Nationalism.


On the playground yesterday there was a fierce display of sibling rivalry turned sibling on sibling on sibling crime. The details are not particularly important. The hitting, the chasing, the arm twisting, the throwing sand at “eyeball targets.”  The look of horror on the faces of good-natured pacifist onlookers.

I’m told it was embarrassing to watch the three of them go at it. So embarrassing for our dear 60 something year old Polish immigrant babysitter that she dropped her phone and left it at the park, only to have it picked up by a good Samaritan who turned it over to the police who in turn answered my call yesterday.

“Hello ma’am, this is Officer Goodguy.” Triggering an internal shriek of what in the freaking hell?!? why are the police answering her phone…oh no, no, no, oh geez, nooooo!

“Don’t worry, ma’am. Someone just found this phone at the park. Your babysitter is coming to get it right now.”

Thank goodness. Now back to the cause of the phone fumble.  They were fighting. They were out for themselves, motivated by some good ole primal individualism. Yet, later that day their individual goals were upended because–the Olympics.

***

I wrote everything you just read months ago as the 2016 Olympics kicked off. I’d come home after that phone call with the police, the one that still makes my stomach turn when I think about it.  Of course it turned out just fine and the incident supplied a great deal of laughter during the round robin re telling by the 4 lead characters. I found the picture on the wall too and was told that the kids were insanely excited about the Olympics and planned to keep track of how many medals the US and Poland won.  I thought it was adorable and I thought it was emblematic of our tribal nature, and I thought for sure that the US would win more medals.

I wanted to write a story about nationalism. How a healthy dose of nationalism can be a good thing. How petty grievances and playground sand-throwing can be set aside in the interest of something bigger than who we are as individuals, something that is more important.

Then I thought about how dangerous it is sometimes. I thought about the downside of nationalism, of tribalism, of any kind of ism that separates us from others by telling us that we are better or more righteous or more deserving in some way.  I wasn’t sure which side to come out on so I hit save as draft and moved on.

Nationalism is good. Xenophobia is not.  Flag-waving is okay.  Jingoism is not.

Nationalism is not an excuse to behave in a way that contradicts the very values that should be the source of our nationalism.

Why do we love the United States of America? I can’t answer for you. For me it’s everything. It’s our insanely lucky start with a bunch of plucky flawed founders. It’s our  freedoms of speech and religion and assembly and the limits we place on government intrusion in our lives. It’s our abundance of unlikely success stories and heroes, our fruited plains and purple mountain majesty, and people with revolutionary ideas in science and technology and the arts that heal and teach and employ and inspire.

It’s the strangeness and difference. It’s the fact that my morning commute to work takes me through neighborhoods of African and Indian and Swedish and Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants and the opportunity to live in a place where my kids hear different languages everyday and where the 4:30 Saturday showing of Hidden Figures is practically sold out.

And it’s the messiness and the parts that aren’t so great because they remind me that the work is not done. There are problems still to be solved.  There is crime and there are bigots and there are seemingly impenetrable structural artifacts of our ugly history of slavery and inequality. There is corruption and there is heartache. Yet for my entire adult life I’ve believed that our system of government would provide a path for the resolution of these problems someday while protecting us from extremism on any side. I’ve built a career within a legal system that places the rule of law above all else. I believed that there were ground rules and boundaries.

So much that I love about this country feels under attack right now.  So much that it feels like everything. We are only a couple hundred years old. We are more fragile than I believed even a month ago.  We are easily manipulated and we are scared.  I believe that a great many of us are scared because we are being manipulated.

But we also live in a remarkable age of technology and information. Facts can and should be checked. Books should be read. Stories should be told and heard and we should not be afraid to say what we believe.  Civil discourse is part of what makes this country so great–and dissent, it’s positively patriotic.

 

 

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Until summer returns.

The nature of elections is that there is a winner and a loser. Someone has to win and sometimes one (or many) people have to lose. And the nature of American presidency is that after two terms, the president must transition his or her office to the winner of the next election. 

That’s the way it works. But it’s not just the nature of elections, it’s the nature of nature too. One season must pass on to the next. 

We have had a summer like no other. A long summer that gave us cool beach breezes, glorious sun-drenched October weekends, and tremendous progress–gay marriage, greater access to healthcare, much needed attention paid to sexual assault on campuses and the enduring effects of discrimination and bias. Wages began to rise and equal pay was, at least, considered. This summer we saw two terms of a brown-skinned president who made my children laugh with his easy smile and left me in awe of his civility and steady hand during turbulent times.

The season brought the end of a century long drought to the Chicago Cubs and increased visibility and acceptance for people who previously lived frightened or shamed into the shadows, afraid to let the sun kiss their faces or for their stories to be heard. This summer, this long summer, their faces shone and their stories made many of us see life in a different way. 

My three children will always be children of summer, children of this particularly spectacular summer. They understand that we are all different in so many ways but equally deserving of love and fairness and respect and justice. 

The nature of nature is that summer must end, but also that summer will return. What remains of fall is to be seen. The winter with its stinging winds may be long or short…hopefully it won’t last 108 years. But no matter what summer will be back, just as it always is. And I can’t wait to see the sun again. 

Until then, I’m going to huddle for warmth with the ones that I love and think the warmest thoughts I can muster about those that chose anger and fear.

Broken promise.

I promised myself I wouldn’t mark the day of her passing anymore. That I would celebrate her birthday in absentia. That I would whisper a Happy Mama’s Day to the universe and hope it finds its way to her. That I’d take a couple minutes to prepare thoughtful questions before teacher conferences and always remember to express my gratitude to the people who devote their lives to making my kids wiser, more empathetic some-day adults. That I would sit with her memory on Christmas Eve after everyone else was in bed and quietly count gifts to ensure fairness and count blessings to remind myself of just how freaking lucky I am. 

And I’ve done all of that, except the first. I’m marking the day. 

It’ll be 6 years tomorrow.  6 whole years since we held her hands, kissed her face,  and told her it was okay for her to go when absolutely none of us thought it was okay.

It will never be okay. If she had been 115 years old it would not have been okay.  

So I’m marking the day because I have to. Because ignoring it doesn’t work. I’m marking it because a lot of wonderful and awful things have happened in this past year that she missed.  Because Michigan footfall is fun to watch again. Because her grandkids are big, and fast-witted, and telling stories she’d love to hear, and challenging their mothers in ways we’d love to discuss with our mother. Because a man of limited vocabulary, humanity, foresight, Constitutional knowledge, historical perspective, restraint, respect for others, and glove size (which, in this case, is a euphemism for grasp on reality) wants to be President and I’d love to hear what she’d have to say about it. Because there is a new Harry Potter book and I almost didn’t read it because she would be so mad to have missed it. Because I’ve made some big, hairy decisions about my professional life, and broke my knee in a fluke slippery tomato accident, and am turning 40 next month, and I still need my mommy. 

I’m marking it because it reminds me that all of it–all of this wild and magical and inexplicably terrible and brilliant life is infinitely better when shared with someone you love, who loves you, who loves even your harshest edges.

I’m marking it because I’m lucky to have had her love for almost 34 years.  And because even though it was an awful day, it was a day with her and I didn’t get enough of them. 

Save the Pandas.

I texted the dog walker today to ask if he could take our pup home with him for a weekend over Spring break. He responded that my 8 year old daughter had already confirmed the arrangements…a month ago. 

She is amazing. So on top of her world, and ours. So concerned about the order of things and the wellbeing of all those things and people. So believing in her own ability to make a difference and set things right. 

Last night she asked that I make copies of a flyer she’s drafted. She wants people to know what they can do to protect giant (and red) pandas. She believes that people only need the right information to make the right choice. 

Mama, if they know what to do then they will do it.

If only it was that simple. 

I knew a month ago that I needed to find a home for the dog for the weekend. But it took me until now, the very last minute, to act. 

She wants to talk about who’s running for President and she tells me about the things she hears on the news and on the playground. She’s heard things that scare her. She’s heard things that run contrary to all she’s been told about what’s right and how people, all people, should be treated.  

I’m worried.

I’m worried about her apparent belief that she needs to take care of things like the dog’s vacation accommodations. I’m worried that a part of her already understands that adults–including her father and me–don’t always take care of things, at least not with the urgency that she believes is needed. I’m worried about the possibility that we adults could elect a President who shits all over the values she holds. I’m worried that she’ll distribute her flyers only to learn that most people will not care about the pandas.

On the other hand, her trust that people will eventually do the right thing when provided the right information is evidence that all hope, all faith in the decency of people, is not lost. 

And my eventual efforts to find a weekend home for the dog are a good sign too. I can tell her that I talked with the dog walker today and thank her for being so on top of it. I will assure her that we are on top of it all too and that she doesn’t need to worry. I will give her the copies I made of her flyer and she’ll have them to distribute tomorrow. And I will dish out some ice cream and we’ll dance to Miley Cyrus’s joyous ode to America, Party in the USA, because that’s the best way I know to ensure that the day ends on a high note. 

I won’t be a chisel to the edifice of her faith in mankind…and her parents. At least not today. 

  
 

Christmas Crisis

The absurdity hit them before it hit me.

We’re going to EAT them?! But we just made them!

This just seems wrong.

Will the legs grow back like a sea star’s?

They ate them anyway.  What kid can resist cookie covered with frosting and gummy bears?

But the strangeness of it all.  The gleeful consumption of a gingerbread leg or arm got me thinking about the way in which we consume each other, all the time.  We nibble away at hearts, and some times take large bites.  The cruelty of our words and actions is undeniable.  We should feel remorse, but often it’s the opposite.  The celebration of those who take the most ferocious bites, those who stand before cheering audiences sticky with hatred and fear, it is absolutely absurd and downright frightening.

On playgrounds, the bites are small.  Small bits of ego mashed between tiny teeth.  

My 7 year old reported to us a couple months ago that two other girls had commanded that she could not be their friend, could not play with them at recess, unless my girl did “a flip” from the high bar.  She told us about it at bedtime, about how nervous she was to do the flip.  That she had been practicing from the lower bar and thought that she could do it, but she was scared that she’d fail. She was scared that she could be hurt.  My husband and I were dumbfounded.  She was being bullied.  But she didn’t see it that way, she saw it as a test.

We told her that it was test that she could absolutely refuse.  She did not need to play with those girls. She had lots of other friends to play with.  But she said that she wanted these friends, wanted to try the flip.  She said she would do it tomorrow.  

We told her it was her choice, but that she should know that she did not have to do anything that she was scared to do–that she did not have to do anything to prove herself worthy of anyone’s friendship, or attention.  She nodded, and said, “I know.” But then told us that tomorrow was the day.  She felt ready and knew she could do it.

What were we to say? She was focused on the question of her own ability, the physical challenge.  She was not focused on the origin of the test, only whether she had it in her to pass it.  I was proud of her of confidence and bravery, but worried.  Worried that she would be the kind of person who would succumb to bullies.  That this was the beginning of her losing pieces of herself to the cruelty of others.  

I had nightmares that night that are too absurd to repeat here, but I’ll say that they involved a confluence of the mid-90’s style mosh pits (I’m pretty sure it was Lollapalooza in NYC, but my memory–ahem, my dream, was a bit hazy), my children,  a dinner party where the hostess kept sneezing all over the food she was serving, and the cast of 90210 (not all at the same time…that’d be crazy). 

All the following day, my husband and I waited for a call from the school to report that our girl had been transported to the hospital with a broken arm, or worse.  But the call never came.  That night at dinner, we asked how the day went.  We asked her what happened at recess.  She looked at us, fork full of spaghetti hanging in midair, and shrugged.  

“Oh, the flip?…yeah, I didn’t try it.”

That was it.  She didn’t offer any further explanation and we didn’t press. 

In the weeks since, the names of the other girls have been frequently mentioned in re-tellings of classroom events.  They do not seem to have followed through on their threatened denial of friendship.  Maybe they’ve moved on to other targets.  Maybe they’re not bullies at all, just budding life coaches who were attempting to motivate my girl to try something she was afraid to do.  I’m sure that’s how 90210’s Donna Martin would’ve spun it.  She was always so perky and optimistic–only natural given that she shared a fictional birthday with Jesus.

Still, I really wish my kids were not coming of age in a world that claims to abhor schoolyard and workplace bullying, but puts bullies on pedestals (or first in the polls).  I hope that they can survive childhood, and adulthood, intact.  That the pieces of them that may be consumed by life’s inevitable indignities and injustices, will grow back like the limbs of a sea star.  

And I hope that they will not not be the biters. That they will be good friends and lovers and citizens of the human race.

Next Christmas, I’m going to save myself the gingerbread existential crisis–we’re going with houses instead of men.