Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Sad Irony

Tonight, I did something I almost never do. For about 90 seconds, I turned on the national evening news. I watched. I took it in. I took a deep breath and let out the world’s heaviest sigh. And then I turned it off. I just can’t look anymore. I can’t watch. I feel horrible and useless that I’ve become so disheartened with the current trajectory or lack thereof by our leaders, that I just shut the whole damn thing off. I shut me off. I almost can’t stand to think and feel about how really screwed up its all becoming.

Just in case you were smarter than me and decided not to watch the news tonight or read any news today online or otherwise, you might have missed the Supreme Court’s decision. They effectively decided to do away with key pieces of the now landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. It’s all very complicated and murky to dissect but effectively, there was an old formula that determined that certain local municipalities and cities had to receive “preclearance” from the federal government before they made any changes to their voting regulations. This could include anything from redistricting to the requirement of specific kinds of picture IDs or literacy tests before voting: specifically, regulations that might disenfranchise one particular group and therefore taint the vote in that district[1].
The judges ruled that the formula itself was outdated and therefore it made no sense to give the federal government the right to review the voting regulations in districts selected by said outdated formula. The districts who brought the suit to the court see this as a win because they argue that their towns in the deep south and other formerly highly segregated areas are not what they used to be: that they should receive equal treatment from the government to reflect this progress.  But in her dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsburg wrote this telling statement: “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in (the court’s) utter failure to grasp why (the law) has proven effective.”

Ginsburg’s words ring in my ears: a sad irony indeed. It brought to mind another piece of critical legislation that we once had in place, and then did away with: the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. The law prohibited the manufacturing of assault weapons for civilian use. It was a 10 year bill that passed with a sunset provision meaning that if Congress failed to reauthorize it in 2004, the law would simply expire[2]. And so it did. At the time when the bill first passed, Adam Lanza was 2 years old. When Congress failed to renew it, he was 12. Which made it that much easier for him to enter Sandy Hook Elementary School and kill 26 people, getting off 154 shots in under 5 minutes[3]. Had Congress acted to reauthorize the ban once in place just 8 years earlier, it would have been impossible for him to do what he did in the time that he did it. The children killed in Sandy Hook were primarily between the ages of 6 and 7. Most of them had never lived in world where such a ban existed. Ginsburg’s words ring in my head again: a sad irony indeed.
And I just keep looking at my kids, at your kids, and thinking, what are we doing? Seriously, what the fuck are we doing? How are we possibly fucking this up so badly?

Not only are we unable to get new, important stuff done well. But the stuff that was working for us – the stuff that ensured voting rights for all and safety from assault weapons, we are unraveling that too. And I’m just scratching my head and thinking, how is this possible?
How am I possibly raising my children amongst a generation of parents who micro-manage and analyze every single moment of our children’s lives from the level of toxicity in their Doritos to baby wearing and cloth diapers, or not cloth diapers or lots of television or no television - and what the hell? Why does it even matter? Because one day they are going to wake up and realize that while we were obsessively micromanaging this tiny little shit, their future world was literally crumbling around them while we sweated the details. And they are going to look at me and say what the fuck? Why didn’t you rise up and stop this madness? And I have no idea what I’m going to say.

You know what? I don’t give a fuck about Edward Snowden. Or what he knows or doesn’t. Or even what the NSA does or doesn’t know about me or my emails. Maybe they are spending their precious moments monitoring my TMZ usage. It doesn’t even matter. Because we are all sweating the wrong stuff here. We worry about terrorists and the safety of our planes. Shoes are still a threat. But you know those laws that stopped you from bringing small knives and every piece of technological shit ever created and using it on a plane? You know how that used to exist? Well pack up your tiny knives and fire up your laptop before hopping on that flight – those laws are gone too.
What the fuck? How are we this bad at this? In my mind, the 80s were a glorious time and place where we all wore neon clothing and danced to Whitney Houston and everything was just happy. And it actually wasn’t but sadly, the trajectory of this country felt more hopeful than it does now. Did you even know that right now millions of young people are out of work? To be more exact, more than 8 million young folks between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed[4]. But is America talking about that? Not really, let’s just try to undo some more useful shit that already exists or do something really productive like stop people from getting married because THAT WILL MAKE AMERICA BETTER.

Seriously, I’m just feeling deflated.
In one of my favorite movies, 1995’s The American President, one of the Presidents’s advisors argue that “when people are thirsty, they’ll drink the sand.” Michael Douglas, playing the President, fires back: “People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.[5]

Indeed. We don’t need to drink the sand people. We know the difference. We actually used to do this stuff better. At this point, we don’t even need to get fancy, we just need to put back in place stuff that already worked well and then sit down and take a good look at ourselves and ask, when will we as a nation and for the sake of our children be ready to tackle the really tough stuff? The stuff that will decide whether they really will have a shot at becoming the next greatest generation: stuff like the budget, the achievement gap, unemployment? G-d I’m thirsty but I know the difference. And I’m waiting for someone to stand up just once and show me it.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/25/politics/scotus-voting-rights/index.html?hpt=hp_c3
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Assault_Weapons_Ban
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandy_Hook_Elementary_School_shooting
[4] http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/report/2013/06/05/65373/americas-10-million-unemployed-youth-spell-danger-for-future-economic-growth/
[5] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112346/quotes

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Recently, I watched a fascinating documentary about a tiny town in Pennsylvania known as Roseto. Founded in the 1800s by a group of Italian immigrants, the town quickly began to flourish as more and more people from their original village emigrated from Italy. At first blush, it seemed like a rather non-descript little place. Except for one strange detail that came to light in the 1950s. The Rosetans were seemingly in perfect health with a near zero mortality rate from heart attack or heart disease. The statistics were almost too staggering to be true. 

Stewart Wolf, a doctor from Oklahoma, flew to Roseto to study its people and investigate this phenomenon in the late 1950s and 1960s. Wolf studied whether genetics could be a variable, but in fact the local Rosetans proved healthier and far stronger than those that had emigrated from the same Italian village, but lived elsewhere in the United States. He studied their diet and exercise habits. But many Rosetans drank and smoked in excess, and ate fatty meats and cheeses and pickled many things in the lard from the pigs they raised in their backyard.[1]
So what was Wolf’s conclusion? In the end, the absurd strength of the Rosetan people could not be traced to genetics, diet, exercise or any other standard metric of health. In fact, by most of these traditional standards, their daily lives were diametrically opposed to good health. But when one person in town had a problem, everyone came forward to listen. Rarely, did anyone shoulder anything to great, on their own. No one ever flaunted their wealth (or lack thereof). It was irrelevant. They ate together, prayed together, sat on their porches and engaged deeply in each other’s lives. And for that, they were literally stronger. As Wolf would later write, “People are nourished by other people[2].”

As modern life progressed, increasing external factors and noise crept into Roseto. Its townspeople became less insulated, and consequently less dependent and engaged in each other’s lives. There were more fences, less time talking on front porches. Slowly, over time, the Roseto mortality rate rose to that of what is roughly equivalent to the national average. Indeed as things got increasingly stressful and noisy in the world around and within them, Rosetans started to forget a bit that all they really ever needed to manage this creeping chaos, was each other.
I was thinking about Roseto as I reflected on my own little micro-village: my family. We’d had a rough go of it this morning. Phil had promised Dylan they could wake up early at 6AM and go run at the track. This normally would have been fine since Dylan has been waking up at the ungodly hour of 5:30AM everyday for the past week and a half. Naturally, this morning, he awoke at 7:30AM. Phil explained that he really didn’t have time to dress and go over to the track before work – he’d be late. But Dylan was upset and Phil agreed to honor his promise. But Ruby, still in her nightgown became hysterical that she wasn’t going to be included. So a distracted and stressed Phil, thinking largely about work, stuffed two screaming children into his car at 7:45AM and went to the track. Dylan was thinking about himself. Phil’s mind was clearly on work. Ruby was half-dressed in the middle of a high school track thinking only about her need to be with her Daddy 24/7. A family of everyone thinking about no one but themselves.

I was at home.  It was a rough way to start the day with everyone crying and one eye still stuck shut, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the day had actually begun this way. I was feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. It was 7:48. I made chocolate chip pancakes while they were out because I assumed that regardless of what the issue was, pancakes would fix it. Except for some reason I am incredibly pancake challenged. So I stood there,  frustrated by my lack of culinary abilities as my mind wandered to stuff with the house, with me, calls, emails, just more stuff that needed my attention but didn’t properly have it as I flipped and burned pancakes.
Everyone came back and grumpily ate breakfast. Phil grumpily went off to work. We all stayed in our own heads and funks. Our tiny village was struggling. The day became rainy, and everyone got progressively more crabby and tired, but when Phil arrived home tonight there was a quiet little sea shift in our town. He was greeted warmly by the kids and we actually sat down around the dinner table together. We all genuinely asked about each other’s days. We wanted to check in with each other. We skipped baths for extra story and snuggling time. As I watched them tucked into my bed, listening to Phil read, we felt whole and peaceful. At least for now, we’d pushed out all the noise and junk from this morning and the crappy outside world. I felt nourished. It was our little slice of Roseto.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/books/chapters/chapter-outliers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
[2] http://www.uic.edu/classes/osci/osci590/14_2%20The%20Roseto%20Effect.htm

Monday, June 10, 2013

Pooh Grows Up

Tonight felt different. As always, I went in to Dylan’s room to tuck him in and kiss him goodnight. On this, the eve of his preschool graduation, I leaned over and whispered to him with tears glistening in my eyes, “I’m proud of the boy that you are becoming.”

He looked up at me, smiled, and farted.
In some ways, I appreciated his not so gentle reminder to not take myself and this moment quite so seriously. After all, he is five and he’s graduating pre-school, not law school. As a parent, there is much more work to be done. But I can already feel my role with him shifting not so subtly, away from the emphasis on basic needs. Increasingly my role at least with Dylan is not to do so much as to step back and try to let him figure it out for himself; that is, to promote the struggle a bit. That in this it is good for him to struggle with the words on the page or the kids on the playground; to learn to use his own internal cues to navigate. It feels so different. It isn’t babywash and diaper crème and stories. It is trickier and more nuanced. He needs me, but less obviously. I have to remember that this is good.

And as I watch him sleeping with his well worn Pooh Bear, I have a full enough perspective to realize just how young he still is. But it does mark the end of a chapter for him and in some ways for me too.  Dylan was my first baby to send off to preschool. And we both learned a lot while we were there. As a new mom, I learned to let go. I learned that it was good for him to be with grown ups and caregivers that weren’t me. That actually, that was probably good for both of us. I learned how to pack a lunch. I learned that he’s really smart. But more than that, I was reminded that he’s really kind and that this cannot be taught. That somehow, someway, Phil and I must be doing something right.
I have loved this preschool moment for him. It marks a rare chapter in his life that has been truly all about exploration, creativity and play for the sake of play. In preschool, there are no real consequences, no significant expectations. Next year will be bus rides and cafeterias, school plays and recess. There will be the beginning – at least the kindergarten version - of some homework and consequences. From here on out for Dylan, this will creep up on him more and more. I worry that the balance will shift and he will feel more pressure to learn not because it is exciting, but because he is expected to do so.  I am hopeful that along the way he will encounter many wonderful educators who will remind him of just how thrilling it can be to discover something new.

And while I have a massive penchant for being overly sentimental about the past to the extent that I forsake the promise and excitement of the future, I want to be careful here. I know there is so much good stuff to come for him. I’ll miss the little guy in preschool he was. But I’m also incredibly excited to get to know better the little guy he’s becoming.
I watch him as he sleeps. Clutching his Pooh and his past and dreaming either of his future or Mario Kart. Regardless - we’re ready.