24 September 2012

Women in the Law - But Not in Serbia

My husband left yesterday for a weeklong business trip to Serbia. (He will not be happy to read this; he worries about my safety and does not like my publicizing his absence.) He will be speaking at the International University in Novi Pazar about the criminal justice system in the United States. He also has scheduled stops in Kosovo and Frankfurt to hobnob with the international legal community. I'm proud and thrilled for him; I helped him pack a little bit, and on the way to the airport yesterday we chatted about what sort of gift he could bring me back from Germany. (I read German and always need practice, so I'm hoping for books and magazines to keep my skills sharp. )

I'm staying home and making sure the kids get to their various obligations during the week.  I was originally supposed to go along on the trip. I was to address the audience in Novi Pazar about the role of women in the American legal profession. I'd started working on a PowerPoint presentation about statistics and attitudes and trends when the New York State judge organizing the Serbia trip called my husband to advise him about conditions for women in that country.

Specifically, the judge said, if I came along on the trip, I would need to keep my head covered at all times. That's okay, I responded. I'm a when-in-Rome type of person and happy to comply with local customs. I envisioned myself in a pretty hijab and matching long dress.

Then, the judge said I would not be able to sit at the same table with the men while we were dining in public. Really? Well, I guess that's okay. But I thought it sounded odd that women weren't allowed to eat alongside men in public. I did some quick internet research on Serbia and could not come up with any evidence that this was true. Novi Pazar is apparently in a conservative area, and modest dress was recommended, but it seemed more like western Europe than some oppressive anti-woman regime. The pictures I found showed female western tourists walking freely in the streets and dining in restaurants with men.

Finally, the judge advised my husband that I would not be able to travel in the same cars with the men. My husband thought this would be a deal-breaker; in the event of an accident or other stroke of bad luck, he did not want to be separated from me. I wasn't worried, though, because I began to see what was going on. I began to suspect that the judge simply didn't want me along. "Does he not want me to come?" I asked.

"He says it would be 'logistically difficult' to bring you."

And so I stayed back. The irony was not lost on me, however. The young Serbian students are not going to learn about the role of women in the U.S. legal profession, because there will be no women included in the delegation visiting and addressing them. Though they will learn a great deal about the American legal system, they are likely to come away with the impression that the system is dominated by middle-aged white men. And it is, of course; my preliminary research more or less confirmed that.

It's hard for a woman, even one knowledgeable about the subject matter at hand, to break into a visible role in the legal profession. Those who already occupy visible roles are not leaving the door open for us and are certainly not going out of their way to make it easier. It would have been wonderful if the judge had said, "There is a woman who is part of our entourage, and she is treated like her male colleagues in the United States. Please extend her the same courtesy here."

Maybe that would have been logistically difficult, but progress usually is.

21 September 2012

Where In The World

Okay, enough ranting and sadness and taking offense. Sorry about that. Wait, no, I'm not sorry I said all that. I'm just moving on, back to my blog challenge. Today I am supposed to write about where in the world I would live, if I could live anywhere at all.

I think my first choice would be a ski chalet in Park City, Utah. Preferably one of those beautiful houses on the slopes at Deer Valley. When we ski there, I always pause outside the big post-and-beam houses and imagine myself waking up in one of them, taking a hot cup of tea out onto the veranda, and, with my dog by my side, watching the skiers go by. I have actually never been in Utah in any season other than winter, so all of my Utah fantasies have to do with snow and ice, big fluffy blankets, warm nights by the fire, and season passes. I understand, however, that it is equally beautiful there in warm weather. I could hike and swim and ride my little scooter all over the place. I am certain that I would be very, very happy there.

That's sort of boring and short for a blog post, but that's it. In case anyone is feeling like buying me a gift, I'd be happy to take one of those $50 million houses in Deer Valley. Everyone would be welcome to visit me anytime. It would be the least I could do.

I'd be interested in hearing from my readers about where they would live and why. Have you ever been somewhere that's tugged you back? Or dreamed of living somewhere you've not yet been?

20 September 2012

Special Needs

We interrupt this daily blog challenge to address a pressing issue.  That pressing issue is the definition of "special needs children." In response to an op-ed piece that appeared in yesterday's New York Times claiming that our public schools focus too heavily on learning-disabled children and not enough on intellectually gifted children, a number of people have told me, on Facebook and in person, that gifted children have "special needs" too and need to be segregated out from the general public school system so that they are not dragged down by the "dumbed-down system" designed to "be all things to all people." Gifted children, they say, need to be educated in special public schools so they are surrounded by other kids who are "just like them" - to save them from the stigma of intelligence.

I have heard this before. I am not going to try to argue that our schools are or should be a level playing field, or that gifted children should not be pitied because they are not sufficiently challenged and segregated from the rest of the kids so that their needs can be met. Nor am I going to argue that intelligence is not stigmatized in our society (because it so obviously is). All I am going to do is to ask you to imagine what it is like to be the mother of a disabled child and be told by the parent of a typical (or even "gifted" child) that your child's presence in public school is dragging her child down.

Imagine suspecting that something is wrong with your young child and being told that you have an overactive imagination or that you're making it up to get attention. Imagine being told that by someone close to you, like a parent or a spouse. Imagine being told that if you were a better disciplinarian or a stronger presence in your child's life, your child would be talking or using the potty by now.

Imagine, if you will, holding a toddler in your lap and being told that this child that you have dreamed of having since you were a little girl is atypical in some way. Imagine hearing the word "autism" and having a neurologist shrug when you ask about the prognosis.

Imagine being told by a school official that your child's disability is your fault because you work outside the home and are not a dedicated enough mother. (Imagine being told that not in 1950, but in 2001.)

Imagine being told by relatives that your child is "incorrigible" or "difficult" and having people suggest that you don't bring him or her to family gatherings. Imagine a relative telling you that she's planning on taking the other children in the family on a trip, but your child will have to stay behind because the others don't like her and don't want her to come along.

Imagine the other class parents grousing about the fact that there's an aide in the classroom and giggling about the fact that the teacher wears a microphone. Imagine pretending not to know why the aide is there and giggling along about the microphone, just so they won't suspect your child has anything to do with it.

Imagine being made fun of for organizing and showing up at board-of-education meetings on a regular basis, just to educate yourself about procedures. Imagine every teacher in the district giving you the stink-eye whenever they see you, even in the supermarket, because they are sure you are going to ask questions or demand something "extra" for your child.

Imagine having to explain to your child the sarcastic remarks of other children and of other parents. Imagine having to explain to your child why the other children don't like him or her.

Imagine no playdates. Imagine asking for them and being told "no." Imagine teaching the Sunday school class, leading the scout troop, and chaperoning the trip, all because if you didn't, your child would not be able to participate. Imagine your child's participation being turned down routinely by music teachers, sports coaches, and anyone else who doesn't understand and is not obligated to put up with him.

Imagine running into the class bullies in the deli at the high-school lunchtime break and hearing them snicker and whisper, "there's so-and-so's mom."

Imagine teachers calling your child "stupid" to her face, in front of the rest of the class, or being told he will "never amount to anything." Imagine being criticized by the school system and gossiped about by the other parents for pulling your child out of that class.

Do you still think your soccer-star chess champion should be classified as having special needs? I would propose (modestly, and aware of the criticism that is going to rain down on me for writing this) that unless you have lain awake all night crying about a disability that will never get better, and wondering what will happen to your child when you are someday gone, that you should not throw the term "special needs" around too lightly.

School is usually the first place where children come to terms with the fact that all children are not alike. Saying that your gifted child deserves to be in a place where the other kids "are just like him" ignores an essential reality and an essential part of his education: all kids are not just like him. We all have a range of abilities and a range of gifts. We drag each other down, but we also pull each other up, on a daily and minute-by-minute basis, by showing each other what we have to offer and by teaching each other about our needs and abilities. We learn to live in a diverse society. That's what education is about.

Sure, your kid is special, and your kid has needs. All kids are special, and all kids have needs. But please, think about the pain you inflict - intentionally or not - by arguing that your child's success will be hampered by being educated alongside less able children. Those less able children have gifts too, and both they and their parents have feelings.

Desert Island

Today, my assignment is to tell you which three items I'd want to have with me if I were trapped on a desert island.

I am going to assume, for purposes of this assignment, that people and animals are not eligible to be brought along. By so assuming, I avoid hurting the feelings of (a) the FOUR other people who live in my household, (b) my mom, and (c) Sparky the Wonder Dog. I should note that Sparky would be the most hurt of all if I didn't bring him along - not because he loves desert islands, but because he loves to go on road trips. He doesn't care about the destination; for Sparky, life is all about the journey. He is majorly offended if I so much as go to the supermarket without him.

Anyway, back to my assignment. The first thing I'd like to have with me is my Kindle. I'd finally be able to finish the Fifty Shades trilogy, and because I'd be alone on a desert island, no one would be around to make fun of me for reading it. And without laundry to do, dinner to cook, carpool to drive, or house to clean, I'd finally be able to reread the classics.  My Kindle also has a Scrabble application on it, which would come in handy since I have yet to beat my husband's cousin at that game. With unlimited, uninterrupted time, I'm pretty sure I could eventually bury him with my brilliance.

Second, I'd like to have a solar charger for my Kindle. I assume my reasons for this are obvious.

And third, I'd like to have my knitting bag. If I had the opportunity before being sent off to the island, I'd stuff it with as much yarn and as many different needles as possible. I currently have three baby blankets that need finishing, and I'm three-quarters of the way through the first of a pair of socks. If the island is warm and I need neither blankets nor socks for myself, I'd just knit a big pile of gifts and hang onto them until I got rescued. With any luck, I'd finally have enough time to knit for everyone in my life who deserves it. (That's a lot of people.)

Here's a short list of things I would not bring.

1. Food. Because I watched a lot of Gilligan's Island as a kid, I know that there's a veritable banquet of fruit and fish available on desert islands. Imagine the weight I'd lose if I were deprived of Cheez-Its for the duration of my stay and forced to eat only healthy yummy stuff.

2. Exercise equipment. Because of the lack of snacks, I wouldn't need it.

3. My phone. I'd have a pretty good excuse not to answer it, so why not take advantage and leave it behind?

Finally, if, by some weird glitch, I were actually allowed to bring FOUR things with me, Sparky would probably win. Sorry, Mom.

19 September 2012

Profound Goals

I did not write in response to yesterday's prompt, and I'll tell you why.  The prompt was to write about "the most profound thing to happen in your life today."  First of all, I generally write early in the morning, because that's the time when I can best concentrate and when I have the fewest distractions. And there is no way I can write about the most profound thing that's happened in my day before my day has even happened yet. By 9:00 yesterday morning, the most profound thing that had happened in my house was the making of a pot of coffee.
Secondly, as the day went on, absolutely nothing profound happened. In my town, schools were closed yesterday and the day before for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. We don't celebrate Rosh Hashanah, so the kids slept late yesterday and spent their day relaxing. Someone had a friend stay overnight; someone finished an English paper; and someone did nothing of any moment that I can remember. The weather was bad; in between cloudbursts, high winds caused branches and power lines to fall all over town.  Our neighbors lost power temporarily. My husband worked a normal day; the kids and I went out for lunch. In the evening, the two younger kids saw "Paranorman." (One of them loved it and the other thought it was "creepy.") Nothing out of the ordinary or particularly profound went on here.
Today's blog prompt is to list five short-term personal goals.  That's easier because it's more mundane and, for me, doesn't require a lot of thought.  Here are my personal goals:
1.  I need to get into better physical shape. You've read about this in this space before and it shouldn't come as a surprise that my sedentary and well-nourished lifestyle have not helped me in this regard.
2.  I am attending my first-ever blogging conference this Saturday. I am looking forward to making some new connections and learning how to use Triberr, an online service that increases readership for blogs. I am also nervous about what to wear, how to get there, and whether everyone else in attendance will think I'm a total Luddite amateur. Some of these concerns are legitimate and some are not.
3.  I have two memoranda of law and a will that need to be completed by the end of next week. They are all in progress, but I worry that they won't get finished by deadline. (Deadline is, of course, a bad word to use in connection with the drafting of a will, but there it is.)
4.  I need to establish some rules about the excessive playing of video games in my household. I'm not a video gamer, so I guess I don't understand how someone can spend an entire day doing nothing else. On the other hand, I'm the mom, and I am entitled for no other reason than that to establish oppressive rules about things I don't understand.
5. I need to write more. It would be a good idea to get out in front of the daily prompt situation, so that I don't have to write hasty two-at-a-time posts like this one. I owe at least one thank-you note that I can think of. And maybe I should get around to at least outlining that brilliant novel that lives in my head.
In the midst of all this, I need to turn 46 without incident and without getting too depressed about my failure to achieve my short- and long-term goals. With any luck, that will happen next week with as little fanfare as possible.
Did anything profound happen to you yesterday? What are your short-term goals for the next couple of weeks?

17 September 2012

Growing Up

[Note to readers: I have been invited to participate in the Autumn Blog Challenge (see the button below on the right), which involves following a writing prompt every day between now and October 31.  I'm not sure time is going to allow me to participate fully, but I'm going to do my best. Today's writing prompt asks me to write about what I wanted to be when I grew up.]

I grew up surrounded by books - my father is a clergyman and my mother is a teacher - and I learned to read at an unusually early age.  (My mother claims that I was reading fluently in preschool, around age 3.)  As soon as I found out that books were written by people, I resolved to be one of those people.

My mother read to me and my sisters (and later to my brother, too) every single night.  We curled up on her bed in the matching nightgowns that my grandmother had sewn for us, and we listened. There were nursery rhymes and fairy tales from my mother's My Book House anthology, and later I remember a story called My Naughty Little Sister. When I got older and started reading on my own, I went to the public library and checked out every single book by Carolyn Haywood and Sydney Taylor. I wrote to my favorite writers and asked them for advice.  Their advice was, of course, "write."

And so write I did. I made up stories and cartoons and poems. In third grade, I wrote a series of stories about sisters I called "The Swiss Triplets."  I named the main characters after my best friends, Jackie, Pam, and Gail.  I submitted my stories to American Girl magazine, but they were always rejected.  In fifth grade, inspired by the television show "Eight is Enough" and Sydney Taylor's books, I worked on composing a tale about a large family. My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Baglieri, read my installments regularly and encouraged me to continue. "Someday," she wrote in my 1976 yearbook, "I want to go to the library and check out a book by Jennie Arlin."

Mrs. Baglieri hasn't seen her wish come true yet, and I'll tell you why. I have always had to earn my own living, and I never figured out how to do so as a fiction writer. My skill at stringing words together ended me up in law school, and though I hated it from the beginning, being a lawyer provided me with a decent paycheck until I became a mother. And when I finally escaped the full-time practice of law and decided to embrace stay-at-home motherhood, there was simply no time to write.

I don't really have much of an excuse now. I still have to practice law on a part-time basis at home, but there should be at least a little time to write creatively, if I really try.

I started this blog a couple of years ago as a first step toward reclaiming my childhood dream. I have an idea for a novel (actually, I have several), but every time I sit down to work on it something else interferes. There's the paying work that has to get done even though I get no pleasure out of it.  And there's the daunting task of keeping house for three teenagers, an overworked husband, and two dogs. In my spare time - I admit it - I usually practice my guitar or read. I should really be spending that time writing. I'm not getting any younger.

I'll admit that I am intimidated by the process of traditional publication. I hear story after story of the novel that took years and years to find a publisher. I don't have years and years. I find the blog platform easy because I can write something quickly, from the heart, and see it published immediately. But this blog doesn't have a lot of readers, so I don't get a lot of feedback. (Frankly, a large chunk of the feedback I get is from disapproving relatives. That doesn't do much to encourage me.)

So there you have it. I am not yet what I want to be. I worry that I never will be. But I feel like I owe it to myself - and to Mrs. Baglieri - to at least try.

14 September 2012

Zoom Lenses

This morning, the French magazine Closer published a number of photographs of Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, sunbathing topless at a family-owned vacation spot in the south of France.  The Duchess had apparently been alone with her husband, Prince William, on a brief vacation, staying at a remote chateau owned by one of William's cousins. She had been relaxing on a balcony without her bikini top when paparazzi with long lenses snapped the pictures in question.

This is the second embarrassing photographic incident affecting the British royal family in the last several weeks, and it raises a number of questions about the nature of privacy and the ethics of chasing famous people around with cameras, waiting for them to do something that will be worth selling to a tabloid. The British royal family is now threatening to sue for breach of the Duchess's privacy.

Spokespeople for Closer have defended the photographs as "not shocking" and "like millions of women you see on beaches."  People have also defended the publication of the photographs by saying that the Duchess has no reasonable expectation of privacy.  The argument goes that, having married a prince in line for the British throne, she has more or less consented to the publication of any picture that can be taken of her, with any technology, in any location, in any state of undress. This is a familiar refrain - I heard it a few weeks ago when the Duchess's brother-in-law Harry was photographed cavorting naked in a seedy hotel room in Las Vegas.  It goes like this: he's a prince of England, for heaven's sake - what sort of privacy does he think he's entitled to?

Closer's first response is simply disingenuous.  It is customary for women to sunbathe topless in the south of France and in many other parts of the world where the baring of a woman's breasts is not considered obscene.  I've done it myself, but if Closer had followed me and my husband to the south of France and had taken pictures of me without my bikini top, I doubt it could have sold the pictures to a tabloid for any appreciable amount of money.  Nobody's interested in seeing me topless (well, nobody other than my husband).  I'm like the millions of women you see on the beaches - Kate Middleton is not.

The privacy argument is more difficult, because it brings into play a deeper societal attitude about women's bodies and the distinctions we draw among virtuous women, naughty women, famous women, and normal everyday women. Kate Middleton married a prince. In doing so, she took on a public role as a famous, virtuous woman. She needs to make public appearances and observe the modest standards that society demands of a princess. She is a role model for many, and as such, she needs to behave as virtuously as possible. As a requirement of her job, she must dress well. She must avoid public confrontations with people who annoy her. She must smile and nod and speak only when she has been asked to do so.

But isn't she entitled to a private life? Is there nowhere she can go to be a normal woman, out of reach of cameras just for a few moments? Can't she take off her bikini top at the family home and let her husband help her with the sunscreen? This is the man she's married to, after all. Unlike Harry, she wasn't cavorting with prostitutes in a public hotel. She was at her cousin's home trying to relax for a few minutes with her life's companion.

Harry got off with an apology and a winning grin. Society doesn't expect anything more of a single man.  Catherine, however, is a married woman, and it's never that easy for a woman. She has breasts and someone saw them. The response is mortification (how embarrassing it must be for the world to know that a princess has breasts!) and the old blame-the-victim saw (hey, honey, you married a prince, so you can't complain about fuzzy naked pictures of yourself appearing on a newsstand).

Single men who play strip poker with strangers are just having fun. But women who let anyone see their breasts - including, apparently, their husbands - are naughty. We are expected to be modest, reticent, and, above all, embarrassed about our bodies. And there is a huge public market for that embarrassment. I have no doubt that Closer's naked-Catherine issue will be a big seller today, and that the pictures will be online in no time and shared all around the world.

The fault is not the Duchess's. The fault is in societal attitudes. As long as we consider women's bodies obscene, and as long as we are willing to pay money to see rich and famous women humbled, this sort of behavior will continue. Shame on Closer and shame on all of us for perpetuating this attitude.

07 September 2012

Book Covers

In my little town in New Jersey in the 1970's, it was a back-to-school ritual.  Textbooks were handed out on the first day of school.  We wrote our names and the year on the inside front cover.  Then we brought them home, and after the dinner dishes were done, my sisters and I sat at the dining room table and covered our books for the school year.  Each book had to be covered by the second day of school, to protect it during the coming year.

There were no fancy pre-made book covers or BookSox back then.  No, we covered our books with brown paper bags from the supermarket, and then we decorated them with markers, crayons, stickers, and our imagination.  My father, a gifted artist, often pitched in with the decoration; in my seventh-grade year, he impressed a few of my classmates with his exact freehand duplication of the calligraphy on the cover of Fleetwood Mac's album Rumours.

My daughter brought home a few books this year that needed to be covered.  Instead of buying pre-made covers, she decided to try the paper-bag method, which she found charmingly retro.  The ease of making the covers and the sturdiness of the result impressed her.

Do you remember how to do this?  If not, here's a little tutorial starring my expert and beautiful daughter.  Even if you're finished with textbooks, you might find the method useful for covering your pleasure reading (if, for example, you want to bring Fifty Shades of Grey onto the subway or the bus).  Have fun!

You will need your textbook, a pair of scissors, and a plain brown paper bag.  That's it.  No glue or tape. 

Cut the bag down the side from the top to the bottom.

Then cut off the bottom of the bag and discard it.  Lay the resulting strip of brown paper flat on the table, wrong side up.  That is, the outside of your book cover should be facing the table.  (This is important if, for example, there's a design on the bag that you don't want on your cover, or vice versa.)

Center your book's spine on the paper strip, leaving about two inches at the top and the bottom.  If your book is small, you may need to trim the paper a little bit.

Fold the top and bottom in evenly, so that the paper is exactly even with your book's spine.

Lay the book flat on its front cover, leaving two or three inches of the brown paper sticking out.  (I'll refer to those two or three inches as "the extensions.")  Fold the long side of the paper over to cover the book completely, and trim so that the front and back extensions are about even.

Fold the extensions in and crease them over the book's cover, to make a tight fit.  (This is easiest if the book is still lying flat on its front or back cover.)  The top and bottom edges that you folded over now form a neat pocket on each side, into which you can tuck the book's cover.

Lift up the book and slide the covers into the slots.  You now have a perfectly-fitting custom cover for your book...

... and you can get started on your homework!

Decorate your cover as you see fit.  For example, if you are reading Fifty Shades of Grey, write Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice on the spine and draw Mr. Darcy or Vronsky on the cover.  If it's just a math or science book, make a cool drawing and color it in, as my daughter's friend Gavin did:

Nice job, Gavin.  Have a great senior year!