The Other Problem

Like most women I’ve spent this week thinking about my stories. I have been kept up at night by the stories of my friends and things that happened to me. Stories of men grabbing me, things men said to me, strangers, bosses, coworkers. The man who grabbed my breast on an airplane when I was sixteen. The boss who said that my chest was a hell of a contribution to the business, when actually, I was running his store. They boyfriend who hit the wall right next to my head because he was angry about my raise.

Earlier this year I was telling my husband a story about a catcall I’d received on the way to the El that day and he was surprised to learn that, like most women, I have a strategy for assessing and handling catcalls. He was surprised to learn that I always, always smile or wave because I fear the escalation. How I smile and/or wave depends on whether it’s one man, coming up to me on the street while I walk to my office, or a group of men lounging nearby. I have said “thank you” to a stranger telling me that I look sexy. Thank you.

Until recently, my husband did not know that for the entire time I lived in Chicago I knew that leaving the house in a skirt or dress meant someone would yell something at me. For years I told the story of my favorite catcall, “Hey Lady, nice rack!” yelled at me from a car as I walked over to a friend’s house one evening. The incongruity of calling me a lady and talking about my rack… for years I’ve laughed about this, adding a Jerry Lewis impression to the “Hey Lady,” forgetting that I was walking alone on a street at night, and was actually terrified, knowing that the men or boys in that car could turn around and grab me at any time.

Like all women, I have these stories. But these stories are not what upsets me about the Donald Trump/Billy Bush tapes. Billy Bush is what upsets me. I know the strangers and coworkers and even friends who have said disgusting things to me. I know the ones who have touched me inappropriately, who have touched me against my will. But what I don’t know is how many of my friends or coworkers or strangers have set me up.

I know the coworker who described to me exactly where he’d put my legs when we had sex and I laughed it off. I don’t know if there was another coworker, a Billy Bush, hiding behind him trading suggestions. I know the guy I carefully, carefully selected an outfit for a date with and later discovered that he secretly set me up to have his friends watch us have sex. But until now I have not wondered who those boys were. Were they friends of mine? Boys I trusted?

I know the foul things people have said to me to my face, but now, I have to think about all the times a room of men went quiet when I walked in to it. I have to think about all the times a coworker accidentally fell against me and another guy stood nearby. Was it on purpose? Was it planned?

Donald Trump is a problem, but he’s a problem we know, a problem we see. A problem every girl over the age of thirteen knows about. But Billy Bush, the good looking, smooth guy. The guy who would never say the word pussy. The nephew and cousin of presidents who just helpfully offers you up to be groped and kissed. Billy Bush is who is keeping me up at night.

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Sacrificing Our Children

On Rosh Hashana we read the story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. It is a difficult story to understand. Previously we’ve been told how wanted and loved Isaac is. A late in life baby for his parents, their only child together, he is his father’s favorite.

Then, one day, God, a relatively new figure in Abraham’s life, asks him to take his beloved son and sacrifice him. Abraham is prepared to do it until an angel of God stops him and he sacrifices a ram instead. Why? Why would Abraham be willing to sacrifice his son to a god he just met as an adult? Why would God ask that? Are we supposed to think this is a good thing? A bad thing? Are we supposed to be willing to sacrifice our children to a new God? This the last time that God speaks to Abraham, and some people say that’s because God is disgusted with Abraham. Others say that Isaac is so traumatized by this event that after this point he’s a little “tetched” (as we say in Kentucky). He certainly has his own father/son issues with his twins.

I have a theory that what really happened is Abraham decided to head to the mountains for a few days, Sara insisted he take Isaac with him. Unused to dealing with his kid, Abraham got annoyed and tied him to a tree. Later when Isaac told his mother the story, Abraham came up with the whole sacrifice/ram/God story to cover. But, for whatever reason, the story made it in to the biblical canon, and we are meant to read it and gain something from it.

Yesterday, our rabbi asked us to think about the ways in which we sacrifice our children today. Although I’m not 100% sure this is what he said (it was very cold and my teeth were chattering loudly, and my daughter was distracting me), this is what I heard and I have thought about little else.

I believe I am sacrificing my children to school. We moved to Oak Park “for the schools.” It wasn’t that we’d heard great things about them, but we knew they were safe, they were neighborhood based, and I wouldn’t have to apply to get kids in to “the right school.” That had been enough for my education in Kentucky, consistently ranked one of the worst states for education, and I assumed it would be enough for my children.

For several years it was. Our kids walk to school with friends. They have caring teachers and administrators who know them by name. But over the past eight years that my children have been in school, I have seen the schools change. At my kids’ elementary school children used to participate in a “reading buddies” program. K-2 kids were paired with 3-5 kids to read. Once, when he was in second grade a fifth grade girl came running up to us on the playground and hugged my son. “Hi, I’m Taylor, I’m your son’s reading buddy, he is the cutest!” She giggled and proceeded to involve this much younger boy in a game of tag with her friends. When he was in third grade my son came home with a unicorn and a rainbow drawn on his pitching hand. “I promised my reading buddy if she finished the book, I’d draw this for her,” he explained.

Last night he told me 5th graders no longer have reading buddies, because “there’s not time.” This is the same reason I was given when I asked why 5th graders only have one recess a day, “There’s not time, there’s too much to do.”

They have taken away recess and reading buddies and added in a class on social skills. When I asked if perhaps social skills could be taught through recess I was told “that’s not a curriculum, it can’t be quantified.”

My daughter’s school is so proud of their status as an IB (International Baccalaureate) school. They shuffle between eight classes a day, three minute breaks between classes. They must explain how their math answers show that they “take chances.” But they only have room for one elective (drama, art, or music). They too take a “social skills” class. The social skills class is quantifiable, math is quantifiable, art is not.

The most basic of student teacher interactions, asking to go to the bathroom, has been replaced by scanning a bathroom pass on the ipad. I have no idea how this generation of children will learn the difference between “may” and “can” without asking if they can go to the bathroom, but perhaps it will be covered in the social skills class.

Many people will tell you that this rush, this lack of time for recess or cross-age buddies or art is because of tests, and I think they’re right.

I am not against standardized tests, I am not against quantifying some things in education. I believe that children in Kentucky and children in Chicago and children in Oak Park all deserve the same access to quality education and yes, we are going to have to give them all the same test to make sure that they are all getting the education they deserve.

But my 10-year-old, comes home with an hour of homework every day, even on weekends. At the age of 10, he is already stressed and miserable at school. His childhood is being sacrificed to tests and numbers and like Sara I am learning about it third hand and watching it helpless.

In the bible story, God continuously calls Abraham and Abraham continuously answers “Here I am.” Isaac too uses the phrase when his father calls him to be put on the altar. Our kids use the phrase every day in school. But God does not call Sara. Nobody asks the mother, “What do you think? Do you believe in this new God? Are you willing to sacrifice your child to him?”

Perhaps we should all of us, mothers and fathers, think a little less about Abraham and what he is doing in this story and ask ourselves about Sara. Ask ourselves if we are willing to stay home while our children are sacrificed to a new god.

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The Perfect Number

The number of children I parent has been changing a lot lately.

Normally, I have two – a ten year old and a twelve year old.

For a few days recently I had five – my two, a six year old, an eleven year old, and a thirteen year old – all cousins.

Then, I had my two and a friend each for a weekend trip, so that’s two ten year olds and two twelve year olds.

Then I had a different combination of the cousins, my two plus the six year old and his sixteen year old sister.

Then, everyone left and my daughter went to camp and I just had one child, my ten year old son.

It’s not that it’s easier or harder to parent five kids or one kid, it’s just different. With five kids I felt the need to be super-organized and efficient. I planned a week’s worth of meals that all used some of the same ingredients. I even made some meals before we went out. But that efficiency was relaxing in a way. I didn’t have to worry or argue about what was for dinner, dinner was dinner, it was planned and ready. I was so proud of my meal plan, I put it on the refrigerator next to my ten year old’s 100% quizzes.

With five or four kids there was a constant scanning, do I have everyone? Where is the six year old? But also, with that many kids everyone was always occupied. No one was bored, no one was lonely. Plus, the scanning was sort of unnecessary since they were all looking for each other anyway.

With four or five kids it was easier to set rules, to say “no,” to deny whims. Obviously, if you are trying to get five kids through downtown Chicago you can not stop to look at everything that everyone wants to see. With one kid it’s hard to rationalize saying “no,” to restaurant or activity choices, but also, there’s less reason to do so.  It’s wonderful to have a child say, “I’d kind of like to do that” and to say “Well, it’s just the two of us, let’s try it.” With one kid it’s easier to convince him to try something, because you only have to convince one child, not two.

During one of his days as an only child I picked my son up from camp and he said, “I’m really craving a cheeseburger, can we go to Culver’s?” So, we did, and on the way he started asking me a question that led to a conversation about sex, including consent and condoms. It’s hard to imagine that conversation happening with four other kids in the car. It’s hard to imagine me agreeing to buying a 3:00 meal for four or five kids.

I love having two children. I don’t have the necessary attention span to only have one child and I am not young enough or rich enough to have more than two. Having two kids gives me the space and time to invite more kids in to my life from time to time. But it’s nice sometimes to try out the other alternatives.

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Blame Isn’t the Problem, Social Media Is

I have a theory about how normal people deal with other people’s tragedies.  I’m not a psychologist, but here it is:

Step 1: You hear that a horrible tragedy has befallen someone you don’t know.

Step 2: You feel a sense of shock and horror.

Step 3: You look for a reason that this tragedy happened to the other person that explains why the same tragedy can not happen to you.

Step three sounds horrible, but I think it’s a necessary step to move on to step 4. If every time that something horrible happened to someone else you were overcome with fear and sadness not only for that person, but for yourself, you would become stuck in Step 2. Think about it, every child who dies, every person hit by a car, every suicide, every rape, every murder, you know it could happen to you and yours. You would be paralyzed with grief and fear all the time.

So instead, you do a little victim blaming, a little rationalization, a little magical thinking. “My daughter could never be kidnapped because I would never let her walk that far alone.”  “My son wouldn’t die that way, I’d have called 911 immediately.” “I’ll never be raped because I never drink with people I don’t know really well.” “It’s horrible but if she’d kept a better eye on her kids, this wouldn’t have happened.” “That wouldn’t happen to me, I’d never be in that kind of bar.” “Well, that neighborhood is dangerous, not like mine.”

You give yourself an out, you let yourself fee secure so that you can move on to Step 4.

Step 4: You feel empathy for the people affected by the tragedy. If possible, you offer help of some sort, if not you offer support and continue to feel a manageable sort of grief.

But as anyone who has seen the Internet the past few weeks knows, a lot of people have become stuck in Step 3.

I don’t believe parent shaming and victim blaming are new. I read an article recently where someone talked about the Baby Jessica story (1987 toddler fell in a well). The writer claimed that no one accused her parents of not watching her, instead the whole nation joined together to pray and watch her heroic rescue.

I call Bullshit.

I guarantee you that there were plenty of people across the country wondering how an 18 month old baby wanders in to a well without anyone noticing. I guarantee you that any one with a well in their backyard and a small child began looking for the reason their well was safe, while the McClures’ well was not. I remember conversations about how young Baby Jessica’s parents were, and how that was probably part of the problem.

But for the most part, people kept those thoughts to themselves, or whispered them in small groups. You know why? Because Facebook wasn’t in their face asking them what they were thinking about. In 1987 we all pretty much understood that no one really wants to hear your every thought about every event. We had a 24 hour news cycle in 1987, but it wasn’t a personal 24 hour news cycle.

Parent shaming and blaming aren’t new. The mother in the Cincinnati Zoo isn’t the first woman to be told she’s doing a horrible job and that others are suffering for it. We have always judged mothers harshly. The medically accepted explanation for autism used to be “refrigerator mothers.”

Ask any mother who worked “by choice” in the 1970s and earlier whether or not others judged her and blamed and shamed her. Ask any divorced mother in the 1970s and earlier how people judged her.

The difference is that in the 1970s and 1980s the number of people we had available to blame and shame was limited to people we actually knew. Today we have a whole planet full of people to judge.

Today, we’re conditioned to share our thoughts and emotions and judgements on everything from celebrity deaths to horrible accidents to politics. We not only live in a 24 hour news cycle, we are part of that cycle, we are asked to share our thoughts before those thoughts are fully formed.

So, you hear about a horrible event, a child falls in to a gorilla pen at the zoo, the gorilla is killed. You think, “Oh, that’s horrible. I go to the zoo all the time, could that happen to me? Probably not, I mean I watch my kids carefully.”

Then, you put that on Facebook and one friend, who is also in Step 3 of the process says “YES! I was just thinking the same thing.” You feel vindicated, “Hmm, that must be the right response, she agrees with me.” A few more people also agree, you start to feel like that’s really the right response. Then, someone else says “How dare you, that’s a horrible thing to say.” Now, you feel attacked and one of the most common and normal approaches to being attacked is that you defend yourself.

The more you defend yourself, the stronger you believe that you are right.

So, you never get past Step 3. You never go from telling yourself what you need to in order to feel safe to helping the actual victim. Instead, you begin to think that you and your way of thinking are the real victims.

Victim blaming isn’t the problem, victim blaming is normal and healthy, it’s getting stuck in the blame phase that’s the problem.

So, maybe next time instead of floating your every thought out to hundreds of people at a time, only float the thoughts that you’ve really truly had time to consider and carefully craft out there.

To use another phrase from the 1980s, when Facebook asks, “What’s on your mind?” just say no.

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The Bigger Story

I knew this guy in high school. Let’s call him “D.” I didn’t know him well, but he was cute and nice. He had dark hair and bright blue eyes, a combo I still love. I think he played trumpet in the band. At a couple of different parties our senior year we got drunk and made out.

D had an on again off again girlfriend, also in the band. She was sweet and well-liked, and I think I remember everyone thought she could do better. I guess she noticed the make out sessions because a month before prom she sent someone to find out if D was taking me to prom. He hadn’t asked her and she wanted to know who he was going with. It wasn’t me and I don’t remember who it was.

Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t remember D and his girlfriend, except that freshman year of college the girlfriend was killed by a drunk driver. I have always wondered if they were a couple when she died. Which would be worse, to lose your girlfriend or to lose the girl you kind of sort of thought you might date again one day.

I still know my own on again off again high school love. We see each other every once in a while and there are no romantic “what ifs.” Now, in our late 4os there’s just a genuine delight in the past we shared and a strange affection for each other. But I wonder if D ever got that slow, natural closure to the relationship. I think he’s divorced, maybe more than once, and I wonder if sometimes on a muggy spring night like the ones right before senior prom he hears an old song and thinks about her.

I also remember the high school drama because of Facebook, which keeps everyone from your life in front of your face at all times. D and I haven’t seen in each other in years, but we’re “friends” on Facebook. I don’t usually see his posts, but because so many people had commented on one the other day I saw it. He was posting from a children’s hospital. I don’t know D well enough to pry and ask for details, but I looked back through his posts to try and piece his story together. If I’m following the story correctly, his stepdaughter is seriously, possibly terminally, ill.

What I also noticed looking through his posts is that D is now a pro-Trump, transphobic, racist. I don’t remember this about him from high school. We went to the performing arts section of an inner-city high school. It would be hard to be an overt racist and have the kind of social life D had. I knew racists growing up, but they didn’t wear sheets or burn crosses. I know there were a few of those hidden around town, but I don’t think they went to our high school.

The phrase “Now look, I like a lot of ’em, but one thing I just don’t understand …” will sound familiar to anyone who grew up in Louisville, or a city like it. It’s possible D was one of those, someone who didn’t know he was racist. You can find him in our senior yearbook posing happily as “Most Spirited” next to an African-American cheerleader, a girl I remember as his friend. But maybe he was racist then and in his mind she was “a good one.”

Because now here he is, this boy I made out with, this boy I know had African American friends, here he is using the N word on his Facebook page. Here he is, this boy who went to school and probably shared a joint or two with boys who grew up to be women threatening to beat up any man who attempts to pee next to his daughter. Here he is promoting Trump, bragging about his guns, posting jokes about sexual assault and misspelling Guatemala in some unintelligible post about Trump’s promised wall.

In short, here he is, a complete asshole.

I would like to know what happens with his stepdaughter. I hope she recovers. But now that I’ve peaked in to the rest of his life, I don’t want to accidentally see it again. I don’t want to be angry with someone who until recently was a strange half-memory of a happy time in my life. I have “unfriended” him, because I don’t want to see it and because I think that will probably prevent him from seeing this. I do not want to cause him pain.

I wish there were another way because I see those bright blue eyes in his profile picture and I can’t help thinking that being a racist asshole isn’t his whole story. It’s not that I think the fact that he used to be a horn player with African American friends, or the fact that he suffered a tragic loss at a young age or is currently undergoing a tragic loss excuses or explains his racism. It’s that knowing those things about him reminds me that everyone, even those we least want to talk to, has a bigger story we should hear. Knowing little bits of the beauty in his life reminds me that we are all bigger and more complex than our faults.




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Louisville’s Ali

My husband jokes that living with someone from Louisville is like living with a Canadian, our accents are slightly off and the minute you mention anything with a possible connection we jump to point it out. “Oh, you like to watch the news? Did you know that former anchor Diane Sawyer is from Louisville?”

We are tribal, we travel in a pack. The first time I took my husband to New York to meet some of my Louisville friends he was excited to find out that someone else also had a new boyfriend. He thought there’d be someone else not from Louisville. Except, our tribe prefers intra marriage. The friends I took him to meet were my best friend from high school, his boyfriend (now husband), who was my college roommate, his sister, who had been best friends with his boyfriend since middle school (where I met her). Oh, and her new boyfriend (now husband) also from Louisville.

When we took our baby daughter to meet her these friends my husband joked, “Well, finally, I have someone else not from Louisville.” My roommate cradled my daughter and looked in to her eyes, “Hmph,” he said, “not really.” I think it made my husband nervous.

My college roommate? His sisters live next door to each other back in Louisville. His husband? For a long time his older brother and mother lived next door to each other in Louisville. My friend’s husband? I grew up down the street from his first wife, her brother had been best friends with my roommate’s now deceased boyfriend. Don’t try and follow, there’s no need, we know who we are.

There is plenty to be proud of in Louisville: Churchill Downs and the Derby, Frederick Law Olmsted designed parks, the Louisville Cardinals. The Hot Brown sandwich was invented in Louisville, as was Benedictine spread (look it up). According to some, the cheeseburger was invented in Louisville.

Jennifer Lawrence is from Louisville, as are Tom Cruise and Ned Beatty. Hunter Thompson was from Louisville, and so was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (also, a Jew, so double bragging points for me).

Our main claim to fame though is Muhammad Ali.

When I was five my family lived in Tanzania. I remember going to the market with my mother. “Where in America you from” The man asked. “Louisville, Kentucky,” my mom answered. “Oh!” He said, a smile widening his face, “Louisville, Ali, yes?” He did a quick boxing jab, “ALI!”

Ali was our pride and joy.

I am not naive about Louisville and Ali. It was a Louisville restaurant that refused Ali service causing him to toss his Olympic Medal in to the Ohio River. Although Kentucky remained part of the Union, Louisville has the Northernmost statue to the Confederate dead. It is just now, in 2016, being removed from the campus of the University of Louisville. When I was in college the dorm closest to the statue was finally renamed, it had been Confederate Hall. A dorm where African American students were expected to live was called Confederate Hall, in 1988.

Another Louisville Olympian, Mary T. Meagher, trained at a segregated pool blocks from my home.

I’m sure to this day there are those back home who are angry at Ali’s refusal to be drafted, angry at his conversion to Islam, angry at his holding a mirror up to the ugly side of Louisville, the ugly side of the country.

But for most of us, he was our pride and joy.

If you drive around Louisville you’ll see big signs with famous Louisvillians. They say  “Bob Edwards’ Louisville” “Jennifer’s Louisville” and of course, “Ali’s Louisville.” They don’t direct you anywhere, they don’t point out different points of interest, they just command you to look. This is what we make in Louisville, what does your city do?




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How We Do It

Our Memorial Day weekend was filled with all the things a summer weekend is supposed to have. We had visits from friends and family, we went to a Cubs game, we went downtown to site see with tourists, we went to the pool, we sat on the porch and drank with friends, we had a last minute slumber party, we went to a parade and used the grill.

There were so many good things, cousins and cute kids but my favorite moment came early in the weekend. On Friday, we went to the Cubs game with our visiting family. My first cousin, his wife, and their two kids, ages four and two. My 10-year-old was over the moon about the idea of missing school for a Cubs game. My 12-year-old was happy to miss school and eat nachos for lunch. She brought a book to read at the game.

I had forgotten that baseball games are not as much fun with small kids. They need to walk around. My cousins walked their kids up and down and around. But around the fourth inning it became clear that the little ones needed to go. My cousin and his wife also had plans that evening, and she wanted to try and rest a little first. I’m happy with half a ball game and my daughter was more than happy to leave early. So, the women and small children headed out leaving my husband, son, and cousin at the game.

In between El stations, we got caught in the one major rain storm of the day. Already soaking wet, we ducked inside to wait out the worst of the horizontal rain. When the rain went back to a drizzle, we made our way up the El stairs. My cousin-in-law carrying stuff, me carrying the stroller and my drenched 12-year-old, a small, wet, tired, and sniffly child in each hand, making her way up the stairs.

All the way up she said little things “That’s right Owen, we’re almost there. You can do it Isabelle, just keep going.”

She sounded so natural, I almost didn’t notice at first. When I did it took my breath away, “Look at you, you’re a star Madeline,” I said to my baby girl.

An older woman had been walking patiently behind us, “That’s right, that is a responsible young lady. She IS a star!” She said as much to me as to my daughter.

We got to the platform and I turned to catch the older woman’s eye. She nodded at me, “That’s right. That’s how we do it,” she murmured as much to herself as to me.

That’s right, that is how we do it.




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