Today's post might provide a little inspiration for your 2013 vacation, much as editor Alexis Rizzuto received for her outdoor adventures.
At this time of year, I start pulling out maps and guidebooks and poring over my lengthy—and always growing—list of outdoor trips I want to take. (My document slugged “Trip Ideas” is now 11,855 words long.) There are two reasons: First, to make those big dream trips happen, you have to think, plan, and dream months in advance. Plus, the planning is almost as much fun as taking the trip.
Here are my 10 favorite family adventures at The Big Outside (another list that will keep growing and evolving), to help give you some ideas and inspiration for 2013. All have a story and photo gallery, and most also have a video. In a couple of weeks, I’ll share my list of 10 all-time favorite adventures at The Big Outside, domestic and international, that are not necessarily for families—although there are definitely trips that could be on either list (and there’s no overlap between the two lists).
Here’s wishing you an adventurous 2013.
Campsite below Zoroaster Temple, along the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.
I visited Minnesota to meet folks involved in the same-sex marriage debate. I
was inspired by the amount of energy that people were devoting to the cause,
and to emphasizing dialogue and conversation instead of shouting and slogans.
thing we’ve learned is that a lot of Minnesotans (and Marylanders,
Washingtonians and Mainers) are sincere in supporting equal rights for gays and
lesbians and simultaneously sincere in their misgivings about same-sex
marriage. Yes, there are absolutely-sure people on both sides, but there are
also a lot of people sincerely in the middle. If you’re one of those people, I’d
like to share some of what I’ve learned as someone involved in this issue for
several years now—and as someone who married my same-sex partner in New York a
First, I want to say that I get it. I
know many people in the gay community who say that if you don’t support
marriage equality, then you must be a bigot or a homophobe, but I know that
that isn’t true. I know plenty of people who are sincerely concerned about the
consequences of same-sex marriage for their communities and their values—and
some of them are my friends. So this is not about bashing people who disagree.
(Of course, it’s also true that there are some
bigots and homophobes out there, too. But I’m not really speaking to them,
because they’re not interested in what I have to say anyway!)
To those sincerely wrestling with this
issue, I offer four points to consider.
1. Your church
will never have to hold any kind of wedding it doesn’t want to.
Polls have told us that the number-one
concern of “undecideds” is that their church, pastor, minister or rabbi would
have to officiate a gay wedding if marriage equality passed. Let me be clear as
a lawyer and a religious leader: This is absolutely 100-percent false. In every
state with same-sex marriage, there are “ministerial exemptions” and other
protections that ensure that this will never, ever happen.
There’s also the U.S. Constitution. The
exact boundaries of the First Amendment have been debated since it was passed
223 years ago, but every justice on the Supreme Court, and every judge on every
federal court, agrees that no church can be compelled to solemnize a wedding
(or baptism, or funeral) that it finds religiously objectionable. It’s way, way
beyond the pale of the law.
Unfortunately, anti-gay zealots have
deliberately distorted this issue. They have taken a small handful of
borderline cases and twisted them beyond their meaning, or warned of a “coming
storm” that will happen in the future. This is misleading, and it’s led to
confusion. But it is a fact that no church will ever have to perform a same-sex
wedding if it doesn’t want to. Period.
2. You’re right
to be stuck on the word “marriage.”
Another thing we’ve learned in Minnesota
is that a lot of folks support civil unions for gay couples but not marriage.
Why? Because the truth is that “marriage” is a religious term. The state has
taken it over, but the word, the concept, is religious. It’s true that this
debate is about civil marriage, not religious marriage, but it’s also true that
the word “marriage” itself is derived from religious concepts.
The real problem here isn’t same-sex
marriage; it’s the state deciding what marriage is in the first place. Many
people, religious and secular, liberal and conservative, have argued that the
state has no business deciding what “marriage” is. The state should just issue
a civil union license to everyone and leave it to churches and other
institutions to solemnize marriages.
In my opinion this is a good point. The
trouble is that “marriage” is the word we use right now. It’s how the state,
and our communities, recognizes families. It’s how we decide who gets to visit
their lifelong partners in the hospital or leave their property to their loved
ones. More importantly, this is the word we use to decide which families count
and which don’t.
If we as a society want to change that,
fine. But in the meantime, there’s a group of people—around 5 percent of people—who
are excluded from being counted as families because of this definition. Unless
we’re going to change the whole system, that isn’t fair.
So if you’re stuck on the word “marriage,”
you’re right. It is a word that comes from religious traditions. But words take
on new meanings all the time, and this is one of them. That’s what we’re voting
on now: not the original, religious meaning but this new, secular one. It
really is a different question.
3. Marriage has
I know that two men getting married may
seem like a huge, radical break from a tradition as old as the Bible, but it
isn’t. In fact, the tradition has always changed.
For a start, let’s look at the Bible
itself. Biblical marriage wasn’t monogamy; it was polygamy. Abraham had two
wives; King Solomon had a whole harem. And that’s just the beginning. In
biblical societies, when you conquered another group, the victorious men would “win”
their defeated foes’ wives as part of the spoils. Is this “traditional marriage”?
But let’s not stop there. Right up
until the 20th century women were considered the property of their husbands—something
the Bible explicitly states. Until the 19th century girls were married off at
the age of 12. Is that “traditional marriage”?
Of course, let’s also remember that in
some places, interracial marriage was seen as a “crime against nature” up until
the 1960s. In the 19th century African Americans weren’t even considered fully
human. As revolting as it is to even remember this fact today, some people at
that time would have considered interracial marriage a marriage between a human
and an animal. Is that the “tradition” we’re protecting here?
Thank God we have come a long way. Our
society doesn’t treat women as property. All people are seen as fully human,
equal in the eyes of God and the state alike. But getting from point A to point
B was a radical change—no less, I submit, than including gay couples in the
institution of marriage today.
Gays and lesbians aren’t trying to
change marriage. We’re trying to join it. And marriage itself has grown and
changed as long as the institution has been around. Yes, this can seem like a
big step, but look where we’d be if we hadn’t taken such steps in the past.
4. It really is
about “separate but equal.”
Finally (and I think this point will
probably be the one that carries the day in Minnesota), this really is about “separate
but equal.” Slice it, dice it, see it from every perspective, but at the end of
the day this question is about whether your gay uncle or the lesbian in your
church is a real person, to be treated fairly or not.
Let me speak from my own experience.
When our families and friends gathered to celebrate our wedding a year ago, and
when the state recognized it, they were affirming us as human beings. We are
people, and our love is real. The joy in my mother’s face revealed the pride
any mother would feel at her son’s wedding. And yes, it mattered that it was
Civil unions fulfill the legal
technicalities of marriage, but we all know that separate can never be equal.
Anything less than marriage tells gay people that they’re second-class
I really do understand the complicated
religious questions that same-sex marriage brings up, but make no mistake: A
vote for so-called “traditional marriage” is a vote against the dignity of gay
and lesbian people. It is deeply hurtful and deeply unfair. And unfortunately,
there’s just no getting around that.
A person’s sexuality isn’t some kind of
choice, a vice or a psychological defect. It’s a part of who they are, and the
diversity of sexualities is part of the incredible diversity of nature. The
question now is whether we can open our hearts to those who are different from
us, and whether we can see them not only as God’s children but as God’s adults:
fully human, deserving of respect and thankfully blessed with love.
By now everyone knows there are four same-sex
marriage ballot initiatives coming up next month. Minnesota’s is the
old-fashioned kind—a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Maryland
and Washington will vote on whether to keep from going into effect legislation
passed last term allowing same-sex couples to marry. In Maine, voters will
decide whether to enact marriage equality by popular vote; if it passes, it
will be the first state to grant marriage equality this way. Three years ago,
Maine voters rejected a marriage equality law passed by the legislature.
Of course I hope the Maine initiative is
successful (and that the other measures fail). But I am deeply troubled by an
apparent switch in focus by the campaign for marriage equality. According to
Thursday’s Los Angeles Times, the
campaign manager of Mainers United for Marriage, Matt McTighe, reports that
campaign volunteers going door-to-door talking to voters “talk less about gay
rights and more about marriage as a stabilizing force in society.” In other
words, this fight for marriage equality is less about equality and more about
But what does it mean to sell same-sex
marriage because marriage is a stabilizing force? If we denominate
those who marry the virtuous ones, then those who don’t marry must be
de-stabilizing. I have never understood how this can be a pro-gay message, when
up until recently there have been no same-sex marriages but there have been a
whole lot of long-term same-sex relationships, with and without children,
contributing to civic life and their communities. The gay rights message can’t
be that we think those families were a de-stabilizing force on society because
they weren’t married. So the message must be a dig at heterosexuals who don’t
marry, and that’s the same message right wing organizations use when they blame
single mothers for all our social problems, thereby displacing responsibility
from the income inequality, inadequate education system, race and sex
discrimination, and lack of public support for childrearing that really cause
our nation’s problems. (For more on this, read one of my early blog posts here.)
Long-time marriage equality opponent David
Blankenhorn got a lot of attention this past summer for his conversion to
marriage equality supporter. In a recent video opposing
Minnesota’s constitutional amendment, Blankenhorn explains that he dropped
his opposition because opposing gay marriage was not helping achieve his goals
of having “society renew its commitment to the marital institution” and having
more children grow up in stable two parent homes. In his New York Times
piece explaining his conversion, he called
for a coalition of gay and straight people who want to “strengthen marriage.” And
he tells us what that means. His agenda is: people should
marry before having children and should marry rather than “cohabit.” He
also hopes this coalition will agree that children born from assisted
reproduction should have a “right to know and be known by” those who donated
the semen or eggs that resulted in their birth. (He calls those people “their
biological parents,” but I am more critical of using the word “parent” in this
context.) So by his account, same-sex couples should not live together until
they marry; should not have children unless and until they marry; and should
not use anonymous sperm or egg donors to procreate. With friends like that....
I’m not saying that Mainers United for
Marriage believes those things. But consider its name. Not Mainers United
for Marriage Equality, or even Mainers United for the Freedom to Marry. Mainers
United for Marriage. If you didn’t know otherwise, that could be the name of a
group opposing marriage for same-sex couples, because, after
all, those groups say they are for marriage. I, on the other
hand, am for equality. And proud of it.
I empathized with the issues he faced—I’ve also felt ambushed by racist imagery when reading classic children’s boReadoks to my multiracial child—and I was sympathetic to his viewpoint.
But ultimately, Marche just seems flummoxed by the problem. “How am I supposed to explain to a child the superimposition of cultural generalizations onto toy cars and monsters and space aliens?” he writes. “I can barely explain it myself.”
Neither can I, really. But I think Marche is much too quick to dodge tough questions about kids and race. His bottom-line answer seems to the question in the title is, “Don’t—don’t read racist books to your kids”—and if you do, to excise racist language and imagery. I saw this response echoed by followers on Twitter when I shared his piece.
The trouble with this answer is that it assumes books are either racist or they are not—and if they are, the solution is to simply ignore them. But as a parent and as a journalist who covers scientific research into the roots of prejudice, I don’t believe that’s the best plan, in reading or in life.
Some books, like The Story of Little Black Sambo, are obviously too explicitly racist to bother reading, but since those are often out of print and off library shelves, they are the red herrings of this debate. Because the truth is that there are many very good children’s books which are, like people, often a mix of the bad and the good.
Take the Little House series, for example—wonderful stories that my wife and I have read aloud to our son since he was five. A woman born in the 19th century and raised on the American frontier, Laura Ingalls Wilder, wrote these books. They are the product of a time and a place, and we are reading them across a span of time that makes the stories strange to us.
Thus there are portrayals of African and Native Americans that seem stereotypical; many of the characters in the books are casually, bluntly white supremacist in their attitudes. In one passage in Little Town on the Prairie, for example, Laura’s father—a good man—participates in a minstrel show with grotesque racial caricatures, and Laura refers to the performers as “darkies.”
At the same time, however, there are elements in these stories that confound our own stereotypes of the time—characters like the African-American doctor, based on the real-life George Tann, who saves Laura, her family, and her neighbors from malaria in 1870. A black doctor treating whites in 1870? Who is, indeed, the only doctor—and likely the most educated man—in the region? In the narrative, Laura notes his race but doesn’t dwell on it. Tann is less strange or unexpected to her than he might be to us. This is part of the value of reading old, classic stories—discovering how people of past times lived and saw the world, and taking the good with the bad.
But even granting that reality, the question remains: How do we help our children navigate obsolete racial attitudes and stereotypes that will, if internalized, hurt their ability to navigate multiracial 21st-century America—and even hurt them, if they are kids of color? Here are three tips, largely distilled from the Greater Good anthology I co-edited called Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology. Each one arises from scientific research, but I’ve put them to the test in my parenting, messy and imperfect as that is.
1. Openly discuss the existence of race and racism.
Prolonged exposure to people of different races helps reduce anxiety—this is the famed “contact hypothesis,” and the reason why it’s very good to raise children in multiracial environments. But it might be even more important to openly identify and discuss feelings about people who are different from us, to make ourselves conscious of kneejerk responses so that our conscious brains can take over and regulate unconscious bias. Children can be trained to do this from a very early age—teaching impulse control is, in fact, fundamental to childrearing. This is just one more example of that.
How is that insight operationalized in my parenting?
Long before our son was exposed to ambiguous racial imagery in books like the Little House series, we read him children’s books about black, Asian, Native American, and Latino history, especially ones that show how non-White peoples were treated at different times in American history. These include Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s trilingual Pie-Biter[Editor's Note: McCunn is also the author of A Thousand Pieces of Gold, which was published by Beacon Press], Diana Cohn’s ¡Si, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can!, Richard Michelson’s Across the Alley, and Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series, which does a pretty good job of dealing with race and racism in historical context. Each of these books reveals, to some degree, the realities of racism, while also giving children heroes—people throughout history who have struggled against prejudice.
This, I hope, is the framework my mixed-race son brings to encounters with yellow menace imagery in the old comic books that I love reading to him. And when we encounter a “slant-eyed, Oriental mastermind” (to quote one old comic of mine), I stop, close the book, and tell him that image is a product of prejudice, and that I think prejudice is wrong. I try to answer any questions he has. Then I re-open the book… and keep reading.
2. Emphasize our capacity to grow and change.
Speaking of comic books: Ever hear of the superhero team Thunderbolts? They’re a group of Marvel supervillains who are trying to reform themselves and put their powers to use in saving the world. I love the Thunderbolts—as well as other morally complex comic characters like Wolverine, Catwoman, Silver Sable, and more—because they reveal an essential human truth: few of us are pure good or pure evil. “Good” people can do bad things, and “bad” people can do good things—and perhaps become a force for good in the world, no matter what bad they did in the past.
That message is completely consistent with neuroscience. This is a message readers hear again and again in our anthology Are We Born Racist?: “Research consistently shows that we can override our automatic associations through our behavior, and can even unlearn our automatic associations with enough practice,” writes co-editor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton. “Thus we’re not simply either egalitarian or prejudiced; egalitarianism is a learned skill.”
This is a message kids need to hear—not just when it comes to countering prejudice, but in all areas of life. Psychology calls it the “growth mindset,” and its message is simple: You will grow and you will get better with practice—and so will other people. When we encounter Oriental masterminds in the comics of yesteryear, I emphasize to my son that what was OK then is not OK now. I often connect this process of change to the political activism we’ve read about in other books, like Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins.
These moments are also excellent opportunities to develop empathic skills, which both scientific studies and common sense say can help reduce bias. We can, for example, ask how it might make black people feel, to be told they couldn’t eat or drink in certain places, just because they were black—or to see the minstrel shows like the one in Little Town on the Prairie.
“To understand prejudice and the brain,” writes psychologist David Amodio, “one must take the brain (and the mind) for what it really is: a survival machine.” It’s designed to search for threats, which could come from people outside the tribe. But it also evolved to negotiate complex social interactions and to override automatic impulses. “The brain cannot be anti-racist, per se, because it never stops spotting differences and sorting people into categories,” writes Amodio. “But it is pro-goal—and if the goal is to make judgments without regard to race, the brain can do that, though it may take a bit of effort and practice.”
The point is that we should encourage children to adopt fairness as a goal, and to not reject people just because they look different—and reading a children’s book with racist imagery and ideas provides an excellent opportunity to reiterate the importance of that goal. And in this, we are again helped by evolution. As we report every week here at Greater Good, many, many studies have suggested that human beings are wired for altruism, compassion, and empathy. Group identification can limit those qualities and prevent us from extending them to people outside the tribe, but that’s no reason to throw up our hands in defeat. The challenge—and the opportunity—is to provide our kids with the messages and the social environments that elicit their natural impulses for fairness.
Even if human nature is not quite the ally I hope it is, the basic point stands: We have to ask our children to adopt fairness to all people as a goal, and to call out unfairness when we encounter it in one of their books, movies… or inside ourselves. Research says the more explicit we are with children about that struggle, the better. We’ll overcome racism by talking about it, not ignoring it.
For every childhood summer as long as I can remember, my family went to visit my grandparents in a bucolic mountain town in upstate New York. To my brother and I, this was roughly equivalent to a yearly prequel to heaven. Almost every morning, we two boys would tag along behind our grandfather, like a couple of rollicking puppies, as he walked down the hill from his house, across the railroad tracks, and down into the deep woods along the river.
My gramps was a fierce-looking man with a thick shock of white hair, who wore workingman’s clothes and long johns even in hot weather. His pocketknives, and all his tools, were stropped to a lethal sharpness at all times. His temper could be equally sharp. My brother and I feared him as much as we adored him, as if he were one of those alarming Old Testament prophets glaring out of some ancient family Bible.
Once we got down to the river, the air would be loud with birdsong, you could smell the dank rush of wild water, and the old man would periodically kneel before some odd disturbance in the mud and the grass, trying to puzzle out the mystery of what had taken place there the night before. Though he never really talked it very much, it was my beloved “grampie,” Earl S. Krom, who taught me to love the woods.
When I first encountered William Temple Hornaday, while doing the research which would eventually lead to Mr. Hornaday’s War, I was struck by how much he reminded me of my grandfather. In fact, my memories of grampie became a kind of magic door into the personality of Hornaday, bringing him alive, as if he were rising up like Lazarus out of those dusty archives of his letters and papers at the Library of Congress. By the end of the nearly two years I spent working on this book, Hornaday had become so vivid that I could practically smell the sweatstained collar of his hunting shirt, after a couple of days afield. I could almost hear his voice, both the bombastic shouting voice he used in public, and the sweet, confiding whisper he used in his private letters to his wife Josephine, who remained the love of his life for sixty years.
Hornaday was very much a 19th century man, born on a farm in the Midwest in 1854. My gramps was also a 19th century man, born on a farm – everybody was born on a farm in those days – in 1889. Neither one of these men were the least bit cuddly, modernized or “metrosexual” (at least, not in public). In fact, they were both cranky and cantankerous in the same sort of way; difficult, ornery, intimidating. Both men were fundamentally at odds with this world in many ways – though my granddad mostly just grumbled, and Hornaday actually left the world profoundly changed from the way he found it.
Most of all, both men seemed to come alive when they were outdoors, in some remote hunting camp, close to the sound and smell of mud, bark, moss, leaves, boot leather and wild nature. Hornaday, who spent much of his very public life wearing a suit, once wrote Josephine that “if you should actually see me when I come from hunting when out in the jungles, I fear you would refuse to even look upon me again… It shows a depraved taste, I know, but it does my heart good to wipe everything on my pants.”
But, like all of us, both Hornaday and my grandfather had their shortcomings and blindnesses. I particularly remember one day when my grandfather brought along a .22 rifle on our walk down to the river. Usually he carried nothing more than a walking stick or a berry pail, but on this particular day he was armed. And when he spotted a big owl in a shade tree down by the river, he laid the gun on a fencepost, aimed, and – to my absolute amazement -- squeezed off a shot. Luckily, he missed, and the owl went silently winging off, like a gigantic moth. But for years afterwards, my brother and I were both astounded by this. If you saw something beautiful, why would you shoot it?
Because, if you grew up on a farm in the 19th century, that’s what you did. That was the 19th century view of the nattural world. Though my grandfather loved the woods, he also believed that certain “varmints” -- hawks, owls, crows, woodchucks, snapping turtles and any number of other living things -- deserved to be destroyed. And, of course, nature was considered to be a limitless resource: If you shot an owl, a thousand more would appear to take its place. (These attitudes are hardly confined to ancient history. As recently as the 1950s, if you shot a bald eagle in Alaska, you would not only not be fined or imprisoned, you’d get a bounty from the state government. That’s because people thought eagles were destroying the salmon fishery, and killing lambs. According to one Alaska historian,120,000 bald eagles were killed in Alaska’s bounty program before it ended in 1953.)
These were the kinds of attitudes Hornaday also grew up with, but which he spent fifty years of his life fighting to change. (Yet even Hornaday himself, the great conservationist, was not free of such notions. Based on studies of the contents of their stomachs, he believed both the sharp-shinned hawk and the Cooper’s hawk deserved to be destroyed, because of their special appetite for domestic poultry.)
One key difference between my grandfather and William Temple Hornaday was that Hornaday not only changed the world, he also changed himself. As a young man he was a specimen collector, rifleman and taxidermist, who brought down more than his fair share of birds and game. But as he ranged further and further into the world’s remotest places – Borneo, the Malay penninsula, the Orionoco – he began to realize that even in these far-flung places, wherever wild nature made contact with human habitation, birds and animals were in full-scale retreat. And if the natural was in peril in Borneo, the entire natural order, everywhere, was at risk. Hornaday saw this long before most other people did, and as a result his attempts to educate the public were often bitterly contentious. People – especially hunters – just didn’t believe him when he said that birds and game were in grave danger.
My granddad, much as I loved him, never really changed. He never really saw that his predatory relationship to that owl in the tree would have to change if the complex web of nonhuman life on the planet was to be kept safe. Still, he did bequeath to me a love of the wild things and wild places that has carried through to this day. And for that – as well as his injunction that I always keep my pocketnife sharp -- I will always be thankful.
We are babies, toddlers, children, teenagers. We are young people, flirting with option and opportunity. We explore, winnow, commit, arrive. We settle on an acceptable version of ourselves. For ten, or fifteen, or even twenty years, we believe: I am this person; this person is me. Then one day, we turn up middle-aged. This surprises us. We begin to make adjustments, attempt to match our inner and our outer images. We realize that we’re growing—damnit—old. Soon enough, we are really old, and—if we are lucky—ancient. And yet we don’t feel ancient inside—because all those people we have been—well, they won’t go quietly.
As a writer, I am obsessed with the rag-tag parade that lasts a person’s lifetime. I want to know and memorize all those past, present and future variations—in myself, but especially in others. I love the process of sharing stories, for in stories, we meet the selves we cannot see—lined up single-file, in the lives of new friends. Sharing stories, we remind old friends that we once were young—or at least, younger. Sharing stories, we keep the memories—and all our human variations—alive. If we are doubly blessed, there may be people in the world who can tell us stories of our childhoods, and children in our lives who will one day ask us to tell them about the day they were born.
Still, over-linking our identities to our stories has its downside. What happens when you can’t remember the stories? With the loss of memory, are those versions of ourselves disappeared?
My mother—who was diagnosed with a combination of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease—taught me that it is possible to forget who we once were—and even to forget who we are now. But while an organic brain disease may prevent the remembering, it doesn’t halt the parade of selves. Even as her disease progressed, my mother emerged anew. For a time, her humor carried an edge. Her moods were volatile, and she was prone to angry outbursts—directed mostly at me. But she could not sustain the anger when she began to forget what—or who—was making her mad. In time, my mother emerged from a chrysalis of fear, confusion and anger to become a chatty, smiling social butterfly. She grew lighter; losing track of her old selves, she was free of bad memories and troubled times. She laughed more often--that same, full-throated, honest laugh she laughed when I was a kid. The laugh I can still hear.
My mother, at that point, could be prompted to recall her early variations, and taking a cue from her forgetting, I told her stories of good times, reminded her of former glories. She would smile, nod, express admiration for her younger self and her achievements, which were not inconsiderable. Remembering is what I did for my mother—not just the big life-event sort of remembering, but the putting-on-a-coat-because-it’s cold outside remembering, too. It’s the second kind of remembering—because of the second kind of forgetting, that is actually harder on everybody.
Early in my mother’s journey into Alzheimer’s, I fought for her memory, concerned with all those past, now-lost versions of the woman I knew. In time, I gained some altitude—a new perspective and a kind of grace. I learned to live life her way: moment to present-moment.
“It’s a blessing,” unthinking, well-meaning people told me, when my mother passed away, “that she died while she still knew you.”
I would give up recognition for a living, pain-free, forgetful mother any day. I’d be willing, every day, to spin the yarn of her own life for the woman who always loved a good story.
Like many mother-daughter relationships, ours was complicated. I did not love all the versions of my mother equally; yet I hope to honor all her selves when I remember them. But there’s something else my mother taught me—late in her life: forgetting them is okay too. I need not watch the parade. It feels great to sit with your eyes on the person in front of you. And sitting with my mother, knowing she had lost so many pieces of her life, so many memories of her former selves, I came to believe there is something permanent—or at least something transferable—that we carry with us. Something beyond the memory of our variations, beyond the sum of our experiences, beyond what we can express. Maybe, if we live with care—for ourselves and for others—we might manage to hold onto the metaphor we call our soul. May my mother’s rest in peace.
Our national conversation about equality for LGBT people can often be, well, nasty. Opponents of "gay rights" routinely compare us to perverts, accuse us of horrible things, and deny our very existence. Meanwhile, to many religious people, gay folks really do threaten their understanding of the proper relationship of religion and society, morality and social order. It can be painful on both sides.
Yet I want to suggest that this debate is good for us as a society, and good for religion, specifically. As more religious communities, especially conservative ones, recognize the existence and humanity of LGBT people, they are forced to engage in the sort of critical thought and introspection that makes religion worthwhile in the first place. This is a good thing.
We grow as religious people through an unlikely combination of courage and humility. It takes courage to question one's opinions, and humility to recognize that we may not be as right as we thought. As St. Paul says in I Corinthians 13:11, "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me." We're not meant, religiously speaking, to remain as ethical babies. We're called to something more than that.
All of us who make religion or spirituality part of our lives are accustomed to the process of introspection. Whether we attend confession, or review our lives as part of the annual cycle of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or have heart-to-heart conversations with Christ, or enter periods of contemplation and discernment when we try to understand what course of action is the right one, or engage in any number of other procedures of self-examination and review, those of us involved in religious communities or spiritual practice are invited, time and again, to look inward.
We are even asked to reflect on our reflection. After all, introspection is not entirely interior in nature. Our hearts and minds are informed, saturated, even, by the values we learn from our sacred traditions and the world around us. We all know this to be true, which is one reason so many believers choose to separate themselves from the world at large. But do we acknowledge the depth to which it is true? Even on a gut, instinctual level, our very hearts and minds are shaped by assumptions and judgments that may be so familiar that they pass unnoticed. And these assumptions are culturally determined: show a picture of a dog to someone born into a Western society, and they may think "pet," and possibly feel affection. Show the same picture to someone born into some traditional Asian societies, and they think "food," and feel hungry.
Notwithstanding all the common-sense advice to "trust your gut," really, our guts are not trustworthy at all and must instead be tempered by love and reason. All animals have gut reactions, after all. But only humans (and perhaps a few others, in more limited ways) are able to reason beyond them. The "gut" may contain intuition and wisdom, but it's not the sum total of humanity. We are blessed with the ability to rise beyond our gut reactions -- as some religious traditions put it, we have sparks of God within us. (Or, as some neuroscientists put it, we have pre-frontal cortexes that can mediate the impulses of the amygdala.) And we all know from experience that we can feel something in our gut and still be wrong. The process of educating the moral conscience, of growing up religiously and ethically, is, in large part, the process of applying love and reason to what we think we already knew. Love teaches us how to think justly.
This is how moral progress takes place, I think. We learn to stop trusting the gut reactions based on falsehoods we've been taught. And it is one of the gifts that our national wrestling with the question of equality for LGBT people gives to each of us. It is an invitation to be uncomfortable, because discomfort is a sign of growth; it's a sign that you've reached your learning edge, where assumptions may be challenged and difficult lessons may be learned.
Let me share a bit of my personal story for a moment. I was raised to believe that being gay was about the worst thing in the world. Before I even knew what a "faggot" was, I knew I didn't want to be one, because it was what you called kids you wanted to degrade -- "Gay Jay" was the one name that I'd try to beat someone up over. Eventually, I learned what these words meant, and, years later, that they did in fact apply to me. My first response? Horror, terror, hatred, denial. I postponed coming out, for fear that it would end my religious life and alienate everyone I knew. I tried desperately to evade the truth myself. And why? Because I felt in my deepest guts that this way of intimate relation was wrong, disgusting, depraved.
Thanks to years of love, activism, therapy, and, above all, meeting hundreds of people who have shown the stereotypes I learned as a child to be wrong, I no longer feel this way. And yet I meet people in my work who are right back at square one, still repulsed by their own sexuality. And I meet devoutly religious people who, indeed, feel that revulsion deep inside... in their kishkes, their guts. It's easy to condemn right-wing loons as ignorant bigots -- but really, how different is what they feel from what I myself felt? I understand their hatred, because I once felt it myself.
And the journey has a way of continuing. One may be comfortable with some gay men, but not with "effeminate" gay men. With lesbians, but not "butch" lesbians. Or not with transgender people. Or not with people who reject the gender binary and locate themselves somewhere in the middle of a gender continuum. And so on. Rather than see this as an unending litany of PC requirements, I want to invite an attitude of joy that there are always assumptions in need of being defeated. Yom Kippur may come but once a year, and confession once a week -- but every encounter with an "other" is an occasion for growth and renewal.
In other words, feeling uncomfortable is a sign that you're where you need to be: working through your "stuff."
Imagine if you didn't do that. In past decades, our country kept racist laws on the books because privileged white people like me felt the rightness of them in our guts. But guts should never be the end of a moral conversation. If religion has taught us anything, it is that there is a moral value in transcending our baser instincts -- and that includes the snap judgments all of us make all the time. At first, and maybe for a while, these corrections along the course of moral conscience may not "feel right." But they are the defining marks of our humanity. Discomfort can be a good sign not just for the individual, but also for entire communities and societies.
I have seen this process unfold hundreds of times regarding LGBT issues. The organization PFLAG, for example -- Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays -- is largely made up of folks who have traveled this journey, from rejection to acceptance to embrace. These are ordinary people, not gay activists and not gay themselves, who once had strongly anti-gay views, for whatever reason, but who were forced to reexamine those views when people they loved came out as gay or lesbian.
This journey is a painful one, but it is also crucial. It is the unfolding of the moral conscience, and it is, in my opinion, humanity at its very best. We should be grateful for it.
Why are adults in their twenties and thirties boomeranging back to or never leaving their parents' homes in the world's wealthiest countries?
Why are adults in their twenties and thirties boomeranging back to or never leaving their parents' homes in the world's wealthiest countries? Acclaimed sociologist Katherine Newman addresses this phenomenon in this timely and original book that uncovers fascinating links between globalization and the failure-to-launch trend. With over 300 interviews conducted in six countries, Newman concludes that nations with weak welfare states have the highest frequency of accordion families. She thoughtfully considers the positive and negative implications of these new relationships and suggests that as globalization reshapes the economic landscape it also continues to redefine our private lives.
"Combining personal interviews with careful analysis of economic trends, and paying close attention to differences in cultural values and political structures, Newman sheds new light on the complex trade-offs that recent changes in intergenerational relationships and residence patterns involve for young adults, their parents, and society as a whole." --Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap
"In this wide-ranging book, Katherine Newman shows that the ages at which young adults leave their parents' homes are rising in developed countries around the world. She brilliantly demonstrates that the global forces behind this change are everywhere the same but that each nation interprets it in its own cultural way. Newman's insightful presentation of the stories of accordion families challenges us to re-think what it means to be an adult today." --Andrew Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today
"With the unerring eye and keen insight that has become her hallmark, Katherine Newman identifies a previously unexamined casualty of the new global economy--the prolonged dependence of adult children on their families. The resulting 'accordion family,' as she calls it, is emerging all over the developed world due to declining job prospects for young people, increasingly expensive higher education, and the increasing costs of living on one's own. The responses to this trend--social, political, and economic--will shape generations to come. Brilliant and important." --Robert B. Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California-Berkeley and author of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future
Katherine Newman is professor of sociology and James Knapp Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, and has taught at the University of California-Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, and Princeton. Newman is the author of ten books on middle-class economic instability, urban poverty, and the sociology of inequality, including The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near-Poor in America.
At my book talks I often show side-by-side photos of my husband and me. In mine, I am getting arrested by campus police at a divestment protest at Stanford University. The police are using a “pain compliance” technique on me, twisting my arm behind my back and pressing my hand over in a very effective wrist-crunch. [Ed's note: you can see this photo on Sophia's web site.] In the next photo, my husband is standing in front of the Oakland Police Department’s SWAT helicopter flashing a thumbs up sign and a big grin.
Perhaps needless to say, our differences run along major fault lines in the American body politic. He is a Republican; I am a Democrat. He is a hawk; I am a dove. He likes Costco; I like food co-ops. He reads military history; I read poetry. He admires Teddy Roosevelt; I swoon for Obama. You get the idea.
I know what most of you are thinking: What do you do when you talk politics at the dinner table? How do you keep things from getting ugly? No, we don’t have a skirmish line running down the middle of our kitchen table. In fact, we talk about politics regularly and very amicably. Of course it didn’t start out that way. We argued a lot during our courtship. A lot. But eventually that got really tiring. And kind of boring. We had to figure out how to share our views or break up. And we really loved each other. So, with some help from a good couples counselor, we stopped arguing and started connecting.
The trick is adopting an attitude not of antagonism but of curiosity. Imagine you are an exchange student exploring a foreign country whose customs and history you would like to learn about. Your curmudgeonly conservative Uncle Frank? He’s Bora Bora. Your strident vegan niece Madison? She’s Uzbekistan.
This idea is not just based on our personal success as a couple but also on cutting edge cognitive science. George Lakoff is a linguist and writer who has come up with a very elegant case for how to explain the differences between conservative and liberal world views in the United States. Each side tells a morality story, with one applying a “strict father” family model (government as father and citizens as children), and the other a “nurturant parent” model. As people relying on a (usually unconscious) strict father family narrative, conservatives value self-reliance above all else. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to believe government should act as a nurturing, supportive parent. They consequently, value empathy above all else.
I think Lakoff is on to something profound. And I’ve found there’s even more. The story of why Uncle Frank cleaves to his political views and why Niece Madison embraces hers is a hidden treasure trove. Each of us has mapped our particular narrative of the world – shaped by all our life experiences and influences - onto political issues, usually unconsciously. This means that when we talk about politics, we are actually talking deeply about ourselves, without realizing it. The very personal story running underneath each person’s political views is the Lost Ark within the Wall of Souls.
You, then, must be Indiana Jones.
You’ve seen the movie. I don’t have to tell you that reaching your goal - uncovering the personal stories underneath political views - involves braving a viper pit. I didn’t say it would be easy or risk-free. But it’s worth it. Because just expressing curiosity about each other’s stories has an almost magical effect of softening our differences. In my sixteen-year relationship we’ve found it to be a tonic for the divisiveness of these times. (And P.S.: it works for other thorny topics besides politics.) Here are some dos and don’ts for budding Indys:
1. Stay grounded and calm. When we feel under assault, our reptilian brain takes over. We can't hear anything. We can't process complex information. We definitely can't listen. If you are upset, take care of yourself until you can be calm. This is not the time to talk to someone of opposing views. Take deep breaths, excuse yourself to baste the turkey, change the subject. For the same reason, do not take the offensive.
If, for example, your cousin starts saying “shame on the Oakland Police Department” and wagging her forefinger in your tired Oakland Police officer husband’s face:
Don’t say, “Oh puh-lease, I am so sick of people ragging on the cops. They get no credit for putting their lives on the line for this city. Why don’t YOU try it some time, huh??”
Try this instead. Put your hand over your heart and take a deep breath. Then maybe you can say, “Those were definitely some disturbing images. I know crowd control is one of the most challenging aspects of police work. It’s definitely scary for me when my honey is on the line.”
If not, there is always, “I think I hear the doorbell ringing!”
2. Be open to looking at something differently, or learning something new. While it’s good to share your point of view, do not do it with the aim of changing the other person’s opinion. Ask for detail. Uncle Frank might say “when I was a youngster, they just would’ve called in the National Guard and run over those hooligans with tanks!” Don’t respond with “Jesus, Uncle Frank, was everybody a Neanderthal back then?” Try this: “Uncle Frank, tell us about some of the protests that went on in the sixties. Did you know anybody involved in them?”
3. Use humor whenever possible. Did you hear the one about the cop and the protestor that got married? Laughter is a great release. I like to tell the story of what happened after my arrest photo was taken. One officer was given the job of driving me to jail. Through the metal barrier, I sang him a lusty version of Jimmy Cliff’s “Peace Officer.” Turned out cops laugh too.
Good luck. Don’t worry if it doesn’t work at first. It gets easier with practice. Plus, the attempt will make a difference. Happy Holidays from this bipartisan family to yours, whatever your political views.
In her new memoir, Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words: Travels with Mom in the Land of Dementia, Kate Whouley strips away the romantic veneer of mother-daughter love to bare the toothed and tough reality of caring for a parent who is slowly losing her mind. In an interview we conducted at Whouley's home on Cape Cod, she recounted some of the lessons she learned as dementia took away her mother's ability to care for herself.
In Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words, Kate Whouley strips away the romantic veneer of mother-daughter love to bare the toothed and tough reality of caring for a parent who is slowly losing her mind. Yet, this is not a dark or dour look at the demon of Alzheimer’s. Whouley shares the trying, the tender, and the sometimes hilarious moments in meeting the challenge also known as Mom.
As her mother, Anne, falls into forgetting, Kate remembers for her. In Anne we meet a strong-minded, accidental feminist with a weakness for unreliable men. The first woman to apply for—and win—a department-head position in her school system, Anne was an innovative educator who poured her passion into her work. House-proud too, she made certain her Hummel figurines were dusted and arranged just so. But as her memory falters, so does her housekeeping. Surrounded by stacks of dirty dishes, piles of laundry, and months of unopened mail, Anne needs Kate’s help—but she doesn’t want to relinquish her hard-won independence any more than she wants to give up smoking.
Time and time again, Kate must balance Anne’s often nonsensical demands with what she believes are the best decisions for her mother’s comfort and safety. This is familiar territory for anyone who has had to help a loved one in decline, but Kate finds new and different ways to approach her mother and her forgetting. Shuddering under the weight of accumulating bills and her mother’s frustrating, circular arguments, Kate realizes she must push past difficult family history to find compassion, empathy, and good humor.
When the memories, the names, and then the words begin to fade, it is the music that matters most to Kate’s mother. Holding hands after a concert, a flute case slung over Kate’s shoulder, and a shared joke between them, their relationship is healed—even in the face of a dreaded and deadly diagnosis. “Memory,” Kate Whouley writes, “is overrated.”
Patricia Harman, Certified Nurse Midwife, is the author of Arms Wide Open and The Blue Cotton Gown. Harman has published in the Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health and the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, as well as in alternative publications.
The exam room is like a confessional; I’ve thought this before, so intimate, patients tell me their secrets.
“So, how you doing?” I ask Verona Jenkins, a 50-year-old high school teacher. Her straight brown gray hair is cut in a bob and she sits on the end of the rose vinyl exam table in her blue cotton gown with two strings in the back, swinging her legs like a girl. She has a few small red varicose veins on her calf, but her ankles are tan and slim.
“Ok, I guess. Better.” This interests me. I have her lie down to check her breasts and her abdomen.
“What’s your stress level lately between 1 and 10?” I smile. “Ten means you are about to check into the psych hospital.”
“It was eleven last year, but I’d say only a seven now,” the patient gives me a short laugh, indicating this is a joke, but not much. That’s when our real conversation begins.
The exam room is also like a classroom, a place where I learn countless lessons, and these women, my teachers.
I study Vernona’s face as I palpate her lower pelvis, “Any pain?” She shakes her head no. Occasionally I find a tender ovary or sore uterus that needs further attention, but more often in these encounters I find pain in the heart.
This time Verona looks right at me. “Remember my exam last year? It was the first time I’d seen you.” I finish her internal, take off my exam gloves and settle myself on the rolling stool. The patient sits up and primly straightens her blue cotton gown. “I was a real mess. My seventeen-year-old daughter was out of control. She’d dropped out of school and moved in with her boyfriend. I was so scared; this was my baby, now out of my reach, running hell-bent toward disaster. She was using drugs, marijuana and ecstasy. She told me right to my face…no birth control. She wanted to get pregnant.”
Verona stops and tucks a strand of her hair behind her ear. “I was so frightened for her. We were fighting all the time, and my husband was no help. He just withdrew into his work, even told me once, if I mellowed out and got off her case, things would be better.”
Verona smiles, lets out her air and wipes the few tears with the back of her hand. I reach over and offer her a tissue. “Better. The boyfriend didn’t last long and she came home. She was treated for an STD at the health department, but never got pregnant, thank God.”
“So, is she back in school and everything alright?” I am waiting for a happy ending.
“No.” Verona tips her head to the side with a little regret. “She doesn’t do much of anything. Sleeps late, watches TV, reads a little; sometimes she cooks.”
I squint. This would be difficult.
“So isn’t that hard for you?”
“At first, it was, but I was just so glad to have her home and safe, I decided to give up on the lectures and just accept her for who she is.” The voice in my head goes quiet. “Just accept her for who she is.”
“And guess what?” the patient goes on. “The other day, the three of us went out to dinner and Kayla said to us, ‘You know Mom and Dad. You are my favorite people. You accept me unconditionally.’ Twelve months ago we were wolverines at each other’s throats.
“Just the way she said it, unconditionally. I knew she had been reading or maybe only watching Oprah, but she was going to be ok.”
Now I have tears in my eyes. Just accept them for who they are. I’ve read of the miracles it brings when you just love someone unconditionally. I do that with my patients, but with my own boys, Zen, Mica and Orion, I must constantly be shepherding, trying, with my wooden crook, to steer them away from cliffs, lead them down into the green valleys. And does it work? No. I just meet resistance.
I write Verona a script for her hormone replacement and give her a hug. The woman can’t know the gift she has given me. Outside the exam room, I place my hand on the cherry wood door, palm open, fingers spread. I look down the carpeted, hall, and seeing no one, bow from the waist.
In honor of Father's Day, we share this excerpt adapted from Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father's Search for the Wild.Tom Montgomery Fate is the author of five books, including the collection of essays Beyond the White Noise and the spiritual memoir Steady and Trembling. He is a professor of English at the College of DuPage in Illinois, where he lives with his family. His cabin is in southwest Michigan.
My son, Bennett, has a fever today and can’t go to school. So I’m staying home with him. As I write this — on my laptop in the family room — he is playing on the floor at my feet. In spite of his illness, he is happily lost amid two gallons of LEGOS, which we just found at a garage sale. Their newness, and the infinite possibilities, seem to enthrall him. He sits rapt on the carpet inventing and quietly talking to himself––as if conferring with another seven-year-old inventor.
Every fifteen minutes or so, after he has clicked a few more of the red, blue and green plastic pieces together, he shows me something. “Look Daddy. See this guy? He’s driving the ship.” Then a bit later: “Look Daddy I put a coffee maker on the main ship. But I put a lemonade maker on the shuttle.” “Which is the shuttle?” I ask, now understanding it was a rocket ship, rather than a sailing ship. “Here. Look!” he says, unhitching a red match-box sized platform from the main ship. A driver sits in a little chair and I assume a green thimble-sized cylinder attached to the back is the lemonade maker. He flies the shuttle completely around the sofa, making a whooshing noise all the while and pausing twice to fire imaginary machine guns at a couple of Hot Wheels cars below him. Then he lands it on my thigh. There he takes the driver out, straightens his legs, and walks him to my knee, which is now clearly a precipice looking out on an alternate universe. An inch tall, the plastic, square-headed man surveys the messy terrain of the family room. “He’s an explorer,” Bennett said. “What kind of explorer?” I asked. “I don’t know. Like a Power Ranger, or maybe an Indian,” he said.
Well, I wasn’t expecting Meriwether Lewis, but the odd contrast of cultures fascinated me, as did the power of Bennett’s raw imagination––all that he saw and discovered in a pile of discarded plastic LEGOS. He was the explorer that most impressed me.
Last week he brought me a red truck to repair. He broke off its wheels while “driving” (bouncing) it down the stairs and then left it on my work bench in the basement. The cracked wheels were plastic and couldn’t be glued or replaced––a lost cause. Or so I thought. “That’s OK. I’ll keep it Daddy,” Bennett had said and carried it back upstairs to the playroom. I see it now on the carpet—a red plastic sled hitched up to a three legged horse with a Star Wars character riding in the flatbed. Luke Skywalker seems to be lashing the horse with his light saber. I’m still not sure why the horse is standing upright, or how Bennett knew that it would. I just don’t see that way.
This feeling, this inability to see, is not new. I used to get it each day when I dropped Bennett off at the preschool at the college where I teach. Because it was a lab school there was a long one-way teaching mirror in the front hallway. Students and parents could look in at the kids without them seeing us––our window was their mirror. But it took me several days to even notice this. I was often in a hurry. After the sign-in sheet, the hug, the nod to his teacher, I usually bolted off to my office with my briefcase to do important things.
Yet one day, on the way out, I paused for a moment and caught a glimpse of my distracted self in the window. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. The kids are supposed to see themselves on the other side. But when I took two steps toward my faint, self-absorbed reflection, it disappeared. My “I” yielded to my eye, which suddenly saw through to the world on the other side, the world I so often just walked by: children sprawled everywhere on the carpet in a kind of wild and holy innocence—working wooden puzzles, reading board books, rocking dolls, singing silly songs. My God, they were delirious with curiosity, and I was thrown into their childhood, and my own, so abruptly that I found myself in tears.
What was it about this window?
I could see the kids, but they couldn’t see me. If they tried to look back at me all they saw was themselves and their own world: Four-year-old Maggie, in pink, glittery slippers and a baggy, green velvet dress and two strings of white plastic pearls, stirred a pan of air on a little wooden stove with a rubber spatula and intently adjusted the dials until the temperature was just right. Then James came running over with a little snake he had rolled from a ball of blue Playdoh and popped it in Maggie’s pan. This perturbed her at first, but soon she began to stir it in and to readjust the dials. Bennett, who wore a black and silver stethoscope, sat cross-legged on the carpet next to Maggie and diligently checked the heart rate of the stuffed green dinosaur he was cradling. Then he tucked it into to a wooden crib and whispered something to it—perhaps a bedtime prayer.
How odd it was to see Bennett but not be seen by him, to be in the same room with him, yet not. When I got up to leave for the office, and was several feet away from the window, I again turned it into a mirror, again caught my dim likeness in the glass. It was then that I finally saw the obvious: I was watching Bennett through the dim reflection of myself, weighing my own childhood against his, the known against the unknown. That’s a hard thing for parents—to stop seeing ourselves in our children. And to stop waiting—consciously or not—for them to demonstrate that one attribute or flaw that would mark them as a part of us. As they get older, I wonder who will be blessed with a modicum of musical or athletic ability, and who might inherit my impatience or depression.
But thankfully, the dimming mirror is also a sparkling clear window.
And I think that paradox was the source of my tears and confusion that day at the lab school. I saw myself in the presence of those little kids and wanted to crawl on all fours back into their world, to dress myself up in their total surrender to the now, and in a kind of vision that could turn LEGOS into spaceships and play-doh into edible blue snakes. When, I wonder, did I first begin to lose my faith in the moment I was living in? When did my life first start to feel like a sprawling “to do” list?
* * *
Like me, my own dad sometimes struggled to see life’s blessings amid its burdens, and to shift from the I to the eye, from self to world. He too could get overwhelmed by work, and the future, and struggle to get back to the present. Or at least that’s how it seems now, in the shadows of memory. But that was all a long time ago. Dad and Mom are close to 90 now. And though they have sharp minds and still swim most days, their bodies are wearing down, as they approach the deepest mystery of all.
Yet, it was just forty years ago that Dad was my age and I was a little kid. And he sometimes picked me up at the lab school in Ames, Iowa, where he was a young pastor with a large church and four sons. I can see him leaning on the chain-link fence on the edge of the preschool playground, watching me play freeze tag on the blacktop with my four-year old friends. And there, in his sport coat and slacks, I imagine him waiting and watching us for a few slow minutes before calling my name, before waving me in—before hugging me, zipping up my open coat, adjusting my hat, and taking me home. Just a minute or two of pause, of revision, before returning to real time.
Maybe it’s because I’m now almost exactly in-between my son and father—forty years older than Bennett and forty years younger than my Dad--that these small moments seem sacred. This morning I’m wondering how my Dad found such moments along the way—amid the chaos of family and church, amid all those sermons and meetings and potlucks. But I’m hoping he did sometimes, while lingering on the edge of that playground. That my little friends and I, in our crazy games of tag and kickball, could, like Bennett did for me, somehow loosen the grip of time—giving him a moment of presence, of prayer.
* * *
By mid morning Bennett is still lost in his LEGOS. I tell him I’m going into the kitchen to clean the floor. He says “OK,” but after about ten minutes he calls in to me, “Where’d you go Daddy?” “I’m in the kitchen,” I say. “O.K.” he says, again seemingly satisfied. A few minutes later he carries in an arm load of Lego spaceships and shuttles and sets up shop on the kitchen table. Soon he is sailing off to other galaxies and planets while I scrub the floor on all fours. It is not long before he flies one of his Lego ships over my head and dramatically ejects the pilot into my pail with a soapy kurplunk! and a squeal of laughter. “He can’t swim! He can’t swim!” I say. Bennett laughs.
The rest of the morning seems to pass quickly, or I barely notice that it’s passing. Bennett keeps drawing me back into his play, and then I return back to cleaning. I know this is “parallel play,” and that I should be fully engaged with him rather than trying to finish my work projects. But this is the best I can do today. And he seems pretty happy. Later, when I get out a sleeve of Ritz crackers and a can of Seven Up, he looks both excited and thankful for the simple snack. “I like staying home with you Daddy,” he says, as he starts to make lean-tos and little towers out of the crackers. “Yeah, I like it too,” I say.
His gratitude startles me and awakens my own. And again, for a brief moment, I can see just beyond my own reflection into a greater presence.
In essays dealing with the purpose and promise of Progressive Education, how students learn best, making schools better places for students, educational policy, and parenting, Kohn calls on parents and educators to rethink our priorities and reconsider our practices.
Kohn repeatedly invites us to think more deeply about the conventional wisdom. Is self-discipline always desirable? he asks, citing surprising evidence to the contrary. Does academic cheating necessarily indicate a moral failing? Might inspirational posters commonly found on school walls ("Reach for the stars!") reflect disturbing assumptions about children? Could the use of rubrics for evaluating student learning prove counterproductive?
Subjecting young children to homework, grades, or standardized tests-merely because these things will be required of them later-reminds Kohn of Monty Python's "getting hit on the head lessons." And, with tongue firmly in cheek, he declares that we should immediately begin teaching twenty-second-century skills.
Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan, and now lives in Tokushima Prefecture, Japan with her husband and two children. She is fiction editor for the popular e-zine Literary Mama, and edits and publishes the literary magazine Yomimono. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a special mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest. She is the editor ofLove You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs.
Whenever I case a new location, look at friends' vacation photos, or watch travelogues, I wonder about wheelchair accessibility. I wondered the same thing on Friday afternoon, watching disaster coverage on TV with my eleven-year-old daughter in Japan.
An hour earlier, when I went to pick her and her wheelchair up from school – the school for the deaf, which is housed in an aging four-story building with no elevator – her principal rushed out to my car to tell me to hurry home. He told me that a tsunami warning had been issued for Tokushima Prefecture. Although we live around 500 miles from Miyagi Prefecture, the scene of the greatest devastation, the deaf school is right next to an tributary of the Yoshino River, not far from the inland sea, and our home is just on the other side of the levee. It seemed like a good idea to get away from water.
As I listened to the sirens coming from across the road, warning people to leave the riverside, my daughter and I watched footage of people scrambling up hills as their houses, cars, and livelihoods were washed away. I couldn't help thinking about how hard it would be to get a wheelchair up that hill - and later, seeing photos of the aftermath, of how hard it would be to push through that debris.
It's not especially easy to get around with a wheelchair at the best of times. There are many restaurants near our house that we can no longer visit as a family because they are accessible only by steps. At the local McDonald's, the Happy Meal display blocks the wheelchair ramp, and the toilet stall is too narrow for my daughter and her wheelchair. Last summer, she and I went by train to a small town an hour west of here for the funeral of one of her teachers. In order to board a "barrier-free" train car in Tokushima City (pop. 264,764), I had to carry her wheelchair up steps to the platform. There was no ramp. And of course there were no wheelchair ramps in the little towns we traveled through, nor at our final destination. I found out later that I could have called for assistance in advance, but it seemed like a lot of trouble. Why not just pour a little concrete?
After living in Japan for 23 years, I've come to understand that along with the capacity for endurance, much vaunted by the foreign press these past several days, and a sense of fatalism encompassed by the oft-repeated phrase "shikata ga nai" (it can't be helped), the Japanese can be characterized by an aversion to meiwaku (being a burden) In other words, no one wants to make trouble. This, I believe, more than a sense of shame, is why people with disabilities are sometimes reluctant to venture out, and why people don't like to complain.
Last week, I discussed these issues with a nurse that I've been teaching privately for the past couple of years who is writing a dissertation on accessibility. This week, we talked about the earthquake. She told me that she had grown up in Miyagi, where over a thousand bodies were found in the sea, and that her grandmother's house in Fukushima has been irreparably damaged. She told me that as a nurse, training in Chiba, one of the shakier cities in Japan, she learned to wrap patients in a sling made of sheets for easy transport. (It takes too much time to get patients to wheelchairs and gurneys.) She said that she could do this in three minutes flat.
Japan is arguably the most disaster-ready nation on earth. Earthquake drills are held regularly at my children's schools. Outside my daughter's classroom – and every other classroom - there is a backpack with emergency supplies. My kids – and every other kid in Japan – have padded, fireproof hoods near their desks. This past week, my daughter has been practicing for earthquakes every day. Her teacher tells me that although at first she dawdled, she is getting faster at crawling under her desk. But her classroom is on the first floor of an old building that still bears cracks from the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995.
I am relieved when I see people in wheelchairs among the evacuees on TV. They made it out alive, in spite of their disabilities. Meanwhile, I am reminded of that great law of nature – sometimes only the fittest survive. One woman who escaped the flood confessed that she couldn't save her elderly parents. In order to live, she had to let them go.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf. She is a leading commentator on British Islam, a columnist for EMEL magazine, a regular contributor to the Guardian and the BBC, and author of the award-winning blog, Spirit21. This post originally appeared on The National website.
"It's fine for me to have a 'love marriage'," the male caller to the radio show said, "but I won't accept anything other than an arranged marriage for my sister."
I was live on the air recently, co-hosting one of the UAE's most popular morning radio shows as part of my invitation to speak at the Sharjah International Book Fair.
We were discussing the fiery topics of love and marriage. Calls and text messages came through furiously as this usually private topic was given a forum for public debate.
The notion of "love marriage" is one that carries a note of unspoken and sinful rebellion across Middle East and some Asian cultures. The open discussion of love, even within the sacred boundaries of marriage, is taboo – especially for women. But we do need to talk about it because the ability to love – our spouses, our communities and the Divine – is what makes us human and binds us together.
My presence on the show and the publication of my book, Love in a Headscarf, challenge the prevailing silence.
I don't advocate mass love-ins or the abandonment of the arranged marriage process: quite the opposite. I'm in favour of a structured approach to love and marriage with support and input from families.
Nevertheless, my position on the subject is clear: love is not a four-letter word.
As the hosts of the show, we challenged the caller: "Would you say that your attitude to love and marriage is hypocritical if you can have a love marriage, but your sister can't?" "Yes," he responded. "And what are you going to do to change your hypocritical position?" "Nothing. That's just how it is."
He was not alone in being unashamed of his double standard when it comes to love and marriage for men and women.
Another caller, male and 36 years old, told us his personal story, which initially tugged at my heartstrings. "I'm a divorced father of three, and I'd like to remarry. I think it's important to be open with prospective families about my personal situation, but as soon as I tell them these details, they break off all discussions."
Our societies shouldn't discriminate against those who are divorced or who already have children, especially when they are honest about their situation. But on delving deeper, we found a murkiness in his position.
"I keep being offered girls who are leftovers," he whined. Leftovers? These are women we're talking about.
"I want a girl who is 28, not divorced or with children. I don't want a leftover girl who is 36," he said without shame, just minutes after complaining of his own treatment by women.
The hypocrisy of these two male callers was bad enough, but it was compounded by the fact that they were not embarrassed by their positions. As men, they saw love as their right and their privilege alone. They would not permit women the same love, the same life choice.
Forceful text messages came through from female listeners. "If these are the men, kill me now!" one wrote. I can only assume she was joking.
But one message raised an issue at the heart of the debate: "We must make it clear that these attitudes are based in culture, not religion."
To eradicate these double standards, this difference needs to be made abundantly clear. And for this to happen, what we need most is to be able to discuss love and marriage openly and honestly, without fear or shame.
If supporters of Prop 8 have standing to appeal Judge Walker's order in Perry v. Schwarzenegger (even though the state did not appeal it), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will decide whether Prop 8 violates the federal constitution. If you listened to the oral argument yesterday, you heard the term "rational basis" used a lot. That term means something in constitutional law. Every time the state puts people in categories -- classifies them -- it must have at least a "rational basis" for doing so. Charles Cooper, arguing for the Prop 8 supporters, therefore had to say what the rational basis is for allowing different-sex couples to marry but denying that right to same-sex couples.
Here's what he said. The key purpose of marriage is to manage the one relationship that naturally produces children, often unintentionally. Society's interests are threatened by unwanted pregnancy because a child raised by "its" (his word) mother alone violates society's vital interests. Society will have to step in and assist that single parent. ("That is what usually happens," he said). He argued as an "undeniable fact" that children raised in that circumstance have poor outcomes. In the middle of this last sentence, Judge Reinhardt said that sounded like a good argument for prohibiting divorce, but how does it relate to same-sex couples raising children?
His question caused chuckles in the courtroom, but here is its constitutional significance: The rational basis test requires that the state's classification be rationally related to achieving a legitimate state interest. So, first, what is the legitimate state interest? In general, providing for the welfare of children is of course legitimate, but, in this context, Cooper, on behalf of opponents of same-sex marriage, is essentially saying that the state has a legitimate interest in preventing births to single mothers. I strenuously object to this, on its own terms. And I wish supporters of same-sex marriage would object to it as well.
Instead, the emphasis among gay rights advocates is the approach reflected in Judge Reinhardt's question. It assumes that the state does have a legitimate interest in preventing births to unmarried mothers but suggests that keeping same-sex couples from marrying does nothing to achieve that objective. Judge Reinhardt's comment about divorce doesn't directly tackle bearing a child outside of marriage but does explicitly address a corrolary principle that opponents of same-sex marriage adhere to, which is that children do best raised by their married mother and father. Banning divorce would result in more couples staying married, so it does bear a rational relationship to having children raised by their married parents. Of course there is no political support for banning divorce, so no state is going to do that.
As a matter of constitutional argument, it is completely proper to focus on the relationship between the classification and the state interest. If the classification is not rationally related to the state interest then it should fail as a matter of Equal Protection law. So if banning same-sex marriage won't result in fewer heterosexual pregnancies outside of marriage, then it is irrational. (Or if allowing same-sex marriage won't result in more heterosexual pregnancies outside of marriage, then it is irrational.)
But I want to directly address the alleged state interest in reducing births outside of marriage. I wish that gay rights advocates would say directly that the state has no business prefering heterosexual motherhood within marriage over heterosexual motherhood outside of marriage. I do not believe that should be considered a "legitimate state interest." The arguments from social science about the well-being of children, which Charles Cooper referred to as "undeniable fact," are overstated, mischaracterized, covertly political, and flat out wrong. I've written about this in many posts about spending federal dollars on "marriage promotion." Consistently, the right wing argues that poverty is the result of unmarried births and that marriage is the way to end poverty. When that reasoning prevails, poverty looks like the moral failing of individuals who do not marry, rather than the result of systemic policies that reinforce income inequality that could be addressed through laws and programs designed to reduce that inequality. We know how to end poverty but we lack the political will to do it.
Charles Cooper's argument about the rational basis for opposing same-sex marriage is that if you redefine the word "marriage" to include same-sex couples you change the institution of marriage and make it something other than the place society provides for the well-being of children born, often accidentally, from the sexual relationship of the two participants. Unfortunately, it's an argument that has been successful in some state courts. I believe it fails the rational basis test in the way that Prop 8 opponents argued, but I also wants the gay rights movement to recognize its common cause with single mothers. Family structure does not determine child outcome. All children need government policies that optimally serve their physical, emotional, and educational needs. That's the gay rights position I champion.
Wednesday's New York Times ran my article on DVDs and group classes that introduce babies and toddlers to sports. A lot of reaction - pro and con - on the Times Web site. Last time I looked, 105 comments.
Each company cited in the article - and the entrepreneurs behind them - seems to be coming from a slightly different perspective. Doreen Bolhuis, who created the Gymtrix exercise videos, believes that babies truly can improve coordination by working out. She's quoted in the article on this point and during my interview with her spoke about it at length, telling me, “We sell babies short because they can’t speak yet. But they’re all about learning how their bodies work and about movement patterns. When we guide them they learn so much more quickly than if we leave it to chance and hope they’ll figure it out."
Other company executives quoted in the story cited different reasons for getting really, really young ones started in sports - fighting childhood obesity, getting them in the habit of being active and teaching the basics of games they may pick up later.
How many parents are buying videos and signing up for classes hoping to turn their babies and toddlers into superstars later on is impossible to say. Clearly some companies are appealing to that instinct, subtly or otherwise.
I had a small role in putting together this video which ran with the article on the Times site. It's worth a look.
Last week, on my Youth Sports Parents blog, we raised the question: Is football too dangerous for kids? Just so inherently violent that, before a certain age, say 13, the simple act of participation places kids at an unacceptably high risk of serious injury? For those of us persuaded that it's a question worth raising, here's Exhibit A.
So far, research has linked head trauma resulting in permanent brain injury to football players as early as the college ranks. Last month, the New York Times reported on the case of Owen Thomas, captain of the football squad at the University of Pennsylvania.
Thomas, an outwardly happy student and accomplished player, hanged himself after what the Times story described as "a sudden and uncharacteristic emotional collapse." Thomas was 21, the youngest player yet discovered with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease thought to affect moods and impulse control.
Is there any doubt that a high school player soon will be diagnosed with C.T.E? From today's Chicago Tribune:
Of 21 high school players monitored for a full season by a team of researchers from Purdue University, four players who were never diagnosed with concussions were found to have suffered brain impairment that was at least as bad as that of other players who had been deemed concussed and removed from play.
"They're not exhibiting any outward sign and they're continuing to play," said Thomas Talavage, an associate professor at the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering at Purdue and the lead researcher on the study. "The cognitive impairment that we observed with them is actually worse than the one observed with the concussed players."
The report, published in the latest edition of the Journal of Neurotrauma, found that some players received more than 1,800 hits to the head during practices and games, some with a force 20 times greater than what a person would feel while riding a roller coaster.
Banning youth football may not be the answer. But the response has to be very bold. The best suggestion I've heard so far comes from Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard defensive tackle and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine.
Football needs “hit counts” like youth baseball has “pitch counts.” In baseball, all kids are subject to restrictions because some may suffer cumulative injuries to their elbows. Yet in football we’ve never thought the brain, which is more important than the elbow, could be subject to the same kind of cumulative injury. That is insanity.
I imagine there will be lots of comment about how difficult it would be to monitor hits and enforce a "hit count." For years, youth baseball coaches said the same thing about pitch counts, which are now uncontroversial and common.
I sit in the dark next to Jane, munching the contraband cinnamon roasted nuts that we snuck into the movie theater, past the NO OUTSIDE FOOD OR DRINK sign. Against all odds, we have finally secured a babysitter and made it out to see The Kids Are All Right. Fairly early in the movie, the two mothers, Nic and Jules, are lying in bed together. “Good night, chicken,” one says. “Good night, pony,” says the other. Jane nudges me just as I elbow her. “Oh my god,” I say. “They are such lesbians.”
I like the film immediately for the way it captures the long-term lesbian relationship, at least one version of it, right down to the menagerie of nicknames. There’s overmothering at the dinner table; snuggling in front of the TV; tensions around work; years-old inside jokes; rehashed insecurities --- basically the challenges, joys, hopes and disappointments of marriage, all wrapped up with an estrogen bow.
But I’m interested in the film not just because I am a lesbian in a long-term relationship, not just because I want to see this film that has brought lesbian-headed families to mainstream attention.
I want to see it because we, too, have an anonymous donor in our lives, though for the time being, he is still anonymous. I don’t know if we will ever meet him. I would like to leave that up to our daughter to decide since her relationship with him is decidedly closer than ours. So far, Hannah, who is now just seven years old, has not expressed much interest in her donor. Will she want to meet him someday? I have no idea. Would I like to meet him someday? I don’t know the answer to that one either.