05 November 2013

Why Things Must Change

Things must change because I almost lost what matters most to me last night.

All day, my sixteen-year-old daughter's phone had been acting funny. She had tried to text me when it was time to get picked up from school, but her texts wouldn't go through. She couldn't connect with iTunes or the app store on her phone. I looked at it and couldn't figure it out either. We rebooted it, recharged it, plugged it in for a while, and still.

And my husband had been having trouble with his laptop all weekend. He depends on that machine for his livelihood, so when it starts freezing or otherwise being wonky, it needs to be looked at, quickly. He called about 6 last evening to say he'd be home for dinner, but right afterward he was going to need to run to the mall for an appointment at the Genius Bar in the Apple store.

It was my idea for Becky to go with him and have her phone looked at too.

We ate dinner hurriedly, and I offered to do the dishes while everyone else ran to the mall. I looked forward to an hour or two alone, catching an episode of Breaking Bad (my current obsession) and knitting a few rows on a baby blanket I'm working on. Maybe even going to sleep early. My son thought about going to the mall but decided at the last minute to hang back with me.

It was about 9:30 when I closed my laptop, put away the knitting, and reached over to turn off the light on my bedside table. My phone vibrated. It was my husband calling. I answered it.

"I just want to tell you we're fine," he said in a soft voice. I could hear Becky crying in the background. At first, I thought they'd been in a car accident, but then my husband explained. "There has been a shooting at the mall. The Apple employees have us all locked up in their stock room in the back. We're totally okay, but Becky is a little freaked out."

I sat bolt upright. "You're not hurt? Thank God. Let me talk to her."

My son, sitting next to me, pulled the earphones out of his ears and looked at me.

Becky was trying to tell me that she had heard gunshots, but Dad had hustled her into the back of the store, and the Apple employees were comforting her. I told her nothing bad could possibly happen to her if she stayed with her dad and followed the employees' instructions. She kept telling me, over and over, how much she loved me.

They were home safely about an hour later. One of the Apple employees was kind enough to bring them home, as their car had been blocked in by the SWAT teams and could not be moved. I'll drive my husband over there this morning to get it.

The gunman, a 20-year-old disturbed man who had been carrying an assault rifle and strolling through the mall firing at random, was later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Read the story here.

I have been an anti-gun activist since at least 1998, when my husband and I attended the first Million Mom March on Washington with our then two baby girls. We were heckled and ridiculed at the time. Strangers on the street, seeing our demonstration signs, flipped us the bird and called us "libtards" and idiots. I have met the same sort of reaction on Facebook after every mass shooting in recent memory (and, as you know, there have been many). People have told me to shut up, have accused me of bias against the mentally ill (when I mentioned that we need to find a way to get guns out of the hands of people who are mentally disturbed), and have told me that all the dead children at Columbine and Sandy Hook are the price we pay for freedom.

Freedom, my ass. This isn't freedom. A sixteen-year-old girl, huddling in a back room of the mall behind a locked steel door with her dad, while who-knows-what-all is going on outside in the hallway?

We live in a violent, selfish society. Each and every one of you who votes today in favor of the gun lobby, everyone who tells me to shut up because this stuff is "upsetting," everyone who equates my political views with stupidity and ridicules me into silence - you are all responsible for the losses, and for my daughter's tears.

Thank you for the thoughts and prayers, but thoughts and prayers don't change things. And things need to change. Now. Today. Get off your knees and onto your feet and do something, before it happens to someone YOU love.


04 October 2013

I'm So Old That...

I turned 47 at the beginning of this week. I've started to view getting older as a great gift, especially in the past few months, when I have heard all kinds of crazy stories of sudden deaths. One of them was a boy I had a crush on when I was six. He died suddenly at 46, leaving behind his wife and adored children. Another was a college classmate whom I did not know well. A third was a soldier killed in action last week, a dear friend of a dear friend. So, as I pause to celebrate another year, I think about how lucky I am to be alive and well, with my family intact.

I was born in 1966, which means I did my early growing up in the seventies. Here are some of the things I am old enough to remember. Maybe you remember them too? Or maybe your memories are completely different. I'd love to hear your memories in the comments. (I am aware that I have some younger readers; if you are too young to get some of these references, you might want to Google them for a laugh.)

My babysitters - both male and female -  had long hair without bangs and wore peace signs on their foreheads. They listened to Pink Floyd. My parents hired them because they were regular attendees at my church.

I watched "Wonderama" on TV. The TV, which occupied a large portion of the living room, was almost as big as the piano, and it had rabbit ears on the top which needed to be adjusted in order for the picture to come in clearly.

Only rich, spoiled kids had their own telephones. The one of whom I was most jealous had a pink Slimline Princess in her own bedroom. It had a modular jack and touch-tone, backlit buttons.

I took a class called Home Economics in seventh grade. All the girls (and one boy who probably had what would now be called ADHD, and who'd gotten kicked out of the boys' Woodshop class as a result) did. We learned to sew. I remember the boy made us all laugh with his manic antics. He also made himself a pretty cool jacket.

Seventh grade was called "junior high." There was no such thing as middle school. But it was just as awful as middle school is today - maybe a little worse. Bullying was considered normal adolescent behavior, and victims were encouraged to toughen up.

That furry blue guy on Sesame Street was called the Cookie Monster. He ate cookies in huge quantities, stuffing them into his mouth with wild abandon and no manners at all. We thought this was very funny, because everyone knew that wasn't how cookies are eaten in the real world. In the real world, Grandma gave you one at a time, after you had cleaned your plate, and you thanked her for the effort that had gone into making them.

We were required to finish all the food we were served ("clean our plate") at the dinner table. And we did. Our parents remembered when food had been rationed.

There was no such Sesame Street monster as Elmo. Snuffleupagus was Big Bird's imaginary friend. No one else had ever seen him. Having imaginary friends was considered normal childhood behavior.

Birthday parties were almost always held at home. The exception: sometimes someone would have an especially fancy birthday party at the local ice or roller rink.

There were nine planets, and Pluto was one of them.

We learned in seventh-grade health class that the worst thing that could come of teenage sex was pregnancy, and the fear of that sort of unimaginable humiliation was enough to keep everyone on the straight and narrow.

I didn't know anyone with autism or breast cancer. Or, if I did, no one talked about it.

Every adult I knew smoked and drank. In art class, when we worked with clay, an ashtray was a perfectly acceptable project to make and give to your dad on Father's Day. When he unwrapped it, he praised the craftmanship and swore he'd use it daily. He did.

Almost no one took voice lessons. It was a universally-accepted truth that doing so at a young age would ruin one's voice. There was one girl who took lessons, and she sang beautiful solos at all the school holiday concerts. The young people were jealous of her. The adults shook their heads and clucked their tongues. That poor girl, ruining her voice like that.

Everyone took piano lessons, and everyone hated them. Or claimed to.

The boys chased the girls on the playground. When we got tired of that, the girls chased the boys. We stopped this game when the girls started wearing bras, because when the boys caught us they snapped our bra straps, and that was painful.

We wrote letters, put stamps on them, and checked the mailbox eagerly for a response.

Penmanship was one of the classes we took in grade school. I remember Mrs. Verilli standing over me, with her beehive hairdo and her frosty green eyeshadow, showing me how to make a proper cursive F. I remember the pride I felt in third grade when I was told my penmanship had improved to the point where I would be allowed to write in cursive full-time.

We played with cap guns, water guns, and Ouija boards, without controversy. Peanut butter was a staple of our diets.

Parents did not argue with teachers. If the teacher told your mother you had misbehaved in class, your mother got angry at you, not the teacher.

No one talked about politics in polite company.

People actually discussed whether piercing a young girl's ears was appropriate or would "send the wrong message." (I never figured out what that message might be, because after prolonged discussions at my house, I got my ears pierced, and nothing particularly interesting came of it.)

When I told my daughter that I was thinking about writing this post, she offered to write a follow-up entitled "I'm So Young That..." I can't promise anything, because she's a high school junior and very busy at the moment, but if she writes that essay, I'll publish it in this space.


11 September 2013

September 11

The air in these parts is heavy with sadness today; all around me, people are feeling and revisiting the losses they suffered twelve years ago. The ubiquitous photos of the World Trade Center and the waving American flags don't help; one friend told me it's like being shown, over and over, year after year, the wreckage of an accident in which a loved one died.

On my way home from the blood bank this morning, where I donated platelets (just as I did on this same day in 2001), I stopped in an unfamiliar church and lit a candle for all those who are not at peace. The people who died are no longer in pain, but those they left behind still are. Sometimes, they are in a great deal of pain. The blood bank had the television on, and I spent an hour and a half watching and listening to the bereaved read off the names of the lost. I belong to neither of those categories, and still, it was painful.

The summer was a busy one around here. We had two young people come to visit: a young woman from Belgium who wanted to see a little bit of the United States and work on her English, and a preteen from Ohio who had always wanted to see New York. As a result, I spent a lot of time doing touristy things in my native city. We sailed around the island of Manhattan, ascended the Empire State Building to take in the view, hiked the Palisades cliffs, shopped on Fifth Avenue, and complained to anyone who would listen about the heat. The weather in New York in July and August is usually far from pleasant; it is normally humid and uncomfortably hot, and this year was no exception.

September, though, is different. I have always loved this month. Not just because it is the month in which I was born (my mother suffered through an unbearable New York City summer with a toddler and a late-term pregnancy in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in the Village, but I was born in the most beautiful month of the year). Not just because its warm days and cool nights make for good food, good sleep, and good exercise. It is the month of new beginnings. School starts, recent graduates begin working, and people return from their holidays and settle down into real life.

My oldest daughter is settled in at college now and reportedly having a great time. Her high school friends have scattered, but I still sometimes hear from them on Facebook or Snapchat or in the occasional text message. My second daughter and my son are acclimating to a new year of high school, getting to know their teachers, memorizing new schedules, trying out for plays and teams, and remembering how much they missed that favorite chair in the library. The dogs like to sleep on the back porch during the day, and I have been serving dinner outside as well, as much as possible. I will continue to do so until our sweaters aren't sufficient against the evening chill.

I've been working (which usually means doing research and writing - again, on the back porch as much as possible), cooking, attending to the kids, and keeping the house in order. I quit my job at a big Manhattan law firm twelve years ago, struck by the fragility of life as we know it and feeling a strong but largely inexplicable need to stay home with my children, who were small at the time. My career and my lifestyle took a big hit as a result of that choice. I have never again been able to find satisfying work in the legal field, and the change from two incomes to one has forced me to rein in my spending much more tightly than I ever did before. It hasn't always been easy.

But I wouldn't have done it differently. I'm grateful to have been home most of the past twelve years with my children and to have seen and helped them grow up. I'm glad I had an option that many women don't have. I'm thankful that my family is alive and intact after the September 11 attacks, unlike so many that I know.

So as I lit that candle this morning, I thought about the things that happen to us, and the things that don't happen to us, many of which are random and unforeseeable, but all of which shape our lives and our choices and the very flavor of the air we breathe. I thought of my friends, mourning husbands, cousins, in-laws, and friends, and of how I have always been more of a candle-lighter than a flag-waver. That's a choice I'm comfortable with for the time being.

Jennie

31 July 2013

The Weight of the Matter

[Many thanks to Kasey Edwards, whose post on the website Role Reboot "When Your Mother Says She's Fat", got me thinking and largely inspired this post.]

I'm going to take a big leap here into some dangerous territory. I'm going to talk about weight. This is dangerous territory because we live in a society that pervasively demonizes heavy people, calling them gluttons, lazy, lacking in self-control, or what-have-you. I don't want to admit to you that I am overweight. No one wants to be judged by the way they look; it's the content of our character that matters, right? Wrong. Fat people are judged every single day, in every way, even by the most well-meaning of us. (Just yesterday, an otherwise kind and gentle friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook of some overweight strangers at the beach and complained that they were ruining her view of the ocean. All her friends, except probably me, thought this was hysterically funny. I thought it was sad. Those poor people probably run a soup kitchen or adopt orphans or work for social justice or do something else amazing, and they will be immortalized forever as the butt of some stranger's ugly joke.)

I never weighed more or less than I wanted to when I was growing up. I ate what was put in front of me, I did what kids do (riding bikes, climbing trees, running around), and I never gave my weight a second thought. I learned in school about metabolism. If you take in the same number of calories that you burn every day, you will never have a weight problem. If you increase your food intake and decrease your exercise, you will gain weight, and vice versa. This was a universally-accepted formula, backed up by all kinds of medical research. It was taught to all of us as scientific fact.

Then, like many women, I found my weight creeping up after I had children. Having children did not suddenly make me a voracious eater or keep me from getting any exercise. To the contrary, having children affected my eating habits for the better. I followed all the nutritional advice my doctor gave me during pregnancy and afterwards. I avoided junk, empty calories, and unnecessary sweets, and I focused on lean proteins and whole grains. As for exercise, there is absolutely no workout like the workout one gets chasing around three children who are not quite four years apart. But still, that small number on the scale, the one I'd gotten used to seeing, became elusive.

Once the kids were in school for most of the day, I worked diligently to get the excess weight off. I kept it off for a while. But after I turned 40, it started coming back, and no amount of dieting and exercise seemed to make even the slightest difference. I knocked myself out over it. I joined a gym and hired a personal trainer, getting up at 5 every morning so I could burn 800 calories on the elliptical machine before work. I swam laps on my lunch hour. I followed Weight Watchers to the letter. Years went by without sweets or desserts. My kids had pizza; I had a salad. I chose carefully, even between good and bad fruits, and starchy and non-starchy vegetables. (Back in those days, Weight Watchers assigned a high value to bananas, calling them more fattening than other fruits. So I eschewed bananas for years, thinking for sure that if I was good, I would also become skinny. The two were synonymous, right?)

But I never got skinny, and I never felt good. My weight didn't budge. At least it didn't budge downward. All I got was a huge gym bill and a herniated disc in my neck from lifting too-heavy weights at my trainer's insistence.

When I express concern about my weight, friends are quick to suggest all kinds of remedies. The South Beach Diet! Yoga! Yoga in a really hot room full of sweaty people! Mountain climbing! Dust off your bike! Swim more! Walk more! Train for a 5K! Stop eating bread! Stop eating pasta! Stop eating rice! Stop eating!

Do I have to endure judgment and stares for the rest of my life, every time I eat a mouthful of rice or steal a cookie? What kind of way is that to live?

I have friends who work out obsessively. They run marathons and post about their times and distances on Facebook for everyone to admire. They hire babysitters so they can spend the larger part of their day at the gym. They bike ten miles to work and back every day and spend their lunch hours jogging around the block. They lift kettlebells and take punishing boot-camp classes. All to avoid the stigma that comes with being overweight.

The thing that's really tragic about this is not that I myself am constantly struggling with it, but the fact that my daughters are learning something from observing all this. They are learning that carrying around extra pounds is bad. It's naughty. It is the result of bad behavior, a contemptible lifestyle, or a complete lack of self-control. They could be the smartest, most talented, most beautiful-on-the-inside people on earth, but unless they control their weight, they are worthless, ugly, invisible.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing good nutrition and with trying to be active and healthy. No one should take more than his or her share, and focusing on the quality of the food we consume is a very good habit. But when we judge and shame ourselves and others based on body types and body shapes, we are teaching our children to do the same.

It's time to teach ourselves, and our children, a new lesson. The pounds you carry on your frame do not make you a good person or a bad person. Food is food, and exercise is exercise. Neither carries with it any sort of built-in morality. To paraphrase a famous saying, it is not what goes into your mouth that makes you evil; it is what goes on in your heart.

I'd like to teach my daughters to focus on what is going on in their hearts, and in the hearts of others. How about you?

14 July 2013

Sorrow, Shame, and Shaking My Head

I'm thinking about the George Zimmerman verdict in Florida. Who isn't? For a few weeks, many of us have been watching the trial, closely or in passing, word-for-word or in highlighted bits on the evening news. Zimmerman, an armed neighborhood watch volunteer, patrolling his housing complex one evening, spots a young man named Trayvon Martin, who appears not to belong. (Martin, as it turns out, does belong; he is visiting his father, who lives in the complex.) Zimmerman calls the police and is told not to get out of his vehicle. He does anyway, and a confrontation ensues. Zimmerman is injured, and Martin is shot dead. Zimmerman is white, and Martin is black.

Zimmerman was tried for murder in a Florida state court. He and his lawyers claimed self-defense, and he was ultimately acquitted. The trial was televised. I don't usually watch a lot of television, but for a number of reasons, I followed this one. I watched bits and pieces as I could, and I took in some of the commentary (my husband is a legal commentator, so I watched him whenever possible). I am interested in race relations in America, though I certainly don't consider myself an expert or even particularly knowledgeable about the issue.

We have a young woman visiting us from Belgium this summer. She is a friend of a friend, here to work on her English and see some of the sights. I took her and my oldest daughter to Washington, DC for a couple of days last week, and the three of us toured the Capitol, biked the Mall, and visited the Smithsonian museums. One night, alone in my hotel room, I turned on the television and saw the evening report of Anderson Cooper, one of CNN's news anchors whom I particularly like.

Cooper, that night, was covering the day's testimony in the Zimmerman trial. He replayed some of the testimony of a young mother who lives in Zimmerman's housing complex. As I watched, open-mouthed, she recounted a harrowing incident in which her apartment had been burglarized by two young African-American men. She had hidden in the closet with her infant son, ready with a pair of rusty scissors in her hands to defend herself. She was unhurt, and the burglars were never apprehended.

And I, open-mouthed and alone in my room at the Marriott, and reasonably schooled in the general law of evidence, thought to myself, One of Zimmerman's neighbors is afraid of young African-American men because she was burglarized by two of them. How is that relevant, admissible evidence in Zimmerman's trial? How on earth is the prosecution just sitting by listening to this, and not objecting? How is the judge allowing the jury to hear this?

And then I thought, I'm not admitted to practice law in Florida. I don't know their local rules. I have not been following this story closely enough to understand. Cooper explained that this woman was on the stand as a character witness on Zimmerman's behalf. He had comforted her after the event and had instructed her as to how to defend herself against future attacks. She wanted the world to know that he was a good guy, a hero, a neighborhood helper, and this unfortunate incident in which he had been forced to shoot a black kid did not change any of that. Black kids are a danger, and people like Zimmerman protect against that danger.

I still don't get it. I probably never will. My Belgian guest doesn't get it either. I can't explain to her the consequences of being White and Not White in America. I find it as baffling as she does. We are born with a skin color. The amount of light your skin reflects or doesn't reflect has no inherent bearing on your character. But in the United States, darker skin seems to carry a rebuttable presumption that you are prone to crime, and that you can therefore be stopped, questioned, and searched at any time.

And the fact remains that if Trayvon Martin had been allowed to complete his walk to his father's home that night, without being stopped and questioned, he would still be alive. If Zimmerman had followed the police's instructions on the telephone that evening, none of this would have happened.

I'd like to make some sort of broad pronouncement, or to issue a rallying cry. The prosecutors messed this thing up! No justice, no peace! Guns out of the hands of civilians! Get the feds involved!

But I can't. I'm still numb, open-mouthed, shaking my head. I'm saddened, and I don't have any answers to the very difficult questions that have haunted the American public for generations. Why are we like this? And what do we plan to do about it?



03 July 2013

About Yesterday's Post

Yesterday, after I posted my three little stories about the post office, I was flooded with e-mails, text messages, Twitter messages, and comments asking me, "Why don't you just cut the metal clasps off the envelopes and tape them shut?"

This is, of course, the obvious answer to the "problem" with the metal-clasped envelopes, and I absolutely appreciate the feedback. I go through long periods of time thinking that no one ever reads my blog, because I get almost no feedback. So the idea that someone read that post and thought about it - a lot of people, actually - makes me happy. On the other hand, it appears that a lot of those people think I am a ranting idiot, and that does sadden me a little bit.

It did occur to me to surgically remove the clasps from the envelopes, though I admit I have never done it, because I want my work to arrive at its destination looking professional, not like a third-grader's art project. And sometimes I pay for things I don't really need to pay for, because it's easier not to argue. I admit I came close to just paying the $12 to ship the rain jacket, because I wasn't really in the mood to argue with the postal clerk or repackage the jacket, but an extra $6 (as opposed to the extra $1 to ship the metal-bedecked envelope) was, I guess, above my tipping point. And not caving in gave me the opportunity to go home and rant about my experience.

(My husband's tipping point, I might add, is far lower than my own. He would have fixed the envelope before he would have paid another cent to ship it. My high tipping point is probably one of the many things about me that make him crazy. If I make you crazy, too, I apologize. Look at it this way: he's stuck with me. You, dear reader, on the other hand, have a choice.)

The thing about ranting blog posts is that they are hit-or-miss. Either you identify with them, and say, "Oh yeah, that's hysterical - it happens to me all the time!" or you say, "That woman is an idiot. This is a problem that is completely within her power to fix. Why doesn't she just fix it and move on?"

The post, as I suspect most of you understand, wasn't really about my inability or unwillingness to fix the envelope problem. It was about the fact that every time I go to the post office, I get frustrated because their rules are arcane, ever-fluctuating, and inconsistently enforced.

But no one said, "I totally get it. That happens to me all the time." So I'll chalk my post office post up to a miss and leave it at that. With any luck, I'll have something more intelligent to say next time. But please keep reading, and by all means let me know whether I'm hitting the mark or just sounding moronic.

02 July 2013

The Post Office's Big Problem

Every once in a while, I mail out a manuscript from our local post office. I do this from time to time - never with good results, mind you, but it's become a part of my routine. I always mail it in an envelope that looks like this:


I bought these envelopes in bulk some time ago, so I have a big stack of them in my home office.Until recently, this was no big deal. Though it's an oversize envelope, the size is 8.5 by 11 inches, fairly standard, and the contents aren't too thick.

But the last time I tried to use the envelope, I was told it would be subject to a surcharge. Why? Because of the metal clasp on the back.

I had never given the metal clasp any thought at all. It's a standard sort of thing that has been on business envelopes since time immemorial. It's an institution in institutions, as it were. But it apparently wreaks havoc with the Postal Service's new automated mail-processing machines, and any envelope that bears such a clasp needs to be hand-stamped by a Postal Service employee, doubling the mailing cost.

My choice: pay the surcharge, or replace a big stack of perfectly good envelopes with something a little more modern. I hate to waste office supplies, so for the time being, I have been paying the surcharge. Not without a grumble, though.

Yesterday, my daughter wrote from summer camp that it had been pouring, and she had forgotten her rain jacket. Could I please send it? I dug her rain jacket out of the closet and dashed to the post office. There, I grabbed a Priority Mail Flat Rate box from the display. The counter attendant gave me some free tape stamped with the "Priority Mail" logo. I stuffed the jacket inside, hastily addressed the box, and taped it closed.

I stood in line to mail the box. When I got to the front of the line, the attendant told me that it would cost $12 to send my box. If I had used a regular Priority Mail box, it would have cost $6.

"What's the difference?" I asked, momentarily confused.

"This is a Flat Rate box. It costs $12 to send, regardless of the weight of the contents. If you used a regular Priority Mail box" - he gestured to the Priority Mail display a few feet away, which, I now saw, contained both Flat Rate and regular boxes - "you could save half the price."

The boxes were identical, except for the legend "Flat Rate" on the more expensive one. "Can I just cross out the words 'Flat Rate?'" I asked.

"No. You have to repack it in a regular box. Do it - it will save you money."

"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard," I growled.

"I don't make the rules," he said.

I stormed over to the display, took a plain box, and repackaged my daughter's jacket. The Flat Rate box was destroyed and unusable - it had to be recycled. A waste. But the man at the counter didn't care. All he could see was that he was saving me $6 - a grand gesture on his part. He didn't understand why I thought the whole thing was ridiculous.

Then, today, the same daughter's monthly Archie comic book came in the mail. Knowing she'd want it right away, I headed for the post office with a metal-clasped envelope, prepared to pay the surcharge.

This time, inexplicably, they charged me the regular rate. I guess they didn't notice the clasp, or they didn't care.

But the young woman in front of me in line was sending out wedding invitations. They were oversized (though smaller than my envelope), and they were on heavy card stock. The postal employees gathered around the bride and made tut-tut noises. They adjudged the invitations "inflexible" and told her she'd have to pay for them as though they were small parcels. That meant - did I hear correctly? - a whopping $9 apiece - and each one going overseas would need a separate customs declaration.

The bride began to grumble, but then she squared up her shoulders and said, "What am I going to do? They have to get there." She gathered up her beautiful cards and walked over to the side counter, where she began filling out the customs declarations, one at a time. She was still there when I left.

Now, don't misunderstand. Unlike my dog, I love the Postal Service. I am happy to support it. There is no other service on earth that will deliver a letter door to door, anywhere in the United States, for less than a dollar. But when they complain that they are being put out of business by the electronic revolution, I always pause and think for a moment. I suppose I could submit manuscripts by e-mail. But there's no way to send my daughter her jacket or her comic book electronically. I think, sometimes, that the Post Office is in danger of going out of business not because of the availability of e-mail, but because of their inconsistent and sometimes baffling rules and customer service.

Is it me, or have you had similar experiences?


26 June 2013

The Big No-Brainer

A few brief (I hope) words about today's Supreme Court decision regarding the unconstitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

It has seemed obvious to me from the beginning of the debate on this matter, all those years ago, that a federal law (1) allowing states not to recognize the valid marriage laws of other states and (2) denying federal benefits to a discrete group of people based on an immutable characteristic, e.g., sexual orientation, was clearly unconstitutional.

(1) The Full Faith and Credit clause of the U.S. Constitution requires each state to respect the others' laws. Thus, my husband and I were married in New York City, but when we bought a house jointly in New Jersey the following year, we didn't have to get married again. Our marriage followed us across the border, as of course it should. New Jersey must (and does) recognize a valid marriage solemnized in New York.

(2) Sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic - one that can't be changed by choice. I was born with brown eyes. I can wear colored contact lenses to make myself look blue-eyed, but that would be a temporary mask of my true genetic makeup. I got my dad's brown eyes, and there's nothing I can do about it. (Or want to do about it, actually.) Homosexuals have been discriminated against for millenia - if it were a choice, why would someone choose to belong to a group so reviled throughout history?

Just as Congress can't single out brown-eyed people and deny them tax exemptions, they can't single out gay people and deny them benefits and rights to which everyone else is entitled.

And a quick few words about marriage. Marriage means many things to many people. We are not talking here about the Catholic Church's definition of marriage, which is a narrow one. Their marriage is a holy sacrament performed by an ordained priest in a church, uniting a man to a woman for as long as they both continue to be alive. They (and many other conservative groups) don't formally recognize anything else as marriage.

But, of course, our Catholic friends don't claim that my husband and I, who were married in the Episcopal Church, aren't really married. Or that our Jewish friends who've been married for decades in their own tradition are somehow living in sin.  That's because marriage is often a religious rite, but it is also something else. It is a civil contract, entered into by two people, which demonstrates their commitment to each other for life. It is about love, usually, but it is also about economics. Married people can open joint bank accounts, buy houses jointly with right of survivorship, inherit each other's estates free of taxes, adopt children together as a unit, and visit each other in the hospital at all hours. I don't think anyone would seriously challenge my right to own a house jointly with my husband because I wasn't married in their religious tradition.

When you get married in a religious ceremony in most states in the U.S., you also have to get a civil marriage license, and your officiant, licensed to perform marriages by the state, signs that in addition to your religious certificate. If your officiant isn't duly licensed in the jurisdiction in which you throw your party, you need to get married separately by the state in order for it to be legal. Everyone who has ever gotten married in the United States, or performed a marriage here, knows this.

Marriage is a universally-recognized legal status. You can be considered legally married, and enjoy all the legal benefits of that relationship, even if you never set foot in a house of worship. Lots of people do it every day.

And - this will come as a surprise to a lot of young people and unmarried people that I know - but marriage is not primarily about sex. I mean, after the first few weeks, of course. It is about teamwork and companionship, and running a household. It is about daily life that was once Separate and is now Together. It sometimes becomes about raising children, but even if there are no children, there's still a whole lot of "which movie do you want to see" and "what should we have for dinner" and "I don't think we can afford to get the stove fixed this week." There are finances and negotiations and doing things you don't want to do because they're important to your spouse. It's about loyalty and commitment and meeting each other halfway.

And if someone loves someone of the same gender so much that they want to make that commitment and live that life, and be there for each other, and if a state says they can, then the federal government can't say they can't.

A friend recently told me that he thinks homosexuality is "unnatural" and "spreads disease" and therefore should not be condoned in any form by the state. I didn't remind him that the "disease" of which he was thinking, and many more, are also spread by heterosexual contact, and that marriage of any sort that involves an exclusive physical commitment actually reduces the chances of catching and spreading anything that's sexually transmitted. Because when people make up their mind that they're against something on religious grounds, there's no convincing them that they're wrong. In fact, they're entitled to their religious beliefs. They're just not entitled to discriminate civilly because of those beliefs.

So I applaud today's decision, which seems to me to have been a no-brainer. It does not, of course, seem that way to everyone, including four members of the Court itself. But neither did interracial marriage, a generation ago, seem to be a no-brainer, and I think the analysis is the same.

The world is not going to crumble to pieces because a woman who inherited her wife's estate can now claim an exemption from estate taxes. No one will be forced to marry someone they don't want to marry, and no religious institution will be forced to perform marriages it doesn't want to perform. But some people will be entitled to live in peace with the person of their choice, to make a life and a home together, and to enjoy the civil benefits of that life.

And if someone's life can be improved, I'm in favor of it.

24 June 2013

Advice for the College-Bound

Well, it's late June, folks, and you haven't heard from me since Mother's Day. But things have been busy around here. For one thing, I have a high school graduate among my children now. If you have been following this blog for a while, you know something of her academic struggles and triumphs. I won't bore you with the soppy mom stuff, but I will tell you that when my husband and I opened the graduation program and saw her name listed among the graduates receiving "high honors," we were thrilled beyond any joy I have felt since the days when she, her sister, and her brother were born.

Hats off to you, Sarah. You've come a long way, and you still have a long way to go.




She's off to college now. Her cousin David, a recent college graduate, gave her a graduation card in which he listed some wonderful college-bound advice: "Things I Wish I'd Known." Attend classes and pay attention. Get involved in campus activities. Leave your dorm room door open all the time, unless you have a good reason to close it. Spend time with your college friends - they are likely to be your friends for life, but the time you have with them, young, single, and carefree, is probably limited to four short years, and those years will go quickly.

I have a few things to add to David's list. I've been thinking these over, mulling them around in my head, since I recently attended my 25th college reunion. (More on that, maybe, in a later post.) Here are my thoughts for Sarah and her friends, as they embark on their new adventures.

1. Get to know your professors. Do not be intimidated by them. Ask them questions, and interact with them as much as you can. They are experts in their fields, and they know a great deal about things you want to know about. They are there to teach you, and you are there to learn.

2. Take a wide variety of classes. Don't box yourself in too early. Sure, if you're pre-med or an engineer, you'll have requirements to fulfill, but branch out as much as you can. You might discover a new field that you love.

3. Do not listen to people who ask what you're majoring in and then, with eyebrows raised, ask, "How are you going to make a living at THAT?" If you major in something you love and then pursue it after school, you'll be doing something you love for a living. In no time at all, you'll be far ahead of 90% of the eyebrow-raisers.

4. Your classmates are part of your education. Try to make friends who are different from you. Chances are that people have come from all over to study at your college. Don't hang out exclusively with people of your own ethnic, religious, or socioeconomic background.

5. If you experience academic trouble at any point, seek help right away. Go to the professor first, and then to the academic support center if necessary (every school has one). Do not sit alone in the dark and think you can muddle through on your own. You will not be the first person ever to seek help. There are many people who will be more than happy to help you.

6. Take risks and chances. Not the jumping-off-the-bridge type, but the studying-abroad and taking-a-part-time-job type. Some of these opportunities will give you wonderful experiences and will never arise again in your lifetime.

7. Come home at the holidays. If you have a friend who is too far from home to get back to his or her family, bring him or her along. There's always room for one more.

8. Take good care of yourself physically. The temptation to party hard and get no sleep will always be there, but remember that you are not doing yourself a favor by abusing your body. Eat well and stay active, and keep the, um, indulgences to a minimum.

9. Take advantage of whatever your school has to offer. A great art museum? A famous computer center? A world-renowned Hemingway expert? Political debates? Whatever it is, show up from time to time and see what it's about.

10. Finally, remember that a lot of love and effort has gone into getting you safely from the bassinet to the dorm room. Your safety is out of our hands now and entirely in yours. Honor us by being careful. Use your good judgment at all times. Travel in (sober) groups, especially at night. Follow your gut instincts, which are usually right.

Do you have more advice for Sarah and her classmates? I'd love to hear it.
Jennie


09 May 2013

What I Want For Mother's Day

Not that anyone asked, but I feel compelled to tell you what I want for Mother's Day.

First of all, I want someone to move that apostrophe. It's a day for mothers (plural) everywhere. I know it's usually spelled with the apostrophe before the "s," but that has never made sense to me. There are many, many women in the world who contribute, biologically or otherwise, to the raising of the next generation, and they deserve to share that day.

My material wants are pretty modest. I want a radio in my kitchen so I can have music (or NPR) while I cook or do the dishes. I already have a little TV in my kitchen, but I hardly ever watch it, and in any event, it's not the same thing. I'd also like a nifty set of knitting needles called Addi Turbo Lace Clicks, the "long" kind, because they have a feature that would be handy to me as a frequent lace knitter. (Specifically, the needle has a little notch in it that you can thread with a contrasting yarn, so that when you knit it automatically creates a "lifeline." A lifeline is just a brightly-colored strand of yarn run through the stitches of a row you know is correct. When you later mess up, you can rip out your messed-up rows neatly back to your lifeline, rather than agonizing and trying to figure out where you were and ending up ripping the whole thing out. I make lifelines now the old-fashioned way, with a darning needle. But how great it would be to have a tool that does it automatically for me!) And I'd like some new clothes to wear to my college reunion next month. And that's pretty much all I can think of.

A lot of my friends ask for vacations or spa trips or the chance to sleep late with their kids out of the house. They beg their spouses and children to just give them a day to themselves. No one bothering them. No one needling them. No one climbing into their bed or making a mess of their perfectly-ordered home. Just for one day.

I have a different perspective, though. I have loved every minute of motherhood, every single minute. I have loved the sick days and the well days, the rainy days and the sunny days, the midwinter blahs and the summer vacations. I have loved advocating for my kids' special needs, shepherding them around to all kinds of doctors and therapists. I have loved helping them discover their gifts and showing them how to nurture them. Sure, I've been tired and I've complained. I'm human. But I genuinely loved every single second of motherhood. I am going to cry my eyes out when my oldest daughter leaves for college this fall. (Did you hear? Mount Holyoke. I am button-bustingly proud.)

One of my friends, trying to console me after my pregnancy loss, told me, "It's just as well. If you had a baby, a year from now you'd be saying, 'What was I thinking?' All that screaming and crying and lost sleep. You don't want to start over again with that, do you?" Another friend bluntly told me that she was of the opinion that pregnancy in my forties was simply a major mistake that I and the rest of my family would certainly regret for years to come.

At first, when I heard these things, I was wounded, my pain compounded by a lack of understanding on the part of people I trusted deeply. I'm not glad it didn't work out. I regret nothing but the lost possibilities. I simply have to assume that anyone who thinks I'm crazy is just not the same kind of parent as I am. I don't hate diapers, late-night nursing sessions, stuffy noses, or plus-sized jeans. I don't mourn my pre-motherhood waistline. I don't curse at my children, complain about them in public, or wish their lives away. I adore them.

And the very last thing I want on Mother's Day is for my family to go away.

This Mother's Day, what I really want is a big, noisy mess. I want to be awakened in my bed by people who love me, bearing homemade cards and flowers picked from the garden and a cup of coffee that they made just for me. I want to be surrounded by family all day. I want to be reminded of what a wonderful blessing it is to be a mother, to be a woman, to be someone who is needed and loved and cared for, even as she needs and loves and cares for everyone else.

I don't think that's too much to ask.


25 April 2013

A Few Facebook Etiquette Pointers

Like a lot of people, I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook, admiring pictures of my friends' children, vacations, and craft projects. I also enjoy reading funny cartoons, satires, and articles that people post about current events. I write this blog and contribute to my office blog, and I curate Facebook pages for both. So it's fair to say that I spend a good portion of every day in front of a screen.

I could write volumes about what I've learned about people I know on Facebook. I have come face-to-face with their religious and political beliefs, most of which don't match my own and would never have come to light in routine polite conversation. But Facebook isn't about polite conversation (nor should it really be). It's an open forum, and people should have the right to post whatever they want.

Keeping that in mind, though, there really should be some basic civility rules. Facebook shouldn't cause spats in friendships that existed long before it did, and will probably outlast it by decades. I've been compiling a list of suggested Facebook etiquette rules in my head all week long; here are the ones I can remember.

Be careful about tagging people, especially in public posts. There's a man I adore who goes to my church. Every Sunday, he checks in publicly at church and tags everyone he sees in the pews. He thinks he's doing good by promoting the church. But this means that my church attendance pops up on a weekly basis in his news feed and all my friends' news feeds, and it is visible on my profile to anyone who finds it, even complete strangers. Do I want the whole world knowing where I am on a Sunday morning? Not really, thanks. Is there any way to prevent this from happening? No. Anyone can tag anyone. I can keep it from being memorialized on my page, but the only way to stop it altogether is either to unfriend him (which I do not wish to do, as I adore him in every other respect) or to have an awkward conversation with him. (Or, I could passive-aggressively write about it in my blog.)

Don't tag people in pictures without their permission. Being tagged in a public picture prevents similar problems. Best practice: don't ever tag anyone; let them look at the pictures and add their own tags if they wish. Pretty good practice: ask people for permission before you tag them. This way, they can decide whether they want to publish that particular depiction of their weight or their hair. Good enough practice for most people: tag away in pictures that have a limited audience. Warning: do not ever tag anyone under the age of 18 in anything, unless you are their parent or have their parent's explicit permission.

Don't use fake names. A lot of young people do this so they won't be searchable by colleges or employers. But you can make yourself unsearchable in your privacy settings anyway. Besides, if you're on Facebook at all, let's be serious, you can be found and identified by your pictures. If you are using a fake name AND a fake picture, maybe it's time to rethink why you're there at all. But, seriously, people who write on your wall or tag you in pictures don't know who is seeing their posts if all your friends have fake names. It's a little dishonest. I frequently get friend requests from people like Theodore Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln, with a little explanatory note saying, "It's me, insert actual name, under false cover." I have a policy of denying each and every one of those requests.

Don't make obnoxious comments. I used to have a friend who, every time I mentioned my fabulous husband in a post, would make a comment along the lines of, "Ha ha! I remember in college when you and he weren't even speaking!" Or, "Remember that ugly chick he dated when you were mad at him?" I'm not sure why she did this. The events of which she spoke were more than twenty-five years ago. But she's no longer my Facebook friend.

Think about who might read what you write. I am speaking specifically of profanity. I am friends with my mother and my three teenagers online. Don't write f-ing this and f-ing that on my wall. Please. And if you write that stuff on your own wall, consider making it non-public.

Don't pick fights. If you don't like what someone posted, just don't click "like." Try not to get into a knock-down, drag-out fight online, in front of everyone. Trust me. I have done this and still have to work hard to restrain myself from doing this. I am not going to change anyone's religious beliefs, political leanings, or admiration of Margaret Thatcher or the Boy Scouts by lecturing them on Facebook. All I am going to do is make myself look like a self-righteous know-it-all nag. I need to try to keep that aspect of my personality a little closer to my vest.

If you put people on a restricted list, be prepared to get unfriended when they figure it out. Someone I have known for more than thirty years had me on his restricted list for a long time. All I could see on his profile were periodic changes of his cover photo, which are public. There were no non-public postings, at least not visible to me. I was sad; what was the point of being Facebook friends if he could see my posts but I couldn't see his? I unfriended him. Now we're both sad. (Or at least that's what I tell myself.)

Don't write angry posts directed at one person, or write cryptic posts understandable by no one. My favorites are things like, "You make me really, really mad. You know who you are." Nope. I don't know whether I'm the person you're talking about. But I'll lie awake at night wondering if I am. What did I say? What did I do? But you're probably talking about your cat or something.

And finally, don't post on someone's wall something that's more appropriately a private message. This is a classic Grandma mistake - "Hi honey! I'll pick you up at three and we'll go get you some new underwear, okay?" But it can get much, much worse than that. Use your imagination. If it's a message for one person, send a personal message. If you want all their friends to see it too, post it on their wall.

That's all for now. I hope you're enjoying spring! (Or fall, if you're in the southern hemisphere, as I know some of my readers are.) The daffodils are just about finished here, but the trees are in full bloom, and the lilacs are going to burst any day. Time to get away from the computer screen!


05 April 2013

Why I Don't Feel Sorry For Hobby Lobby

Hobby Lobby, in case you don't know, is a large, popular, and successful family-owned craft-store chain. The corporation is owned by the Green family, conservative evangelical Christians. They conduct their business in accordance with their faith. For example, Hobby Lobby closes its 525 stores every Sunday so its employees can observe a Christian day of rest. It is also known to donate generously to conservative institutions and causes and, according to the New York Times, to use stickers to cover up Botticelli's naked Venus in the art books it sells. (I don't think the problem is that Venus is a pagan goddess; I think the problem is that Venus is naked. The human body in its natural state is sinful to behold.)

Such is Hobby Lobby's strong identification with conservative Christianity that it made headlines recently by suing the Obama administration for forcing it to comply with the federal health care law. That law requires employers to provide comprehensive health coverage for women, including contraception, pregnancy termination, and maternity care. The law requires the provision, when needed, of the so-called "morning-after pill," a drug given to women after unprotected sex or rape to prevent pregnancy. The "morning-after pill" is controversial because it hovers in that gray area somewhere between contraception and abortion: it prevents a fertilized egg from implanting and giving rise to a full-blown pregnancy.

Hobby Lobby is opposed to the use of the "morning-after pill" in all circumstances, on religious grounds. It believes that, because of its beliefs, it should not be forced to pay for insurance that covers such medication. (Purely religious organizations, like churches and synagogues, are exempt from the federal healthcare law. Hobby Lobby, a for-profit business, is not.)

The company sued the Obama administration and lost, and now it is threatening to close its doors rather than comply with the law. The story has generated a great deal of sympathy in the religious and secular press. What does a religious business do when the secular law requires it to do something against its beliefs?

Now, I am not disputing that the Green family and its corporation have every right in the world to oppose the use of contraception or any other medical or quasi-medical procedure. That right is absolutely protected under the Federal Constitution. I am also not going to argue the ethics of abortion, contraception, or anything related to those issues in this space. (I do have opinions about these things, but I'd need a lot more room to elaborate on them than I have here.)

What I am going to say is this: the price of running a successful business in a secular society is compliance with the secular laws. Hobby Lobby is not a purely religious organization. It is a for-profit business.  It makes an enormous amount of money selling craft supplies to American consumers. It does not - cannot, by law - turn shoppers away at the door on the basis of religious beliefs. It willingly takes money from sewing Christians, scrapbooking Jews, knitting Muslims, crocheting Buddhists, and flower-arranging atheists. To make its business successful, it also employs all those people (in fact, by law, it cannot deny employment to people on the basis of their religious beliefs or lack thereof).

And yet Hobby Lobby wants to have things both ways. It wants to have its money and enforce its beliefs too.

That's not how things work in America. In America, if you don't like the law for religious or other reasons, you are not allowed to simply ignore it or claim it shouldn't apply to you. There are as many different religious and ethical beliefs in this nation as there are people. Imagine the chaos if everyone claimed a religious exemption from the laws they oppose. What we do here, instead, is vote our conscience. Elect representatives who support the laws of which you approve and oppose those of which you don't. Use that money you make in your incredibly successful business to fund campaigns, raise public awareness of your cause, buy ads in newspapers. That, ladies and gentlemen, is entirely legal in this nation. The Supreme Court has said so.

If you are opposed to contraception and abortion, you are allowed to say so from the tops of the tallest buildings. You can demonstrate. You can pray. You can post away on Facebook and Twitter. You can run clinics that provide alternative care to women in crisis. You can educate young men about the consequences of sex, sexual aggression, and the law of consent. You can invest in education to lessen the need for such things. But you cannot disobey the law. The elected officials of this country have ratified a law that says that women employees are entitled to comprehensive health care coverage. Throw the bums out if you don't like it. But until you do, you must obey the law.

Running a church is not usually a profitable business. Trust me - I'm a preacher's kid, and I was raised on a preacher's wages. We had what we needed, and we lived by our principles, but we were not wealthy by any means.

Accumulating great wealth in our society is a tradeoff, and if you wish to do so, you need to play by the rules. That's the fabric of our society. It is the fiber of our being. It's the glue that holds us together, and what I've been needling you about. You can't put a varnish - oh, never mind. You cannot be a slave to two masters. And that is why I don't feel sorry for Hobby Lobby.

[Just after I published this post, I became aware of this ruling by a federal district court concerning the availability of morning-after pills to young women. Just thought I'd include the link in case you are interested in the subject. Who's not? It's a complex and fascinating issue. - jba]

16 March 2013

Snowdrops

I think, of all the early spring bulbs, the snowdrops are my favorites.



They come up at the end of February or the beginning of March, right through the snow and ice, regardless of what's falling from the sky. I never planted them - they came with my house when we bought it twenty years ago, and they have propagated randomly all over what I like to refer to as the South Lawn. They pop up without warning, without reason, without an organized plan.

They always come right when I need them.

Because in November and December, there is nothing more magical than a snowstorm. We stand in the street, marveling at the magic, spinning and trying to catch the flakes on our tongues. But in March, there is nothing more unwelcome than a driveway that needs to be shoveled and a car that needs to be cleared off. By March, we are ready for the flowers. Most of them aren't ready for us, though. They need a few more weeks to make their heady, joyful appearance.

Except for the snowdrops.

I went to the Philadelphia Flower Show again this year with my sister, mom, and dear friends, and it put me in a flowery mood. Right about now, I want nothing more than a riotous garden of color, a sign that new and beautiful life is possible - inevitable - after the deep slumber of winter.

Here are some things I am working on while waiting for signs of life:

Green wooly socks. My feet are always cold, even in March. These should help.

A mint-green lace scarf designed by Aimee Alexander of polkadotsheep.com.
 I think the pattern looks like owls' faces - what do you think?

A cotton lace baby blanket for my friend's nephew (designed by the same lady who designed the scarf, actually).
The picture doesn't do the color justice - it is the most exquisite shade of marine blue.
I'll post another photo when it's finished.
(And yes, that's what I look like in real life. A little happy, a little disheveled, a little in need of a haircut.)

What is the weather doing in your part of the world? What are the signs of season change that you look forward to most? Or least?

26 February 2013

Things I've Made - Update

In my January post "Things I've Made," I promised to show you my latest knitting project when it was finished. I mailed it to its recipient yesterday, and it should arrive today, so I don't think there's too much harm in jumping the gun and showing it to you now.

It's a pale blue baby blanket for a little boy in an aran pattern. Aran patterns are traditional in the wind-and-water-swept islands of Ireland and Scotland, where their thick cables and textured stitches keep fishermen and shepherds warm and dry. I've knitted cables before, but never something this cable-intense. Messing up the cables (and learning to fix them, using the technique outlined in the Yarn Harlot's tutorial) were important parts of the process.

Here are some photos of the project from beginning to end.


The pattern is set up at the beginning on a circular needle.
Note my sushi-shaped stitch markers. I love my stitch marker collection.

Oops! I twisted a cable in the wrong direction. Ripping it back and fixing it is
one of the bravest things I have done in a long time.

Shaping up beautifully.

Finished, folded over the living-room chair, awaiting blocking.

Just before folding, wrapping, and shipping. The detail in these patterns is exquisite, isn't it?

Thanks for peeking at my work. I derive so much joy from this process! I'm calculating that the new owner of this blanket will go off to college in the fall of 2031. I hope he takes his blanket with him.

25 February 2013

Oscar the Grouch

Maybe you watched the Oscars last night. I did. I sat by the TV with my kids and my knitting bag. We admired the beautiful gowns on the red carpet and rooted for our favorite movies when the awards presentations began.

And about a third of the way into it, I had had enough.

My main problem with the program was the offensive jokes. I've been accused of lacking a sense of humor before, but I promise, when something is legitimately funny, I'm laughing the loudest. Nonetheless, it really didn't seem appropriate to me to have an entire musical number called "We Saw Your Boobs," listing the actresses who had appeared topless in various films. Was it necessary to subject such big-screen greats as Helen Hunt and Anne Hathaway, actors who have paid their dues just as much as any man in attendance, to fourth-grade-level body-part jokes? Have we made no progress on this front?

Nor was it funny to joke about domestic violence in the context of Chris Brown and Rihanna. I've made my point about this already, and I won't belabor it, but violence against women is not funny. Ever. At all.

And did Seth MacFarlane, or, more accurately, his writers, think that the jokes about Jews in Hollywood would meet with raucous laughter? Since when is it okay to make anti-Semitic remarks thinly disguised as jokes?

But it wasn't just the jokes. The artists who were honored with awards were given an extremely limited amount of time to thank those who had helped them in their achievements. Anyone who went over the allotted speech time was drowned out by a loud, obnoxious rendition of the theme from "Jaws" (which was intended, I assume, to be construed as funny) and swept offstage, sometimes while still trying to thank their mothers or agents. The reason why the artists were given so little time had to do with leaving enough time for the musical numbers ("We Saw Your Boobs," for example) and the comedy routines (one of which involved Ted, the profane teddy bear, theorizing that pretending to be Jewish could further his Hollywood career).

Frankly, I would have rather heard a costume designer acknowledge the adults who inspired and encouraged her as a child than have listened to another cruel joke about how old Meryl Streep is getting.

The question is this: what is the point of the Oscars broadcast? Is it to honor the artists who entertain and inform us through their work, or is it to entertain the masses at the artists' expense? I am an avid movie fan. There is nothing I like better than an evening at the theater, with a big bucket of popcorn and a soda, escaping from my daily life into the fantasy world of a well-made film.

I tune in to the Oscars because I love the beautiful clothes and the well-deserved accolades. I enjoy hearing the actors and directors talk about who and what inspired them. And in the past, I have enjoyed the musical performances, the tasteful retrospectives on the careers of those who have passed on during the year, and the tongue-in-cheek jokes and parodies. This year, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. Am I alone?

19 February 2013

A Supreme Court Case To Watch


It is extremely difficult to get the United States Supreme Court to hear your case. To do so, you need to file something called a petition for certiorari, which is a relatively complex document that describes your problem and your reasons for needing the Supreme Court to review your appeal.  Very, very few petitions for certiorari get granted by the Court. The Court is busy and has limited time to hear cases. It is helpful if your case presents a new and novel question that has never been addressed before, or if it raises an issue about which the lower courts disagree. But even in those situations, a grant of your petition is not guaranteed. Having it granted, and then winning, is like hitting the lottery.

When I worked in the federal appeals court in Manhattan, we received many, many appeals from prisoners, claiming that their rights had been or were being violated. Most of these petitions were filed pro se – that is, on one’s own behalf, without the assistance of a lawyer. Some of them were handwritten. All of them were reviewed carefully, scrutinized even, to make sure that no claim with merit was overlooked.  The vast majority of them were dismissed.

But every once in a while, a handwritten petition that has merit comes through the system and catches the attention of the judges. This happened fifty years ago, when a prisoner named Gideon wrote a handwritten petition to the Supreme Court claiming that he had been convicted because he had not been able to afford a lawyer. He asked the Court to declare that the Constitution required that poor people accused of serious crimes be given the assistance of a court-appointed lawyer.

Gideon won and got the legal assistance he needed from a young lawyer named Abe Fortas (who later became a Supreme Court justice himself). On retrial, Gideon was acquitted. The Gideon decision has become a hallmark of American life. We now take for granted that criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer will nevertheless be well-represented at trial.

Today, the Supreme Court is hearing another case that came from the grant of a handwritten certiorari petition. A prisoner named Kim Millbrook alleges that he was sexually assaulted by prison guards while serving time for various convictions (which are not in dispute). The prison conducted an internal investigation and found Millbrook’s complaint unsubstantiated. His original lawsuit, claiming that his Eighth Amendment right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment, was dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity. That doctrine, roughly described, provides that the government cannot be sued for damages arising out of the intentional acts of its employees.

Millbrook is, by all accounts, what we law clerks used to refer to as a “frequent filer.” That is, he was experienced at airing his grievances in the federal courts. He filed a complaint every time he felt wronged. Handwritten petitions are seldom eloquent or easy to read, but they are always reviewed carefully and decided. Millbrook always lost.

But, in an unusual last-minute move, the Government reversed itself and sided with Millbrook on the current handwritten petition. It urged the Court to take up the issue of sovereign immunity, and the Court decided to do so. It appointed counsel to brief and argue his case, and today, Millbrook has a chance to make his case against one of the most firmly-ingrained concepts in American law.

Like winning the lottery, getting in front of the Supreme Court is a long shot. But winning a Supreme Court case, unlike winning the lottery, has the potential to change many lives and – this is no exaggeration - an entire way of thinking. I’ll be watching the case closely, and I hope you will too.

12 February 2013

Moments

This month, I am participating in a writing challenge in which I write one moment every day for 21 days. (And you thought, because you haven't heard from me in a while, that I wasn't writing.) I receive a writing prompt by e-mail each day, and then I am supposed to write my moment. At first, I had no idea what to write about, and so, for the first five days, I just sat staring at my screen, doing nothing. And then, on the sixth day, the floodgates opened.

When I signed up for the challenge, I had thought I'd write fictional moments involving the characters who are floating around in my head. But that's not what happened. What happened is that I started writing about memories, and I now have a small collection of scenes from my life. Some of them are significant (first day at a new school). Some of them are sad (death of a grandparent). Some of them are just funny scenes that make me laugh (a day at the beach with a high school boyfriend during which we got attacked by sand flies). They're mostly true, but some are a little bit embellished (either because I don't remember the details exactly, or because the story improves with embellishment).

The thing I am learning is that the more I write, the more I want to write. The more ideas I have, the more ideas I get. Stagnation breeds more stagnation, but good work breeds more good work. And that might be the most valuable lesson I am getting from working on this challenge.

Today is Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday, also known, in French-speaking places, as Mardi Gras, and, in German-speaking places, as Karnival. It's the day before Lent begins. Since Lent is supposed to be a penitential season, full of self-reflection and self-denial, the tradition for today is last-minute indulgence. I've been baking cookies for my kids to take to school and youth group parties. If we were really being traditional, we'd have pancakes for dinner, but I messed up and thawed an enormous brisket the other day, and now I need to cook it. It's in the Crock-Pot now, and I wish you could smell it. If you could, you'd know that it's going to be more than indulgent enough for our little carnival feast. (The recipe I am using is from America's Test Kitchen's "Slow Cooker Revolution," and I recommend it highly.)

My son has been learning some common Yiddish expressions lately. He now knows that a jerk is a schmuck, that chicken fat is schmaltz, and that if you want only a little bit of cream cheese on your bagel, you ask for a schmear. These words amuse him greatly. This morning, watching me get dinner going, he asked me whether "brisket" was Yiddish for "enormous hunk of meat." He might not be too far off on that.

We survived the recent big snowstorm, "Nemo," with no serious consequences. The weather is fickle, though; today is an absolutely beautiful day, and I've been running my errands without a coat. Tomorrow, on the other hand, we are expecting another three or four inches of snow. Wherever you are this week, whatever you are doing, I wish you just enough indulgence, and just enough self-reflection; something that smells delicious simmering in your kitchen; and a moment or two that, in a few years, will be worth writing about.