Anti-Semitism is on the rise. The series of attacks and incidents taking place almost daily over the last several months have been a surprising wake up call for folks who don’t normally pay attention to such things.

I work hard to pay attention by following statistics about hate crimes and white supremacists through the DOJ, SPLC and ADL websites. I also read both extreme left and extreme right rhetoric on Twitter, and as much objective & non-mainstream news as I can manage.

Some days this is hard to take.

I had a really hard day recently when my kid sent me an extemporaneous essay she wrote after talking to her grandmother. My daughter is Jewish like her grandmother and the rest of her father’s family.  She gave me permission to post her essay on my blog.

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My grandmother asked me to stop wearing my star of David necklace when I traveled. She said “you never know when someone might be crazy, might hate you”. I wanted to tell her don’t be silly.

I wanted to say that growing up as an American Jew in the aftermath of the Holocaust, she inherited fear that is no longer relevant. And remind her that although the Ku Klux Klan had burned crosses on her college campus and her college roommate had asked to see her horns, that was fifty years ago. I wanted to remind her of the strength of the Jewish community where I grew up, where I live now, around the world.

But then I thought about having pennies thrown at me growing up, back when I didn’t even know what that meant. I remembered boys in school, people I considered friends, saying the Holocaust hadn’t happened and laughing at the expression on my face. I remembered literally being fetishized by multiple men who thought my religion made me sexually exotic. I remembered the faces of my students who told me kids at their school didn’t like them because they were Jewish. I remembered Pittsburgh. I remembered Nuremburg. I remembered the shiver of fear I felt when someone wearing military fatigues stepped inside the synagogue on Yom Kippur, and my family’s shaky, relieved laughter after services when we realized that every one of us had had the same reaction.

 I can’t dismiss what my grandmother said. And I can’t write off how I sometimes hesitate before I tell people I’m a Jewish Studies major. I don’t want this hesitancy. Judaism is the thing that I feel most passionate about, that helps inspire me and order my life. It’s given me a community [at my university], and connects me to a worldwide family that stretches back 2,000 years. I don’t want to be afraid for myself or anyone in my global community. We have gone through much before, but I fear that we have much left still to endure.

I know it’s important to keep ourselves safe at this time, but it feels just as important to shout from the rooftops – I’m Jewish, I’m proud, I’m human.

I am afraid to wear my Magen David. But I’m also afraid to hide it.

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Magen David translates literally as “Shield” rather than “Star” of David. And while it pisses me off that a piece of religious jewelry (and a boatload of empowered bigotry) could make my child vulnerable in the world, I am glad she is fierce enough to carry her shield.

When my daughter was younger, like many parents, we marked important days with a photo.

First day of school for every grade, first rock concert, plays, awards and music performances.

Beginnings and endings are the tidy bookends we use to mark time and make sense of all that messy stuff in the middle.

But now the milestones and moments zip by mostly unmarked.

Tomorrow my daughter and I will drive 10 hours to her college (Go Badgers!) to move her into her first apartment. A car full of kitchenware, clothes and few decorative items to be merged into a household with a couple of roommates.

For whatever reason this transition is landing a bit harder than move-in-day at the dorm.

The dog days of August always trigger a melancholy, nostalgic mix of sadness, excitement and fear that, for much of my youth, was sparked by the announcement of the fall schedule by network TV.

Summer ends, you get a new pair of jeans, school starts, and boom – there are new episodes of M.A.S.H and Happy Days to look forward to.

Somewhere between my first grade excitement of new pencils & crayons, and chucking everything in my locker into a trash can the last day of high school, a whole buncha life happened.

And now my kid somehow has gone from running away from me on the playground, to running away to college and never coming back.

Ok it’s not that bad.

But like I said, something about her moving into an apartment feels more permanent. As in her life is now permanently on a parallel track to the track her father and I are chugging down.

Now we are separate. As we should be.

And that’s another first.

I’ll be happy and sad, irritated and irritating, a helpful mom & a bossy pain in the ass before it’s all over. It’s how it always goes when we surf these transitions together, and we end up just fine.

Got a bag of potato chips, a package of Tim-Tams and an excellent Spotify playlist ready for the drive.

One of our favorite sing-a-long at the top of your voice road trip songs to start the trip.

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By the way- writing a blog post on an airplane at 1 am almost guarantees that you will forget to hit publish. The 10 hour drive is nearly done.

I was forced to buy a new wallet recently. I don’t invest much in accessories like wallets, handbags, phone cases and such so this doesn’t happen very often. I think this might be the fourth or fifth wallet I’ve owned in my lifetime. All my previous wallets has slots for school photos. Which I sort of miss.

Cleaning out the old wallet, which had considerably more nooks and crannies than the new one, I found something my mother gave me back in 1991.

My mom was a religious person, a person of faith, and a big believer in miracles. Back in 1991, the year before my dad was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him a year later, I was in a place of flux.

When I was laid off from the theatre I worked at for years, I took a job as a temp for a publisher. Within months I was hired full-time and was making more money than I had ever made  in theatre. I think the salary was a whopping $18,000.

Seeing as this was thousands of dollars more than I earned in theatre, I actually paid down my looming debt and felt “rich”. I had savings for the first time in my life and still managed to act and direct  at night. The stamina of youth + coffee.

In 1991 I was weighing the decision to return to a theatre position full-time, which I ultimately did. Sitting at my moms kitchen table obviously moaning about money worries and trying to decide between what was safe and what was authentic, she pulled out a piece of paper and wrote me a note.

It said “Pay to the Order of Amanda T. Shaffer. Paid in Full. The Law of Abundance.” She dated it, had me sign it and told me to carry it in my wallet always.

I don’t know if her talisman worked but the next year I met Mr. Man who became my friend and husband, and the years following the abundance flowed – I founded a theatre, bought a house, had a child and continued to find interesting, fulfilling work in and out of theatre for the next 25 years.

There were many dips in the road, losing my dad in 1992, and then mom in 2001. Followed by the death of my brother, my husbands grandparents, and my father-in-law. But the abundance and richness of my life has never dimmed. And I am grateful.

Sunday was the anniversary of my mom’s death and I am still vaguely surprised by it every year. So I was happy to find the tattered paper talisman she gifted me with – dated on what would be my daughters birthday eight years in the future – and put it in my new wallet.

Where I will carry it always.

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A New York Times opinion piece about work/life balance (“A Toxic Work World“) is making the rounds and stirring up a storm of comments. The author points out, among other things, that the culture of  overwork is not a gender issue but a work issue where equity will mean we value care giving.

We have a definite bias towards exhaustion and “110%” as proof of value in our culture. Its a system that benefits men overwhelmingly as Joan Williams brilliantly explains in her book and in nice bite sized video bits.

My reaction to the piece was colored by a conversation I had a few days before it came out. I was in a salon getting a service and chatting as you do about kids and current events and the nice for a change weather.

The woman waiting on me has a daughter a year older than mine and is deep in the college selection process that we’ve been nibbling around the edges. She was telling me her daughter wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer and was working with the guidance counselor trying to find the right school in their price range.

But she was convincing her daughter to drop law because no one can have a family with that kind of lifestyle. If she goes into the health field she doesn’t have to be a doctor, she can be something where she can go part time for a while when she has kids.

I understand that every family is different. I understand that we all have our own values.

But I don’t understand why a 17 year old girl should make life choices today to accommodate possible future children that she may or may not want or need to stay home while they’re young.

I tried a few examples, anecdotes and facts to shake the mothers view. But she would not be persuaded her daughter could have it all. She knew better.

Our culture limits us and we limit ourselves.

Lets try not to limit our children.

“Waiting your time, dreaming of a better life
Waiting your time, you’re more than just a wife
You don’t want to do what your mother has done…”

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Anyone needing an easy laugh should come to my Jazzercise class on days the instructor works in routines that require clapping. Since I have yet to master the ability move my feet and clap my hands at the same time, the result is an earnest yet ridiculous, Jerry Lewis-like flailing.

Thankfully there is never more than one of these per class.

A bigger issue than my lack of large motor skills is the way I lose my rhythm when someone in my family is out of sorts. My instinct is to sidetrack even my most important and essential activities to do whatever needs doing, or shore up whatever needs reinforcing.

Let me be clear that my husband and child are NOT standing in front of me screaming for me to be self-sacrificing. It’s my own super clever brain that tells me that I’m a selfish person (and a bad mother/wife/sister/friend/human) if I don’t put others first.

Work-life balance (ha!) is manageable if and only if (iff) nothing is breaking down, screwing up, or spinning out of control due to unforeseen circumstances.  So that means never.

I know this.

I teach this.

And under pressure I forget this as quickly as everyone else.

That’s one reason the tag line for my coaching & consulting biz is “Nothing endures but change. Be here now.” To remind myself and my clients that the only control we really have is over our own minds.

Whether you follow the Four Noble Truths, Oprah and her vision boards, a religious community, or just positive thinking – getting your head back in the present moment can help get you back in the rhythm of your life. And all its various beats.

For me, its remembering even if I can’t clap along I know the song won’t last forever.

A rhythm related side note: Once upon a time I watched My Sister Eileen (a mostly dreadful movie), and saw a very young Bob Fosse doing some of his signature moves, but because I had recently seen Cabin in The Sky I noticed that John W. Sublett (“Bubbles”) must have been an influence on Fosse. Its an amazing movie. There’s also a scene where Ethel Waters sings Taking a Chance on Love and Bill Bailey does the Moonwalk. Before Michael.

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As Women’s History month drifts to a close I feel like we are running in place with once step forward, two steps back on improving gender equity.  And don’t get me started on intersectionality.

I read the article reposted below and agreed 100%. But I can’t count the number of times I have advised women clients on how to be more assertive without crossing the invisible line into being “a bitch.”

Saying ‘Stop interrupting me’ sounds like a good idea until you get called uncooperative and hostile. And saying ‘I just said that’ may feel good until you’re told you always try to take credit for everything.

It’s a dilemma, and a dance, and a lousy reality. So please don’t tell me that we don’t need these “special months,” or that we should have a “men’s history month if we are going to be equal.” I write a lot about gender and racial equity in this blog, so you can look up all my radical opinions that support my argument if you like.

Or you can ponder the fact a post tagged “Girly Things” gets double the click rate of a post tagged “Feminism.”

The post below is long. And true. And makes me wonder if teaching my daughter manners has hobbled her for life. Bad feminist. Bad mommy.


By Soraya Chemaly / alternet.org

“Stop interrupting me.”  “I just said that.” “No explanation needed.”

In fifth grade, I won the school courtesy prize. In other words, I won an award for being polite. My brother, on the other hand, was considered the class comedian. We were very typically socialized as a “young lady” and a “boy being a boy.” Globally, childhood politeness lessons are gender asymmetrical. We socialize girls to take turns, listen more carefully, not curse and resist interrupting in ways we do not expect boys to. Put another way, we generally teach girls subservient habits and boys to exercise dominance.

I routinely find myself in mixed-gender environments (life) where men interrupt me. Now that I’ve decided to try and keep track, just out of curiosity, it’s quite amazing how often it happens. It’s particularly pronounced when other men are around.

This irksome reality goes along with another — men who make no eye contact. For example, a waiter who only directs information and questions to men at a table, or the man last week who simply pretended I wasn’t part of a circle of five people (I was the only woman). We’d never met before and barely exchanged 10 words, so it couldn’t have been my not-so-shrinking-violet opinions.

These two ways of establishing dominance in conversation, frequently based on gender, go hand-in-hand with this last one: A woman, speaking clearly and out loud, can say something that no one appears to hear, only to have a man repeat it minutes, maybe seconds later, to accolades and group discussion.

After I wrote about the gender confidence gap recently, of the 10 items on a list, the one that resonated the most was the issue of whose speech is considered important. In sympathetic response to what I wrote, a person on Twitter sent me a cartoon in which one woman and five men sit around a conference table. The caption reads, “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” I don’t think there is a woman alive who has not had this happen.

The cartoon may seem funny, until you realize exactly how often it seriously happens. And — as in the cases of Elizabeth Warren or say, Brooksley Born — how broadly consequential the impact can be. When you add race and class to the equation the incidence of this marginalization is even higher.

This suppressing of women’s voices, in case you are trying to figure out what Miss Triggs was wearing or drinking or might have said to provoke this response, is what sexism sounds like.

These behaviors, the interrupting and the over-talking, also happen as the result of difference in status, but gender rules. For example, male doctors invariably interrupt patients when they speak, especially female patients, but patients rarely interrupt doctors in return. Unless the doctor is a woman. When that is the case, she interrupts far less and is herself interrupted more. This is also true of senior managers in the workplace. Male bosses are not frequently talked over or stopped by those working for them, especially if they are women; however, female bosses are routinely interrupted by their male subordinates.

This preference for what men have to say, supported by men and women both, is a variant on “mansplaining.” The word came out of an article by writer Rebecca Solnit, who explained that the tendency some men have to grant their own speech greater import than a perfectly competent woman’s is not a universal male trait, but the “intersection between overconfidence and cluelessness where some portion of that gender gets stuck.”

Solnit’s tipping point experience really did take the cake. She was talking to a man at a cocktail party when he asked her what she did. She replied that she wrote books and she described her most recent one, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild WestThe man interrupted her soon after she said the word Muybridge and asked, “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?” He then waxed on, based on his reading of a review of the book, not even the book itself, until finally, a friend said, “That’s her book.” He ignored that friend (also a woman) and she had to say it more than three times before “he went ashen” and walked away. If you are not a woman, ask any woman you know what this is like, because it is not fun and happens to all of us.

In the wake of Larry Summers’ “women can’t do math” controversy several years ago, scientist Ben Barres wrote publicly about his experiences, first as a woman and later in life, as a male. As a female student at MIT, Barbara Barres was told by a professor after solving a particularly difficult math problem, “Your boyfriend must have solved it for you.” Several years after, as Ben Barres, he gave a well-received scientific speech and he overhead a member of the audience say, “His work is much better than his sister’s.”

Most notably, he concluded that one of the major benefits of being male was that he could now “even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

I’ve had teenage boys, irritatingly but hysterically, excuse what they think is “lack of understanding” to [my] “youthful indiscretion.” Last week as I sat in a cafe, a man in his 60s stopped to ask me what I was writing. I told him I was writing a book about gender and media and he said, “I went to a conference where someone talked about that a few years ago. I read a paper about it a few years ago. Did you know that car manufacturers use slightly denigrating images of women to sell cars? I’d be happy to help you.” After I suggested, smiling cheerily, that the images were beyond denigrating and definitively injurious to women’s dignity, free speech and parity in culture, he drifted off.

It’s not hard to fathom why so many men tend to assume they are great and that what they have to say is more legitimate. It starts in childhood and never ends. Parents interrupt girls twice as often and hold them to stricter politeness norms. Teachers engage boys, who correctly see disruptive speech as a marker of dominant masculinity, more often and more dynamically than girls.

As adults, women’s speech is granted less authority and credibility. We aren’t thought of as able critics or as funny. Men speak moremore often, and longer than women in mixed groups (classroomsboardroomslegislative bodiesexpert media commentary and, for obvious reasons religious institutions.) Indeed, in male-dominated problem solving groups including boards, committees and legislatures, men speak 75% more than women, with negative effects on decisions reached. That’s why, as researchers summed up, “Having a seat at the table is not the same as having a voice.”

Even in movies and television, male actors engage in more disruptive speech and garner twice as much speaking and screen time as their female peers. This is by no means limited by history or to old media but is replicated online. Listserve topics introduced by men have a much higher rate of response and on Twitter, people retweet men two times as often as women.

These linguistic patterns are consequential in many ways, not the least of which is the way that they result in unjust courtroom dynamics, where adversarial speech governs proceedings and gendered expression results in women’s testimonies being interrupted, discounted and portrayed as not credible according to masculinized speech norms. Courtrooms also show exactly how credibility and status, women’s being lower, are also doubly affected by race. If Black women testifying in court adopt what is often categorized as “[white] women’s language,” they are considered less credible. However, if they are more assertive, white jurors find them “rude, hostile, out of control, and, hence [again], less credible.” Silence might be an approach taken by women to adapt to the double bind, but silence doesn’t help when you’re testifying.

The best part though is that we are socialized to think women talk more. Listener bias results in most people thinking that women are hogging the floor when men are actually dominating. Linguists have concluded that much of what is popularly understood about women and men being from different planets, verbally, confuses “women’s language” with “powerless language.”

There are, of course, exceptions that illustrate the role that gender (and not biological sex) plays. For example, I have a very funny child who regularly engages in simultaneous speech, disruptively interrupts and randomly changes topics. If you read a script of one of our typical conversations, you would probably guess the child is a boy based on the fact that these speech habits are what we think of as “masculine.” The child is a girl, however. She’s more comfortable with overt displays of assertiveness and confidence than the average girl speaker. It’s hard to balance making sure she keeps her confidence with teaching her to be polite. However, excessive politeness norms for girls, expected to set an example for boys, have real impact on women who are, as we constantly hear, supposed to override their childhood socialization and learn to talk like men to succeed (learn to negotiate, demand higher pay, etc.).

The first time I ran this post, I kid you not, the first response I got was from a Twitter user, a man, who, without a shred of self-awareness, asked, “What would you say if a man said those things to you mid-conversation?”

Socialized male speech dominance is a significant issue, not just in school, but everywhere. If you doubt me, sit quietly and keep track of speech dynamics at your own dinner table, workplace, classroom. In the school bus, the sidelines of fields, in places of worship. It’s significant and consequential.

People often ask me what to teach girls or what they themselves can do to challenge sexism when they see it. “What can I do if I encounter sexism? It’s hard to say anything, especially at school.” In general, I’m loathe to take the approach that girls should be responsible for the world’s responses to them, but I say to them, practice these words, every day:

“Stop interrupting me,”

“I just said that,” and

“No explanation needed.”

It will do both boys and girls a world of good. And no small number of adults, as well.


Soraya L. Chemaly writes about feminism, gender and culture. She writes for the Huffington Post, Feminist Wire, BitchFlicks and Fem2.0 among others.

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The people who produce the William-Sonoma catalog are diabolical. Dinner plates in soft pastels, serving dishes with whimsical bunnies, botanical linens all scattered with charming alabaster eggs. It arrives in the middle of the grey, mucky winter and makes me want to whip out my Am Ex card and I don’t even set an Easter table.

The Easter catalog always reminds me of my Aunt Bev, my mother’s best friend, Aunt of my heart. For several years before she died I sent her a shipment of mini butter croissants from William-Sonoma as an Easter present. She adored the indulgence of the fancy bread, but would never buy such a thing for herself.

My mother, were she alive, I would never insult by gifting her with food. Ceramic bunnies & chicks for the table, of which she already had a profusion, would have been more welcome.

I always think of my mom and her friend – Big Alice & Bev – during Women’s History month. They weren’t feminists or activists. No accomplishments or achievements of note. They were too busy raising kids and trying to make ends meet to be political. They didn’t agitate for higher wages, they took overtime, or a part-time job, to make more money.

There are millions of women like them the world over.

Thinking about International Women’s Day, and the truth of our society requiring official reminders like these to counter pervasive inequities, I noticed how easy it is get trapped in the accomplishment loop. Celebrating people for doing the extraordinary, the unusual, the brave. Firsts. Ground-breakers. Onlys.

I decided there are some women around me who could use an “official celebration” of their achievements. So, in no particular order, you know who you are, I send my love and admiration:

  • L., with her lions heart doing the right thing because she knows its right. When I need compassion, truth and strength I know you are there.
  • S., living through some terrible, awful. You are so strong, smart and cool I can’t wait to see what you do when you are on the other side of this mess.
  • B.R., who has more energy, heart and ambition than anyone I know.  I think of you when I need to remember the world of endless possibilities.
  • J., who always reminds me what happens when you let fear rule.
  • S.C., who is compassionate and kind and an example of being brave about your dreams. I want to be more like you when I grow up.
  • A.J.A., who takes a chance on people and is willing to change. I can only follow your example.
  • M.S., who has lived long enough to do nearly everything, know nearly everyone, and still be out there having fun. I can only hope.
  • I.J., whose feminist, socialist heart is as tender as it is fierce. Who says the pursuit of social justice can’t be paved with kindness and cookies.

So many women doing what needs done – friends, neighbors, cousins, coworkers – too many name and count. Every day. I acknowledge your achievements and look to the day when we do not need International Women’s Day, Women’s History Month, or Black History month to know the sum of who we are.

Until then, have a croissant and sing along.

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Buttery goodness from William-Sonoma

I came very late to the habit of going to the salon. For 30 years I wore my hair very long (and usually pinned up in a bun). For 15 of those years I dyed my hair various shades of bottle blonde.

The color started as a poorly controlled impulse. Once when one sister was dying the other sister’s hair blonde in the kitchen, I scooped some of the left over goop from bowl and pulled it through my hair in a streak. It wasn’t long before my whole head was blonde.

Because it was so long, and I was dying it myself over the bathtub, it wasn’t long before multiple shades were apparent. At the time it was vaguely Madonna-esque, now I think now they call it ombre. Looks a lot different when its deliberate.

Ten years ago I decided to cut my hair. I can’t remember the reason why, now but something must have prompted it. Now I go to an “Aveda Experience Salon” for cut, curl, color and whatever else my stylist thinks is a good idea. Who am I to argue?

Sitting in the salon chair with my eyes closed the other day, listening to the sounds of high heels clacking and dozens of voices rising and falling, I thought about the difference between this and the sounds of my mother’s beauty parlor.

Until I was an adult my mom went to the beauty parlor once a week to get her hair washed and “done”. This was a Saturday ritual that started with a 7 am trip to the West Side Market, a stop at Zannoni’s Italian Imports for whatever, and Mazonne & Sons for bread. And then Patsy’s Beauty Parlor.

Patsy’s was a store front shop with two chairs, 4 drying chairs and lots of hairspray. Instead of the thumping bass of my Aveda experience, Patsy’s sound scape consisted of WGAR Country radio, the whine of dryer hoods and middle-aged women, smoking and bitching about their good-for-nuthin, kids/husbands/neighbor. The smell was Benson & Hedges diluted only by industrial strength Aqua Net.

I’m sure those Beauty Parlor sounds and smells still exist somewhere, along with the pink foam sleep bonnet my mother wore at night to protect her complicated basket weave of a hairdo.

Often when I think of my mother – it is mother’s day after all – I fall into a rambly comparison of her life to mine. Middle class daily life versus childhood memories of her poverty class daily life at my same age. An attempt I guess to further understand who I am by trying to understand who she was.

Sometime after I was out of high school my mom stopped going to Patsy and switched to the JC Penny salon at the mall. The basket weave was replaced by a layered bob that took a bit of work with a curling iron to fluff it up.

She never told me why she decided to change her style. Lost to time like my own reason to cut my hair. Another twisty thread for me to pick at when I turn my kaleidoscope on memories of my mother.

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Yesterday I got news that a child of an acquaintance of mine had committed suicide. He was 37.

To lose a child is unimaginable. To lose someone you love by their own hand, is incomprehensible.

My heart is breaking for her even as I know that I cannot know what she is going through. In a few hours I will attend the funeral and already my chest hurts knowing I will see in her face unfathomable pain. What can I say to her to acknowledge the rending of her life into a new before and after because her child died? I am sorry for your loss is not large enough for any death, but it’s what we say. Because we don’t know what to say.

No words can be adequate, so I will do what I can.

I will bear witness to her grief. And grieve with her.

I will ask people to click on the photo below to learn about suicide prevention & coping with loss. My ignorance is complete. The least I can do is understand this half of her tragedy and hope I never need the information.

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I re-post this as a salute to my friend who is brave, kind and more than just a pretty-good Mom.


A Mother’s Day Essay

A Pretty Good Mom

An ugly third-degree burn scar covers most of my left outer thigh. This is one legacy my mother left me. I was two years old and, the story goes, I climbed on top of our stove, turned it on, and sat down on the red-hot electrical burner while my mother vacuumed upstairs, unable to hear my screams. Neglect? An accident?  It’s a strange story, but it’s possible. I also knocked out my front teeth around the same age, falling down the stairs. Again, it’s possible. Nothing strange or unusual about a toddler falling down the stairs, especially in the late 60s before baby proofing was common.

Another legacy my mother left me was her voice, first in my ears, later in my head, telling me I was a mistake, an accident, that I was not loved but tolerated, and that I was capable of ruining lives (well, hers at least) by merely existing. I wasn’t even supposed to be alive, so I’d better watch it. It throws the accidents into a different light, this admission from her that I was not loved, was not wanted. It puts a small, scratching doubt in my head, enough to make me wonder what really happened.

It’s hard not to think about these things around Mother’s Day. All the stories in social media, newspapers and magazines that idealize and praise mothers and mothering, stories of bonds between mothers and daughters, are powerful triggers.

It’s also hard not to think about these things because I am a mother.

I like to say that my mother helped me become a good mother by demonstrating what NOT to do. I don’t yell, I don’t belittle, I don’t insult,  I don’t shame, I don’t slam things, I don’t break things. I’m not saying good mothers don’t lose their tempers and do these things sometimes. They do. But good mothers who do those things make up for the mistakes with love and affection, even apologies, that hopefully balance it all out.

Looking back, though, I think what was worse than what she did do was what she didn’t do. She did not cuddle, she did not praise, she did not thank, she did not protect, she did not apologize, she did not love. She fed, she clothed, she cleaned, she tolerated, grudgingly. When she wasn’t angrily doing housework, slamming cupboards and drawers, she was smoking and drinking coffee in the kitchen, one eye pinched against the smoke curling from the cigarette clamped in one side of her mouth, the other fixed on the pages of a Harlequin Romance.  I knew better than to seek attention from her, and usually just watched her from the kitchen doorway, trying to gauge her mood.

My most vivid memories of her from my childhood are saturated with feelings of fear and guilt. One afternoon she tried to show me how to clean my room. I know I was very young because I remember the vacuum cleaner was too heavy for me—try as I might I could not push it under the bed where I had been told to sweep. When she returned to find it unswept, she raged at me. I cried, feeling worthless. She eventually left me alone.

Another dim memory, playing Candyland, the only memory I have of her playing with me. I must have cheated, as very young children do–maybe trying to move my piece ahead without her noticing? Who knows. The game was put away very dramatically, with huffing and puffing and scolding and slamming and indignation. I cried, feeling worthless. She eventually left me alone.

That was our pattern.

And so it went. The fear and guilt morphed into loathing and guilt when I was a teen, and eventually pity and guilt when I was an adult and finally had a child of my own.

Oh, the waste of love. Until I had my own, I had no idea how eager children are to love and be loved, how easily it happens. It would have taken so little for her to have it, to give it. But for a variety of reasons (the subject of a future essay, perhaps), she could not. And as much as I tried to love her, I could not overcome my fear enough to do it.

I cried when she died, not because she was gone but for the life she had wasted. I do not miss her, and I am, if not exactly happier, at least relieved that she is gone.

Her voice is still with me, but it gets quieter as the years pass, crowded out of my head more and more by thoughts of my son, my husband, my friends, my work, my world. In spite of her, I give and receive love easily, even fiercely, especially with my son.  And I am grateful for that every day, but especially today.

Happy mother’s day.

speak truth to power

 

 

 

In an alternate future-world I will read the New Yorker magazine the day that it arrives in the mail. In present reality-land, they are scattered throughout the house in no real order. Some in the living room, some in the kitchen, a few hidden under piles of books in my daughters room, so I never actually read them in order. Which can be fascinating.

I recently read an analysis of Mitt Romney that ran prior to the November election and it was a great hindsight view of what went wrong in his campaign (thank God!). I do, however,  have a way of filing the magazines I’ve read so I am at least reaching for new (to me) content when I do grab one.

I just picked up the April 8, 2013 issue and read a Shouts & Murmurs that just slayed me. This regular feature can be hit or miss, but this one was dead on. Paul Rudnick did a scathing parody of the overprivileged Mommy Blogger. While I do write about my family, my daughter and parenting in general, when someone called my Rant a Mommy Blog a while back I was hurt & offended. Rudnick’s humorous, not so unrealistic, depiction of blogging is my darkest fear with my writing.

This post is a bit longer than my usual, but the Rudncik is well worth the read. I don’t think I am a Mommy Blogger and there is additional proof in the fact that I have not disabled the comments.

“I’m Jyll Cimmaron Stelton, and every morning, even before I crawl out from under my down comforter, I grab my iPad and start to mommyblog. I always begin by composing a prayer of gratitude for my beautiful children: Sonnet, Cascade, Nebula, and the baby, Diaspora. I’m not sure what the word “diaspora” means, but it sounds so pretty, and it was either that or Chipotle.

I believe that childhood is a brief, perfect state of being, and so I’ve tried to enclose my family in a shimmering sphere of enchantment, a realm that I call WonderPlanet, right here in our Park Slope brownstone. On WonderPlanet, anything is possible, as long as everyone loves one another and Goldman Sachs comes through with Daddy’s Easter bonus. I teach my children that money is like fairy dust, because when we sprinkle it around we can dream and sing and fly, usually in business class, and we can bake heart-shaped cookies that we can share with all the other children who aren’t allergic to stone-milled spelt flour, carob chips, whey protein, and smiles.

Some people have criticized me for not going back to work after my children were born, and for hiring a nanny. But I think of nurturing WonderPlanet as a full-time occupation, and someday I do plan on returning to my career as an advocate for women over forty who still want to grow and maintain waist-length hair. In addition, I’ve begun to sell a selection of trademarked WonderPlanet collectibles online, including hand-thrown ceramic mugs inscribed with the mottoes “Wander Into Wonder,” “I’m a Stay-at-Home Dreambuilder,” and “End Bullying Today—Buy a Mug.” I’m also marketing a line of meadow-dried teas, called Peaseblossom Morn, Smoochberries ’n’ Yarn, and Private Tutor. And in just a few weeks I’ll be introducing my WonderPlanet homewares line, in collaboration with Target, which will feature handwoven raffia boxes designed to hold smaller handwoven raffia boxes.

As for our nanny, well, because Tula is really more like a member of our family, we call her our Friendgiver. Sometimes, when I’m on the chaise longue in my home office, editing the audio of the duets where I sing along with Taylor Swift and then mimic Taylor’s voice thanking me, I get a little jealous, because Tula is enjoying the gift of bathing my children and inspecting their scalps for head lice. Once the little ones are all fresh-smelling, with their heads shaved and shining, Tula and I love to create games like Let’s All Be Butterflies and Pretend That Tula Is a Windshield, and Let’s All Change Tula’s Name Again and Ignore Her Until She Answers to Mrs. Melonbutt T. Wiggleburp.

One afternoon last week, I came upon Tula sobbing quietly in a corner, and I didn’t want to upset her by asking why, but I knew: it was because, at the end of each perfect Brooklyn day, she’s forced to return to her own home, in an outlying borough that the children and I call Underplace. I curled my arm so that it hovered about four inches away from her shoulders, and stroked the air above her head, while murmuring, “There, there, don’t cry. Next weekend, I’ll let the children stay with you in Underplace, so I can finish the proposal for my cookbook, called ‘Sparkle Soup and Gummi Flax: Imaginary Recipes for Obese Children in Public Schools.’ ”

Of course, I dread the day when Sonnet, my eldest, will begin her half-days at St. Elizabeth’s, the only preschool in our area where children are required to wear wings, crowns, and non-gender-specific leg warmers. I have refused to confine or label my children in any way, and sometimes I tell Cascade that his penis is called a vagina, just so I can watch him pound his tiny head against the wall with secret joy. And once, after Nebula asked me where babies come from, we had a wonderful afternoon, filling condoms with water and then hurling them at Tula.

Most of our days, however, are spent dressing up in hand-embroidered Swedish linen smocks, tulle tutus, and velvet tunics, and fashioning dance/performance pieces illustrating what I like to call “Ye Enchantable Historye of WonderPlanet.” Yesterday, when some neighboring children came over, Nebula chose to play the Darkling Shrew, a mother who neglects her children by selfishly pursuing a life of social work and city planning. The other children all played positive emanations, including Kindness, Quiet Time, and Really Listening. They surrounded the Darkling Shrew and punched her until she promised to quit her job and devote more time to Instagramming photos of them touching oversized soap bubbles.

The afternoon flew by, and before we knew it Daddy came home, carrying a bunch of daffodils, a loaf of still warm cracked-carraway-seed bread from our local bakery, which is staffed entirely by Dartmouth Ph.D.s, and all of Mommy’s prescriptions, which I immediately sorted into imported French porcelain pillboxes, labelled “Stress,” “Mood,” and “I Wish I Had a Gun.”

The children always leap into Daddy’s loving arms, eager for kisses and cuddles and the marvellous lemon-verbena scent of that twenty-three-year-old whom Daddy insists is simply an eager Wharton grad he’s mentoring. Then, because we’re all finally together on WonderPlanet, Tula distributes the wood blocks, tambourines, and Pan flutes, and we become the WonderPlanet Starcarrier Symphony Sensation, led by me strumming my lute, with Daddy keeping time by tapping his glass against the bottle of Scotch. Together, we all perform old family favorites like “Hooray! It’s Tuesday!,” “Tula Is So Slow!,” and “Daddy Is Just Tired from a Very Long Day, So Please Stop Whining About Montauk.”
After dinner, and while waiting for Tula to get all four children in bed, Daddy and I finally grab some alone time. I show him the children’s new watercolors. We marvel at their vivid imaginations, and we ponder what it means that the stick figures in Nebula’s paintings are all on fire, under the words “While They’re Asleep.”

So ends another exhausting, confounding, and inspiring day here on WonderPlanet. I know that this paradise can’t last forever, and that’s why every day I post an affirmation on our family’s Web site and I add a few bills from Daddy’s wallet to my secret lingerie-drawer bank account. And, as I close my eyes and begin to dream of the next morning’s blog entry, I think, I’m so glad I disabled the comments section.”
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I am really bad at uncertainty.

Change I’m good at, emergencies, bring ’em on, but uncertainty makes me understand the Catholic concept of Limbo a bit more than I would like. Technically Limbo is the edge of Hell. You know right away this is Catholic because, between Heaven and Hell, Limbo sits “on the edge of Hell”, not the edge of Heaven.

The concept of Limbo got reformed a bit over the years to allow unbaptized infants to occupy a Limbo of “natural happiness” (thank you Thomas Aquinas) despite their lack of baptism. The best part about Aquinas’s version is that the infants don’t know that they are being denied salvation in Christ. The rest of the un-baptised who have not sinned enough to go suffer the tortures of Hell are eternally tormented with the knowledge that they will ever be separated from God.

If I had my druthers I would go with the ignorant infant model.

For the past month I have been sitting in Limbo as my husband is considered for a position that would require a long-distance move. There are many moving parts to that potential future (my work, my daughter’s life, buying & selling houses etc.) so I started a “Rumsfeld List” to try and wrap my mind around the Known Knowns the Known Unknowns, the Unknown Unknowns. Because that’s what you do in Limbo – plan the planning of a plan.  At least that’s what I do.

If my mother was here she would first advise “offering it up to Jesus” and then she would pray to one of her go-to Saints. St. Therese (to accept Gods will) or St. Jude (lost causes) or St. Christopher (safe travel, generically for her kids, sort of like Mrs. Weasley’s clock).

For now I think I’ll stick with the patron saint of project managers, St. Franklin-Covey, until the uncertainty, no matter the outcome, turns into certainty delivering me from Limbo.

As many people do we went around the table on Thanksgiving and everyone shared something they were thankful for.

There was a general consensus about being thankful for family, friends and health as we took turns, and then the kids start getting very specific with things like “Cows, because I like cheese”. The adults mentioned Obama’s election, ACA, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown and Tammy Baldwin among other things esoteric and mundane. When it was my turn, the first time before everyone started having fun with it, I said I was thankful for abundance.

Sitting around the table that night were adults who all had well paying jobs, two cars, big houses filled with electronics, warm clothes and all the food we could eat. That is abundance any place in the world.  

I remember the first time I realized I was not poor. I got into my car after grocery shopping and couldn’t remember how much I had just spent. I swiped my card, money was being debited, and I didn’t know exactly how much. I had only just recently gotten over my embarrassment at the parcel service, which is mandatory at this grocery, and stopped trying to carry all my bags to the car just to avoid having the high school kid wait on me.

I thought of this as I shopped at Whole Foods for expensive (worth every penny) goat cheese and fancy olives Thanksgiving day. What made me feel “not poor” then and now was the act of buying what I wanted at the grocery, rather than only what I could afford. I don’t use a calculator while I shop (my sister still does) and have a very loose food budget that accomadates organic produce and whims like fancy cheese. 

I say “not poor” rather than rich because its all relative. My husband and I have been middle class for more than 15 years now if you use the definition of “middle class” as those making anything from $30,000 – $250,000 a year. We are by no stretch of the imagination “rich”. On the other hand, while sorting my mothers papers after she died I discovered that my father’s highest salary was $35,000 in 1992, the year that he died. Using the inflation calculator that would be worth roughly $18,000 today. So by that standard, we are rich indeed.

Rich and poor are such interesting words. When I was truly poor as a kid I had no idea because everyone around me was too. Now that I am no longer in that category it gets kinda fuzzy. Richer than some, poorer than others, I still worry about money, cut corners, clip coupons and try to appease the warring factions in my head. The urge to share, treat and give gifts because I can is deeply ingrained.

Something that people who have grown up middle class or above sometimes don’t know is that most poor people, or I should say the ones I grew up with, are very generous with what they do have. They put money in the Sally Army kettle, give a stranger a cigarette and let people crash on their couch. Someones always got it worse. I’ve joked about my mother and her “Some people don’t have any legs” riff, but at its core its true.

Whatever your circumstances there is something to be grateful for. We live our lives in abundance.

I am torn about my blog post today. I am suffering from split focus, attention deficit, mommy syndrome, something.

On the one hand I am busy stimulating the economy for President Obama. Purchasing binders, index cards, graph paper and boxes of Ticonderoga. Trying to figure out when to get the god-awful “spandies” required for volleyball, spending hours at Target watching my daughter try on clothes, and further hours discussing other stores that must be visited and the impending first day of school. This is all fine. Its the process and procedure of back to school.

Just to make things interesting, I’ve added a new complication this year. We gave my daughter a budget for the academic year for clothes, gifts, and extras. We went through, line by line (her father made an excel spreadsheet), and estimated what needs, what she does and how much it all costs and rounded up generously.

We explained the concept of fungible and the fact that a balance in the bank account at the end goes into her savings, we don’t take it back. Incredibly traumatic for all of us. I consider it a pilot year.

On the other hand I keep getting interrupted by news of Todd Akin.

Now he is saying he didn’t mean “legitimate rape”, what he really meant was that women lie about rape. And the GOP, scrambling to make lemonade since the lemon won’t quit, is declaring a no-exceptions abortion plank for their convention. Apparently is it a ‘self-evident truth’ in the Declaration of Independence that we should protect the unborn, and only the unborn, so help us God. If you can’t beat em, join em.

At least until the news cycle is over. Akin could still have a mysterious heart attack in his swimming pool (remember Wag the Dog?), or compromising pictures with his boyfriend could be revealed. It wouldn’t be the first time.

I ask you – don’t these God-fearing, excessively procreating, republicans ever take a break from their generalized assholery so normal people can get their work done?  I know I should look away from the Akin idiocy and focus on the duties of motherhood, but since I’m not pregnant at the moment my child’s needs don’t really matter.

And I feel like if God didn’t want women to have it all he wouldn’t have given us Yahoo, CNN, Huff Post and a Twitter feed. Not to mention all that elitist propaganda at NYT, WashPost & the BBC.

Boy! It feels good to blame God for stuff! I may do it more often.

I recently returned from a (somewhat) electronics free vacation. I still had all my devices with me, I just resisted the urge to use them for work purposes. The iPad was for reading books, the phone was for the camera & maps. It helped that 1) the reception at the rental house was non-existent until you registered your device with the Wi-Fi, and 2) that I had turned off the settings for email and calendar the day before we arrived.  And they stayed off. This was a first for me.

It was also the first time we vacationed with another family. And this particular family is why I didn’t post to my blog during vacation – everyone got along great, we had fun together, kids only annoyed their own parents – in other words, no blog fodder. This is in stark contrast to my childhood vacations which have material I can mine for several years at least.

Both of my parents were scoutmasters which meant all vacations were camping. This is also the cheapest way to have a vacation with six children two adults and a dog. When I was about 10 or 11 my dad made friends with another scoutmaster who I will call “Mr. Perry” because that was his name. My mother became friends with the wife, who everyone called “Mother”, including her husband. That forced us kids to be friends with their kids who were roughly our ages.

My one brother stopped going on family vacations when he was 14 and learned how to run away effectively. My other brother was already married and expecting his first child, so that left me, my two sisters and my little brother to enjoy family vacation.

My first clue that we were camping with aliens was at dinner when one of the kids looked at the discarded corn cob on my plate and said “You gonna finish that?”,  snatched it up and started chewing it clean. The second was when Mother cut up all of Mr Perry’s food, including the corn off his cob, because he said “it was easier that way”.  No doubt.

We vacationed with this family several years in a row, and no one seemed happy about it but the dads who would canoe while smoking cigars. We camped one year at a park that had musical acts and got to see Eddie Rabbit (pre “I Love a Rainy Night”) among other country stars I couldn’t name then or now. We also went to Yankee Peddler, a festival of colonial living, food and fun. How subsistence living could be fun is still a mystery to me. I’d just like to say for the record that I hate both maple sugar candy and rock candy on a stick. Their olde tyme-ness does not improve the flavor or equal a colonial experience.

One night after we had returned from another stone drag potluck dinner at the Perry’s house, where their contribution was hot dogs and jello molds and my mother’s was lasagna and yellow cake with chocolate frosting, my mother started complaining about how for years they bring crap food and then eat all of ours and she was sick of it. My dad yelled back at her saying something like ‘well she’s your friend’, and my mom replied, ‘no he’s YOUR friend’, and within minutes they discovered that neither of them liked the couple but had never said anything. My sister said ‘none of us likes their kids’ and that was that, we never saw them again.

My family vacation 2012 did not include camping, extreme hardship to build character, or odious people. It was lovely.

And there was one photo we took that reminded me of the 1970’s. In a good way. You can almost see the Go-Karts at the end of the track…