The Resonance of Two Tiny Words

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When I was a young teen, I was walking alone on a street in my safe, suburban town when a middle-aged man in a white sedan pulled up alongside me. He stared at me out of his rolled-down window and said, “Would you have sex with me for $100?” I fled. A few years later during my college years, at my summer job in an insurance agency, the boss called me into his office on my last day of work and made me kiss him on the lips.

These unpleasant memories have come back to me as the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal has lit up the news and social media. Weinstein joins a long line of men who have used their power to sexually prey upon women. Thus when actress Alyssa Milano wondered what would happen if all women who had been sexually harassed posted “Me, too” to their Twitter accounts, social media exploded with those two seemingly innocuous words.

It is hard to have grown up in our culture without having experienced unwanted sexual attention from men: catcalls and wolf whistles, boys rating girls’ attractiveness as they walked down the halls of school, groping and leering. In the Sixties and Seventies to which Weinstein alluded in a lame attempt to justify his behavior, treating women as objects was commonplace. A cursory viewing of the TV series Mad Men has such verisimilitude that it’s enough to give women my age unwelcome flashbacks. The workplace was particularly daunting for women. For example, flight attendants were subject to weight requirements, and women could be fired from their jobs for becoming pregnant. Employers openly told their female employees that men were paid more because they had to support families.

While women have made many strides in society, their characterization as sexual objects persists. Although Weinstein’s detractors are many, some noted celebrities have come to his defense. Woody Allen, for instance, complained of a “witch hunt” atmosphere in which a guy couldn’t even wink at a woman (or child, in his case) without getting into trouble. That’s right, Woody. We don’t want your winks – or pinches or whistles or any other demeaning or sexist gestures. You see, we are human beings, not your fantasy objects.

Mayim Bialik also completely missed the point by claiming that unattractive actresses (presumably herself) are not harassed in Hollywood. Bialik clearly thinks that Weinstein’s (and O’Reilly’s and Roger Ailes’s and Bill Cosby’s …) predatory behavior was about sex. But for sexual predators, it’s all about power. Objectifying women and threatening their careers if they don’t “put out” are ways of keeping women in their place. And judging from the “Me too”s all over Facebook and Twitter, women in all walks of life have been subject to this same power game.

There are laws on the books to protect victims (both male and female) of sexual harassment. The problem is that a code of silence often prevails, and those in power buy the silence of their victims. It is easy from the outside to say that these actresses should have gone public immediately to stop the predatory behavior of Michael Weinstein. But in an industry as difficult to succeed in as is the entertainment world, it’s understandable why women would choose not to rock the boat. And it is maddening that in the 21st Century women should need to call men out on this dehumanizing behavior.

I am currently reading a book titled Get Savvy: Letters to a Teenage Girl About Sex and Love by Kathleen Buckstaff. In the book, Buckstaff reveals her own emotional struggles after being sexually abused as a teenager at an East Coast boarding school. Like many victims, she kept her abusers’ secrets, but the emotional fallout led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adulthood. Clearly the stakes are high in our culture for victims of sexual predators.

We need a sea change in our attitudes about gender roles, power, and sex. But first we need to break the code of silence and tacit acceptance around sexual abuse and harassment. And maybe it starts with saying, “Me, too.”

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Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian World

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Eggers-Simon-Atwood_CSLA2017_JustinBarbin-700x477At last week’s Carl Sandburg Literary Awards event in Chicago, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s writing was described as “speculative fiction,” as opposed to science fiction. That distinction is an important one. Margaret Atwood’s futuristic worlds are terrifying precisely because they could actually come into being.

I have been reading Margaret Atwood’s fiction since the late Eighties, when I was introduced to her novel Cat’s Eye in a book club. Atwood’s iconic The Handmaid’s Tale, however, launched her into both the public eye and the world of dystopian fiction. A book as darkly prescient as the classic 1984 and Brave New WorldThe Handmaid’s Tale imagines America as a repressive Biblical theocracy in which women are reduced to their role as bearer of children, more incubators than mothers.

With the increasing erosion of women’s reproductive rights and Trump’s recent directives concerning contraceptive coverage in health insurance, it’s frightening to see how the religious right has influenced government policy to the detriment of women’s freedoms. Yet the handmaids in The Handmaid’s Tale resemble women in repressive Islamic regimes as much as anything, which makes a pointed statement about the dangers of mingling church and state.

Atwood’s more recent fiction includes the MaddAddam trilogy, a glimpse into a pre- and post-apocalyptic world in which global warming has made the Earth a merciless oven, a madman has wiped out most of the world’s population with a virus, and our obsession with technology has created real world, violent “painballers,” genetically modified pigs with cunning human brains, and drones that spy on citizens.

In The Heart Goes Last, civilization has almost completely broken down, and people take refuge in a corporate nightmare where they reside in a prison for half of their time and a controlled, monitored “town” for the other half. I won’t reveal the meaning of the title, but it’s not pretty. Once again, Atwood zeroes in on our autocratic tendencies, the dangers of uncontrolled corporate greed, and our obsession with mass incarceration of our citizens.

Yes, the world painted by Margaret Atwood is surely a scary one. But there is a dark humor in her writing that make her novels so enjoyable to read even a sthey are scaring the bejesus out of us. Atwood, who appeared at the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards event as an award recipient, is a sly, funny, and acerbic woman. As much as I dread the world her dark intellect conjures, I can’t wait to read her next masterful novel.

Baby Driver

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9181272874_b1b53bb1f8_bMy youngest child got her drivers license the other day.  After a lot of angst and more than 50 hours of practice driving (Be still, my heart!), we made our way to the DMV for the dreaded road test. My husband, who is generally calmer in the car than I, was supposed to take my daughter, but he chickened bailed out at the last minute. Yet as I sat on the hard plastic chair in the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, it felt fitting to be there waiting for my fourth and last child to go through this particular rite of passage.

I’ve always gotten excited about firsts in my children’s lives: first word, first tooth, first day of kindergarten etc. But I don’t really have a corresponding nostalgia for “lasts” in the way some parents do: last first day of school, last school dance, and now last child to get a new drivers license. Sure, I shed some tears dropping each of my three older children off at college, and I do miss seeing them on a day to day basis. But I’m too happy about all the new and exciting possibilities in their lives to dwell too long on the losses.

After what seemed an interminable wait, my daughter walked in alongside the road test evaluator. I couldn’t read her expression. The evaluator handed her a piece of paper as I walked towards her with a half smile and a tentative thumbs up. She nodded and grinned. “SUCCESS!!!” I texted my husband. My daughter regaled me with the finer points of the road test while we waited for her to have her picture taken and get her temporary license. Then she drove home, not as a practice driver, but as a newly licensed one.

There will be many more rites of passage for my youngest child to go through: ACTs, college applications, prom, graduation. And I will be there right alongside her, savoring each “last” in my life while welcoming all the new things awaiting her in the great big world of adulthood.

 

The World in Black and White

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When I was about 9 years old, our family got our first color television set. It was a wonder to us and a plague to my father, who spent endless hours trying to get the color adjusted properly. People on early TV shows always looked orange or green, it seemed, but it was exciting to see the television world full of color. It was like that moment when Dorothy gets deposited in Oz, and she steps out into a new and beautiful world.

The advent of color TV coincided with a flowering of expression and political activism in the United States. The civil rights movement had given birth to the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the beginning of a larger push toward affording blacks equal rights to whites. Growing unrest over US involvement in the Vietnam War led to protests and violent clashes with police. The late Sixties was the time of hippies, free love, and drug experimentation. Many in America, youth in particular, rebelled against the homogeneity and conservatism of the 1950s.

The Fifties were a prosperous time for many, and after the deprivations of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II, Americans naturally craved comfort and security. The problem was that nonconformity was frowned upon, and prosperity and security remained elusive for blacks. So although some of the unrest and unruliness of the Sixties was negative, overall the era brought about progress for women and minorities.

Trump’s America seems to be a return to black and white. So much of his political platform and presidential agenda are designed to turn back the clock on civil rights, reproductive freedom, and freedom of expression. During the campaign, for instance, he called nonwhite immigrants criminals, rapists, and terrorists. He questioned the validity of Barack Obama’s U.S. birth certificate until late in the campaign. He said that women who had abortions should be punished and bragged about grabbing women’s genitals against their will. This was dismissed by his supporters as “locker room talk.” It seemed clear to those not dazzled by his reality TV fame that his slogan “Make America Great Again” really meant “Make America White Again.”

As president, Trump has put his reactionary views into action – decreeing a de facto travel ban on foreign Muslims, appointing an anti-civil rights attorney general, removing the contraceptive mandate from Obamacare, calling for a ban on transgender individuals in the military. He has made both veiled and overt threats against press freedom and taken exception to NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem. He has called these peaceful protestors “sons of bitches” while refusing to condemn white nationalists marching in Charlottesville and shouting slogans such as “Jews will not replace us.”

Seeing things in black and white is an apt metaphor for both the conformist Fifties and today’s politically polarized environment. It is incredibly depressing to see the hard-fought gains of the Sixties and Seventies being undone by the current administration with the complicity of the Republican-dominated Congress. I can only hope that the many Americans who have grown to love a world of color will rise up and demand that our country move forward, not backward, in the advancement of freedom and human rights.

Why Trump’s Words Matter

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At a press conference in Puerto Rico, where President Donald Trump had flown to view the devastation first hand, Trump made a lame joke about the island’s recovery wrecking the federal budget. Along with his remarks about Hurricane Maria not causing as many deaths as did Katrina in Louisiana over a decade ago, the president’s remarks were criticized as callous and unpresidential.

It may seem picayune to quibble about every word that comes out of the president’s mouth. Indeed, many conservatives paint Trump as a “can’t win for losing” figure. His off the cuff manner and refusal to keep his less seemly thoughts to himself actually appealed to many voters during the campaign. But now that he is president, Trump needs to mind his words. As the leader of the United States, he has the responsibility to understand that what he says has the power to hurt or heal our nation.

Most of Trump’s remarks concerning the devastating aftermath of Maria on the island of Puerto Rico consisted of his praising his own administration and, by extension, himself for their handling of the crisis. More ominously, any criticism of that response, such as the impassioned outcry from San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, was met with denunciation by Trump and the usual accusations of fake news leveled at the mainstream media. In other words, if you don’t prostrate yourself in homage to Trump and his administration, Trump will attack and attempt to discredit you. These are the actions of petty tyrants, not democratically elected presidents.

I have a Facebook friend who relentlessly attacks the mainstream media as being completely false and lying about Trump whenever anything negative is reported about his words or actions. This attitude is the direct result of a relentless campaign to preemptively discredit any negative news or opinions about our president. Again, I would expect this kind of tactic in an autocracy, but not in our country.

Donald Trump does not have to be the most polished speaker. I don’t care if his vocabulary is less than professorial. But Trump’s Twitter attacks, his callous remarks, and his constant insistence on praising himself are indicative of the kind of man we have elected to lead our country. His words do matter. And I shudder to imagine what he will say in Las Vegas.

Be the Bad Guy

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A recent report from our local high school indicates that 60 to 75 lunches are dropped off per day by parents whose kids either forgot them or wanted a hot lunch from a takeout place. The report was the school’s way of explaining why they have instituted new policies surrounding the epidemic of parental coddling.

I must admit that I have dropped off lunches, fees, homework, and any number of items to my kids at school over the years, resenting their irresponsibility as well as my own inability to say no. When I read the story about new lunch drop-off policies, I thought to myself, I wish the school would just stop allowing parents to drop off anything to their children during the school day. It would be so much easier to let the high school be the bad guy.

There’s the rub. It is not much fun to have to be the bad guy in our day to day parenting. It’s much easier and more pleasant to be the wise and understanding mentor and quasi-friend to our kids. I imagine myself as a sort of Lorelei Gilmore from The Gilmore Girls, joking around, sharing musical tastes and clothes with my teenage daughter, much too young and cool to do anything as unpleasant as instilling discipline.

The reality is that I have to rain on her parade numerous times a day. Nagging her to get off her smartphone and get to her homework, insisting that she go to bed at a decent hour, making her wear her retainer: it’s all in a day’s work for a parent. And in more important matters, it’s even more essential to be the bad guy. Our kids have always given us a lot of flak for checking with their friends’ parents to make sure there will be adult supervision when they go to their homes. And grounding them for staying out past curfew or doing something dangerous or illegal doesn’t win us any popularity contests either. But as Glenn Close’s character in The Big Chill tells her daughter, “I’m your mom. When you’re a mother, you get to be mean.”

Although it’s difficult, I keep reminding myself that kids need and actually want limits, and my husband and I are their number one gatekeepers. I also remember that in Gilmore Girls, Lorelei is blessed with a near-perfect daughter who at times is more mature than her mom. And sometimes even my kids appreciate our roles as heavies. I’ve always told them that if they are in an uncomfortable situation or don’t want to do something their peers are pressuring them to do, they can make us the bad guys.

As for being my teenage daughter’s  “gofer,” I guess it’s up to me to be the bad guy and let her be hungry next time she forgets her lunch.

Creature Feature

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meadow-micePeople who say they’d never hurt a fly are lying. When I see one of the six-legged disease carriers salivating on my kitchen counter or, worse, my food, I have no compunction about hauling out the swatter and ending that creature’s already short life. The same goes for other bugs who have the nerve to invade my house. Sure, I’ve been known to trap the odd spider in a cup and usher it back into the great outdoors. But for the most part when it comes to vermin in the house, my policy is “No mercy.”

There are, however, many distasteful critters that are protected wildlife and not so easy to rid oneself of. For instance, a hapless vole (a tiny version of a mole) made its way into our basement. I’m sure we completely freaked it out with our screams of terror. When I summoned the exterminator, he informed me that he could not kill said vole. Rats and mice were in his purview but not, apparently, voles. So my husband gamely caught it in a shoebox and took it to the woods where I hope it lived a long and happy life.

Recently I noticed that the exterior of my house looked as if I had started to decorate for Halloween. There were huge spider webs in every nook and cranny, in the corners of the windows, and dangling from the light fixtures. So I got out my broomstick (I’m a good witch) and started knocking down the diabolical insect traps wherever I found them, sending giant, monstrous arachnids scurrying into dark corners.

At the corner of my porch, I noticed that something had been digging a hole underneath the steps and immediately suspected the mother raccoon and her babies I had spied one morning moseying around in our backyard. I found a company called Critter Detectives, which came out and set a humane trap at the mouth of the hole. Sure enough, a couple of days later, I found a huge raccoon lounging in the trap. My critter detective came out, removed the trap, and set a new one. A few days later, Rocky’s friend also succumbed to the bait that looked like marshmallows, and it too was caught in the trap.

This seemed to solve my raccoon problem, as subsequent traps yielded no prisoners. But in our backyard we had an old wooden shed I had long suspected of harboring unwanted wildlife. So I called a landscaper and asked him to have his workers come out and dismantle both the shed and the 23-year-old wooden swing set that has been a lawsuit waiting to happen.

No sooner had the crew opened the doors of the shed but a huge and very pregnant skunk came waddling out. I have to give the workers credit for their bravery, as they gave the critter a wide berth but continued to dismantle the wooden structures. Mama skunk wandered away but kept returning to figure out what had happened to her cozy nest. I must confess that I felt a little guilty evicting her in her delicate state.

I recognize that we share our world with many types of creatures and need to respect their roles in the circle of life (even the flies). And while I’d never be named PETA’s Woman of the Year, I would also never needlessly cause an animal pain. I’ve learned that even exterminators have soft spots. Years ago when I found that a mouse had been making a nest in our outdoor gas grill, I called one of the big pest control concerns. The man they sent out opened the grill cover and saw that the mother mouse had given birth and that there were now about a dozen baby mice nesting there. His reaction was to leave them alone rather than obliterate them. “After all,” he reasoned, “they’ll be on their way as soon as they are big enough to travel.”

While my husband teased the “big, bad exterminator,” we acquiesced and allowed those critters to hide out in the grill for as long as they wanted. (Needless to say, we didn’t have any barbecues for a while.) I just hope those mice didn’t become someone else’s critter problem later on.