What I Used to Know

To be honest, I didn’t realize it was the anniversary of the Challenger Disaster until a friend mentioned it on Facebook. It happened when she was 12 and she said that for her it symbolized an end of childhood.

I was 17, a senior in high school, and if you had asked me at the time, long past childhood. I knew all there was to know about sex, drugs, love, and death. I knew all there was to know about the hypocrisy of adults. I had lived in the Third World. I knew!

I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now

We were supposed to be in English class, but we were in the library watching the launch on TV. Our beloved senior English teacher, Ms. Hay, had recently won an award as a top teacher in the state, and then was promoted out of the classroom and in to the district office. We spent about a week in the library, waiting for a replacement.

Because, as I knew, adults mess everything up.

When our replacement came it was a woman named Jane Norman. It seems absurd now, but within weeks we all learned one fact about Jane Norman: She shared a husband with Playwright Marsha Norman.

Today I can’t remember if she was the first wife of a man who went on to marry Marsha Norman or if she was his second wife, after Marsha Norman.

I knew there were a few true teachers, people like Ms. Hay, who wanted to be English teachers. But I also knew that most English teachers were failed writers who either hadn’t taken a chance or had taken a chance and failed. (Or, in the case of our high school, sometimes they were former college basketball stars who were mainly needed to coach the high school team, but that’s a different story).

I knew, that Jane Norman must be miserable. To share a husband with a famous playwright when you yourself were nothing but a high school English teacher teaching Advanced Placement, clearly a class of geniuses destined to do great things? I knew there could be nothing worse.

I remember watching the explosion on TV and I don’t remember anything else that happened that day. Did the school leave the TV on? What period was it? Did we go to other classes? Did we take it as an excuse to leave and go get stoned at Big Rock?

I remember knowing everything there was to know about what life was like and what my future life would be like. I remember knowing that the worst things that could happen to me had already happened to me. I remember knowing that the people I was watching TV with at that moment would always be my best friends, but I also knew that soon all of us would blow off Louisville, KY and never look back. I remember knowing that my own life would be fabulous and one day, I too would touch the sky.

I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

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These Are the Days it Never Rains but it Pours

Was it just over a week ago? My son woke me up at 3 a.m. because he couldn’t sleep, and then, he quickly fell back asleep in my bed. By then I was awake worrying about money and a strange sore on my leg that had been bothering me, and the environment, and my husband’s job stress, and my daughter, and summer camp schedules, and my son.

I went downstairs and checked Facebook and learned that David Bowie had died of cancer.

I do not like the the way we mourn celebrities and artists, especially on Facebook. It seems selfish and self-centered. We are not their children or spouses or friends, or even co-workers. We did not know them. We still have access to all of their genius, to everything we loved about them. How dare we complain that there is not more? Why do we decide that we get a say in the meaning of their death?  I do not generally cry for celebrities, I do not generally comment on their deaths, but I saw the news and I laid down on my son’s bean bag chair and cried myself to sleep.

My very first memory of Bowie is from Jewish summer camp. I was sick with a high fever. For several days I stayed in the infirmary. I knew I was sick because I was allowed a special privilege, a counselor was allowed to bring me his Walkman to listen to music.

I don’t remember what cassettes he had, except for Changes One. I had a high fever and I stared at the beautiful face and I listened to the album over and over again. I dreamed I was in a space ship, I dreamed I was being chased by dogs, and then, I dreamed I was dancing in a basement with a beautiful man. I was eleven and I remember very clearly listening to “John, I’m Only Dancing” and realizing, “Wait, he’s dating the man, but he’s dancing with a woman.”

When you are eleven in 1980, maybe even when you are eleven in 2016, your world is fairly black and white. People fit in to categories that you’ve learned about. If you are being raised in a liberal home you don’t judge them, but still there are categories. Male and female, black and white, Jewish and not Jewish, straight and gay.

But then, you are eleven and you have a fever and right in the middle of a Jewish camp where everyone has more beads on their add-a-bead necklace than you do and everyone knows how to play tennis, and probably everyone in the cabin will get their period before you, right in the middle of that camp you meet a space alien who tells you that it’s not really like that. You meet someone who tells you that you can look and feel any way you want. You meet someone who tells you life is not just about studying and violin lessons and preparing for your Bat Mitzvah. You meet someone who tells you that you do not have to fit in with these people. You do not have to grow up and do all the things normal people do.

Eventually, the camp had to take me to the nearby hospital where they gave me antibiotics and within a day or two I was back at camp activities. That same summer I had my first French kiss, a boy named Marc, in front of the library, before the dance festival. I went home and bought David Bowie albums, and cut pictures of Bowie out of magazines.

I went to a Performing Arts High School and there was no shortage of would-be David Bowies to date. Dancers and singers and actors with fluffy 1980s hair and eyeliner. It was the early days of cable and I stayed home from school to watch David Bowie in Just a Gigolo and Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat. I kept two scrapbooks, one of pictures of Bowie and the other of ideas for decorating Windows, Tallulah Bankhead’s house in upstate New York. I wore a locket, on one side a picture of Bowie, on the other Tallulah. I went to my first high school dance, a costume party, with a tall thin blond boy. He was dressed as Errol Flynn in Robin Hood and I was dressed as Tallulah.

I grew out of the fan stage, because you have to, but I never outgrew Bowie. He was always there as a symbol of everything life could be, if I could just figure out what I wanted. I was not beautiful or glamorous enough to be Tallulah, but being Bowie was a constantly changing act, you did not have to be anything but fearless. I never truly figured out what I wanted, and I am not fearless and so my life is decidedly lacking in glamour. But I have still always felt like Bowie was there as much for me as for those who were truly creative and risk taking.

The morning  that I found out Bowie died I went to the doctor about the strange sore on my leg.  I spent the day in doctors’ offices and waiting for surgery and it all seemed somehow surreal, what I originally thought was a pimple now required surgery. But it also made sense. This is what happens in a world without Bowie. In a world without Bowie your life can be derailed by something as mundane as a pimple. A world without Bowie lacks glamour and magic.

I did not know David Bowie. I will still listen to his music and watch his movies and when I see a picture of him or hear his voice at whatever stage, it will still make me smile and melt a little.

My life will not be different because he is gone, but it is different because he lived.




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Giving up Baseball and Turning 10

My son has decided, he won’t play baseball this year. “I don’t have to be a player to be involved in the game,” he told me. “Harry Caray never played, Theo Epstein was never a professional player.”

He’ll be ten next week and the limiting of options has started. MLB player has been crossed off the list.

It’s not that I thought he could become a professional baseball player, but he believed he could. For ten years he’s believed he could be anything he wanted, and now he doesn’t. He still believes he can become a professional football or soccer or hockey player. He still believes he could be general manager of a baseball team, but he no longer believes that he can become a professional baseball player. It’s one small item crossed off the list.

He’s not quitting baseball just because it’s no longer necessary for his professional future. Over the past couple of years, as he’s moved from t-ball to coach pitch and kid pitch, it’s gotten less fun. Baseball is a lot of pressure and a lot of work and this is not a kid that likes pressure. Much to my chagrin, he’s like me. He’s not a kid that likes to work hard, he’s not a kid that puts pressure on himself to achieve. “Baseball just isn’t my forte,” he told me, and so we move on. He hasn’t found the thing that will get him to keep trying even when it’s hard. I’m not surprised,  at 47, neither has his mother.

As he gives up his dreams of third base, I’m having my own career crisis. Content and comfortable and so, so, so lucky that I make money doing what I do, from my house, but missing something, a drive or a purpose, the thing that will make me want to try just a little harder. The first thing I remember “wanting to be” when I grew up was a gas station attendant. I liked the idea of wearing coveralls, of getting dirty and not having to clean up, of getting to spend my day talking to all the different people that would come in to the gas station.

I think I wanted to be a movie star or an actress after that, a lawyer at one point, then a psychiatrist. I wanted to be an ambassador and an arts administrator. I wanted to own a hotel. I have a BA in Philosophy, an MA in English. It’s not a background that screams, “Here’s your job, this is what you were meant to do.”

I still love the idea of wearing the same clothes every day and talking to strangers, but unless I move to New Jersey or Oregon, there’s not a lot of future in pumping gas.

So my boy and I are moving in to new phases. He’s going double digits and with that, I’m no longer the mother of little kids. He is giving up baseball and I no longer have an excuse to spend a spring day sitting in a field chatting with friends. I need to find something other than him and his sister to devote my energy to.

He is growing up and I am growing older and I hope there’s time for us both to discover that passion.



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Dick Jokes and Religious Greetings

The other day I was thinking about “Big Johnson” t-shirts. These were shirts that featured stupid dick jokes and caricatures of big breasted women. They were popular in the 1990s before we had social media as an outlet on which college students could show their stupidity.

At the time that the shirts were popular I was a T.A. (no pun intended) at the University of Cincinnati. I taught Freshman English and I had a student who wore one of these shirts almost every day. I remember a couple of times, when trying to teach about debate and presenting opinions, bringing up the shirts, asking others to discuss why they were or were not appropriate in a classroom. I was desperate to involve the student in the class, and I thought maybe talking about his shirt would help (in my defense I was 24 years old with zero teaching experience and in charge of a class of people 5 years younger than me).

As you might predict with a roomful of 19-year-olds, the boys all said the shirts were “fine” or “funny,” the girls looked uncomfortable and said nothing. The guy wearing the shirt only participated in the conversation once, he said “Why should I care if anyone is offended?” I went back to using “Should 18 year olds be allowed to drink” as my debate example.

I was thinking about these shirts the other day both because Slate published a surprisingly nostalgic article about the shirts and because I got an email from a teacher. The email was signed with a greeting that in my experience is almost always an expression of faith.

Now, I am not offended by expressions of faith and I am not offended by dick jokes, but I do feel they each have their place, and a public classroom isn’t the place for either of them.

I asked on Facebook what others thought of the signature. Opinions ran the gamut from “Totally inappropriate” to “Inappropriate, but what are you gonna do” to “Absolutely not inappropriate” to “Wait, you think that’s religious?” and shades of thoughtful nuance in between.

But there were two responses that kept coming up in various forms that irked me. One was the idea that “If you are offended, you should say something, you should educate the teacher.” The other was the contrasting idea that while this wasn’t appropriate, it wasn’t something big enough for me to be upset over or to bring up.

It’s taken me a while to put my finger on what irks me about those responses and it goes back to the dick joke shirts.

It is unfair that a young woman has to say to a young man, “I don’t really like looking at pictures of dicks and big boobs when I’m trying to get an education or do my job.” It is unfair that she should have to risk making herself vulnerable to charges of being humorless or thin-skinned. It is unfair, but it’s also ok, not everything is fair.

As a private individual my student had every right to wear whatever he wanted, no matter how offensive. Others, including me, his teacher, had the right to be offended or not and to express that state of offense to him. Despite what the current culture of trigger warnings says, being offensive and offended is part of the college experience, it’s part of how people learn. If you are offended by something a private individual does, you either need to say something or deal with it. My student made his opinions of other people’s feelings clear, and that was his right.

Despite the fact that her statement of religious belief was innocuous and well-meant, and not the least bit offensive, the public school teacher, sending an email from a government-owned computer, on government provided email, discussing official school business, does not have the same rights.

Why is it up to the Jewish or atheist mother to say, “I don’t find your expression of religion in a public school appropriate.” Why do I have to leave myself open to the accusation that I’m weird enough to be offended by good wishes?

Why is it up to a parent to have to weigh the different inappropriate things and decide “You know, I’m going to mention the historically inaccurate information about Jews that this teacher teaches, but I’m not going to mention the religious Christmas music blasting in his room.”

Why do I have to decide if it’s worth risking my children’s relationship with their teachers to point out that a public school should not be contracting for outdoor education with an organization that has as their stated mission, “bringing people to Christ through the outdoors”?

If it’s not a big deal for a teacher to use a religious expression in her signature, shouldn’t it also not be a big deal for the school to ask her to change it? Why is the presumption that if it is not a big deal the person bothered should keep their mouth shut?

If I’m being generous, I could also ask, why should it be up to the principal of the school to constantly have to weigh the concerns of parents against the fact that she has to work with her teachers a lot longer than she does the parents?

The answer is fairly obvious, it’s up to the parent or the principal because being sensitive to the various religious sensibilities of parents is not any more a priority to the school district than caring what others thought of his dick shirt was to the 19-year-old freshman.

If being sensitive were a priority, we would not be locked in a constant cycle of “troublesome situation, parent addresses situation, school apologies for situation and on to the next troublesome situation, surprisingly similar to the one before it.”

It is ok for a 19-year-old to not care if he is offending anyone with his shirt and to put the onus on explaining that offense on those offended.

It is not ok for a school district to not care if they are violating the law and to put the onus of explaining that violation on parents.

I will not say anything to this teacher or the school about this email signature because I have gone down this road one too many times before with this school. I know that the very best I can hope for is that I will get an apology from the principal, a promise to discuss the issue and then, two weeks from now, I will learn about some other issue that maybe, probably I should bring up.

It is ok for me to value my own sanity above trying to teach religious diversity and sensitivity to a teacher or a school. It’s not ok that I’m constantly asked to make that choice.








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Slouching Towards Bethlehem

The world is not ending.

You could be forgiven for thinking that it is. The attacks in San Bernadino and Paris and Lebanon. The execution of a child in an alley and the murders of black teenagers by police in Chicago. Global warming, and for Pete’s sake, Donald Trump rising in the polls.

You could be forgiven for thinking that these are the end days, that surely, as Yeats wrote, “The centre can not hold.”

A lot of my fellow former English majors have been turning to Yeats lately. His poem, The Second Coming is the natural choice for the world we’re living in.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Clearly, this is where we are. Yes?

I think many of us are retreating. I have made more bread in the past month than I have in the past year. I am baking and cleaning and luxuriating in my new couch. Last night for Hanukkah I made an enormous thing of applesauce, made, as in peeled all those apples and cooked them. My son mentioned matzo ball soup and so today I am making him matzo ball soup for dinner. It’s like my normal instinct to nest in the winter is on overdrive. If the world is going to end tomorrow I don’t want to be in Cincinnati with Mark Twain, I want to be here, with my children.

But here is the thing we forget about Yeats. Yeats believed in a philosophy involving “gyres,” basically cycles of history. It is the opening line of “The Second Coming,” “Turning and turning in the widening gyre” and at the end of the poem “That twenty centuries of stony sleep/ Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.” For Yeats, the gyres, the cycles of human history were 2,000 years.

Because history is a cycle.

Of course we think the world is ending. We’re humans and we like things to be linear. We like there to be a food chain, and we’re at the top of it. We like there to be an evolutionary chain, and we’re at the top of it. We like history to be a march toward a better world, and because we plainly see that we are not at the top of it, we think we might possibly be at the bottom. How could the world possibly go on without me, without you, without us?

But it does.

When the volcano erupted in Pompeii people must have believed the world was ending. During the plague, people must have believed the world was ending. During the Holocaust, during the Armenian genocide, people must have believed it was all ending. During the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, Yeats believed the world was ending.

In a way it was, of course.

But here we are, living in this imperfect world.

The danger in believing that the world is ending is that it allows us to retreat. There is nothing wrong with making applesauce and baking bread. There is nothing wrong with watching TV and tweeting. There is nothing wrong with crying for all the unnecessary lives lost and spending some time paralyzed by that grief.

But the world is not ending, and so we cannot shut it out completely. We have to recognize that we are neither at the top nor the bottom of the chain.

We can find comfort in our insignificance, in the fact that the world will not end with us. We can find comfort, and hopefully a little inspiration to try and move the gyre just a little in the other direction.

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A Tale of Two Nine Year Olds

On Thursday my nine-year-old came home from school and excitedly asked me, “Did you know there were gunshots in front of D’s house last night.” I did know and I told him that it was all under control, a drug deal from Chicago, a few blocks over had gone bad. Some of the people shooting were hurt, but none of his friends or their neighbors.

We left for the airport to go to D.C. for his cousin’s bar mitzvah. When we got to the airport my husband checked his phone and was greeted by a headline that in Chicago nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee had been lured in to an alley and executed.

Usually when we travel there’s a lot of conversation about sleeping arrangements. My 11 year old likes to sleep by herself. The nine year old likes to sleep as close to another human being as possible and my husband and I naturally like to sleep together. Sometimes we wind up with my daughter and me in one bed and my son and husband in another. Sometimes we start off kids in one bed, adults in another and my son makes his way to our bed during the night. Sometimes we make a bed on the floor for one of the kids, sometimes for my husband.

This trip there was no debate. The room had a king size bed and a pull out couch. The eleven year old got the couch and my husband and I gladly put our nine year old in bed in between us, grateful for his squirminess, grateful for the small arms and legs thrown carelessly over our bodies, grateful for his safety.

On Friday we were D.C. tourists and my son got over tired and overwhelmed as he sometimes does. My husband took our daughter and her cousin ahead and my son and I sat and shared a Coke at the World War II Memorial. We talked about our favorite presidents (Carter for me, Teddy Roosevelt for him) and he informed me that he’d be voting for Bernie Sanders because he cared about poor people. He looked around and saw the Lincoln Memorial, “Wait, is that where Martin Luther King gave his speech?” he asked. I told him it was and he was ready to keep moving on.

We got to the top of the steps and he proudly said, “I could be standing right where Martin Luther King once stood.” On the long walk back to the Metra he repeatedly asked when we would be able to find a Nationals Hat and could he also get a Capitals shirt?

My husband and I worry so much about my son. We worry about his temper, about his new found refusal to eat any vegetables that aren’t cucumbers. We worry about his eczema and his asthma. We worry that the interest in Martin Luther King and justice is so quickly replaced by the interest in what he can have. We worry that he is bored in school. We worry that we are not good enough parents. We have the worries that every parent of every child should have.

We have never once worried that he would be executed in an alley on his way home from school.


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Feminism in the Sandwich Generation

The other day my daughter asked me if I thought Winnie the Pooh was sexist because it only has one female character. I told her that any individual work only having one, or or even no, female characters wasn’t sexist. The problem is that the accepted canon of children’s literature doesn’t have equal representations of girls and women.

What I was thinking was, “Eleven seems a little young to be analyzing your childhood.”

Later, we were looking at pictures of her Halloween costume and I said, “I don’t know, you’re awfully pretty to be Ursula.” She said, “Mommy, Ursula is beautiful. She’s evil, but she’s beautiful, the two don’t have anything to do with each other.”

That night before bed she asked me if Peter Pan passed the Bechdel test. I said I wasn’t sure. She thought maybe Tiger Lilly and Tinkerbell might have some conversation at some point.

It was clear that she wanted the story she loves to pass so I told her, “You know honey, it’s not a real test, it’s just something a writer made up as a joke with a friend. Passing or not passing doesn’t make a work sexist or not sexist and just because a work is sexist doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.”

The next day I heard Gloria Steinem interviewed on Fresh Air (or as my best friend and I like to say, FRESH! AIIIIIR!). In the part of the  interview that I heard, Steinem repeatedly talked about the apex of life being from 20-52. She said at 50 women were done raising their children and could return to the way they felt at 9 of 10, free of the constraints of gender.

I’m 46. When I am 50 my children will be 13 and 15. My friend is 50, her youngest child is 6. Most 50 and almost 50 and recently 50 year olds I know are still pretty much in the thick of things, raising children, looking for jobs, wondering what to wear, entering the dating market or working on their marriages.  We are nowhere near free of the constraints of gender.

Speaking of those marriages, Steinem’s newest book includes a passage that essentially says that liberal women who don’t support Hillary Clinton are unhappy with their own marriages.

I can not think of Steinem without thinking of my own second wave feminist mother, a few years younger than Steinem. As a teenager I often asked my mother questions such as, “Why did you get married so young if you weren’t ready?” and “Why did you change your name if you didn’t want to?” She would answer, “That’s just what people did.” And I remember, (with some shame now), throwing Gloria Steinem in her face. “Gloria Steinem didn’t get married.” “Jane Fonda didn’t change her name.”

I was a teenager and it was hard for a teenager in the 1980s being raised as a feminist to understand that if it is 1964 and you are 24 and smart, Jewish, and getting a PhD and your family has always worried how such a smart girl will get married and then a really good looking man who is also smart, Jewish, and getting a PhD asks you to marry him, even if you are not 100% sure that’s what you want, you say yes and you leave Columbia University and move to Indiana and finish grad school at IU. It is hard for a teenager to understand why an adult would spend years fuming at synagogue mail addressed to “Dr. and Mrs.” instead of calling the office and telling them to change it.

But as an adult, I understand. I understand that the world is not perfect and there are only so many battles any one person can wage at any one time. That sometimes you just go with the flow because it is exhausting to fight everything and if you want to live in a community and have friends you can not always fight the community.

So I appreciate Steinem. I appreciate the sacrifices she made. I appreciate that she did things differently. But she is out of touch and I bristle a little at the idea that she is still  trotted out as the voice of feminism. Steinem, and second wave feminism in general, has always faced accusations of ignoring non-middle class women, women of color, queer women. But at this point, Steinem doesn’t even know what’s up with white, middle-age, middle-class, liberal feminists, let alone anyone else.

This morning on BuzzFeed I saw an article entitled, “How to Be a Gender Queer Feminist.” The subtitle reads in part, “Feminism’s focus on women can be alienating to queer people and anyone questioning the gender binary.”

At the bottom of the article you can rate it. Some of your choices include, “Fresh,” “LOL,” “WTF,” a heart and a broken heart.

So on one side, there is my daughter, just learning what it means to look through a lens. On the other side is my mother’s generation, having at one point fought the status quo, now retreating in to their own version of it.

Along the way are today’s young campus feminists who want to censor syllabi and include trigger warnings on The Great Gatsby. Along the way is Nikki Minaj using Twitter to explain intersectionality to Taylor Swift.

I am also along the way, sitting in my work from home office, wondering if I should rate an article about questioning gender binaries with a heart or a broken heart. I am over here registering my kids for activities while I put in a load of wash and call my clients remembering when “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was a feminist anthem.

Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps eleven is not too young to begin analyzing. Apparently, it takes a while to get it figured out.

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