Two Days in the Life

Yesterday was a bad day to be a work from home freelancer. I have two projects due at the end of the week. But, before I knew that I’d have two projects with the same deadline, I made an appointment to go see a caterer about my daughter’s bat mitzvah brunch. This was the time that worked with my husband’s schedule, and he is heading out of town today, and so we kept the appointment.

It was lovely to sit in the restaurant and eat breakfast with my husband and talk to the owner about the event, but oh I had stuff to do.

I came home to do a conference call, and while others were talking I put myself on mute and wrapped my son’s birthday presents for that night. Then, I had to go back out to pick up hostess and new baby presents for my husband to bring on his business trip, because he is also going to have dinner with family while he’s there. Oh, and by the way, his business trip is actually a job interview, out of town, which is something we are forced to consider because my job is oh so flexible and oh so transportable. (Also, friends, don’t get too distracted by that and start texting me asking if we’re moving, as of now, we aren’t.)

On the way out to pick up the presents I noticed that someone had mysteriously left a bag of dog poop on my back porch. When I came back from the errands, I spent 30 minutes talking to the police about why someone might have walked in to my backyard and up my steps in order to leave me dog poop.

Then, I had to put in laundry, because someone is leaving town. Then I wrote one fifth of the project before my son came home. There was homework to deal with, and that turned in to tears, because it was his birthday, and no one should have to do math on their birthday. Then there was hockey to take him to, and by the time I was home from that, my daughter was home, more homework and more nudging, and more laundry, walking the dog, and approximately one fifth more of one project. Sushi was finally decided on as the birthday dinner, and I went and picked it up. At 10:30 I went to bed, having accomplished almost nothing.

Today was a good day to be a freelancer working from home. Today I had an appointment downtown, across the street from the Art Institute. So after my appointment I wandered in to the museum just as they were opening. I went to the Thorne Miniature rooms and stood in front of my favorite rooms, imagining myself appropriately dressed to live in them. I went to the paperweights and stared. I went to see Renoir’s Two Sisters on the Terrace, known in my family as “my painting,” because as a child I had a Madame Alexander doll of the younger sister (in my world, her name is Lynn Jane, and yes, I still have her). My kids each also have a painting, but I did not visit theirs. Instead, I went to a gallery I have never been to, then I went to see the Chagall windows. I went to the member’s lounge and had a cup of not-very-good coffee, but I had a cup of coffee and THEN I went and ate lunch at the cafe. On the way out, I went to visit Ganesh and Buddha.

I came home and there was no dog poop on my porch. I finished part of a project, I walked the dog, and my son came home. We did homework and I worked some more. I wrote something as a favor to a friend, I called another caterer about the evening party. I’m writing this, and then I will work a little more. My doorbell keeps ringing as children from the block come in for something my daughter has planned. Eventually, I will need to go find out what it is. When I go to bed tonight I probably will not have accomplished any more than I did yesterday.

Some days, this always at work, always at home, always doing everything feels like an unfair burden. Some days it feels like an unfair privilege. You never know what will happen in a day.

 

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Sick Day

Some of my favorite memories from childhood are from sick days. I don’t mean the older, hold a heating pad up to the thermometer so that you can skip school and get stoned sick days. What I loved were the younger sick days, when I was actually sick. Those days when my mom wheeled the small black and white tv on the cart in to my room and I spent the day dozing and watching game shows and soap operas I was too young to understand. Sometimes I would wander in to the kitchen, opening cabinets and looking for secret stashes of candy. Sometimes I would sneak in to my parents’ or my sister’s room and rifle through dresser drawers looking for diaries or proof that I was adopted.

When I was very young, my parents took me to work with them when I was sick. At my father’s office there was a separate lab office not in the same building as his regular office. When we got too bored he and I would go over there and I would spin in an old wooden spinning chair, climb up on gigantic, green metal stool to play with a huge green adding machine and make paper bracelets for the skeleton. When I went to work with my mom I would sit in the back of her classroom and draw pictures, and hide under an afghan in her office to read. Those days were fun, but they didn’t have the freedom of being slightly older and staying home sick.

Once, when I was in second or third grade and my mom thought I was asleep she slipped in to my room and left me a pitcher of 7up and a note to call her at work if I needed anything. Then she bent over the bed and put a cool hand on my forehead.

When my daughter started school I wanted to be able to recreate those feelings of love and comfort and freedom for her and I was fairly lax on what was required to stay home from school sick. Then, in second grade she had a particularly bad teacher and the sick days got a little out of hand and we had to institute a “no vomit, blood, or fever, go to school” rule. By the time she was in 5th grade, she was the world’s most responsible child and grew agitated at the idea of missing school.

She has relaxed slightly over the past two years, helped in part by the fact that she can do most of her classwork online. So, she is home sick today. She has been fighting a stuffy nose, sore throat, possible fever for days and together we decided that it would be best for her to stay in bed and lick it once and for all.

I work from home. There will be no rifling through drawers and cabinets for her, and I know better than to try and sneak into her room while she sleeps. But her father just helped her with her math homework and later maybe I can make her a smoothie and if I’m lucky, she may let me feel her forehead with the back of my hand.

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Moving through Grief

Yesterday, November 8th, was obviously election day. It was also the umpteenth anniversary of my friend Mark’s death from AIDS. In many ways, Mark’s death was my “first.” I knew other people who had died, friends of the family, distant relatives, those beautiful, wild high school kids killed by drunk drivers or drunk driving themselves.

But Mark was the first person I truly, deeply loved who died. Mark’s death was the first one that I felt would change my life. The first one that did change my life. What I remember from those first few days was a feeling that I needed to get stuff done. I needed to call in sick to my teaching job and prepare lesson plans for the time I’d be gone for the funeral. I needed to pay bills, and arrange for someone to feed my cat. I needed to clean my tiny studio apartment. I needed to call others and let them know.

When I left my apartment I felt a little like I was walking around in a glass box. I wanted to reach out to people and ask them if they knew Mark, if they knew he was gone. But the box was the only thing protecting me, the only thing keeping me from breaking, and I knew if I tried to reach out, the box and I would shatter. I was 25 and had just moved to Chicago. Mark died in San Diego. I knew that no one at Jewel or my building knew him. But through my glass box it looked like everyone else was in mourning, too. Years before another friend and I spent many stoned hours discussing how when we were high it seemed like everyone around us was also high. This is how grief felt, too. Inside my glass box of mourning, I thought it was possible that everyone else was also mourning.

It’s a little bit what it feels like to me today. I am sad and shocked. I know it’s true and yet I can’t quite believe it. I feel like I need to do so many things, finish articles for my clients, clean the house, arrange a Girl Scout field trip. I took a walk on a beautiful fall day and with every person I passed I wondered if they too were in mourning. If they to were grieving today.

What I remember most from Mark’s funeral was the way my fragile glass box turned in to a warm bubble. All of us who loved Mark were in the bubble. We stayed in one house, we shared beds and couches, we ate, we drank and smoked and posed for ridiculous photos together, long before the days of funeral selfies. Eventually, we had to go back to our own cities, we had to leave our bubble.

When I came back to Chicago I made my friend who picked me up at the airport promise to call me the next day. “I’m not sure I’ll still be here, I think I might die,” I told him. “You won’t,” he promised and he called every day for the next two weeks. Every day I answered and every day I felt a little less like I too was dying.

So this is what I hope happens now. I hope that we all have our days of mourning and grief. I hope we move from our glass boxes and find our bubbles. That we find the people who know how we feel, those who truly get us. And then I hope that we all start to find our strength again.

The biggest lesson I learned from losing Mark was that even a broken heart keeps on beating.

 

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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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