Playing Chess with My Son

photoMy Dad liked to play chess. My son, now almost eight, was always too young to play chess properly with his Opa, but at least the idea was introduced and some of the rules and strategies were discussed between them. I never learned to play. It was too hard to remember which pieces could do what and in which direction. I preferred reading or watching television or flipping through my Mom’s Good Housekeeping or Brigitte magazines.

Now that my Dad is gone, I’ve made a commitment to play chess with my son. And hopefully with my daughter when she catches the strategy bug. This past weekend I played two games. Or are they matches? I play conservatively and slowly because I still don’t know all the nuances of moves and attacks and traps. I think I may have misused the Bishop once or twice.

My almost eight-year-old son didn’t like that I won. Twice. But he liked that I played. And we’ll keep playing, thoughtfully and patiently. As my Dad always did.

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Eulogy for My Father

Eulogy for my FatherI was a little over a year old, and my mother was pregnant with my sister Andrea, when someone asked my Dad “Will you give her back now?” – referring to my adoption. Years later, when Dad told me this story, he would admit that it was the one time he’d ever felt like punching someone in the face. He didn’t, of course. But it was the first serious conversation I remember having with my Dad, and it was the first conscious moment I have of knowing I was adopted. I must have been five or so.

He was good at telling stories – sometimes long-winded ones – that taught us to trust ourselves. He told stories that told us we were loved. Unconditionally. He taught us – all of us — what it meant to be a grown up.

My youngest sister Katja has talked about Dad’s letters so beautifully, so I won’t go into those, or how many yellow lined paper “you’re in trouble now” letters I may or may not have received.

But when I had my heart broken for the first time, it was Dad who came to talk and let me cry and say that sometimes people are jerks to each other. Loving someone sometimes hurts your heart, he said. That was being a grown up.

He defended my mom to us three teenaged daughters with a maddening consistency that confused and irritated me at the time. But now, as a wife and mother, I appreciate it and want that same unified and supportive backup for myself, for my family. It was part of being a grown up.

Our Dad had awkward moments as well. At my wedding, he rambled on and on about how he and mom tried and tried and then tried some more to get pregnant for years before adopting me. And then there was the time he and I sat down to watch Barbarella – starring a nubile Jane Fonda — because I was obsessed with Duran Duran and had heard the band’s name was based on a character in the movie. For those who know Barbarella, you’ll understand why many of the scenes were supremely awkward to watch with your teenage daughter. But he did it. And then we never spoke of it again. Because that’s also being a grown up.

On the other hand, when I broke my far-too-early curfew to attend a high school party to get completely smashed, Dad taught me that being a grown up sometimes means facing the music – but later. He carried me sadly into the house that night, all the while listening to me slur that this was all his fault. At the time, he just kept repeating quietly, “I know. I know.” And the next morning, he came up and talked to me about drinking too much and scaring my parents and being respectful of myself. But he didn’t raise his voice or get angry or shame me for my behavior. In expecting me to be a grown up, he showed me what it meant.

Over the last year, Dad and I have been having talks about death and dying and what it meant for those of us left behind. We talked about the blessing of being able to have time to say Goodbye and I Love You and Thank You. Not everyone has that chance. We talked about the afterlife, and he asked permission to discuss heaven and his abiding faith with my son. He knew the image of Opa waiting in heaven, young and strong and healthy, to play soccer with his grandson would be a comfort, not just to my son, but to our whole family. They were grown up talks.

It has always been important to my Dad to exhibit patience, to make it clear that admitting love is a sign of strength, not weakness, to show humility in all things, and to be fair. In one of our last conversations, my Dad asked me for confirmation that I felt equally loved to my sisters. Even 45 years after someone asked if he would give me back, he wanted to know that I knew he never would. We cried together that day. And we were quiet together and we knew we were loved.

Those who have been lucky enough to be a part of my Dad’s life know that his love for family and friends, his respect for colleagues and neighbors, his devotion to his God and his ideals, and ultimately his humility in allowing himself to be cared for by those who loved him are all life lessons in how to be a grown up. And I thank him for those lessons.

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Glad I Saw It: Mural

East Orange Campus High School MuralThis is one of several murals at East Orange Campus High School. It makes me smile every time I pass it.

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On Finding Empathy, Not Approval, for Protests That Become Riots

usatpeacefulfergusWe’ve heard it on the news and in conversations, usually on-line, related to protests that turn violent surrounding the Ferguson Grand Jury Decision. And it’s a logical question, although often pathetically accented with ugly adjectives. And I’m sure many of us have said similar things in the past: Why are they destroying their own neighborhood? They’re only hurting themselves! What did that business owner do to them? Sensible, reasonable, logical questions. Questions that can be asked in all similar situations. But when we break down the wider actions to look at our own responses to stress and anger, it can appear very different. Relatable, if not agreeable. Understandable, if not worthy of approval.

A few months after leaving Brooklyn, I waited until my kids were napping in their rooms to punch in a the door of a cabinet that housed craft supplies like stickers and kiddie scissors and glue and doodle pads. I was still angry, even furious after punching in the door, but the wave of shame and the realization that I couldn’t hide the damaged built-in cabinet stopped me from hitting the flimsy one-step-up from particle board door again and again. I was feeling isolated and frustrated and angry and out of control of my life. In that moment of helplessness, I punched a hole into my own cabinet door. It’s still broken after five years. I purposely broke part of a house I had just gone into debt to move into. It didn’t make sense, but I did it.

Just a few weeks ago I was aggravated about a disagreement I can no longer remember, but the intensity of my frustration was palpable. It was something about not feeling a part of things and being ignored and wanting respect on my terms. So much so that I grabbed an oven mitt and smacked it several times on the countertop. Hard. The last swing was poorly placed and I walloped my knuckles on the sharp edge. My hand was swollen within two minutes and stayed swollen for almost a week. I’m thankful we had formica countertops and not some version of stone. Even so, in that moment, for a reason I can’t remember, I damaged my own hand. It was painful, and it could have been a lot worse. I could have easily broken my knuckles. It didn’t make sense, but I did it.

And I know of people who have damaged their own car doors and bumpers, kicked in garage doors, slammed screen doors off the hinges, thrown prized possessions, punched walls and even trees until their hands bled in frustration. I know of others who floor the gas pedal in anger and guzzle beer, wine, gin in desperation. I know of people who eat things and smoke things and ingest pills they know are killing them slowly when they are sad or hopeless or afraid or grimacing with anger. Harmful actions, all. And many of those emotions grew out of a more manageable roadblock than institutionalized racism. It’s not an excuse; it’s a reason. It’s not approval; it’s empathy.

So, even as I despair in the images of burning buildings. Even as I fear that the creative and peaceful and purposeful protesting may escalate to violence again. Even as I hate seeing some take advantage of the media attention worldwide given to the many — though not enough — people declaring that #BlackLivesMatter, I can’t wholly condemn the destruction of buildings and cars without first admitting that I have felt an ounce of the same fury for lesser reasons. And I’m willing to bet that you have too.

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You Cannot Change What You Refuse to Confront

“If you hated what you saw Monday night, if you hated seeing those human beings pushed past their limit, YOU need to do something about the government and the justice system and the institutions of policing. You need to do something about the cause…you, I, we need to go out there and make this country into a place where black lives matter.” ~ Jay Smooth

h/t Eloiza Jorge

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Thanksgiving: Joy of Giving

This video has gotten a lot of play, but it’s worth another share. Narayanan Krishnan, as a part of the CNN Heroes: Everyday People Changing the World series, shares how his life has become about giving to others. I appreciate that he addresses, however peripherally, the caste system restrictions and how his values and morals demanded that he ignore them. Please watch.

“What is the ultimate purpose of life? It’s to give. Start giving! See the joy of giving.” ~ Narayanan Krishnan

Those of us who are everyday people (lower case) may not be able or willing to make the changes and put in the complete dedication that Narayanan does in this video. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be “everyday heroes” in smaller ways. Be in the moment and don’t overthink how you respond to need — whether it’s emotional, physical, or something you can’t define. Need some help getting started? Give a sincere compliment, listen without interrupting, hold the door with a smile, write a quick postcard to someone you’ve been thinking about. Call someone you’ve been meaning to call. Smile more.

We can’t all run around doing good deeds or grinning from ear to ear all the time — or even much at all. But by being conscious of wanting to tip the balance to positivity, authentic opportunities will arise. Even grumpy anti-socialites like me can take part.

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Guest Post: Guilt Isn’t the Point

The words that follow aren’t mine. I am at a loss for how to sound eloquent and worthy a read lately. So once again, as I did yesterday, I’ll turn to someone else’s words. Today my husband posted something on Facebook in response to others’ reactions on social media following the Ferguson verdict. I asked his permission to re-post it here because it’s insightful, thoughtful, and honest.

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A few friends in my timeline are (understandably) feeling put on the spot, called out for the mere fact of their whiteness. I can understand the emotional response—the sense that one is being “labeled” as racist when one feels that one is no such thing. Believe me, I can understand it.

But. But.

Really, “labeling” is the least of our problems. When a cultural disposition is baked in, all the way down, what does this quibbling about “labels” amount to? Nada. Nothing. It’s a side issue. It makes this about *me*, rather than about the people who are desperately pleading with me (and all other well-meaning white people) to get over myself and help them change a system that is inherently unfair.

malesincThe color of my skin means (objectively) that I can waltz through my life without worrying that my skin color marks me as worthy of suspicion or worse by law enforcement and others. Sure, I may not be overtly “racist”, which is what most white people who protest that they’re not racist mean when they say this. But that doesn’t magically excuse me from being implicated in the institutional apparatus of racism that results in black men being incarcerated at dramatically higher rates than white men (1), black people being shot by police at a higher rate than whites (2), and black children being deprived of the educational opportunities and resources that might provide some sliver of hope for them to find a place at the cultural table (3).

If we look at the sociological data in this country objectively, we cannot avoid the conclusion that the U.S. is still functioning with an inherently *structural* racism. Those of us who are white, who clearly aren’t harmed by that structure, and who can even be said to benefit from it, needn’t flagellate our individual selves when we see this (i.e., feeling *guilt* isn’t the point), but we really should open our eyes, be *honest* with ourselves about the advantages that we enjoy that are not enjoyed by our black and brown neighbors, and support those who are working to make this ostensible “nation of laws” a more just and equal society.

(Data referred to above: (1) Incarceration: http://bit.ly/1vluzkf ; (2) Police shootings: http://bit.ly/1CV3fML ; (3) Unequal educational opportunities: http://wapo.st/1viEFBd)

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To Kill a Mockingbird is Apropos Again. And Again.

To Kill a MockingbirdIt is about justice for Michael Brown. Even more, for many, it’s also about preventing future Darren Wilsons. And I believe that in order to do that, we have to work hard. Everyday. To confront our own biases (yes, you) and to demand that our institutions do so as well. And we need to ask, as Jem does in To Kill a Mockingbird, “How could they do it, how could they?” again and again even as we try to work it out.

I find solace through information, and by trying to dig down to the humanity and empathy, I will hopefully discover there. Here is a start: Grand Jury Document analysis. I found this link via Yamiche Alcindor’s Twitter stream. And NPR is analyzing the documents in real time.

There can be understanding without acceptance. And through understanding HOW or WHY and injustice, an abuse, has occurred, we can start to prevent it. Because it will happen again. It’s happening right now.

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Glad I Saw It: Dresses for Dancing

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Yesterday, as my daughter and I walked around Nutley waiting for a birthday party to finish, we came across Shall We Dance. My daughter was entranced by the sparkle and fringe in the window, so we went in. It was busy with customers, and a dance program was playing on a television, and we wondered aloud about the many colors and styles and the tiny finger ties to keep sleeves in place during performances. It was a lot of fun! I highly recommend stopping in — and the sale rack has some great options for a fancy New Year’s Eve (or WTF, I’m wearing this!) outing.

Have a few minutes to spare for glam? Take a look at the Facebook photos!

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If you haven’t voted yet, get to it!

VOTE!

Find your polling place here.

For more reticent voters: Find your f***ing polling place. (Language NSFW!)

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