The Pope, Kim Davis, and Henry David Thoreau’s Sex Life

This morning my Facebook feed was full of people doubting that Pope Francis had really met with Kim Davis, the Kentucky un-clerk. Then, this afternoon my feed was full of people expressing disappointment and disbelief at the news that he had met with her. People are shocked and upset.


I am disbelieving of the disbelief. I was equally surprised to find people surprised to find out that Caitlyn Jenner is somehow transgendered and a Republican and against marriage equality.

Where have all these surprised people been living? Have they never met someone they liked who held beliefs they didn’t like? Do they not have relatives they love who say obnoxious things? Have they never met a gay bigot? An African-American anti-semite? A Jewish homophobe? Did they never learn that Thoreau slept with Emerson’s wife?

Somehow we’ve gotten in to this way of thinking that we are all one thing or another. We think that if we share some beliefs with someone we must share all our beliefs with that person. So we find ourselves shocked that a Pope could espouse income equality and not espouse marriage equality.

I was raised in a somewhat knee-jerk liberal home where all Republicans were considered stupid. This home was in Kentucky, not exactly a bastion of liberal thought (see Kim Davis). It took me until college to start to see shades of grey and nuance in people’s political beliefs. It was finding out that Marx could sacrifice his own family to his cause, that Thoreau could be both self reliant and bop someone else’s wife, that the guy I worked with could be sexist and still be kind that helped me see beyond a simple dichotomy.

But lately it seems that we find ourselves refusing to believe that someone can be intelligent and well meaning and believe anything different than what we ourselves believe. We unfriend and refuse to have conversations with people in different political parties or with different political beliefs because we’re convinced that everything is all or nothing.

When Walt Whitman wrote “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” He was not just talking about himself, he was talking about the country and people in general.

The Pope believes we should work to fight climate change and income inequality. He does not believe in equal rights for women or marriage equality. He is a brilliant and kind man with some noxious views. Maybe all of this shock and surprise is because more of us are like that than we want to believe.



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Questions about Death on Yom Kippur

Years ago someone told me about a culture where it was considered more of a tragedy when old people died than when young people died. The belief was that when old people died they took a wealth of knowledge and history that the community needed with them. When young people died, it might be sad for their family, but it did not make much of an impact on the community.

It sounds plausible. It also sounds like one of those things that people say to make it sound like other cultures are better than ours, like children in the Amazon can use a machete and our kids have their grapes cut in half for them.

Last week my great-aunt died. She was 95. Many people mentioned how wonderful it was that she lived such a long life. When people expressed their sympathies to me, I made sure to acknowledge that dying at 95 was sad, but not a tragedy.

I did not want anyone to think I was laying claim to more sympathy than that to which I was entitled. But I did think about that mythic culture that mourned the old more than the young. Is it worse to lose a potentially great person than to lose an actual great person?

A few years ago a friend of mine’s father died. In his prime he had been a New York Times bestselling author. There were movie rights sold to his books, he was well known, and then, he slipped in to obscurity. My friend tried to get an obituary of his father published in the New York Times, but they were not interested. At the time I had a freelance job writing book reviews of “literary fiction.” The authors I reviewed were similar to my friend’s father. I could tell you the titles of some books I was the first to review, and you would know them, but not be able to tell me what had happened to the author since. For months I could not stop thinking of the fate of these authors. It seemed tragic to me, to reach success, and then keep going, never really peaking or flaming out.

Today I received a private message on a Facebook account that I manage for a client.

I don’t know who to reach out to about this, but a very dear person in my life worked for you guys and recently passed away. Her name was S. I don’t know if she had close friends from work but if so, I wanted to leave my contact information for anyone that wants to reach out regarding a Celebration of Life. My name is A, and I can be reached by Facebook, email, or phone. I know X Corp is probably a large place but I hope this information can get to the right people.

I wrote her back and expressed my sympathies. I asked her if she knew for what department her friend had worked, or when. She did not. She knew that she had been interested in one day becoming a programmer and that she had left on medical leave some time this summer.

I wondered about that. Was it more of a tragedy to die leaving behind millions who would feel your loss, or to die leaving behind a few friends unsure of where you worked? Is it more of a tragedy to die at the height of your career, to be Jonathan Larson, dying just before the premiere of Rent, or to be S, dying with the hope of one day becoming a programmer.

Here is the answer: Yes.

There is no hierarchy of grief.

Each loss diminishes us, each death is a tragedy.

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Missing Rosh Hashanah

Today Fidel, who is laying tile in my basement, said the weather feels like winter in Puerto Vallarta, and he is homesick. I know how he feels.

It does not feel like winter in Louisville, it feels like Fall. It feels like it is time to put on a new dress and tights and walk to shul. As a child I received two new dresses a year, for the high holidays. Everything else was a hand-me-down from my older sister and/or saved from the year before. We weren’t poor, but I was tiny and I never grew, everything always fit. I still remember my 6th grade Rosh Hashana dress. A silvery-purplish-grey wool jumper with subtle purple and blue threads woven throughout. The skirt was full enough to twirl and lined so that it wasn’t itchy. I spent services that day tracing the purple and blue threads on my skirt.

I would like to be wearing that dress. I would like to walk to shul with my family, day dreaming about the rare treat of afternoon TV I’ll get later that day. I’d like to sit in my assigned seat in the smaller sanctuary, where on the first day of Rosh Hashanah we get the guest rabbi and our own cantor. I’d like to see my pediatrician in front of me and that weird old man with the nose hairs on the end of the row. I would like to catch my best friend’s eye and in a carefully orchestrated dance not leave at the exact same time and then meet to go hang out in the bride’s room and watch the older girls and younger women primp in the mirror.

I would like to see my first crush, a boy ten years older than me, the son of my first and favorite Hebrew School teacher. She would whisper to me, “Don’t worry, one day he won’t be so old and you can be my daughter.” But of course, he grew up before me and married someone else. She told my mother to tell me when they divorced, and then a few years later he died of leukemia.

I do not want to go to my own temple today. I like the rabbi. He is my age and smart, and kind and thoughtful, I consider him a friend. He does not waste his biggest audience of the year with sermons against intermarriage or for Israel, as the rabbi I grew up with did. He talks about social justice and spirituality, topics that should be discussed on the holidays. Still I sit there bored, longing to be a teenager sneaking out for a cigarette.

This summer I had a bit of a tiff with the temple over a change in their education policy. It has brought up for me all the things I am missing. These things are not the temple’s fault but it has made it clear to me that this temple is not my home and it is not my children’s home. My 6th grader will not go to services today in a lovely new dress to sit on scratchy wool seats. Instead, she has gone off to school. There is no bride’s room or place for young girls to congregate and giggle, and if there were, she has no one with whom to giggle. School is her home and she does not want to miss a day to sit on a folding chair in the back of a cold room for two hours.

Last night I made a honey cake but I cannot go to that temple and long for home.

So today Fidel will work in the basement and I will work upstairs in the study he built me and we will both dream of warmer climates.

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Paddle to the Sea Park!

My son’s favorite book is “Paddle to the Sea.” It’s not really “about” anything as much as it is the travelogue of a toy carving of a wooden canoe with an Indian in it. It was given to my son by mistake. His grandparents had remembered it as one of his father’s favorite books. His father had never seen it before.

It’s an easy mistake to make. The book was written in 1941 and follows Paddle from Lake Nipigon in Canada through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. My husband’s favorite childhood book is One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey. It’s an exploration of (wait for it) the weather one morning in Maine. They are both the kind of book that leave normal kids asking when someone is going to fall through a magic wardrobe or into a covered wagon.

Although people often look at his dark curls and bright blue eyes and declare my son his father’s mini-me, the truth is that usually, it is the two of us that are alike. We laugh at the same things, we cry at the same things and oh do we struggle with the same things. We are left-handed melon heads and we share a bond that those scientifically minded, right-handed tiny heads in our family don’t.

But his love of sports, his love of nature, and his willingness to read and reread description after description of a place, those come from his father.

We had a trip planned to Lake Superior and my husband discovered that there was a park in Nipigon, Ontario based on Paddle to the Sea. The whole way there, for days, my son and I annoyed my daughter and husband by singing a song we made up. The words are “Paddle to the Sea Park, what, what, what, what.” We’re considering making it the first release on an album we’re planning titled “Joey from the Block, feat. Lil’ Mama.” My husband and daughter put up with a lot from us.

While singing the song we both secretly worried that the park might not live up to our expectations, while insisting to my daughter that it would. We became more worried when we stopped in White River, Ontario, apparently the birthplace of the bear Winnie who, named after Winnipeg, would go live in the London Zoo and provide the inspiration for Winnie-the-Pooh (my type of childhood book by the way). This was their park.

statue of Winnie the PoohThere was also this statue, which, um I am including without comment.

wooden statue of bear and soldierBut Paddle to the Sea did not disappoint.

Paddle to the Sea ParkThe park covers several blocks. For the most part, each part of the park is normal playground equipment that’s simply been arranged and themed to cover a part of the book. Here’s a bridge that Paddle crosses under.

Playground bridgeHere’s the forest fire he passes through.

Playground equipment

But if you look closely, you see a tiny figure of Paddle to the Sea hidden in each section.

slideAnd if you look even closer, you see an eleven-year-old who swore it would be boring, playing. (look just above her hands for another Paddle)

playground equipmentWe played in the park for over an hour. Spent the night in a nearby hotel and went back the next day to play again and pose with Paddle.

Paddle to the SeaThen we moved on. We followed more of Paddle’s adventure, and created our own. One day I’m sure that I will give my son’s kid a copy of Paddle to the Sea. Who knows, I may also give that child another book that my son never read and a whole new adventure will start.

child on playground

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Can We Use the F Word

A few weeks ago a friend of mine posted something like this on Facebook “Overheard at the playground from a Mother sitting on swing talking to her daughter: ‘God this makes me feel fat.'”

Everyone, including me, tsk tsked the overheard, non-enlightened mother. Does she really not know the damage she’s doing to her daughter? That poor girl is now destined to have a  lifetime of poor body image.

As I said, I joined in the tsk-tsking, too. Of course I did. For over eleven years now, since the day I gave birth to a girl, I have been careful to never mention the words “diet” or “fat” or to express discomfort with my appearance in front of her. I have pretended that I work out because I want to be “healthy” and that I don’t want that brownie sundae because I’m “full.” I have pretended that I have hot wax poured over my eyebrows and then ripped off my face because I enjoy it.

So far, it seems to have worked. As far as I can tell, my daughter has no body image issues. She never complains about being fat or calls other people fat. When I ask if she and her friends ever talk about diets or being overweight or how people look she tells me they have better things to do. Incidentally, my nine-year-old son also seems pretty happy with his body, at least judging by the amount of time he spends walking around the house naked.

But lately I’ve been wondering if I’m wrong. Parenting already involves a lot of self-censorship. As my neighbor said, “you want to maintain the adult status.” So, you don’t say things like “No, you’re the big idiot head,” or  “Jesus Christ you crybaby.” or “For the love of all that’s holy, do not tell me that story again.” You think it, but you do not say it.

I do not say things that will hurt my children’s feelings and I do not swear in front of my kids. Is adding self-censorship about my body really a good way to teach healthy self-esteem?

My daughter isn’t an idiot. Eventually she’s going to figure out that after a night where I was woken up by dogs, kids, and a husband running at 6 a.m. is not “healthy.” She knows what a brownie sundae tastes like, she surely already knows that it is physically impossible to be too full to eat a brownie sundae.

Eventually, she will know that if you take your 40-something ass and try and squeeze it in to a playground swing built for a five-year-old, it will make you feel like a sausage. It will make you feel fat. So, why can’t you say that?

I have always wondered why calling yourself or anyone else “fat” is forbidden. Try going in to a room of women and saying, “I feel fat.” You’ll instantly be met with a chorus of “Oh my god, you are so not fat” and “If you’re fat I’d hate to know what I am!”

In February when a film critic referred to Amy Schumer as “chubby” and an “unrealistic” object of romantic desire she took to Twitter to proclaim that she wasn’t chubby she was a “proud size 6.”

Whether or not Amy Schumer is a size six is debatable, but either way, she is chubby. So what? The issue isn’t whether or not she’s chubby, she is. The issues are 1. Why is a film critic spending so much space on the actress’ appearance instead of her performance or the movie she wrote and 2. Why does he think being chubby makes you unattractive or unlovable?

I loved Schumer so much more in June when she accepted a Glamour “Woman of the Year” Award not by proclaiming how thin she was but by saying, “I’m like 160 pounds right now, and I can catch a dick whenever I want, and that’s the truth.”

The problem isn’t being fat or feeling fat, the problem is thinking that your weight is all that matters. The problem is thinking that weight defines you or anyone else. The problem is that thinking you’re fat also means you’re unlovable or incapable of catching a dick.

When I talk to my female friends we talk about a lot of things. We talk about work, politics, art, television, food, sex, and sometimes we talk about our weight, or the ways our aging bodies seem to be betraying us. This conversation is part of our lives as women, but we aren’t allowed to share that part with our daughters.

Lately it seems like we’ve been replacing all the old oppressive rules about eating small portions and being polite and well mannered with new oppressive rules. Women should never use upspeak? We shouldn’t say that we “feel” or “believe” something, and most recently we learned that we just shouldn’t use the word “just.” We shouldn’t offer to make the coffee or help a coworker or do anything that might mean we’re perceived as care-taking.

If you are a middle-aged American woman and you have never thought to yourself, “I feel fat” or “I wish my thighs were smaller” if you have never convinced yourself that it was worth it to spend $100 on eye cream, then more power to you sister. It makes perfect sense that you never mention your weight or your wrinkles to your daughter.

But for the rest of us, those of us who have spent a lifetime living in and thinking about our imperfect bodies, why are we adding this pressure? Why do we think that refusing to acknowledge that we are fat or have imperfect bodies will help our daughters be accepting of their own bodies? Why do we think that practicing a constant form of self-censorship will help our girls grow in to healthy and confident women?

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Memorial Day Weekend

On Thursday night my friend Sandy’s father died. I was feeling sad for her and sad for myself, for being at the stage of life where your friends’ parents die. My friends Vince and Miller called. They are also friends of Sandy’s and for them the news of her father’s death had sparked one of those arguments that only a couple who has been together since high school can have.

They called me to settle the question of whether Miller had dated a certain boy (the answer, yes). The conversation spun off in to trying to put together a timeline of our young lives and romances, memories of stupid things we did, and for reasons best left unsaid, an unquenchable desire to watch the movie Camelot. I went to bed still sad for Sandy, but also laughing and grateful to have so many people who share my memories.

Saturday I got to see Sheila and Kate, friends I haven’t seen in years. Sheila’s father also recently died. She and I, both mothers, talked about how much we missed lazy Saturdays spent wandering in and out of stores and meeting people for coffee. Kate is a real-life Hollywood writer. Sheila and I wanted dirt on that most nostalgic of shows, Mad Men, which Kate used to work on. We had questions such as, “Is Jon Hamm really that good looking?” (ok, that was my question and apparently, yes). But we also just wanted to talk about the characters.

I mentioned that in watching reruns recently I noticed how much more fun Joan used to be and used to have. Kate agreed, “I think she did used to have more fun when she was younger, she hadn’t been worn down, she hadn’t had a kid, she hadn’t been raped.”  The three of us spent a long, effortless time talking about our careers and our declining eyesight.

That night my husband Danny and I went out for our anniversary. We went to our old neighborhood and ate a delicious dinner in what used to be a hang-out bar with no menu. We went to a play at a theater where we had both seen a lot of plays, and also where I used to take resist-a-ball class, because of course.

My friend Phil co-wrote and stars in the play and at one point, standing very near us, he begins a monologue. As the monologue progresses Danny and I realize that the story he is telling involves Danny’s oldest friend Eric, who committed suicide five years ago. The story is not about Eric, or his death, but about an old apartment of Phil’s. Eric and Phil were neighbors.

Later, over dessert, Danny and I try to joke about it. “Well, it’s not every day that a play brings up your best friend’s suicide, and not even thematically, but literally.” But all these memories are too close to the surface in this neighborhood where we used to live. The jokes fall flat and we bring home our uneaten desserts.

On Sunday, Danny and I take our son Joey to the forest preserve to  learn how to ride a bike. This is not an unloaded situation. It starts with a fight between Danny and Joey on whether or not today is the day, which leads in to a more general fight and tears. I can not ride a bike, and have tried to stay as far away from my kids learning how to ride a bike as possible. I don’t want to put my childhood on them. But Joey wants the dog and me to come along.

I take the dog for a walk and fifteen minutes later I get a phone call. “Mommy, I can do it, come back.”

When I come back I see him, my beautiful son. He is pedaling quickly but effortlessly, a wide smile on his face, he looks as though he’s been riding for years. His father watches from behind, an equally wide smile on his face.

When we were in college Miller told me that I was the only person he knew who looked forward to nostalgia. It’s true, sometimes I live too much in the past. I hold grudges and memories close to my heart. Maybe it is because I’m a writer, or maybe I’m a writer because I am always reworking something that is already past. There is an undeniable joy and comfort for me in reliving the past, even the painful parts, and in reconnecting with those who were there with me.

But sometimes the trip down memory lane is too bumpy even for me. At those times even I know that the best thing you can do is pedal quickly in to the future.

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Lessons Learned in the Rain at 4 a.m.

At four this morning my husband and I  heard a tick, ticking sound coming from the direction of his dresser. I assumed that my husband had accidentally set an alarm on his new phone, or that his old phone had somehow come back to life and was about to explode. He went over to the dresser, but could not find the source of the noise. I began thinking uncharitable thoughts about how messy his dresser was and that if he’d keep it clear, he would be able to find things.

He felt something wet. Later, he told me that he assumed he had gotten a text and his phone had vibrated knocking a glass of water over. At 4 am that theory made a lot of sense. In reality, it was raining, in our room.

Our house is under construction and we are currently without a roof. There was a 20% chance of rain last night and the odds were not in our favor.

We cleared most of my husband’s dresser and covered the rest with a towel. We went upstairs to investigate. The parts of the roof that were covered in a tarp were fine, but there were a few spots here and there where the tarp had not been nailed down or was missing. These spots happened to be over our bedroom and living room.

We looked for our camping tarp, but couldn’t find it since most of our non everyday items are in storage. I hit upon the idea of using the shower curtain from our now non existent basement shower. My husband wanted to look for nails to nail the curtain where the tarp should be. Although we’re living in a construction site, we could not find nails and so that is how I found myself at 4:30 in the morning trying to duct tape a polka dot shower curtain to a roof beam.

Duct tape does not solve everything. Eventually, we simply put the shower curtain on the ground hoping to catch some of the water, or keep it from seeping through to our bedroom. We moved the industrial garbage cans the workers had helpfully left under the worst spots and went back to bed.

We slept for half an hour, then the noise started again. This time it was raining hard and the drips were in our hallways and dripping through the main floor to the basement. So, we covered more things with towels and buckets.

I had been fairly amazed that all the commotion had not woken up our kids, blissfully asleep in the part of the house that still has a roof. My nine-year-old woke up for a few minutes and asked me to stay with him. It was tempting to climb in to that warm bed and sneak in some snuggles, but I got back out put down a few more towels and then the rain stopped again. We snuck in another half an hour or so of sleep.

It was cold and tiring but I had one thought: My husband and I had been woken up at 4 am, there was water coming in our bedroom and we did not yell at each other. Maybe that’s normal, but I grew up in a house where the fact that it was raining outside of the house might cause people to yell at each other.

When I tried to duct tape a polka dot shower curtain to the roof my husband did not insult me. When he suggested that we move a very large, heavy pile of roofing planks out of the way to better position the garbage can I did not insult him. We didn’t actually try and help each other do either of those absurd things, but we let each other try it and then we got back to work together.

I was never sure I wanted to be married. I liked the idea of having someone to change the lightbulbs and reach the high things, but the idea of living with someone, of having someone in my space all the time was hard for me to get behind.

Next month will be our twelfth anniversary. Like any normal human being I’ve spent a little time over the past dozen years of marriage thinking about what it might be like to still be single. I’ve imagined how nice it might be to not have someone who wants to talk when I want to read. I’ve dreamed about clean bathrooms and eating ice cream straight out of the carton.

But I think if you wake up at 4 am and it’s raining in your bedroom and you don’t want to kill the person lying next to you, then you’ve probably got a good thing going.

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