St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

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28058365_883296441852265_4748931391964434677_nYesterday, which happened to be both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, a 19-year-old walked into his former high school and shot and killed 17 people, wounding numerous others, with an AR-15 assault rifle.

As I sit here calmly sipping coffee, dozens of family members are grappling with the unthinkable. Because a troubled teenager was able to get his hands on a semi-automatic version of a military style weapon, residents of Parkland, Florida, must face the reality of burying their children and other loved ones.

Since the Sandy Hook tragedy, more than 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings. The Florida incident marks the 18th school shooting in less than two months in 2018. If the cause of all this death were anything but guns, legislators would already have passed numerous laws to safeguard the lives of the American people. Meanwhile, lawmakers in New York are considering a ban on Tide Pods because they look too much like candy, despite the fact that there were no fatalities reported last year from the ridiculous “Tide Pod Challenge” idiotic teens were participating in.

Suffice it to say, we have our priorities screwed up in this country.

Yesterday evening, it was standing room only at my church for the annual Ash Wednesday Mass and distribution of ashes. For some reason, Ash Wednesday services seem to be more well attended than any other events in the Catholic Church. The ashes are meant to represent both our mortality and our sinfulness – and to encourage repentance.

As a nation, we need to repent our inactivity in the face of evil. We need to atone for the countless preventable deaths due to gun violence.

The only way to effect common sense gun legislation is to elect local, state, and federal officials who are not beholden to the gun lobby. Decades ago, Mothers Against Drunk Driving began an effective campaign to strengthen drunk driving laws and save lives. We need to join the Moms Demand[ing] Action for Gun Sense in America and fight for legislation that will protect us from this uniquely American scourge.

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Alternate Reality

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MadHatterSignpostDHThe other day I overheard Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson getting indignant over a New York Times story revealing that U.S. intelligence officers had paid $100,000 to a Russian operative for dirt on Donald Trump. Curious, I pulled up the actual Times article and read that the intelligence community paid the money to retrieve stolen NSA cyber weapons, not intel on Trump. The article specifically stated, in fact, that the officers did not want any “dirt” on Trump during a presidential election. This is the alternative reality that Trump apologists like Carlson have created – aided and abetted by a behemoth of an organization called Fox News.

The whole so-called political scandal inside the FBI is a creation of the right wing establishment and Fox News, who have been desperate to deflect attention from the very serious Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Instead of welcoming the truth, conservatives want to taint any findings that might come out of that investigation by claiming that the investigators themselves are all politically motivated.

The problem is that millions of Americans get their news from Fox, including the president himself. This leaves us in an Orwellian world where truth is a function of what one believes, not of what can be factually demonstrated. We should have been more frightened back in 2016 when Kellyanne Conway blathered about “alternative facts.” So between a steady diet of Fox News and an algorithm on Facebook that presents them with only pro-Trump, anti-Hillary/Obama/Democrats information, Trump supporters can live in their own alternate reality.

I’m not claiming that the editors of other news organizations are always free from bias. But I have never seen the deliberate omission and/or twisting of facts to fit the right wing, pro-Republican narrative as I have witnessed on Fox News. Even when something negative happens, such as the drastic drop in the stock market last week, Fox News calls it a “correction,” whereas in the Obama era, it would have been considered a sign of the president’s unfitness.

And when I hear people I know murmuring about “the Deep State” or referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man,” I realize the extent to which Trump and his own special news network have infected the American consciousness. Conservatives mocked Hillary Clinton back in the day when she referred to a vast right-wing conspiracy against her and her husband. But after a brutal presidential election that featured relentless attacks against Hillary and investigations prompted by conservative groups like Judicial Watch, I have to say I find her theory much more plausible.

Liberals and conservatives will never see eye to eye on all the issues. That’s what makes the political system interesting and vital. But if we can’t even agree on what constitutes reality, we are in danger of becoming a society in which the loudest and most well-financed voices are the only ones we hear.

 

 

Ice Queens

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The Winter Olympics have started, and that has turned my attention to the only event I actually follow during the weeks-long spectacle: women’s figure skating.

Years ago, my oldest daughter and I were captivated by the likes of Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes, and the adorable Sasha Cohen, all of them American figure skaters chasing a gold medal. Following in the tradition of American Olympic gold medalists such as Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, and Kristi Yamaguchi, only Sarah Hughes managed to grasp that gold ring. Still, their graceful performances on the ice were magical, and we even bought tickets to see them skate on their post-Olympic tour.

Beyond the beauty, elegance, and athleticism of these masterful skaters, their personal stories are part of the magic. This year’s crop of American Olympic hopefuls all come from ordinary, even humble, origins, and their fierce drive to succeed can be seen as against the odds.

Bradie Tennell is from my own home state of Illinois. The daughter of a single mom, she started begging to be taken ice skating at the age of 2. Unlike Tiger Woods’ father, Bradie’s mother only reluctantly allowed her daughter to enter the world of competitive ice skating. And as opposed to many Olympic hopefuls, Bradie has had the same coach for the past 10 years. That coach, Denise Meyers, refers to Bradie as “a scrapper.” Bradie Tennell stunned the competitive figure skating world by becoming the gold medalist at the U.S. Championships this past January.  Her climb to a spot on the U.S. Olympic team is considered a Cinderella story. Another heart-warming part of that story is the fact that United Airlines plans to fly Bradie’s mother and brothers free of charge to South Korea so that they can see her compete.

Mirai Nagasu is another U.S. ice skater who is more than familiar with hardship. Her parents are Japanese immigrants who work long hours running a restaurant in Arcadia, California. Mirai credits her parents’ hard work and sacrifice for her successes as a figure skater and her dream spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Mirai is best known for executing the difficult triple axel, a feat that she will try to accomplish in the PyeongChang Olympics this month – and a feat no other American figure skater has accomplished in the Olympics. And while her parents have seldom been able to attend her skating competitions due to the demands of running their restaurant, they will be on hand to watch her potentially make history in South Korea.

Karen Chen rounds out the list of U.S. Olympic hopefuls in women’s figure skating. Her championship medal at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and the bronze she won in this year’s competition make her a definite contender. Like Mirai Nagasu, Karen’s parents are immigrants, in their case from Taiwan. But unlike the other two skaters on Team USA, Karen has an Olympic gold medalist in her corner: Kristi Yamaguchi, who hails from the same hometown of Fremont, California, and has become a mentor to Karen. According to Karen, Kristi routinely signs one of Karen’s ice skates before a competition for good luck. And at a mere 5 feet tall, Karen’s favorite quote is from Shakespeare: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Although none of these three skaters is expected to medal in this year’s Winter Olympics, it will be enjoyable to watch them skate and to cheer for them, knowing their back stories and their hard work to achieve excellence. Two Russian figure skaters, Evgenia Medvedeva and Alinas Zagitova, are apparently the ones to watch this year in PyeongChang. Having been exempted from the ban on Russian athletes enacted after the doping scandal at the Sochi Olympics, they are sure to have something to prove as they compete with other young women from around the world.

As snow blankets my world here in Chicago, I’ll be happy to curl up in front of the TV and see the grace and skill of these young figure skaters. May the best women win!

 

 

 

 

A Woman Scorned

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When convicted sexual abuser Larry Nasser used the quotation, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” in reference to his victims, there was widespread incredulity and revulsion. Nasser’s implication that somehow young gymnasts were complicit in his manipulative and abusive behavior was horrifying – but nothing new.

For centuries and in cultures the world over, women have often been blamed for their own victimization at the hands of men. At the extreme are the traditions of many African and Middle Eastern cultures, wherein if a woman or girl is raped, the only way she and her family can avoid shame is to have her marry her rapist. Victims of human trafficking are likewise deemed damaged goods and whores regardless of the fact that they gave no consent to the sexual abuse.

As women come forward with their stories of sexual harassment, molestation and outright rape by political figures, college athletes, media figures, and Hollywood moguls, it seems hard to believe that there are so many predatory men in the world. And yet our culture permits and even condones such behavior.

One of the problems is simply that young girls and women are not believed. As far back as 1990, Nasser’s victims had complained to school officials at Michigan State University about his inappropriate touching. Administrators simply could not believe that a man of Dr. Nasser’s stature could perpetrate such acts. Disbelieving victims goes a long way toward enabling predators to continue their despicable behavior. When the perpetrator of the violence is a person of standing in the community, that standing takes precedence over the safety of the victims. One need look no further than the massive sexual abuse that took place for decades in the Catholic Church to see how difficult it is for victims to come forward and be believed.

The other problem in our culture is perpetuating the myth that men are natural sexual predators, and women are their prey. Long before the Harvey Weinstein revelations, casting couch sexual shenanigans was a common trope. It was widely believed that starlets and young women in many occupations used their sexuality in order to get ahead. Instead of maligning the men who used their power to intimidate and coerce these women, cultural scorn was heaped on the women themselves. This tendency to blame the victim explains why so many women went for years without disclosing the terrible things that had happened to them at the hands of men like Weinstein.

As proof of my point, there is already a backlash developing against the #MeToo movement. Men (and no doubt some women as well) are complaining that demanding a greater accounting of their sexual behavior is a buzz kill in the bedroom. Many point to the story of Aziz Ansari and his unsavory but not necessarily criminal behavior with women he dated as an example that the #MeToo movement has gone too far. After all, Ansari is considered a “nice guy.” How could such a nice guy be held culpable for disrespecting women?

But that is precisely the point. If the “nice” ones cause that much discomfort in a romantic encounter, imagine how scary the truly predatory and sociopathic ones are. We need a sea change in our attitudes about men, women, and sexuality. Clearly, the sexual revolution has done nothing to erase outdated stereotypes.

But there is hope. Women and men who are victims of sexual abuse are demanding an accounting. They are speaking out and expecting to be heard and believed. Certainly compared to a few decades ago, awareness of sexual harassment and appropriate workplace behavior has made many employment situations better for both men and women. Even Disney reconfigured their Pirates of the Caribbean ride to get rid of the pirate chasing a “wench” around and around, ostensibly to catch and rape her.

Laws are important, and law enforcement needs to improve to recognize and prosecute sexual misconduct. Similarly, organizations such as schools and universities need to recognize the problem and prioritize human rights over reputation. But the real change will come when we start to believe sex should be a mutually desirable and consensual act and not a conquest.

 

 

Blessed Solitude

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There are few things I treasure quite as much as solitude. Being alone with my thoughts has always been an important part of my life.

When my children were young, the only sure place for some alone time was the bathroom. I would close and lock the door and gather myself for whatever the day held in store. Even then, my kids would find me, pound on the door and wail piteously, as if they might never see me again.

I mentioned in my last post that I had difficulty napping when I was young. Looking back, I see that maybe I had outgrown napping but my mother needed us to spend an hour in our rooms away from her so that she could enjoy some moments of solitude.

I have always been an introspective person, so solitude provides me with the time and space to think, imagine, puzzle out a problem. And I enjoy many of the activities that go along with solitude: reading, writing, working on a crossword puzzle. The absolute quiet in my house right now as I write this gives me a sense of peace. I’m content, not lonely.

Of course, as with everything else, with solitude there can be too much of a good thing. When my husband and kids leave me alone for a few hours, a day, or even overnight, that’s a rare treat. But when they are gone for days, I start to miss them. I rattle around the empty house and feel a little unmoored.

Solitude feeds my inner life, and that includes spirituality. Without some quiet time, it’s impossible to hear the “still, small voice” of God. It’s impossible to pray. As Psalm 46:10 puts it, “Let be and be still, and know that I am God.”

My solitude gives me a chance to fill up the wells of my mind, heart, and soul. Filled to the brim, I’m prepared to be engaged in every aspect of my busy and wonderful life.

 

The Magical World of Children

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Children’s literature and films are rife with stories about magic: from ancient fairy tales to the 1,001 Nights to modern day blockbusters such as the Harry Potter series. A world in which magical things can happen appeals to the imagination of children in part because of their natural wonder at a world that seems big and mystifying.

Thus the appeal of the magical worlds described in such works as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Magic Treehouse series, to name just a few. Although these fantasy worlds can be scary at times, they are also filled with such wonders as a chocolate river, talking animals, caves filled with gold and the like. It’s no surprise that in Alice in Wonderland, the titular character is nodding off with boredom during a history lesson when she spies a mysterious white rabbit and follows him down a hole into Wonderland. Charlie Bucket of Chocolate Factory fame also longs to escape a rather poor and dreary existence by entering the wondrous world of Willy Wonka.

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Indeed, magic in children’s stories serves as a form of wish fulfillment. For instance, in Edward Eager’s Half Magic, a group of siblings discover a magic coin that they use to make wishes, to both comical and disastrous effect when they realize the coin will only grant half of their wish. Their adventures serve as a diversion from their life with a strict nanny and absent parents. Similarly, in the stories of “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” the main characters are poor young men who find riches beyond their wildest dreams.

Many characters in children’s literature use magic to escape terrible childhoods. In Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, James is an orphan being raised by a pair of abusive aunts when he discovers said peach, climbs aboard, and escapes his tormentors. The same is true for young Harry Potter, who is forced to live with his cruel aunt and uncle after his own parents are killed. When dozens of owls bombard Harry with invitations to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it’s a dream come true. In C.S. Lewis’s iconic Narnia series, the children are escaping the fears of a world at war and the loneliness of being separated from their parents. For the children of A Wrinkle in Time, magic is a way to save and bring home their missing father. All these works speak to the normal fears and anxieties of children, for whom the world is often a scary and confusing place. And they give children something that may be missing in their own childhoods: hope.

Children especially seem to love books that take the whole magic story line one step further: that is, the children themselves discover their own magical powers. Matilda, another Roald Dahl classic, features a young girl whose powers help her overcome negligent parents, nightmare teachers, and schoolyard bullies. In Escape to Witch Mountain, two orphaned children with extraordinary powers discover their origins and the place where they truly belong.

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And, of course, there is Harry Potter, the main character in one of the most beloved series of books ever written. Harry discovers that he is a wizard and that there are many other children who have the same types of powers he has puzzled over for years. Over seven books, Harry Potter enters the world of Hogwarts, faces unimaginable perils, and learns to use his powers for good.

The success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series comes from her keen awareness of the tribulations of childhood. For children, whose world is largely beyond their own control, the idea that they may have it within themselves to escape their fears, shortcomings, and circumstances is a powerful one indeed. As Percy Jackson, a boy who discovers his father is Poseidon in The Lightning Thief, puts its, “The real world is where the monsters are.”

 

 

 

Early Riser

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There are two types of people: those who get up at the crack of dawn and those who don’t. I have always been in the former category. Even as a teenager, that notorious somnolent period of life, my idea of sleeping in was rising around 8 am. And in college, I hated that all the bar-hopping and party action began well after 10 pm. I wanted to go out at 7:30 and be home and tucked in before midnight.

One of my problems is that I do not nap. As a little girl, I remember lying on my bed in the bright afternoons and trying to will myself to sleep. But I would toss and turn and get incredibly bored until my mom decided it was okay for my sister and me to get up. The only time I can recall longing for a nap was when I had small children whose sleep schedules kept me up half the night.

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“The early bird catches the worm” is a famous aphorism. I don’t know about the worm, but I do feel more productive when I wake up early and get a few things done. I like to write in the morning, and morning is when I am most likely to go for a walk, do chores around the house, pay bills, make phone calls.

There’s something lovely about being awake when most of the world around you is asleep. I love rising at dawn and watching the vague outlines of nature come into focus as the sun makes its way into the sky, trailing orange and pink hues. The stillness of morning is a quiet and prayerful time for me. Being a naturally ruminative person, I find the stillness and freshness of a new day inspiring.

As I write this, the sun is brightening the world around me. Some vestiges of snow sprinkle the lawn. They will be gone by late afternoon as temperatures improbably climb into the 50s on a January day. On mornings like this, I notice the sleeping buds on the magnolia tree outside my window, waiting for spring. A gentle breeze stirs the stalks of dry and brittle flowers.

Amid all the tensions and drama of my life and the world outside, it’s heartening to see the sun’s reliable trajectory in the sky. It’s a new day, and I’m happy to be awake and alive.