Changing for the better

silence-quote

Hey, there. It’s me.

It’s a new year, that time when we all make promises to ourselves to do things better, to make different choices, to improve ourselves. Some call them “resolutions.” I prefer to think of them as goals.

I generally make several goals as the year changes. Almost every year, for example, I set a goal to be more organized. Mixed results on that one. Sometimes I tell myself I’ll work out more. Again, mixed results.

This year, I’m pledging to speak out.

It’s been a while since I’ve written in this space. I can make up all sorts of excuses, but they don’t matter. I just didn’t write.

This year, I’m pledging to write about the things I’m speaking out about.

Here’s why:

I’m a Democrat. I’m a liberal. And I was – I am – an unabashed, unapologetic Hillary Clinton supporter. I like Hillary Clinton. I wanted her to win. I donated money to her campaign. I slapped a “Clinton-Kaine” sticker on my car and planted a “Clinton-Kaine” sign in our front yard.

And I was so convinced that Hillary Clinton would win that I ignored all the signs that pointed otherwise – the anger of those who supported Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the fear among many whites of immigrants and minorities, the hatred of a certain segment of the American population for the Obama family and liberals in general.

I lived in a bubble, as so many of my fellow liberals did. I felt like a country who could elect Barack Obama twice could never elect someone like Donald Trump. And I truly thought that people would not vote against their own best interests.

But I didn’t speak out. I let others lift their voices, but I didn’t speak out. I didn’t want to hurt the feelings of my friends and relatives who are more conservative than I. I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable around me, although I felt very uncomfortable when they spoke untruths about the Obamas and Clintons. I didn’t speak out.

So when Donald Trump won the Electoral College and it seemed like hatred suddenly oozed from every crevice in America, it felt like a punch in the gut. I never saw it coming.

And when people I know and like and maybe even love laughed at my visible discomfort and told me to “get over it,” it hurt. It hurt. How could someone find delight in others’ pain? And how could someone who did ever be or have been my friend or relative? It hurt like hell.

Had I treated my more conservative friends in this manner when my candidate won in 2008 and 2012? I didn’t think I had.

So I didn’t speak out before Nov. 8. I’m not deluding myself into thinking that had I engaged more I could have changed the election’s outcome. But I didn’t really do much to effect that outcome except vote.

But starting today, I’m making a change.

I will speak out against intolerance and racism and xenophobia and hatred and bullying and just all around meanness. I will speak out against these things when I witness them. I will speak out against these things so that I can stand in solidarity with those who are disenfranchised and mistreated and look differently than I do and come from different backgrounds and places. I will speak out so that my children know that bullies will not prevail in our neighborhood, in our town, in our state, in our country, in our world.

I will speak out so that I can sleep at night knowing that I tried to make a difference. And I will speak out in this space as often as I can because that’s one small thing that I know I can do to try to make the world a better place.

Some folks who read this blog might be offended. They might stop reading. I hope they don’t because I think we need to try to understand other points of view. You don’t have to agree, but you should be able to respectfully listen to someone’s ideas and viewpoints.

I invite civil discussion and want to hear what others have to say. If you’re one of those readers who disagrees with my views, I invite you to stay but understand if you can’t or won’t. If you leave, I’ll be sad.

But I won’t stop speaking out.

Please stick around.

 

Advertisements

Elf, Schmelf

It’s 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 22, and what am I doing? Making a list of everything I need to buy to pull off our annual family Christmas morning brunch (well, after I write this missive, of course.)

I know I’ll be scrambling to find everything I need at this late date, but screw it – I’m a linear thinker, and I can only handle one crisis at a time.

Every night since I don’t know when has found me baking something or photo shopping something or ordering something or going to a holiday performance of something. That’s why there are no wrapped presents under the Christmas tree but why it looks like Christmas got drunk and vomited all over my house – because when I’m stressed out, I overcompensate somewhere. And this year, it was with the decorations.

So anywho, I’m completely up to my ears in the holiday, which makes me just so thankful that my hubs and I completely and utterly missed the Elf on the Shelf trend.

Not that I’m judging those of you who embrace the whole Elf deal – because I don’t. I absolutely do not judge. No way.

I mean, sure. I’m jealous of your little carefully constructed tableaus of the Elf getting into mischief while he spies on the kiddos to report any of their mischief-making to Santa, the Elf godfather, who apparently will have a sit-down with any kids not toeing the line.

I wish – nay, I yearn – for the time to thoughtfully plan and carry out the whole story line AND to keep my kids’ attention while doing so. That would really be a feat for me. As it is, we cannot even successfully conquer the traditional Advent calendar. We generally quit the whole thing by about Dec. 15 – a little later if it’s one of those chocolate-filled calendars.

elf on shelf
An example of a Christmas failure — it’s Dec. 22, but I’m two days behind.

And who am I kidding? The hubs and I were half-assed Tooth Fairies at best. Sometimes, teeth would be under pillows for entire weeks before the Fairy got around to finding spare change to slip under the pillow.

If we were responsible for maintaining the Elf myth, our kids would have given up on Santa and what have you years ago.

This year, the youngest of our little darlings announced that he no longer believes in Santa. As is our custom, my hubs and I neither confirm nor deny such suppositions. Our mantra is that, “If you don’t believe, you don’t receive.” So to my knowledge, the 19-year-old has yet to declare himself Santa-free. And it might be that the youngest is testing us, as is his wont.

I generally take a “less is more” attitude with my children on these matters and others of a delicate nature. As adults, we want to delve deeper into their questions and give them well-constructed answers when most of the time, they just want something more superficial.

I might be in the minority, though, judging by conversations I’ve overhead among younger mommies lately, as they worry about what to say when their second-grader’s best friend stops believing in Santa, or whether perpetuating the Santa story constitutes lying to your children.

That last one sometimes comes from folks who are wearing themselves out setting up their blasted Elf on the Shelf in fantastical poses every night.

Seriously, people? You’re worried that going along with a centuries-old story about a dude that visits children around the world once a year on Christmas Eve, delivering presents, is lying, but you’re OK with moving a creepy elf around your house and pretending that he spies on your kids and narcs on them when they’re jerks, as kids often are at this time of year?

So, yeah. I’m stressed out and way behind on my baking and wrapping and only half-way through this bottle of wine. But I’m raising a glass to the hubs and me and giving us a fist pump for eschewing that elf.

 

A tale of two sons

Display_with_Racist_Quote_from_Murderer_of_Emmett_Till_-_National_Civil_Rights_Museum_-_Downtown_Memphis_-_Tennessee_-_USA
Display with a racist quote at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. (Credit: Adam Jones, Ph.D. (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

Today marked my oldest child’s first day of college classes.

I intended to blog about my ambivalent feelings, sending my firstborn into the world, how I’m happy for him that he’s chasing his dreams but sad for myself because his departure means that a certain phase of my life has passed.

Over the summer, my mind raced, trying to decide if my husband and I had imparted all the wisdom we needed to give him to make it on his own.

But today, as I ruminated on those themes, it seemed like so many first-world worries. Woe is me, the white suburban mom sending her privileged kid to college, while across the state the mother of another 18-year-old boy was planning a funeral.

A Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot Michael Brown on Aug. 9, a Saturday. That day, my husband and I were helping our 18-year-old son, Joe, pack for college. That night, while Michael Brown’s family grieved, my parents and inlaws joined us for a special send-off dinner for Joe.

On Monday, Aug. 11, we packed Joe and our other two kids into the car and headed for the small liberal-arts college a few hours away, where Joe now is a freshman. That was the day Michael Brown was to have started classes at Vatterott College, a technical school in Ferguson.

Two 18 year olds. Two young men on the cusp of adulthood. Two sets of parents.

Two very different stories.

At times like this, I am intensely aware of my whiteness.

My husband and I chose to raise our children in a neighborhood that’s less affluent than some in the Kansas City area, among families who are not all white and middle class. We’re smugly proud of that choice and quietly judge those who flee the urban core and inner-ring suburbs for the greener pastures of exurbia.

But are we really much different? We still enjoy certain privileges that come merely because our skin doesn’t have as much melanin as that of others.

The advice I gave my son as he left home was so pedestrian. It was along the lines of making sure he doesn’t mix reds with the whites when he does laundry and to ask for tutoring help as soon as he has questions about what’s going on in class.

I’ve never had to sit either of my sons down and tell them that people are going to be afraid to enter elevators if they’re the only ones in there. I doubt many people will cross to the other side of the street if either of my sons walks down it.

I don’t have to impart to my sons the lesson that if the police stop you for any reason, keep your hands visible at all times. And God forbid you’re wearing a hoodie.

As I watched coverage of the ongoing problems in Ferguson today, I realized that I didn’t send my son out into the world with those words of advice because it’s likely he’ll never encounter any situation in which he’ll have to use them.

I don’t know if Michael Brown robbed a convenience store early in the day on Aug. 9. If he did, was his killing justified? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

This is what I do know – he was 18. He was starting life, just as my 18 year old is. He had dreams and aspirations, just like my boy. He had a mother and father, just like my son. He had a life.

And now he doesn’t.

Miss Invisibility

Last week, while we were on vacation, my young adult niece jokingly told me she doesn’t think she’ll live past 30.

Now, I think her comment was mostly aimed at inspiring shock, but I think there’s a little bit of truth in it – as in, she can’t imagine what it’ll be like to be 30, which seems half-way to dead to her.  I mean, she’s just echoing her grandparents’ generation, in which youngsters vowed to never trust anyone over 30.

And she made me think, because I’m decidedly over 30. Way over.

And then I was reading this book during our trip, and a middle-aged character described herself as reaching the age of invisibility – she’s there, but no one notices. She’s not young and beautiful anymore, and she doesn’t inspire the awe that the longevity of senescence does. She’s just…there.

That’s how I feel much of the time these days.

Not that I was ever a raving beauty. And I’ve certainly not reached hag stage (unless you talk with my teen-age daughter.) But I’m definitely feeling invisible.

The week before vacation, I had a bunch of errands to run. And one of these was partaking of a sale at a well-known store that specializes in ladies’ unmentionables, if you know what I mean. Victoria’s Secret, if you don’t.

I’m definitely not the VS type – maybe if I were, I wouldn’t be so invisible. But they do have really nice underwear that is a particularly good buy when they’re on sale. So I dashed in there between trips to Old Navy and Bath and Body Works to grab the 5 for $26.50 panties.

I was the store’s sole customer that Monday night. I wandered for a bit, looking for the aforementioned panties. All I saw wherever I looked were various other items of lingerie at ever-increasing price points. Not a salesperson in sight.

Finally, I happened upon a couple of VS clerks near the PINK merchandise , deep in a discussion about the finer distinctions between 54th Street Grill and Bar and Chili’s. I cleared my throat and looked appealingly toward them. Nothing.

In another room, I found another young clerk, humming to herself as she straightened out a table of thongs (not the sandal kind.) She never looked my way as I, the store’s only customer, walked past on my way to the table of 5-for-$26.50 panties I’d finally spotted.

For a good 10 minutes, I pondered my choices – patterned or plain? Hip-huggers or high-waisted? Regular bikini or low-rise bikini? No one bothered me.

Finally, selection made, I headed for the cash register. A tall blond in her early 20s glided over. Never making eye contact, she asked me if I’d found everything I was looking for. I assured her I had. Then she asked – again, never looking at me – whether anyone had helped me.

“Not a flipping person” was what I wanted to say.

“Nope” was what I ended up responding.  And that sealed my fate as an invisible person as Miss Congeniality put my receipt in my little pink-striped bag and pushed it toward me.

It might not be all bad, this invisibility thing. Today, I saw a young woman, the daughter of an acquaintance, in a store with her new husband – the one she dumped her previous husband for. For some reason – I just like watching train wrecks, OK? – I wanted to know what they were buying. So I began perusing the items on their aisle. And they never noticed me. Never even looked my way. It was awesome.

So, yeah. Middle age sucks in so many ways. Stuff is starting to sag. I will never, ever be able to eat an entire medium pepperoni pizza ever again. I have to measure everything I ingest – even my wine – in order to attempt to maintain my weight. Don’t even get me started on why it is always SO FLIPPING HOT in here.

But this invisibility thing…I definitely could use this to my advantage. Stay tuned.

When a bully isn’t a bully

Something’s been bugging me, and I’ve got to get it off my chest. And it’s going to sound crass at first, so hear me out before you start calling me insensitive.

I’m not sure there really is a bullying epidemic.

I know, I know. Just about every morning of the world, you can probably find a news story on television about some horrific incident linked to bullying. Kids have started cutting themselves, committing suicide, committing mass murder – you name it – because they’re the victims of bullies.

I’m 100 percent sure those kids were bullied. I’m not debating that.

What I do question, though, is the statistic put forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that one-third of kids in the sixth through 12th grades has been victimized by bullies.

Bullying is defined as repeated aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power. So what that means is that the bully is perceived as being more powerful than the victim, and the aggression happens again and again over time. This aggression can happen at school or at home, with relative strangers or family members. Some of the worst cases of bullying I’ve seen involved parents bullying their own children.

But during the last few years, as I’ve worked among elementary students as a social work student myself and now as a psychotherapist, I’ve noticed a pattern: Kids who have normal, everyday interpersonal conflicts with other kids claim that they’re being bullied. And I don’t always think that’s the case.

I think “bully” is a victim of its own success. Children and parents are so familiar with the term now, so well-versed in the horrific tales of bullying gone wrong, that they view any kind of disagreement or conflict as bullying. And that, I think, is wrong-headed.

Take, for example, an older elementary student I worked with last year. He was somewhat socially awkward but had some friends at school. However, he often didn’t perceive when he overstepped his bounds and intruded into other students’ space. He would get excited and impulsively hug his friends, or take a game of tag too far and tackle another student instead of merely touching his arm. When the student he hugged or tackled asked him to stop – sometimes not in the nicest of ways – he would run to the teacher on the playground and claim he was being bullied. In time, his cries fell on deaf ears, and he earned the reputation of a whiner who cried foul when things didn’t go his way.

I found it extremely difficult to work with this kid because his parents backed him up. They referred to his being “bullied” and never pointed out his own role in instigating the behavior of the other children. I was perplexed about how to help the child see the pattern of his behavior and his misuse of the word “bully.” Time and again in our weekly sessions, I attempted to challenge his use of “bully.” We talked about how friends act, how he wanted his friends to act, and how he could be a good friend to others. The child used all the right words, but he couldn’t differentiate between bullying and just plain not getting along well with others.

And there is a difference. We all have people who rub us the wrong way, people who routinely disagree with everything we say. Maybe we’re the cantankerous ones who always disagree. But when your co-worker doesn’t like you or disagrees with something you say in a meeting, does that mean he or she is bullying you?

Not in my book.

As a parent, it’s easy to assume our children are the ones being singled out for being different, being picked on by mean kids, being made fun of. Sometimes those things do happen. And when they happen routinely and are perpetrated by kids who hold power in some way over our own, that’s when our kids are being bullied.

But when our children, in course of their growing-up years, run into folks who think differently, who act differently and who don’t think our kids are the greatest things since the iPhone, they are not being bullied.

Instead, they are learning to live and deal with other people who are different from them, and that’s a valuable life lesson that I think too often goes by the wayside in this era of the bully.

It’s quantity, not quality

Way back in the misty, far-away time that was my early 30s, a slightly older friend gave me a bit of sage parenting advice.

I was debating whether to spend an upcoming holiday schlepping my little preschoolers to a fun family-oriented festival at the art museum or to let them run through the sprinkler while the hubs and I putzed around the yard and caught up on some chores.

I didn’t want to waste the day off, I explained, and I could make the case that I was with either of those scenarios.

“It’s quantity, not quality,” my friend said, turning on its end the parenting mantra of the day. (He was also locally famous for this assessment of our local Labor Day street fair: “The gene pool’s pretty shallow there.”)

Quantity, not quality. That flew in the face of everything I had strived for during my first five years of parenting, when I worked long hours as a newspaper reporter and my children spent their days in daycare. Back then, I slept little but threw the most outrageous birthday parties, if I do say so myself. Only now do I realize that the princess birthday party with the homemade castle cake and the pirate birthday party complete with a treasure the hubs and I buried were symptoms of my overfunctioning.

I wasn’t around much, but by golly, when I was on, I was ON!

But by the time my friend suggested short spurts of quality weren’t enough, I was already past that stage. I had quit my full-time job a year before because I wanted to slow down and spend more time with my kids. And pretty quickly, I had realized that the days were l-o-o-n-n-n-g-g-g when you had to figure out something to do with a 3 year old and a 4 year old every.Single.Minute.

So a year in, I was running out of ideas. I feared I’d become one of those mommies who watched soaps all afternoon (they still were on then,) cracked open a cold one around 4 p.m. when Oprah came on and let the neighbors worry about my kids.

Quantity, not quality. What did it mean?

I really wasn’t sure, but I kept it at the front of my mind when I began stressing over whether I was enriching my children enough. Should I be teaching them to read instead of reading to them? Should I enroll them in a kiddie cooking class instead of baking cookies with them? What about signing them up for Ceramics for Children instead of letting them just play with the Play-Doh at the kitchen table?

Quantity, not quality.

And then we had a third child, and I really didn’t have as much time for my neuroses because the older two entered school. And life got busier. And frankly, the birthday parties became quite a bit less elaborate. And “quantity over quality” faded from my mind.

Until a few weeks ago, when I was driving my daughter, younger son and a niece home from the mall. My daughter and my niece began talking about a mutual friend who had been in their Girl Scout troop.

“Wait a minute,” my son said to my niece, “you were in Girl Scouts?”

“Duh,” she said.

“Why aren’t you still in it?” he asked.

Before she could answer, I piped up. “Because she had the worst leader ever. Didn’t even like kids, really.”

Then my daughter spoke up. “Mom,” she said, “you were our leader.”

“Exactly,” I said.

And then…

“I thought you were a good leader,” my daughter said. “I loved it when you were our leader.”

I was so stunned I almost hit the car in front of me.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked, flooded with memories of the dread I felt each week as I prepared for the Girl Scout meeting, my panic when the cookie money didn’t add up, the sore on my tongue from the many times I had to bite it to keep from snapping on a hyper kid.

“Yeah,” she said wistfully, “it was great. We had fun. I always thought you planned fun stuff.”

Quantity, not quality. My friend was right. 

Santa’s white? Yeahhhhhhh, right!

Megyn Kelly, your little mind is wrong. It has been affected by the pea-brained ideologues with which you surround yourself at Fox News.

You claimed a week or so ago on your show, “The Kelly File,” that Santa, along with Jesus, is a white man. You said it was a verifiable fact that we all just need to accept – kind of like acknowledging that if your dad and granddad went to Yale, you’ll go there, too, regardless of how you score on the SAT.

I’m not even going to touch the Jesus comment, but I’ll let you do the math, Megyn.  Jesus was born in the Middle East, and by all accounts (and by all I mean the Old Testament,) his mother’s people were from the same general area. And his Dad’s peeps – well, I mean, his Dad was God. So it’s pretty safe to say that Jesus looked more like Omar Sharif than Orlando Bloom (yes, I know Omar Sharif is Egyptian, but you get my point.)

Image
Omar Sharif in his younger days

And I know that rationally, Santa Claus no doubt is white. He’s from northern Europe, right? Well, not so fast, Ms. Smartypants Kelly. St. Nicholas, the third-century bishop who lived in a small town in Turkey and who is Santa’s forebear, was Greek. He no doubt looked like this ancient painting of him:

Image
St. Nicholas

So, yes. He looks a little like Omar Sharif, too.

Not black, I know. But closer than the lily-white, red-suit-wearing jovial red-cheeked Santa from the Clement Clarke Moore poem and whom you, no doubt, invoked in scolding writer Aisha Harris for pining for a black Santa.

I’m here to set the record straight. Yes, Megyn, there is a Santa, and he (sometimes) is black.

One December day in 1979, my family drove north from our little town in southeast Missouri, searching for snow on our way to my grandparents’ house. In tow we had my 16-year-old cousin, a Florida native who wanted to see snow for Christmas. No luck in our part of the Midwest, so we headed north.

We stopped in St. Louis to show my cousin the big city and to see the lovely decorated windows at downtown stores like Famous-Barr and Stix, Baer and Fuller. At Famous, we set out to find Santa. My younger sister was 7, my older sister a jaded 15. I was 11 and still a believer.

Famous-Barr’s Santa held court at the end of a winding path through Candyland, full of toy trains and beautiful automated displays. As we inched nearer, I remember, my heart pounded, wondering if this was the year I’d get that coveted Tuesday Taylor doll whose scalp swiveled, allowing her to change from blond to brunette in seconds.

When we hit the front of the line, we hit a fork in the road. A nattily dressed elf asked whether we wanted a photo with Santa, and my parents declined. Not sure why – maybe we’d already seen Santa elsewhere. But when we said “no photo,” the elf pointed down one hall and said we could find Santa there.

So we filed down that hallway, turned a corner and went through a door and came face to face with Santa – a black Santa.

I remember the look on his face – utter surprise. Maybe that was aimed at us, because I’m sure the faces of my sisters and me (and maybe my Florida cousin, too,) registered complete and absolute shock.

We lived in a southern town where sharecroppers still existed. Black people and white people didn’t live in the same parts of town. They didn’t even go to the same churches.

Yet there we were, three little white girls and their Florida cracker cousin, climbing onto Santa’s lap and telling him our Christmas dreams.  It was just like all the other times we’d sat on Santa’s lap, only this time, Santa looked like Flip Wilson instead of Mickey Rooney.

So that was that. We promised to leave cookies for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph and bid Santa good-bye. He told us to be good.

And we were. And I did receive the Tuesday Taylor doll, who took up residence in the sorority house that was the Barbie Town House in my room.

And I frankly forgot the incident until recently, Megyn, when your ignorance caused my brain to cough up this memory.

So yes, Megyn, there is a black Santa Claus. And probably a Latino one and an Asian one, and maybe a redneck one, for all I know.