first birthday without something sugary and delicious, I decided to make brownies.

Then I realized I was out of eggs.

No matter, I found this recipe which would allow me to create a chocolate masterpiece of brownie deliciousness with no need for unborn chickens.

Then I realized I was out of flour.

Okay, I figured this was why g-d invented food processors, and I pulverized some oatmeal into oat flour.

Then I realized I was out of vanilla extract.

This is the point at which a lesser mom would give up and just stick a candle in some applesauce and call it done. Since I was also out of applesauce, I soldiered on. (And apparently maple syrup is an excellent substitute for vanilla extract.)

So, a good 45 minutes after BB should have been in bed, we were able to give him his birthday treat of more-substitutions-than-you-can-shake-a-stick-at brownies, which he enjoyed immensely, even though he kept trying to "drink" it out of the bowl we served it to him in.

(In case you're wondering, we got no pictures of that.)

Happy birthday, BB! I hope you know that I'll always be willing to fake/make some brownies for you, even if I never get the photographic evidence your brother enjoyed.