Sad Day for U.S. Women

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The Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe V. Wade, the landmark ruling on abortion, came down yesterday. Anti-abortion groups have been actively working toward this day for the past 50 years. As a Catholic, I should be celebrating a victory for life as the Church sees it. But I cannot celebrate when the decision means that countless children will be born into poverty and a bleak future. I can’t be happy that victims of rape may be forced to carry the child of their attackers. And I’m troubled considering all the women who will risk their lives getting illegal abortions in states where it is banned.

Because make no mistake: women will continue to have abortions. Wealthy ones will find ways to have their doctors perform the procedure for them. But poor women, already at risk in a country that struggles to provide adequate health care for them, are likely to choose dangerous methods to rid themselves of an unwanted pregnancy – just as they did in the years before Roe V. Wade gave women autonomy over their bodies.

Let me be clear. I am personally opposed to abortion. I adhere to the Catholic Church’s stance that life begins at conception and that every life is precious. But my religious beliefs should not form the basis of public policy. In the past 30 years, Christian groups have made inroads into laws and government regulations as our highest court in the land has moved toward the Right. Public funding for abortion has been banned. Companies have been given the right to deny insurance coverage for contraception to their employees. Religious schools are on the brink of receiving taxpayer money. But let’s be real. These encroachments upon the separation between church and state have favored Christians, not other religious groups. These policies are a direct assault on the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The hypocrisy also kills me. At the same time that the Supreme Court is acting to curtail women’s rights, it has affirmed the rights of Americans to carry weapons of death wherever they please. Just weeks after 19 schoolchildren were massacred, the Justices saw fit to rule in favor of gun owners. Many of the same people who vehemently oppose abortion vehemently support unfettered access to guns. How can these people say with a straight face that they are “pro life”?

I would love to see a world in which abortion is unnecessary and unknown. Yet many religious groups oppose contraception, which over the past decades has caused a dramatic drop in the number of abortions. The Catholic Church often talks about the “greater evil” in matters of morality. Clearly the greater evil for Catholics is abortion. Why not, then, support women’s access to reliable means of controlling the number of children they have?

Women have made great inroads in society since the advent of legalized abortion and contraception. Their ability to decide when to have children and how many to have has been key to their success in the workforce and in positions of power. Yesterday’s ruling endangers the progress of half of the U.S. population. Is that really the legacy we want to pass down to our daughters?

Stuff Dads Do

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Me and My Dad

The following is a highly idiosyncratic, opinionated and probably sexist list of Dad behavior based on my personal experience as both a daughter and wife:

Dads like to sit down. Whether it’s hours on the couch watching TV or long afternoons outside on a rickety patio chair with a beer bottle in hand, the dads I’ve known have enjoyed nothing more than relaxing on their keisters while chaos reigns around them. The sitting Dad is an ideal target for sleeve-pulling, head-rubbing, and climbing on his lap for attention and cuddles. Some of my favorite pictures of my husband show him on our couch, remote in hand, with one of our babies or toddlers, both of them staring open-mouthed at the television set.

Dads can tune out the aforementioned chaos. We used to test my Dad when he’d be lounging in his La-Z-Boy with the newspaper. “Dad,” we’d chime, ” there’s a giant bug on your head.” Or “Dad, your feet are on fire.” “Dad, I’m going to go out and play in the street.” To all of which my dad would peacefully mutter, “Mmm-hmm,” never once letting his eyes leave the paper.

Dads have an uncanny ability to rile the kids up just before bedtime. Whether tossing shrieking little ones into the air or making silly noises and faces to make their kids giggle uncontrollably, dads have a tendency to descend on the household at night and playing the conquering hero to their children’s delight and their wives’ disgruntlement. “Keep her up until I get home,” my husband used to plead with me over the phone as I blearily tried to manage a few more hours of tending to our first-born, desperate to put her to bed and relax.

Dads tell bad jokes. My father loved corny jokes and puns. (I think I inherited this trait from him!) He’d play the part of a medieval king and cackle maniacally while pretending to pick up his dinner with his hands. My mother was never amused. He sang, “She has freckles on her butt. She is nice, she is nice,” and then chuckle proudly. Judging from all the “Dad Joke” memes I see on Facebook, this trait of fathers seems almost universal.

Dads have a weird fashion sense. At least my husband does. He wears what my kids call “groutfits,” garbed head to toe in gray. He’ll go out in public in baggy sweats and a polo shirt. My kids love to mock his favorite ratty sweatshirt, which makes him look truly down and out, especially when he hasn’t shaved in a few days. Luckily, he can clean up well on special occasions. But mostly he’s mastered the “hobo chic” look.

Dads know mountains of sports statistics but can’t remember their kids’ birthdays. Sometimes even their names! How many times did my father stumble through the list of his progeny before getting to “Mary” when addressing me. Dads are also hard of hearing. They never seem to be able to hear babies crying, kids fighting, or wives asking them to do chores.

Dads can open stuff no one else can: jar lids, electronics packaging, stubborn drawers, tight screws. They either have the right tools – Dads collect tools like baseball cards – or else they have superhuman strength that saves the day when Mom is trying furiously to cook for a couple of little toddlers clinging to her legs and can’t open the jar of Ragu.

Dads don’t mind killing nasty bugs. We’ve been dealing with a bit of a stink bug infestation, and my husband walks placidly around the house picking them up and flushing them down the toilet. Never squish a stink bug!

Dads give bear hugs instead of ordinary hugs. They are willing to get down on their hands and knees and let Junior jump on their back for a horsey ride. They give life advice and, most especially, advice on cars. My dad’s first question to me when I was a young adult visiting him was always, “How’s your car running?” He instructed me never to let my gas tank dip below a quarter of a tank and once even had my muffler replaced unbeknownst to me. The result was an engine that purred so quietly I proceeded to lock my keys in the car while it was still running.

Dads are the morning coffee in our lives. We just can’t do without them.

Happy Father’s Day!

The Scary Power of Propaganda

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Fox News hosts have absolutely no sense of irony. On a day when Congressional hearings on the January 6 riot and insurrection at the Capitol are scheduled to be broadcast, morning host Harris Faulkner was dwelling on the actions of a man arrested in D.C. with various deadly weapons who said he was planning to kill Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. While this incident is certainly disturbing and the actions of this man heinous, Faulkner chose to blame Democrats for inciting him to violence. She showed clips of various Democrats denouncing the Justice for supporting an end to Roe V. Wade with dramatic statements such as, “You have released the whirlwind and you will pay the price.”

The irony came in her statement to guest Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), “You’ve given us a primer in the power of words” to incite violence – in this case violence against a Supreme Court Justice. Where were Faulkner’s denunciations of Donald Trump when he gave a speech within yards of the Capitol in which he exhorted his followers to refuse to accept the results of a democratic and lawfully carried out presidential election? How about the power of those words, Harris?

Fox News is, of course, the only major network that will not broadcast the hearings in our nation’s capital. That’s because notwithstanding its name, Fox News is no more a news station than Breitbart or InfoWars. In the Fox News world, the terrible events of January 6 were a minor kerfuffle. Violence only happens in Democrat-controlled cities. Mass shootings are never the fault of guns, only people with mental health problems and, in the case of the Uvalde shooting, cowardly police officers. You know they are desperate to deflect when conservatives go after the cops.

Some of the things that come out on Fox News would be laughable if they weren’t so dangerously skewed against balance and objectivity. For many people, Fox is their only source of information. Therefore, they are filling their brain with a steady diet of bias and misinformation. As the events of January 6 showed, such misinformation can tip the balance in our democracy and open the doors for mob rule.

I hope the facts that come to light during the Congressional hearings give the majority of Americans a clear picture of what happened on that fateful day in January – and open the way for serious consideration of how to protect our fragile democracy.

Teachers Touch Lives

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As the school year winds down and teachers turn out the lights in their classrooms for the summer, I find myself reflecting on the many teachers, good and bad, I have known throughout my life – and the impact they can have on the children they teach.

In the past couple of months, two teachers from my past have died. They couldn’t have been more different, yet thinking about them has given me a renewed appreciation for one of our most difficult yet important professions.

James Berger was my high school French teacher for three years. To his students he was known as Monsieur Berger (pronounced bear-zhay, s’il vous plait!) A flamboyant character in the classroom, M. Berger was definitely one of a kind. I must admit I grew tired of his teaching after three long years with him and his regular pronouncements, such as “C’est fini les comedies francaise!” when he was angry with an unruly class.

And yet I was surprised to learn about his multi-faceted life upon his death at age 90. For instance, he was born in Deadwood, South Dakota, a seemingly improbable origin if you knew him. He was in the army as a young man and obtained a masters degree from the prestigious Northwestern University. He also spent summers perfecting his French in Quebec, France, and Belgium. Had I known just how accomplished he was, I might not have been so mercilessly mocking of his quirky style in the classroom. Most importantly, the many facets to M. Berger’s life remind me that teachers are so much more than the image they project in the classroom.

Another teacher who passed away recently was my son’s beloved fourth grade teacher Danny Riehle. Mrs. Riehle was a tiny, pixie-like woman whose smile always lit up the room. She gently and expertly guided her students with innovative lessons and plenty of hands-on learning. Her “living classroom,” a beautiful garden on the grounds of the school, is a lasting testament to her visionary approach to teaching. To this day, students plant and harvest vegetables each year in the living classroom. They learn about bees and Monarch butterflies and the circle of life in a very tangible way as they get close to nature.

When my son was in fourth grade, Mrs. Riehle invited parents to come in and read to the class from a book of their choice. My son chose a rather frightening scene from the Harry Potter series for me to read when it was my turn. I remember Mrs. Riehle’s warm welcome and her appreciation of the written word, which was the impetus behind the program. Most of all, her quiet acceptance of each child as a unique gift is what set her apart as a beloved and influential adult in her students’ lives.

This past Sunday, on Danny Riehle’s birthday, her family, friends, colleagues and former students gathered to celebrate in her memory. Like M. Berger, Mrs. Riehle had a full and vibrant personal life alongside her professional one. I was glad to get a glimpse into that other side of this remarkable woman.

Teachers have been under a lot of pressure in the past few decades. The expectations place upon them and the modern-day difficulties thrust upon them make the profession a particularly stressful one. Let’s try to show our appreciation for all they do to nurture and educate our children in this complex modern world. And let’s remember their humanity, the behind-the-scenes individuals we seldom get to know.

Harry Potter and the Choices We Make

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For the few people in the universe who are unfamiliar with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, rest assured that this post contains no spoilers. Twenty-five years ago this June, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (retitled Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S.) burst onto the scene and captured the imagination of the world. Children especially thrilled to the exploits of young wizard Harry and his best friends at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Children are fascinated by tales of magic. With very little control in their own young lives, kids enjoy the idea of waving a magic wand and causing dreams to come true, troubles to be banished, and sometimes vengeance to be served. Harry Potter is appealing because he is like each and every one of us. He has fears and insecurities, longs for love and companionship, gets angry, and can even be cruel at times. This very humanity, and not all the magic spells and strange creatures that inherit the Harry Potter world, are what make the books as compelling as they are.

Very early on in the series, the major theme of the novels is revealed. Towards the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore reassures a troubled Harry, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” The choices Harry makes are at the heart of the seven books in the Harry Potter oeuvre. Harry faces extreme danger, ostracism, and betrayal in his epic battle against arch-nemesis Lord Voldemort. Beset by difficult choices and usually alone in having to make them, Harry continues to choose good over evil, right over expediency. In the final book, his battle against the evil Dark Lord even takes on religious overtones.

Ironically, many Christian churches have denounced the Harry Potter series for its depictions of magic and wizardry. According to the Toledo Library, Harry Potter books are the most banned books of the 21st Century. What critics fail to recognize is that the wizarding world is merely a backdrop to explore Rowling’s themes of friendship, integrity, kindness, and understanding – along with the epic struggle, of course, between good and evil.

The Harry Potter books ask us to consider our choices and what they say about us. I can’t think of anything I’d want more for my children and grandchildren to explore.

Gator Aid*

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I have a new contact in my cell phone since moving to Florida: the Nuisance Alligator Hotline. Now, I don’t live near a nature preserve or the kinds of bodies of water that gators frequent. But after reading numerous stories of alligators near homes and in residential swimming pools, I’m not taking any chances.

Recently alligators in Southwest Florida have been encountered crossing busy streets, approaching residents’ front doors, and in one case, breaking into a garage and destroying a cache of Diet Coke. A pit bull was killed by an alligator in Venice, Florida, after it got too close to the lake where the gator was swimming. In another incident, a photographer lost his Go Pro camera after a gator he was trying to film grabbed and mauled it at Big Cypress National Preserve.

Apparently it’s mating season for the lumbering but scary reptiles. In search of mates, alligators become more active and go from pond to pond seeking their true love. I remember years ago touring a housing development in Bradenton, Florida, and seeing an alligator sunning itself by a small lake on the property. Indeed, reports of gators on golf courses and public roads increase during April and May as the lovelorn creatures roam around looking for a mate.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) actually has a Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program that allows residents to call a hotline and have dangerous alligators removed by trained trappers. The FWC considers alligators more than four feet long and in situations that endanger people or property to be a nuisance. So just in case, I’ve got the hotline number at the ready.

And there are ways to prevent an alligator attack. The FWC urges residents and visitors to keep dogs on a short leash away from water, swim only during the day in designated bodies of water, and refrain from feeding alligators or leaving out food that might attract them. Sounds reasonable enough.

There are many pluses to living in the Sunshine State: warm weather and greenery year-round, access to beaches and the ocean, and the aforementioned sunshine. But oversized scary creatures are some of the drawbacks to life in sunny Florida. Don’t get me started on the snakes and giant bugs!

*Source of alligator information for this article from Sarasota Patch.

Live for Today

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When watching a show on a streaming service, I usually take advantage of the ability to skip the opening theme song. Eager to get to the story, I have a “been there, seen that” attitude toward the opening credits. But there is a delightful exception to this tendency for me: the opening credits of Apple TV’s Korean-and-Japanese-language epic Pachinko.

Pachinko is based upon a phenomenal novel by Min Jin Lee about multiple generations of a Korean family struggling to live under Japanese rule. Their poverty and the discrimination and prejudice they face at the hands of the Japanese make the story a serious and often grim one. Against this backdrop, the opening credits burst onto the screen in a pachinko parlor as the various characters dance exuberantly to the Grass Roots song “Let’s Live for Today.” It was so much fun to see the actors, many of whom rarely crack a smile within the context of the show, let loose and have fun together.

Pachinko is about many things: class differences, exploitation, honor and shame. But at heart, it is a story about resilience and love – and what it means to be a family. The character Sunja, whose story we follow from childhood to old age, rises above her circumstances by sheer will and determination. Yet she never forgets where she comes from or the sacrifices made for her by her beloved parents. Nor will she let her son and grandson forget.

The theme song is a perfect counterpoint to the striving of the characters in Pachinko. Pachinko is a game of chance that resembles a cross between slot machines and pinball. It was one of the few businesses Korean immigrants to Japan could use to pull themselves out of poverty. Yet as a form of gambling, it was looked down upon in Japanese society. Sunja’s son runs a pachinko parlor, and it is this setting that provides the backdrop for the song and the characters’ dancing. Dressed in period costumes ranging from the traditional Korean hanbok to modern men’s suits, the actors cavort singly and together as we hear the lyrics, “Sha la la la la la, live for today.” As a montage of historical photos and videos fills the screen, the singer admonishes,

When I think of all the worries
People seem to find
And how they’re in a hurry
To complicate their minds
By chasing after money
And dreams that can’t come true
I’m glad that we are different
We’ve better things to do
May others plan their future
I’m busy loving you

At the heart of Pachinko is a deep reverence for love and family. The characters try their best both to honor their ancestors and provide for their children in a cruel and inhospitable world. Yet they learn that money is not the most important thing for which to strive. In that sense, the theme song is a perfect expression of one of the story’s main themes. And even in their dire circumstances, they are able to find some joy and beauty, most especially in their relationships with each other.

So while I’m captivated by the story of Pachinko itself, I plan to enjoy every second of the opening credits each week as series proceeds. Here is a glimpse of the fun:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMKjyK3QtVU

Baby on Board

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I just read about a trend in travel that I found interesting and mildly amusing. Parents of infants have started passing out goodie bags on flights by way of an advance apology for the potential mayhem their noisy child might cause. The goodie bags, replete with treats and earplugs, have been met with appreciation and good humor for the most part. Even the Clooneys, who have twins, passed out noise-canceling headphones to their in-flight neighbors when the children were babies. Score!

The whole thing got me reminiscing about the trials and tribulations of traveling when my kids were young. When my oldest was my only, we flew back to the Midwest from L.A. quite a bit and even ventured across the ocean to Hawaii with her. While she was always a pretty content baby, she did have her moments. Back in the day, it was not as difficult or frowned upon to get up and pace the narrow aisle with your fussy baby. I did feel bad for any annoyance we caused, but she was, after all, just a baby. Once at the end of a flight as were were exiting the plane, we met the pilot, who exhorted us to “let her cry. It opens up her ears!” Easy for him to say from inside the closed-off cockpit, I guess.

Once we had two children, the logistics of keeping everyone happy on a plane were more difficult. My son was much more rambunctious than my daughter, and it was challenging to keep him seated for the duration of a flight. One particular time, I was traveling alone with the two children to visit my father in the hospital. I was pregnant and stressed, worried about my dad’s recovery and overwhelmed with the prospect of the cross-country journey. To top it off, the American Airlines plane had taxied away from the gate but then sat on the tarmac for a significant amount of time. My kids and I were in the very last row of the plane, and they were getting antsy. Enter a heroic flight attendant, who actually fired up the oven and made them pizza to tide them over while we waited. Nowadays, of course, there is no food to be found on flights other than a tiny bag of pretzels tossed at passengers during the trip. So those potential goodie bags are looking better and better!

The worst flight I’ve ever had with one of my children, however, was the overnight flight from Guangzhou, China, to Los Angeles to bring our adopted daughter home. Although it was the middle of the night and she had started a course of antibiotics for an ear infection while still in China, my daughter could not sleep. She would drift off for 15-20 minutes and then wake up screaming. Severely sleep-deprived, I paced with her, cried, and prayed the horrible flight would end soon. By the time we landed in L.A., I was a zombie, and my husband accused me of leering crazily at a celebrity we saw at baggage claim.

I guess my point is that, as uncomfortable and annoying as it might be to listen to a crying or whining child on a flight, it is much harder for the parents of said child themselves. Trying to care for little ones who have not yet developed a sense of proper etiquette in public – and doing so in a tiny space crammed with human beings – is stressful, to say the least.

Still, preemptive attempts at good will by way of apology goodie bags is not a bad way to start one’s journey with young children. It can build a sense of camaraderie and recognition among passengers that we are all in this together. And it can makes the skies a little friendlier for all.

The Whole World In Our Hands

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“To me, this is so much of life: holding the really beautiful things and the deeply cruel, profoundly hard things in the same palm.” – Suleika Jaouad

I found this profound statement so fitting to the state of our world right now. Suleika Jaouad knows whereof she speaks. An accomplished writer and speaker, Jaouad has battled leukemia at a young age and continues the fight at the same time as she has shared her creativity and positive outlook with others. From her hospital bed she exhorts followers to explore their creative sides, practicing what she preaches by taking up watercolor painting in between cancer treatments.

Not all of us are dealt equal hands in life. But every human being experiences joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy. It is this reality that Christians focus on during the Lenten season, as an instrument of torture, the cross, becomes a symbol of joy and salvation. It is a deep mystery how such opposing realities can exist.

Every day brings fresh horrors out of war-torn Ukraine. Burned-out neighborhoods, mass graves and evidence of torture are among the terrible scenes being uncovered as a ruthless dictator ravages a free country. Our hearts go out to thousands of refugees who have had to flee their homes and seek refuge across the border in unfamiliar lands. Yet even in the midst of war, humanitarian organizations are braving the war front and bringing in supplies and medical assistance. The world has rallied around the Ukrainian people with shows of support and respect for their unique culture and people. In the darkest times, there are always those with the courage and selflessness to reach out and help.

On a personal level, so many people are struggling with illness, financial hardship, violence, racism, and a myriad of other problems. It is up to each of us to do what we can to alleviate pain and to let others know they are not alone.

News just broke that Suleika Jaouad had married her long-time romantic partner Jon Batiste. As Batiste made a sweep of the Grammys this past weekend, Jaouad had to content herself with cheering for him from home in order not to risk her own fragile health. Jaouad has written about how much her family, friends, and her beloved Jon have supported her through her ordeals. No doubt their love has helped make a difference in her beautifully uplifting outlook on life. Her example gives me hope for myself in my own trials and for the world. We can all do our part to make it a better one.

Just Deserts

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Today’s Gospel passage at Mass is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible: the parable of the prodigal son. A son demands his inheritance from his father, goes off and squanders it, and returns home desperate, only to find that his father welcomes him with open arms. At various points in my life, I have related to different characters in the story. When I was younger, I thought about the two sons and their feelings and actions. After I became a parent, I identified with the feelings of the father. And while I have learned more about the theological significance of the parable over the years, I usually can’t help but identify with the older brother’s righteous anger. After all, as he angrily tells his father, he was the good son, the one who faithfully stayed and did everything his father asked of him. Yet the father kills the fatted calf and makes a celebration for the wastrel who spent so much of his father’s hard-earned wealth.

As human beings, we want to see people receive their just deserts. We talk about karma and hope it exists to balance the scales of justice in human endeavors. Just think back to your own childhood. If you have siblings, you constantly jostled for material goods, attention, your fair share. I remember my mother pouring out glasses of the rare treat of pop, as we call it in the Midwest, so that each of her children got exactly the same amount. I’m sure she tried her best not to play favorites, but inevitably, one of us would feel slighted by some perceived imbalance in her treatment of us. We would wail, “It’s not fair!” To which my mother would counter, “Life’s not fair.” That simple truth is hard to swallow whether we are children or adults. We long for fairness. And to be sure, we should strive for such an ideal. But the concept that we always get what we deserve is antithetical to reality.

In the story of the prodigal son, the father tries to coax his older son. “‘My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:31-32) The father’s forgiveness and deep love for his children is at the heart of the story. It may feel wrong or even impossible to practice this radical forgiveness. We want people to pay for their misdeeds. That’s only human. Forgiveness springs from a love that transcends the pettier emotions of human beings. And forgiveness ultimately affects the one who forgives even more than the forgiven. Forgiveness, more than revenge or righteous anger, frees us to love and be loved. That is one of the beautiful messages of the parable of the prodigal son.

Let us remember that in matters of human behavior, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” (Alexander Pope)