A truer course to steer

Boys:

I hope that each day I teach you a bit about how to turn toward light and away from dark.

I don’t mean that you need to be a creature of the day and avoid night. For too long our culture has associated night with evil and light with goodness, so linguistically that just sticks. Forgive me the sloppy metaphor, sweet one. I mean only that my sincerest wish for you is that you choose, actively, to move toward goodness. Always.

Don’t be fooled by the language of light and dark: being good and kind has nothing to do with being cheerful. Be chipper or be cynical, but I will always nudge you toward good. You can be maudlin and kind. You can be morose and nurturing. You can. Really, given what exists in this world, you must. We all must.

Because when you have to choose what kind of person to be, how to map your course and true your compass, you have to decide. Are you going become a person who hates or a person who loves?

I had some time today. Some unusual, luxurious time to read and immerse myself in humanity. To see what we, as a culture, are up to.

Results are quite varied. And instead of just wandering aimlessly through society’s publicized highs and lows, I wanted to focus on the best humanity has to offer this week. Really, we have, as a culture, been wallowing a bit in the terrifying and hateful and exhaustingly dreadful for a while. Certainly it’s important to know about and fight the yuck churning up the worst of humanity, so we can hear people in need of a voice, a hug, or a place to stay.

I spent a bit of time roiling with anger and loathing at articles like this. In it, a man who professes to know literature dismisses most of the people writing, most of the things they have written, and most of the knowledge we have, as English-speaking nations, cultivated over the past century. He refuses to engage with other opinions because he thinks he’s pretty awesome, exactly the way he is.

I stopped reading after a few paragraphs. Not because he’s a dreadful man with views I find appalling. But because I have better things to do with my time.

David Gilmour’s interview speaks of a core that refuses to hear other realities. Not listening when someone speaks about their family or their work or their passion is a pretty bleak way to live. His words are about ignoring heart.

And I reject that way of being.

So I clicked another link. Someone I trust told me that an article was important. That this is what humanity looks like. Prabhiot Singh lives his life to offer the best of himself to those around him, allowing himself to be affected by his community and finding, even in truly horrifying situations a reason to reach out and help.

You get to choose, of course. You get to decide whether to wallow in self-aggrandizement, closing your mind to people who don’t think the way you do. Or to learn from experience and not let anger and hate and truly disgusting behavior sway you from what you know is right.

I hope you see, in the people we surround ourselves with, that what matters most is kindness. That what matters is struggling to make things better, in whatever way you define better. That life is about deciding what’s right and fighting for it.

I hope that you turn toward people like Prabhjot Singh. People who find gratitude, who reject hate by continuing on their path toward love. People who deserve to know what a wonderful person you are, who can bring out the best in you, and who can teach you about other ways of thinking and doing and being. So that we can all change the world toward what is good. What is kind. What is true.

I hope that’s what I’m teaching you. I’ll keep trying. Because beyond keeping you safe, my job is to show you how to share the best of yourself with the world that is so lucky to have you.

Hot cocoa

There are few things that unify the world like chocolate.

During our first week together I offered our foreign exchange student a cup of cocoa.

And that event has become a microcosm of our relationship.

First she marveled that we call it cocoa. She calls it hot chocolate. Fair enough, I explained, since many people do. I like distinguishing it from edible chocolate. Drinkable chocolate sounds funny. So hot cocoa or just cocoa.

I try to buy only fair trade chocolate. Because I feel it’s important to fight child-slave labor by refusing to buy conventionally sourced chocolate. But after trying all the fair trade cocoas out there, I’ve decided my favorite is the brand this taste test decried as cloyingly sweet and overly vanilla-ed. Organic, but not fair trade.

Too sweet, most tasters at the newspaper said. But our dear friend from the Dominican Republic almost spat out her first sip. She said, horrified, “you didn’t put any sugar in this!” then fixed it to her liking, with three soup spoons full of sugar and a little extra milk.

The next night, she asked me to make her another cup of cocoa.

As I mentioned earlier this week, we’ve been working on getting her more independent. So I pointed to the kettle, explained how it works. I made sure she knows how to turn on the stove. And I told her the water would be ready soon and left her with a packet of a less sweet, fair trade cocoa.

She managed just fine. She found a cup and a spoon. And she knew very well where the sugar was.

Equality

Last week over breakfast, our foreign exchange student announced that, on BART, she saw her first gay person.

I snickered a bit privately, since she’s seen way, way, way more than that. But I wanted to hear her story.

She said that, in her country, being gay is bad. That two women kissing on the train is not okay.

I braced myself for what came next and held my breath because the kids were listening. We have a friend who is transgendered and my children think such humans are just another kind of friend to have. In fact, the youngest doesn’t know and assumes, as he should, that our friend is a man because he’s a man. Of course, Butter’s three and thinks most of the trucks on Bob the Builder are female. So he’s clearly not attuned to conventional gender clues yet. But I didn’t know for the first few months of my friendship, either, and learned about Adam’s apples the interesting way.

We haven’t talked to our kids about what it means to be gay or lesbian, in part because gender is something children notice early, but discussing homosexuality involves ideas about attraction and marriage and being more than friends, which are by nature more mature than my children are. They know every family is different, and that some families have kids but some don’t; some have two adults in the family, some don’t; and that the families with two parents might consist of a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. They know that we really like that different types of people bring different ideas and the more ideas you hear, the better you can choose what you believe.

So when Rosí announced that in her country bring gay is bad, I was prepared to stop her so we could continue later. Her opinions and experiences are valid, but they’re not always appropriate for small children.

“Yes,” she continued. “In my country this is very bad. But I think killing is bad. This? Kiss? Do you say ‘kiss’ in this way? [Yes, but you can say 'kissing', too.] This is love, right? And love is good. So I don’t like what they do, and I don’t think it’s right. But it’s not wrong.”

I have to say, I was impressed. I asked my eldest if he understood what we were talking about.

“Do you know the word ‘gay’?” I asked. “You know the families we know with two dads or two moms? The word for having a partner who is the same gender as you is ‘gay’.”

He nodded. “I know.”

“So she’s saying that, in her country, people believe wanting to be a family with someone who’s the same is bad. But she thinks hurting is bad, and that loving is good. What do you think?”

“Well, yeah,” he said. “Kissing is only bad if the other person says ‘stop’.”

Well, damn, readers. He just covered equality and respect in one answer.

These are good, open-minded kids I have. The two I raised and the one who just arrived three weeks ago. May they always kiss people who say “yes.”

[I haven't talked with our guest yet about the Supreme Court decisions of last week. But when the boys and I heard on the radio, on the way to school, that the justices said the federal government can't invalidate a legal marriage by withholding spousal benefits, and that the people in California who don't like gay marriage have no legal standing on which to contest it, I sobbed as I explained to my children how important it is for a country to say that all people are legally the same. Of course we're not the same. But legally, all people have the same rights. I told them how important it is to know that not liking something is not the same as being hurt by it. And that not understanding something is a reason to find out more, not to pass laws. It's never too early to train the next generation of legislators, executives, and justices.]

Issues little and big

Week Two with a foreign exchange student was challenging. We’re settling into patterns, some good and some not so good. Our new friend is still excited to be here and is still marveling at things we take for granted, such as cars stopping at stop signs.

I’m still marveling at Spouse’s willingness to let me walk smack into a situation that does not suit me at all. I know full well that I’m dumb enough kind enough to offer our home to a stranger based on the recommendation of a good friend and the reassurance that it would be an amazing opportunity. But you’d think he would have, perhaps, guided me another way.

Well we have ourselves an opportunity and a half, right here in our house all summer.

And we only get out of it what we put in. So after reminding our guest for the fourth or fifth time that she really, really has to lock the doors, especially when she leaves the house, after giving in and letting her have all the white-bread-and-ketchup sandwiches she wants, and after deciding not to tell her about water conservation and drought in California, we found an evening on which to really connect.

As usual, I made a relatively plain meal. Well-seasoned lentils, israeli couscous with feta and olives, watermelon, and raw bell pepper. And she found it horrible, even after adding what I think might have been a quarter cup of salt. She went to her room to try on one after another of her outfits and to ask if they looked okay. In the lull after the nightly fashion show I read a blog post from my friend about how cancer is eating away his perspective and how he’s fighting to be present with his family.

So when Rosí came into the kitchen, instead of working, as I needed to, I joined her. And told her I have a friend who’s fighting cancer and has been for three years. She, in turn, told me about her grandfather, whose prostate cancer was misdiagnosed repeatedly even as her mother kept saying, “This is not right. Get another doctor.” The grandfather died two years later. We talked about cancer and about death. About how there are quite a few bad ways to go. She talked about HIV and the relative who died from complications from HIV-related conditions.

I mentioned that there was some hope with HIV as treatments are improving.

“Not in my country.” She told me that in the Dominican Republic the treatments were making almost no difference because successful HIV treatment requires, as she said, “paying attention and being willing to care about health.” That, she said, was not the way in her country.

She talked of the high cost of HIV medications. And of most life-saving medications. She talked of pervasive alcoholism in the DR. [World Health Organization stats suggest that her perspective is skewed by her town.] She said that in her neighborhood, many children walked the streets without shoes, without school, and without enough food because their parents drank what little money they had.

“So does it seem hopeless,” I asked, “with, as you say, many people using alcohol, and many people taking advantage of honest people by stealing and cheating?”

“No. You can never lose hope. My mother does not have a lot,” she said. “But she always made sure we have food and we go to school. No money for clothes? Maybe. But money for food. And she does it honestly. She doesn’t have a formal job but she does everything she can to earn money honestly. If we’re sick? Go to school. Not if we’re really ill, of course. But if we don’t feel well? Too bad. Go to school.”

“She knows what’s important.”

“Yes.”

I asked if it was hard to be honest and struggle when some give up and either drink or steal. It seems that is the struggle in many of the poorest parts of our country, as well.

“There is no choice,” she said. “There is no excuse for being dishonest. There is no reason. If you try hard, there is enough for food and school. Not for extras. But for food and school.”

As expected, I felt terrible about how we spend our money. I tell the kids we use money for food and shelter and heat and school and not for extras, but they have enough toys to say otherwise. And we have treats and new books and expensive coffee. I knew that guilt would come during our summer as American hosts.

But Rosí’s reminder about what’s really important brought me out of my deep sadness about my friend. People everywhere are struggling. Really struggling. He’s fighting with everything he has to make sure his family is loved. Rosí’s mom is sacrificing to ensure that her children have the necessities. They’re doing…we’re all doing…what it really takes to be good people.

Make sure kids are fed and educated. And loved.
Make sure family and friends know they’re important.
Lead by example an honest, hard-working, and purpose-filled life.
And give to others everything you can.

Well, then.

Take that, summer inconvenience.

 

 

Adventure Eve

I’ve been trying to downplay the adventure on which our family is poised, but I don’t see any way to be blasé about the fact that tomorrow a visitor arrives. For the whole summer. A stranger from another world will be living with us for three months.

And I might be a bit nervous. Maybe.

A friend asked in an email months ago if anyone would be willing to host a longtime friend of hers in a foreign exchange extravaganza of goodness. The project would involve a 20-year old woman from the Dominican Republic, whom my friends have known since she was a child. Now grown, this young lady wants to have a chance at making a better life by gaining work skills and building language fluency through an established program in the U.S.

She would have a full-time job, my friend’s email noted. Her family has been kind to mine for more than a decade, my friend pointed out. This opportunity would change the young woman’s life, I told Spouse.

So tomorrow a woman I’ve never met will arrive at our house. We’ve cleared the boys’ playroom to make it a bedroom. I’ve written instructions on how to call 911 in an emergency and where to find the towels and soap. I’ve tidied up the best I can and tried to figure out what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.

Because more than the house sharing, I’m concerned at the project I’ve just signed up for. Our family is going to model language and culture to a woman about whose culture I know very little. About whom I know almost nothing. And for whom we might be a very bad fit.

May I note for the record that in an email exchange, she expressed interest in my offer to cook for her what I’m making for the rest of the family. She probably passed out from the shock of hearing that we’re vegetarians. In the same message I explained that yes, shorts are acceptable attire. Except that the summer in the Bay Area averages temperatures in the high 60s.

I’m pretty sure there will be more shocking moments during her trip. A meatless, cold summer might  be the peak, but I have no idea since I’ve never traveled to the Caribbean.

Sure, I’ve read The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But I’m guessing, as vibrantly written as it is, I still know almost nothing about life in the Dominican Republic, and particularly about this woman’s life. I’ve seen photos of rainwater collection via PVC piping jury-rigged along a hillside and the village market and the local trash heap. But that doesn’t mean I understand the realities and nuances of public utilities and water issues and food availability in our guest’s country. I’ve read her questions about modesty and propriety for single women, but I don’t intuit the full extent to the misogyny of her island’s culture.

Of course, we’ll all learn soon enough.

While we prepare, I’m keenly aware of how aseptically most suburban Americans live. In little boxes with windows and doors closed and locked: boxes with wheels or foundations, we’re still all isolated from our neighbors and fellow commuters, closed off from sounds, temperature variations, and smells. We avoid physical contact with strangers, including trying desperately to keep our bodies free of sweat, odor, oil, and other signs of life. I wonder how differently my senses would process life in Santo Domingo than they do suburban Northern California. And how much of that is based simply in exposure to heat, humidity, sounds, neighborhood, and skin.

I’m also fixated on all our stuff. Dozens of shelves full of books in English, cupboards full of food, a closet full of jackets. Electricity that fails so rarely that outages are big news. Toilets that flush. Hardwood floors. And toys. Oh, good gravy the volume of toys. So many possessions nationally that become so much trash. But trash that isn’t thrown into heaps and burned. Trash that is separated into four different bins and picked up by four different trucks and taken all over the world for cheaper processing.

So I’ve collected large piles for St. Vincent de Paul and Goodwill and the dozen other charities that will take from Americans the perfectly useful items they have grown tired of, not only to clear away the clutter, but also because I’m embarrassed of our accumulation. Nobody needs three colanders. (Even the wordpress dictionary doesn’t think anyone needs three colanders, because it accepts the singular form “colander” but flags “colanders.” I know, WP, I know. I’m working on it.) But I got the second two colanders as a set to replace the one that wasn’t useful. Then I kept the not useful one in case the others were dirty or being used. Because, it would seem from my purchasing, we eat pasta and cherries and salad with such frequency and ruthless efficiency that there’s never a time we can just rinse one colander and use it for the next food.

And as I spiral into a self-loathing, anti-consumerist whirlwind, I realize that what I’m really worried about is that a stranger is coming to live in our house for three months. A grown child who thinks that women are somehow different, more valuable if they’re married. Who has been taught that single women are a threat. Who asks what the heater is for.

Well, she won’t be a stranger after tomorrow.

By about the same time I’ll know more about life in the Dominican Republic than Junot Díaz wrote.

And I’ll know very soon if this project is a lovely respite from spending time with three males who rarely listen to me; if we achieve the ideal co-educational experiment in cultural exchange. Or if it’s a hurricane of unforeseen dilemmas, the solution to which is simply to invest in whiskey, gummy cola bottles, and a new puppy. Because as much as I pretend otherwise, this adventure is either no big deal or quite a big deal indeed, the kind of huge big deal that sends me scurrying toward impossible projects. Like full-time parenting and writing a novel with a house guest and a puppy.

I won’t know for a little while how blissful or gobsmacking my decision to host a foreign exchange human might be.

She won’t know for a little while how awesome or freaking insane her host family is.

So I guess I’ll go gather together more for Goodwill while I wait. You can’t go wrong decluttering, I always say. (I never say that, but wish I were the kind of person who says things like that.)

Wish us luck!

What I did on my vacation

The family and I took a little trip down to Monterey for the weekend.

Visited aquarium. Enjoyed Dennis the Menace playground. Spent copious times climbing rocks at all times of tide.

Climbed way up a rocky bluff to this lovely scene.
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Then down the other side to this shell-deposited beach between gorgeous outcroppings of granite.
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And on that beach, halfway between high and low tide, we stepped carefully around small tide pools, watching crab and snails and fish and anemone adjust to their temporary life in a warm pond.

We marveled at a distant rock island, maybe half a mile away, that held three young seals. And we wanted to get closer.

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So we weren’t really watching as carefully where we stepped. After all, we were among only shells and rocks at this point in the tide-pool search.

Do you see that?
We almost didn’t, until we were way too close.

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Yeah.

That.

Right there.

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Poor little stranded seal pup.

Every ten minutes or so, another family came carefully picking through the tidal zone, and every one stopped about ten feet from her and stared. And she seemed shy. Sad. Lonely. All the anthropomorphic adjectives I could heap on a baby without her mama.

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We checked the ground to see how wet it was, debating whether the high tide would really come bring her back to her family.

Everybody else marveled at her and moved along.

The kids kept asking, “Is someone going to make sure she’s okay?” Spouse and I explained about the tide and about how she could wiggle into the water once it came.

But I doubted. And as we walked away I came back three times.

“But mom,” the youngest asked, “is anybody going to help her?”

“Yes,” I said. “I am.”

I googled “report stranded marine mammal Monterey” on my phone. Because that’s why Google was invented, right?

The Marine Mammal Center has a hotline. A delightful creature whose name I forget walked me through a checklist of questions about the seal’s size and health. And location. Lots of details about location. And she dispatched volunteers to the site to check on the pup.

I have no idea if that baby made it back to the ocean. I have no idea if I’m the only one who called. But I told my kids their first lie today. At bedtime, when my little guy interrupted the nighttime songs to ask if the seal pup was okay, I told him that the Marine Mammal Center emailed me to tell me that she got back into the ocean with no trouble.

I should have just said, “I don’t know.” I should have said, “we did our best.” There is no reason to trick kids about happy endings. Heck, we don’t tell them about Santa or fairies or storks, so why tell them that babies are always safe?

Well just this once, I want to live in a world where heroes save the day. Where people like the Marina Mammal Center do their best and fight for the voiceless.

Because isn’t that what Memorial Day is all about? Remembering those who fight for what they believe in?

I hope you’re okay, sweet seal babe. You and every creature on the planet tonight. I hope you’re okay.

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A special thanks to all the heroes who fight for others, in and out of uniform. Happy Memorial Day.

Devastation

As a former Boston resident and partner to a frequent Boston marathoner, I’m devastated tonight. My thoughts are with those who were injured, their families, Boston residents, selfless first responders, and members of the running community. I don’t even know what to say to them, except “Tell us what you need. It’s yours.”

I don’t understand why someone would murder and maim people who build a loving community, who celebrate a great city and a historical event, who want nothing more than to be and do their best.

But I’m getting mired in the pain and the ugly and the fear. So I want to step back for a moment to something that has always bothered me about the way in which we discuss tragedy.

Please, please understand this comes from a soulful place of love, empathy, and concern. I am not being sarcastic, I’m not joking, and I’m not in any way minimizing.

Ready?

Why do we react so much more intensely when the dead include children? Reports keep singling out the injury reports of children and the death of a child as though killing a child is worse than killing an adult.

Is it? Are we actually assigning children more worth than adults?

I know that I was affected at a much more visceral level hearing that one of the dead was so young. So heartbreakingly young.

But the other people who died were much younger than they were supposed to die, too.

Believe me, I find the details of those children treated for major injuries horrifying. I’m a mother. The thought of any children being hurt in any way actually keeps me awake at night. I am sick at the thought of a child hurt in a bomb blast.

But I’m just as sick to think of someone’s father being hurt in a bomb blast. Someone’s sister. Someone’s boyfriend. Someone’s mentor, sponsor, lover, friend, colleague…I’m sick about every person hurt, every limb removed, every death.

Sick.

But I’m asking, in terms of our use of rhetoric, our telling of stories, our accepted morality that says it’s worse to intentionally hurt a child: why do we focus on the children?

I understand completely why it’s not okay to hurt people, and why it’s reprehensible to hurt a child. But if we’re talking mass casualties, if we’re talking bomb blast that kills indiscriminately, why do we focus on the dead child more intensely than the other dead people?

Children don’t know the extent to which some evil really creeps; they don’t know Holocaust or slavery or war or torture. They don’t know. So their early end is somehow more horrible? I feel that, but I don’t understand it logically.

Is it because children are innocent? Most citizens of most countries around the world, it seems to me, are pretty innocent. (But wait, my heart says, children are way more innocent.)

Is it because children have their whole lives ahead of them? Most marathoners and their family and friends, it seems to me, have a whole lot of life left, too. (But wait, my head reminds me, children have more life left.)

Is it because children are so desperately loved? Most fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends, aunts, uncles…you get the picture…it seems to me, are pretty dearly loved, too. (But wait, whispers my soul, children are loved more completely and unconditionally. I hope.)

Is it because children can’t protect themselves? Most people moving past or standing near a hidden bomb, it seems to me, can’t protect themselves, which is, of course, the point to the horrible, disgusting people who did this.

Is it because there is a greater shock value to a child’s injuries and death? I swear I’m not trying to be cynical, but do reporters focus on the bomb shrapnel in boys and girls because we’re all so horrified that we keep reading? Tell the story of a runner, of a bystander, but really push hard on the story of a child because that story makes us gasp out loud? Maybe. I did gasp out loud for that eight-year-old.

Why?

Is it because children aren’t supposed to die? Is that the core of this? That with each year of life we’re getting closer to dying, but that it’s just horrifically, stomach-turningly shocking to hear that an eight-year-old was killed?

Or, say, 26 first graders?

I don’t understand the disgusting malice that would make someone build, plant, and detonate a bomb. I don’t. I don’t understand the sociopathology that would make someone disregard human or animal life. I don’t. I don’t understand where we’re supposed to go from here, as a nation and as world citizens. I don’t understand how people all over the world deal with frequent deadly attacks.

And I don’t understand why it’s an eight-year-old’s murder at a sporting event is so much worse than an adult’s murder at a sporting event.

But there’s a little piece of me that feels that it is.

It’s not fair to the families of the injured and dead in a terrible tragedy, and I hate saying it for the illogic it suggests, but I’m pretty sure injured and killed children wrench more than anything else. A child’s life is not worth more than anyone else’s. But somehow their death cuts more deeply.

I think.

What do you say?

Oh, HAIL no.

I just got home from volunteering in Peanut’s first grade class. I’ve wanted to do this all  year, but my schedule hasn’t allowed it. Until now. I’m giving his sweet little face and adorable friends an hour of my time every week. They’re reading to me. I could eat them up.

Most of them.

But right now I’m so freaking mad.

Not at the teacher. She’s heaven and perfection wrapped in a package of cuteness. She might actually be the world’s most ideal first-grade teacher, but I don’t want to sway the judges in case she’s actually second or third best.

I’m not mad at the school, though I always have complaints. Shocking, I know. Naptime Complaining is the name wordpress always offers me when mine’s about to expire.

No, it’s not the institution that has riled me. I’m enraged at whoever is raising those two boys who debated with me today in class.

One came right out, apropos of nothing, and told me that girls can’t play soccer.

Um, yes they can. May I introduce you to the tale of the US women and the 1991 World Cup? I’m sorry, what, punk? Did you just say no to me? How about a little thing called the women’s Olympic team? No? Never heard of it? Hmmmm. Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain have a little something to tell you, boy, about the four gold medals the US has won playing against seriously talented female soccer players from all over the world.

His tablemate joined in. “Yeah. Did you know girls can’t play with boys’ toys?”

Ah, hello, 1940. Yes they can. “Well,” I said, “that’s not true. What do you consider boys’ toys?”

“LEGO,” he said.

“Girls play with LEGO,” I said. “I play with LEGO, my nieces play with LEGO, our neighbors play with LEGO. Building is not just for boys.”

“Sure it is, he said. “Girls can only play with LEGO friends.”

I’m assuming those are the asinine pink LEGO sets I railed against when they were introduced…until I found out girls loved them and were introduced to building and physics and architecture and spatial relations due to pink LEGOs. So I shut the hell up and found another cause for my feminist-consumerist rage.

Never once did it occur to me during this classroom bickering, by the way, that they were taunting me just to get my goat. First-graders don’t pick fights just to get a rise out of someone, right? That’s what husbands are for, I’m pretty sure.

Who is raising these little misogynists? I told my son, who was reading a soccer book, that the jerk boys at another table said soccer isn’t for girls. I didn’t say jerk boys, since I’ve told him repeatedly to stop calling those two particular boys jerks, a parenting practice I will now cease.

“Well, here’s one,” he said, pointed to a girl playing soccer in his book. “And C, D, and N and O all play soccer.”

“Right,” I said. “And there are professional women’s soccer players and Olympic women’s soccer players.”

“Yeah,” said one of the friends who has been to our house once and now gets a permanent invitation. “Women play soccer really well. All over the world. The American team was even in the World Cup.”

“Damn skippy,” I totally didn’t say. I probably “Yeah”ed him, but I don’t remember. My affirmative replies are funnier when I write them in Jazz-era-colored hindsight.

I can’t stand it. I want to go fight with those six-year-old boys. I want to call their parents. I want to write a letter and a school-wide presentation and host a sit-in.

Seriously. What the hell? Who still believes women can’t play soccer or play with blocks?

Of course this is coming from their parents. But are they isolated cases of ignorance and small-mindedness or are there whole cultures who still believe this? There were four boys who chimed in about grrl power. There were two boys who insisted girls can’t do what boys can. Aside from knowing whose mom I need to take out for drinks and whose dads and uncles and brothers need schooling, how do we change this? Do we hope the four educated boys talk some sense into the misogynists? Do I make it my goal—instead of going back to work, finishing my books, publishing my academic articles, and learning a few foreign languages so that finishing my doctorate is a real option—to teach all of the school district that boys and girls can both do anything they work hard for? To reassure both genders that they don’t have to compete, but to recognize each other as individuals? To build teams that are gender-blind but that reach to cover the whole gamut of talents, from interpersonal skills to knowledge in hard sciences to sportsmanship to verbal acumen to creativity to mathematic excellence?

Do I need to take up the standard that the Third Wave has shrugged off because they have ten million other things to do (and because seriously with the all-or-nothing guilt, First Wavers). Do we need to have more open talks in this country about race and economics and gender and assumptions and hatred and ignorance and teaching your kids some manners when talking to a delightful school volunteer?

The teacher overheard one boy and asked me what prompted his statement about girls being less than equal. I explained. Her eyes widened. “Oh, we have a new book to read after we get back from the library,” she insisted, promising with her tone that the rest of the day would be about grrl power.

Damn skippy, I say.

Death. And life.

I will not talk about what so many of us need to talk about this week. I just can’t. Instead, I’m going to talk around it.

Please make sure you have all of your end of life documents in order. Make sure there is a person who will make decisions for you if you can’t. Know that you need someone for finances and someone for health care. They can be the same, but you need different forms. Please make sure any important decisions are written explicitly in your will. Make sure you choose…right now and in writing…who will care for your children if you go before they’re grown.

There are attorneys to do this, and there is software. Make sure everything is in writing. Right this minute. Today. You know why. I’ve already said I’m not going to talk about it.

Did you know that 19 people a day die waiting for an organ? Only 50% of Americans are organ donors. Maybe you haven’t gotten around to registering. Maybe you are creeped out thinking of bits of you or your loved one or your child inside another person. Organ donation only happens after you’re already dead. After your loved one is gone. After your child is no more. And the choice to take parts of your loved one and give them to someone who would otherwise die is a gift that salvages hope out of death. The gift of life is one of the most generous you can make, and it beats back darkness with a pulsing, shining ray of light.

Please donate your organs. Promise to donate their organs. Nineteen people a day could live from your gift. That is how we help. That is how tragedies become about giving life rather than taking it. First responders are heroes, we say, because they often ensure life in the face of death. People who stand tall in the face of a loved one’s death and give someone else a piece of that life they will desperately miss are heroes. Because they, too, give life to someone who would otherwise fade away.

But don’t wait until you hear the news nobody ever wants to hear. Think about it, weigh your options, then Go. Right this minute. Write your will, dot your Is and cross your Ts. Designate durable power to those you trust. And vow to give your organs after your death so others can live.

Thinking about it right now is important.  Take a deep breath and consider the logistics of your death, your loved ones’ deaths, and your children’s deaths. And may you never have to think about the latter ever again. Ever.

That doesn’t completely circumnavigate the issue. But that’s as good as I can do, walking respectfully around an issue that I cannot write.

Holiday gifts

Hey, there.

I haven’t posted in forever because I’m crazy busy.

But I have something for you. A gift, perhaps.

Go to HealthyStuff.org and check out the toys you’re going to give the small people in your family. Or use it to check the stuff you’d really rather donate to charity, under the guise of making room for new toys by getting rid of the old.

Our government and our corporations do a really horrible job of making sure we can buy things that won’t hurt us. At least one major company has resolved not to use carcinogenic, hormone-disrupting chemicals in products for children. Good for them. But there is arsenic and lead and PBDEs and PVC in a lot of the stuff you or your loved ones can buy, gift, use, and enjoy this time of year.
Toxic phones, toxic car seats, toxic household products, toxic sunscreen, and toxic makeup and shampoo.

Some of the data is old, and a lot of new toys aren’t on the Healthystuff.org reports. But still. Do what you can. Nobody wants to give their niece a toxic piece of chemical waste for Winter Solstice. Right?

Find some healthier alternatives at Safe Mama. Her cheat sheets will help you find safer toys, lunch gear, backpacks, bug repellent, and more.

Be safe out there. It’s a gross mess of lead-tainted wrapping paper and tape and poison-PVC tinsel and lead-filled holiday lights out there.

It’s still an awful lot of fun though. Happy holidays, and enjoy all the fair trade gelt and organic candy canes, and whole-wheat winter solstice gingerbread you can eat!

In case you need this

Many fine bloggers handle In Case You Missed It posts, wherein they point us to lovely writing, hilarious rants, and cultural memes. They keep us abreast of the words and images that we might enjoy.

In that spirit, for this season of catalogs full of stuff nobody needs, pleas to spend money few of us have, and pressure to cement relationships that none of us really want, I offer the following.

DJ Cat Scratching Pad at Uncommon Goods

The cat scratcher guaranteed to get your cat a job. Tired of your pet lounging about, leaving hair everywhere, and whining about it being “dinnertime” and “cuddle time”? Get your cat this scratching turntable. And get him out of the house for a new career in the club scene the kids are all talking about. In the ’80s.

Potager Coffee Table at VivaTerra


The toddler entertainment center. Wondering how to occupy your toddler while family gathers to drink heavily and scream at each other? Get this gorgeous coffee table complete with sharp corners, potted plants, and unattended wine glasses. Your wee one can learn valuable lessons about the physical world by scattering dirt all over the living room, sipping adult beverages, shattering glass, and uprooting cacti. The highly sought-after blood-snot-tears sprinkler effect resulting from her profusely bleeding head-wound, thorn-implanted fingers, and wrought-iron-pinched fingers might even stop the family bickering for a while. I hear the well-lit and bustling E.R. is a great place to spend the Winter Solstice.

Out of the Woods Tool Kit from Sundance Catalog

A gorgeous reinterpretations of an old classic. Why get simple, functional tools for someone who needs a screwdriver, ruler, level and flashlight, when you can get simple, functional, expensive tools? Levels are wonderful for fun and sport, especially when one of the three axes is replaced with a logo. Flashlights help in so, so many darknesses, and wax even brighter when set in sustainably grown beech wood. Multi-tipped screwdrivers are endlessly useful, but even more so when included in a canvas carrying case. Four tools *plus* a carrying case for $95? Oh, the value.

Okay. That’s all I care to share. The secret to shopping this holiday season is finding gifts that show people you care, that you think of them, and that you want to leave a glow of joy in their lives. To that end, my kids and I will spend hours deciding who on our list will get what from this catalog.

Oxfam Unwrapped Catalog

It might not be a job for our cat, a party in the ER, or a wildly useful reinvented bag of simplicity, but giving a family whose needs outstrip those without sustainable beech artisan tools something useful like a goat, a flock of geese, a piglet, or a hive of bees can feel pretty good. As a survivor of a couple of natural disasters, I might choose to send emergency supplies to those in need as a gift to my family and friends.

And for the cost of a cat scratcher, a potager table, and an imported tool set we can give families in need a pig, a cow, honeybees, a dozen chicks, a couple of goats, a donkey cart, and a bicycle. For a few people on our list, we’ll send a a pile of crap in their name.

Or a for the same cost we can buy a six backpacks full of food for six hungry American children. For a YEAR.

Or more than 200 pairs of socks dropped off at our local homeless shelter.

Or more than 75 bags to hand out to homeless people in our area, each with peanut butter, bread, plastic utensils, and a bottle of honey. Everyone deserves a peanut butter and honey sandwich in the cold, dark days of December.*

*Except the peanut-butter allergic among us. Dudes. I’m so sorry. Peanut butter is cheap and full of protein, but you deserve to be safe. You’re welcome to a bag with sunflower seed butter instead. Be careful out there in this season of peanut butter donations, friends. I’ll have a couple of bags without any nut products just for you. XOXO.

You owe them

Stolen wholesale from an email sent to me by a brilliant woman:

“Recall Abigail Adams who gently reminded her husband, John, to ‘remember the ladies,’ as the founders crafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Women in Wyoming, the first state or territory to enfranchise women, won the vote in 1869. One hundred years ago today, women in Oregon secured the vote, and nationwide, suffrage did not occur until 1920.

For almost 240 years, women before you labored to give you this sacred franchise.

Stating that I don’t care how you vote is false; I do. But more importantly I care that you participate in this democracy as your foremothers did. These noble patriots’ sacrifices are innumerable.
Honor their steadfast commitment to the future, equality, and faith in you and your judgement. Vote.”

May your vote not be suppressed. May the lines be short and the volunteers knowledgeable. May your employer or children be patient.

Vote.

Stop supporting slave labor

There have been numerous articles on the use of slave labor, particularly forced child labor, in the production of chocolate. And I’m glad there are alternatives so we don’t have to choose between abstaining (NO!) or feeding our families the product of slave labor (HELL NO!)

When I buy food, I try to balance the important issues: maximizing nutrition while minimizing toxins, cost, and labor abuses.

Didn’t think you had to worry about slavery anymore? I wish that were true.

We buy locally grown organic tomatoes to avoid the pesticides and chemical fertilizers of conventional farms, and also to stay as far away from supporting the obscene work practices of some tomato farmers. I refuse to buy or eat products that are the product of slavery or of child labor. In the case of tomatoes, though, I had no idea I was supporting both until I read Tomatoland, the tomato’s version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

We also buy fair trade coffee to vote for a world where local cooperatives grow and harvest coffee in conditions safe for the workers and the planet, where workers are paid a fair price for their products, and where crops are not grown in harmony with, rather than at the expense of rain forest.

As we prepare for Halloween, I was thrilled to find Kristen Howerton’s guide to an ethical Halloween because I think Americans spend a lot of time and money ensuring their own kids’ safety, and should learn how the holiday is harmful to other people’s children. Major chocolate companies often get their chocolate from farms that use child labor, child slavery, unsafe working conditions, and grotesque chemicals.

Go read more about the truth behind fun sized chocolate. Then check out one of the alternatives: fair trade chocolate (yum) or treats without any chocolate (also yum). Heck, give out toothbrushes or pencils like I always threaten to do.

Just make sure all children have a chance to be as safe as yours will be on Halloween.

Dear Colorado

I’m so sorry you’re going through this. We’ve had our differences, but wildfires are terrifying and devastating and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone.

For those Coloradans who’ve lost homes and loved ones, I’m so deeply sorry. I know some of the heartbreak you’re dealing with and I know some of the nightmares you’ll face. If you can, find a support group or a professional counselor now. The next few weeks might be desperately hard, and leaning on the family and neighbors offering help might be enough. But it might not be, and that’s not the fault of you or your family and friends. I don’t know you or your lives, but I can tell you that the one-year anniversary could be more devastating that you might imagine, so having a support structure in place now will help then.

For those who were near the fires, please know that you have been through a trauma, too. People will tell you that you’re lucky even though you might feel more terrified and out of control than lucky. They’ll assume you’re fine because your narrow escape was a lack of actual damage.

But you might have some of the same post traumatic stress that other fire survivors have. I don’t pretend to know those whose homes were saved by the incredible efforts of firefighters, but I’m willing to guess that their lives might be consumed with fear and guilt for a while. You are survivors, too. There is no escaping a fire like this. Losing neighbors but not your own home or family is a blessing, but it’s a traumatizing experience, too. A lesson in “almost” and capriciousness and “what happens next time?” I’m glad you’re safe and that your houses still stand. I’m sorry about your loss of security and peace of mind.

Please give yourself the space to grieve. Please find a support group or a counselor to help you through, too. Fire victims have all manner of stories. Even those neighboring Colorado towns who feared the winds might come their way, watching for days every minute of television coverage have a story, will grieve for a while. Allow that, because it helps. I promise you won’t fall to pieces if you let the sadness take over for a part of every day.

Know that fire survivors all over the world feel for you this week, this month, this decade. You’ve joined a terrible, wrenching club. And I’m sorry to have you join us.

Fire fighters: I still don’t have the words and I don’t know that I ever will. With all the talk of heroism, embrace that you’re human. You, too, will have fear, make mistakes, feel guilt, and be emotionally exhausted. You’re allowed to grieve, too. This is what you’re trained for, but it’s scary. I still wish I could find the fire fighter overwhelmed by flames who had to ignore us as we fled down a burning fire escape. He looked so scared and I think we could all use a drink together. Tomorrow works for me.

May all of Colorado sleep well and get the emotional, financial, and spiritual help they need in the coming days and months. Fight the after effects of that bastard fire, survivors.

Be well, Colorado.

Making people into Santas

I wrote two years ago about how Christmas is different in our house. We celebrate every December holiday we can think of: Hanukkah, Solstice, Nana’s birthday, Christmas…

And we try to temper the gift receiving with a lot of giving. When Peanut was almost two he focused on giving to animals at the shelter. When he was almost three he chose to give to the hungry and to animals at the shelter. At almost four we brought toiletries to the homeless, toys to shelter animals, and human toys for toy drives.

And this year he spent almost an hour with me at the Heifer International site, making people we love into Santas.

See, we’ve taught him that the myth of Santa is a story about a man who, a long time ago, gave a lot to people who need. (Yup, we’re the jerks whose kid told your kid that Santa is dead. Cuz he is, yo. His story of selflessness and charity is what’s important and if you’re still pretending that’s your business but I ain’t playing along.) We talk about how the pretend Santas around this time of year are roaming the scenes of capitalist excess to remind people to give to others. Our Solstice-tradition pine cone bird feeders give to animals who need food when it’s cold; and this year our gifts of animals and education to families all over the world make each of our loved ones feel that they can be part of the Santa myth of love, peace, and charity.

Because the more Peanut thinks Christmas is about giving, and the more he thinks about people who need, the better our holidays feel.

Happy Almost Nana’s Birthday, everyone!