Monthly Archives: October 2013

Meet W. Kamau Bell– if you haven’t already.

Trying to face racism honestly and keeping my mind pointed at the reality of racism, ending it, and in particular, racism as it comes at my own daughter, is in large part, the reason I started writing this blog. If you’re white (yes, I am) and you have a child of color (who I love so much) and you keep your eyes and ears open (I do) you see racism– in the biggest picture– (think Trayvon Martin, think the things that have been said about and done, including by members of the United States Congress, in the direction of our own president, President Barack Obama, think economic and health and educational disparities in the US and think about a million other things). But if you are honest, you also see racism in every day life, coming at your child (think Student Council, think who is consistently touted as the best student in the class at school, who gets chosen for things– the lead in the play, the best poem or essay, etc., etc.). And then if you are white (which yes, I still am) you really have to start to look at and face your own racism which is harder to excavate honestly, but I do work at that too.

There should be posts about my own racism– what I have faced about how and where it is threaded into me as it is into all of us who are white, and about what I’ve done about it. But I don’t have the focus or courage to write about that publicly– not yet. For all of us, whether we are targeted by racism or members of the group that perpetuate racism, someone who has the gift to point honestly at racism and keep us laughing– has a goldmine of a gift. A black man who would bother to talk to us about these things and let us laugh at ourselves (if we’re white) along with him, someone who is black and who says “Ok, let’s take an honest look. Ok, now laugh really, really hard. Now let’s go back and take another honest look, a little longer this time, …now laugh some more”– That is someone who is going to help lead us out of this mess we’re in and to a world which we will someday have, without racism. He also does equally beautiful and hilarious work on sexism and tackles in some way, what it takes for men to face sexism honestly.

W. Kamau Bell is certainly that someone. He stands on the shoulders of other black comics and artists who have been so very important for all of us, but I’ve been looking to him lately. And you should too.

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Three. And happy birthday to you, girlfriend.

1. Three years ago today, on the Jewish calendar, I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah and read from Chayei Sarah, today’s Torah portion. I was already in my 50’s. Today, three years later, I went with my own daughter to what I am calling our kick-off of her 7th grade religious school class Bar and Bat Mitzvah year. It was our kick-off because the Bat Mitzvah today wasn’t the first of her class, but the first she was invited to and attended– and we will have many others in the coming months. It was especially meaningful because the Bat Mitzvah girl today, who I like so much, read the same Torah portion I did. She a girl with a disability who read Torah and led the service beautifully, whose father cried when he spoke to her from the bima and who spoke very eloquently about the meaning she found in the Torah portion. It is the 3rd anniversary of my own Bat Mitzvah, and one year ahead on the Jewish calendar– will be my own daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. She was reluctant to agree to a Bat Mitzvah, but decided she would do it when we told her she could choose to do the Torah portion I had done, parts of which she can chant already. Three Jewish women, three different Bat Mitzvahs. I cried quite a bit during our young friend’s Bat Mitzvah today and I had the feeling that was just the kick-off on that too– that I will cry more and more as my daughter gets closer and closer to her own Bat Mitzvah day.

2. My mother-in-law is 88 years old. She’ll be 89 next week. She has lost a son (my partner’s very beloved brother) and a husband in the past eight years. She is a devout Catholic and I love her though mostly we haven’t been especially close for the roughly 25 years her daughter has been my partner, my sweetheart. She is an important woman in my life and I admire how she has carried on in the face of such hard losses, particularly the loss of her son. Her understandings of the bigger world and in particular of me, as a Jewish woman, are limited–at least to my way of thinking. But something else I admire about her is the fact that she is a devout Catholic. Her devotion and Catholicism and her grit have carried her through and I admire her steadfastness. On September 2, this year she was living alone in her home, still driving, cooking, seeing friends, calling us on the phone, going to church and watching a lot of football. On September 3, she fell and broke her hip, and things got much more complicated.

My sweetheart, M., is a devoted daughter. When her mother broke her hip we agreed– she shouldn’t wait, she should go, like on the next plane. She has been back to her hometown three times in seven weeks and has seen her mom through partial hip replacement, a slow recuperation that involved a long stretch of struggle to regain her mind after anesthesia, physical therapy that is still ongoing to regain the ability to stand and walk and do things like go to the bathroom and get dressed. She has been in a rehabilitation facilty and then a move, given the crappiness of the options for older people, and her strong desire to stay in her hometown, to a nursing home. So far, she has not gone home since she fell (she was walking back to her house on a fall morning after being across the street with her neighbor) and I don’t know that she will ever go back home. Her fall and what has followed has shaken me up. Thinking about her, about my own mother who will be 82 this weekend, about what those later years will be like for us– for me and for my partner and for my sister and other women I love–it’s, well, unsettling.

It is a shake up that has moved me in a positive direction. I am reminded in a good way that life is not forever and it makes sense to look at the goodness around me every day. I have found a new/ old tenderness for my partner, and certain things that we have fought about over many years have dissolved into non-fighting, something closer, and with more laughter. I feel tenderly toward other people I love, and I have had four exceptionally close and beautiful fall weekends– just me and my daughter– three while my partner was away. Then we had one Girl Scout camping trip in the mountains tossed in there– another gorgeous fall weekend. In the midst of her mother’s struggles, M.got the news of a potentially difficult health matter of her own, but the recent good news on that front is another reason to be grateful and I am. Grateful.

3. I have an old friend. To say “old friend” doesn’t even begin to describe the relationship or the significance of her friendship in my life, but there are no other better, more specific words, really, to describe her, other than an old friend. Today is her birthday. We met a very long time ago (more than 30 years) as very young women in our early 20’s. We met in Israel and her love, her enthusiasm for me, her loyalty and humor and generosity toward me has always meant the world to me. She has loved me so well and so much for all these years, despite the fact that in our 20’s something happened between us that was, on my part, one of my life’s larger breaks with my own integrity. I have apologized over the years but I haven’t completely forgiven myself. It is my good fortune that over time she seems to have forgiven me and has remained one of my deepest friends. We are both lucky Jewish women to have each other’s friendship and sisterhood.

There are great things about being in your 50’s, one of which is that having a friendship of this duration, and having been through a lot together– means this is unmistakably a friendship that will last for as long as we are on the planet. She is a wonderful woman, warm and generous and funny. Our lives in the past 12 years have been further cemented because by some astounding miracle, after we both tried to get pregnant and I didn’t and she did– and then after my partner’s and my lengthy adoption process, we had two beautiful children. She with her partner and me with M. Her son and my daughter were born three weeks and a day apart and the two are now themselves, very close. They call each other cousins.

She has her flaws, and I hope she will see both the truth and the tongue and cheek humor of this but one of those is simply that she doesn’t make enough time to see me, and she is too often in a hurry and we don’t talk– like really talk– enough. (I don’t make enough time to see her either, and I barely have time to talk, really, talk, but somehow, in my mind, that whole thing is her fault– why is that?). In any case, here we are in our 50’s with our 12 year olds, and again I feel grateful, very. Happy, happy, happy birthday, D.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun…

I’ve been occupied with trying to address, sometimes elegantly and often less elegantly, several unrelated issues that have cropped up in my daughter’s life at her public school and at religious school. A career of mostly public interest law advocating for people living with HIV, gay men and people living with the effects of poverty, immigrants and people with disabilities– for much of my adult working life has only barely prepared me for the advocacy I’ve needed to pull off as a parent. My parental advocacy has been much harder for me, more fraught and brought only mixed results– because of course the solutions to most of the tough things aren’t really individual solutions– the solutions would require much deeper reorganization of priorities and ways of doing things. But I digress. Things come up that need to be responded to now, or often yesterday– whether I have the time and slack to deal with a particular issue or not. And I get upset—really upset about some things which only makes the job more complicated.

There’s something unfolding at my daughter’s school right now. My close friends (mostly, but not all women, some parents, some not) in whom I confide these things— seem to fall into two camps—some are outraged themselves or laugh hysterically or shout or curse along with me about the stupidities, indignities or mistakes toward our children— the things that get under my skin. Sometimes friends listen and get very quiet in that way that lets you know that they think you are off base but they aren’t going to cross you.

Here’s the issue du jour. If I sound a bit defensive, well, I’ll be honest, I am. I am still not certain that there is any consensus on sexism as a real thing or that there is any agreement that certain “small” things—have a profound effect and matter. I think this issue really is a great big deal and I think internalized sexism has something to do with all the ways I second guess myself.

My daughter played on a girls’ school volleyball team last year and joined the team again this year. It’s a big deal for her to play. She isn’t driven to play sports and her skills are such that she doesn’t get a ton of accolades. I remember when she was a toddler and woke up wanting nothing more than to play actively at our park. Every day. She would wake us and ask to go to the park starting at 6 a.m. and once we got there (at 8:00 if she was lucky, for a toddler this was like a month from when she had started asking) she didn’t want to stop playing. I can’t ever remember a time in those days, when she initiated our leaving and coming home.

When my partner and I both went back to regular jobs our parental limits caused us to offer her the cartoon “Caillou” in the mornings when she was about 2—so we could get ready for work—and therein we, ourselves, offered up an addiction to sitting in front of a television rather than getting outside and running and climbing. Huge mistake. I have cursed myself ever since.

We kept her in a preschool that kept all the young people very active for as long as we could, but then kindergarten and ensuing years of being forced to sit for so damn long took care of the rest. She isn’t as driven to be active and we have had to push her to join a team. There was a two-year basketball career—with her other mom, M, coaching (M still coaches the 4th and 5th grade girls teams) but the male coach of the middle school girls team was harsh in such a way that she lost interest. Then she joined the volleyball team. These are middle school girls. Some/ many have never played volleyball before.

Our school’s teams—basketball, cross-country and others have had a firm and unquestioned policy since the inception of the middle school program—a policy of welcoming every young person who signs up for the team and shows up to practice. There have never been tryouts. They’re all on the team. M has coached basketball teams of 25 with skills ranging from unbelievable to learning to dribble a ball. This year, there’s a new volleyball coach who is perhaps rather old school. I’ve not met her. My daughter started making noises that some girls would get cut from the team a few weeks ago. Then M’s 89 year old mother fell and broke her hip and M left town (twice) and we didn’t investigate. (M’s mother’s health is a major thing happening in our family, which deserves more attention than I offer here.)

Two Friday afternoons ago we parents and the girls themselves got an email saying that the volleyball team is too big. They would be dividing the team of 25 middle school girls into two groups. Fifteen would be designated “Varsity” and 10 would be designated “Junior Varsity”. I was not pleased but ok, whatever. But the email went on. The Junior Varsity team, it said, will only be allowed to participate in one of the three team practices a week and will not be permitted to play at all.

I have absolutely no first-hand experience being on any Varsity or Junior Varsity team ever in my life (and for this reason precisely, I have wanted my daughter to have something better). But I know enough to say– this isn’t the definition of any Junior Varsity team. This is a dishonest name for something else called being removed from the team. For the record, it was unclear to me at that point whether my own daughter would be designated Varsity or Junior Varsity and whether, if designated Junior Varsity, she would care. But I knew this was very wrong, regardless of the outcome for my own daughter.

As a woman in my 50s who didn’t play sports for a number of reasons, and has struggled to stay fit and to stay active, (and I am still fighting but far from winning) I have a certain kind of expertise. Here’s what I know. This is 2013. Title 9 passed a long time ago. Girls and boys should all participate in being active and should be part of sports at their schools and elsewhere. This should happen more and more and more not less and less. Girls, in particular, still need to be part of organized teams and groups to stay active.

In 22 years in my neighborhood with a nice, safe park a block away, I have walked through the park and seen boys and men playing pick-up basketball thousands of times. I have literally never seen a group of girls out playing. Grown women suffer heart disease at very high rates. It’s still tough for us females to stay active and to push our bodies hard. As a young female, especially if you’re not exceptionally talented, it’s easy to give up. Most everything still pulls many of us females, to give up on being active. Exercise, the habit and enjoyment of it matters. Not giving up matters. You know all this.

Being outraged about the composition of a sports team, for those of you who know me well, is perhaps the last thing you’d expect of me—but here I am. The more I reflected on this particular decision, the more, not less, outrageous it seemed. The more I reflect on a lot of things involving my daughter and her friends, the more I realize that it’s the seemingly little things that get you. There are things that to many of us would not be even really recognizable as sexism or racism that become the turning point (for the worse) in the lives of young people. I think these “minor” issues, the ones where we all settle for things being just kind of crummy or sort of unfair are often the places where the trajectory is set.

It’s almost 100% true that when I listen to adult women talk about when they gave up on something important, something that set them in a tough direction for the rest of their lives, it was always a small moment like this. The good coach left and they never played again. They played something for a couple years and then the team got competitive and someone said something crummy and they never played again… you get the picture. Since we don’t live in an open, legal apartheid system, it is almost always, 100% a moment like this when the sexism (or racism or some other ism) takes hold and no one has to oppress you anymore, you just do the dirty work of limiting yourself and your options all on your own.

Anyway, I kicked off a lot of drama-rama in the past few days—with a private email from me to the (generally wonderful and dedicated woman who is the athletic director) and to the school principal. I used dreaded words like—sexism. I also sent the email to three of the other moms who I trust as allies. My daughter learned that she was on the Jr. Varsity team and cried a very little bit. She was so disappointed but also clear-headed. She ranted with a certain deep logic. She said, why would the girls who have the least skills get less practice? We should get to practice four times a week!

There have been other not private emails from three other parents—one of whom has a child who the mother described as having been overweight and bullied for this for much of her school life. The mother says she has been witnessing a miraculous transformation in her daughter’s desire and will to be active and to work hard– after someone (well, ahem, the someone is my own daughter) relentlessly encouraged her to join the volleyball team and encouraged her that it was a fine place to be and to learn—regardless of skill and that other girls would help and support you there. She said she felt fearful that if the message is that trying hard and being willing to work isn’t, indeed, enough– that her daughter would never take a risk to put herself out there to be active, again.

There was a difficult email from a parent whose daughter is a very accomplished athlete —who basically said we should all stop our complaining. And there was the letter of a mom who I’ve always liked a lot and who doesn’t mince words saying, this is a horrible decision and it sends a terrible message. The message is—the most important thing is winning. There have been many conversations, private and public about the wisdom, fairness, dangers or lack thereof, of this decision. A predictable, ok, and semi-crummy compromise has been reached. The athletic director and a father whose daughter is on the varsity team will coach a Friday practice for the jr. varsity once a week and my own dear M (with help from the mom whose daughter took the big risk to play) will coach a Wednesday practice.

And all of this is just the roughest outline of all that has happened and says nothing of the emotional roller coaster I rode for several days. I am learning and re-learning a lot, but there are a few things that I need to hold on to. One is that when 25 girls ages 11-13 want to play together and they say there is only room for 15 of them– sexism is alive and well and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. I call on the phrase that I learned a long, long time ago—if you were a feminist of my era. “The personal is political” and what happens to one small girls’ sports team is not trivial because this is real life for those girls.

There’s no place else to go, nothing else but what happens in school and on the playground this year and the next and the next after that. These really are the things that shape their lives and their hopes and their sense of what is possible or impossible. These are also the things that shape their bodies and their health and their heart disease or diabetes or osteoporosis or lack thereof in the years ahead. For me there are many contradictions, one of which is that it is always hard to get myself to the gym and the recent angsting and writing of all these letters and emails was just one more time when I got too busy to go. But now my daughter has a Wednesday and Friday practice again—so maybe I should make a date with myself and go work up a sweat.