Reflections on a Race Riot



Baltimore is burning. The recent riots, which followed the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, have sent the media into a frenzy of sensationalism and recrimination. For the most part, black residents in the inner city of Baltimore have been portrayed as lawless thugs eager to destroy property and harm police officers. The much greater number of peaceful protesters was largely ignored, their hand-in-hand march not exciting enough to capture  media attention.

My first reaction upon seeing bricks hurled at police officers and store windows shattered was to agree with the conventional narrative. Of course blacks should be outraged, but this was no way to further their cause etc. etc. But the more I saw and read, the more I realized that I had failed to grasp the anger and hopelessness that led to this point.

As author and activist Kevin Powell wrote, “Any people with nothing to lose will destroy anything in their way. Any people who feel as if their lives are not valued, like they are second-class citizens at best, will not be stopped until they’ve made their point.”

The death of Freddie Gray was not an isolated incident but a pattern of police behavior when it comes to blacks in America. It is a system that must be addressed, that must be rectified. It is ironic that at the very moment in history when we have our first African-American president, the plague of police brutality against blacks seems to be at an all-time high.

Many blogs and photo essays have popped up on Facebook making the point that when whites rampage, break windows, and set fire to cars, it is revelry that has gotten out of hand. When blacks do it, they are thugs and animals. When a white man guns down dozens of people in a movie theater, he is described as a brilliant student. When a black man commits even a much lesser crime, he is described as a criminal or suspected gang member.

I am not trying to excuse violent behavior. I am not saying it is right to burn buildings or loot stores. In fact, I have been disturbed by the almost unanimous public approval for a Baltimore mother shown on camera repeatedly slapping her teenaged son on the head as she dragged him away from the unrest. “Mom of the Year” she was proclaimed. Really? I wonder where her son learned that violence is the answer to problems.

Violence begets violence. When parents beat their children, their children learn to vent their anger with violence. When police officers treat black people as de facto criminals, using excessive force, threats, and intimidation on a regular basis, they are furthering a cycle of violence.

As a country, we need to deal with the endemic problems that create violence and disorder in our society. The answer is not more police or more incarceration. It is not corporal punishment to keep our children in line. The answer is to see our common humanity and to strive to make our country, arguably the greatest country in the world, a place of fairness, prosperity, and justice for all.

For the Birds



Now that spring has sprung, I have taken my walks outside and into nature. I never walk with headphones on because I love the sounds of the outdoors, especially the birdsong.

I got my interest in birds from my father. He used to point out the different varieties of them living in our neighborhood when I was young. I continue to be fascinated by their movements and their songs and the mystery of these creatures living above me in the trees.

In today’s Chicago Tribune, there was a delightful story about a 15-year-old boy named Henry Griffin, who has become something of an expert on birds and who leads bird-watching expeditions around his Oak Park, Illinois, neighborhood. I usually think of birders as older adults with plenty of time on their hands and the inability to sleep past 5 am. Bird watching requires early morning alertness and immense patience, not the qualities one usually finds in a teenager.

Griffin has a birding website, where he blogs about his travels and bird sightings. A musician, he is attuned to birds’ various song patterns and can identify many by sound even when they are unseen. I would love to be able to do this.

Several years ago, I treated myself to a weekend in Tucson, Arizona, at a health spa. One of the activities offered was a morning bird walk. I got myself up early, bundled up, as the desert is quite chilly in the morning, and headed out with my guide. I was the only guest along for the trip. It was so peaceful being outdoors while most of the world slept. The birds, however, were already awake and active. I particularly remember a scarlet-headed one we saw in a remote area amidst dry grasses and cacti.

I’m not sure why I find birds so fascinating. Is it their curious little raptor faces that are so reminiscent of their dinosaur ancestors? Is it the intricate pattern of their songs, which reminds me of my father whistling while working around the house? Or the grace of flight as they soar, dive and rise again? Maybe it’s the flash of color that rewards a persistent bird watcher and the challenge of finding a rare species in one’s environment.

Tradition has it that a cardinal landing in one’s yard is a sign that a deceased loved one’s spirit is nearby. Couples are referred to as lovebirds, and there are popular expressions such as, “Birds of a feather flock together.” The Wright brothers looked to the flight of birds to help them design the first airplanes.

I saw my first robin today, the harbinger of spring. Is it any wonder I look forward to bird sightings?

A Better Man Than I



My husband loves his car. It is sleek and black and purrs like a lioness. He maintains it lovingly, gets it washed regularly, and doesn’t allow anyone to eat in it. So I might have expected him to get miffed when I smashed it into the rear end of a taxi the other day.

It wasn’t my fault! I had just dropped the hubby at his office in downtown Chicago and was heading to our dentist’s office. I was stopped at a light behind a red SUV that happened to be a taxicab. When the light changed, the taxi started forward and so did I. Inexplicably, the taxi stopped, and I didn’t have time to stop before crunching right into it. The sickening thud told me that my husband’s beautiful car had sustained some major damage. I called my husband’s office, my heart in my throat.

He was completely calm and came to survey the damage. The first thing he did was wrap me in a hug and tell me he was so glad I was okay. Then he looked at his beloved car. The front headlights and grill were smashed in, and the hood was bent. It looked like the automobile equivalent of a boxer who has been punched right in the kisser.

Hubby’s reaction? “It’s not so bad.”
“I am so sorry,” I said. “I feel sick about it.”
Still totally calm, he said, “It’s no problem. We’ll get it fixed. I’ll call the body shop and tell them you’re going to bring it in.”

And as simply as that, I made the necessary next moves: calling our insurance company, clearing out the car, and dropping it off at the premier auto body repair facility. Let’s hope it comes out good as new.

My husband and I are like any other couple. We get annoyed over little things, have arguments, and get on each other’s nerves. I don’t handle crises very well, and in this particular instance I made a number of logistical errors that totally inconvenienced him. Yet he never got upset or yelled, something I feel pretty certain I would have done had the tables been turned.

I am grateful for the level-headedness and compassion my husband showed after I wrecked his car, and I only hope I will treat him with equal kindness should the shoe ever land on the other foot.

Taken for Granted


If you are a spouse or a parent, chances are you know what it’s like to be taken for granted. Whether it’s a child who relies on you to bring to school her homework paper that she left at home or a husband who gives you an absent-minded peck on the cheek as he sails out the door for work, your being there is considered a given.

While that can sometimes feel negative, I have to say that being taken for granted can be a beautiful thing. It means people in your life are so secure in your love for them that they don’t need to beg for it or search for proof of it.

Ever noticed an old married couple out for dinner who barely speak? It doesn’t necessarily mean they have nothing to say to each other. It can also mean they are so at ease with each other that they don’t need to fill the togetherness with words. The same is true with my kids. I often drive them, especially my boys, somewhere in companionable silence. Our presence together is all that we need.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to expect respect from our loved ones. I also try to teach my kids to be grateful for the many blessings in their lives and to express their appreciation to us and others. When being taken for granted feels more like being a doormat, it is certainly time to set some expectations for the people we love.

I also think we need to realize that our spouse, child, parent or friend will not always be there and may even be taken away prematurely. It’s important not to assume that our time with them is unlimited. Therefore, we need to try our best to make the most of our days with our family and friends.

But I do want my loved ones to take it for granted that I will always love them and be there for them in the best way I know how.

Unforgotten in “Chiraq”



The statues are eerily lifelike and fully dressed in the clothes young teens might wear. They hold backpacks and guitar cases, stand or sit in realistic poses. But they have no faces, just a blank hole where their heads should be. They are “Unforgotten,” an exhibit dotting the landscape of downtown Chicago.

Each statue represents a young person gunned down in Illinois in the recent past. Their purpose is to highlight the huge loss to our society caused by handgun violence. According to the Chicago Tribune, more than 400 people in Chicago were killed last year.

Such persistent, meaningless violence has led critics to dub the city “Chiraq,” a name that is causing some controversy. As Chicago rapper Aaron Pierce put it, “That name belittles our city, and I feel like it dehumanizes us.” Yet it is the name filmmaker Spike Lee has chosen for an upcoming movie.

Is it fair? Is Chicago a war zone? From the almost daily headlines, it would seem that there is a similarity between our city and a place where terrorism runs rampant. Yet statistically, violence in Chicago “has been on a steady decline since the early to mid-1990s.” (Chicago Tribune)

Perhaps it’s the prevalence of online sites, You Tube videos, and social media that have brought gun deaths to light more and more. More likely, though, it is the proliferation of handguns. According to Joseph Erbentraut in the Huffington Post, while the total number of homicides showed a modest decrease from 2013 to 2014, the number of shootings went up. As Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said with reference to the increase, “If these guys are throwing rocks at each other we wouldn’t have this problem.” (Erbentraut, Huff Post, 12/31/14)

Supporters of gun rights have been the winners in recent years in terms of the lax control on gun sales and the success of open carry laws. But Americans are fighting the trend. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an organization dedicated to stopping senseless gun violence, has been waging a battle in state houses across the country to gain common sense legislation controlling who has access to guns. They are also defeating open carry legislation, especially with regard to guns in schools.

It may be an uphill battle, but many people are saying, Enough is enough. On a recent sunny day, families and passersby wept as they gazed at the hollow statues posed in the St. James Cathedral Plaza in Chicago. It’s time to put a stop to the rampant gun violence in our city, retire the ugly title “Chiraq,” and make sure our children living and dead are “unforgotten.”


Grocery Store Walk of Shame



This morning I ran into a local supermarket for a few items, which I collected in a basket and brought to the checkout line. But as I put my items on the conveyer belt, I was embarrassed to realize that almost all my items constituted some form of dessert. Sure, I had some juicy red strawberries, but I plan to dip those in chocolate. The rest of my items were heavy on the butter, sugar, and chocolate (unless you count the wholesome Lunchable I threw in there for my daughter’s power lunch).

To make matters worse, the woman in front of me was rhapsodizing about all the unidentifiable vegetables she was buying. While she explained how to sauté some healthy creation, I wanted to slink away and abandon my purchases.

I often feel self-conscious about what I am buying when I grocery shop. It is so difficult to load my cart up with vegetables when my family members will barely eat any of them. My teenage son wants meat, meat, and more meat, and he also complains when there are no good desserts in the house. My daughter is better, but she loves certain incredibly junky foods such as the aforementioned Lunchables and pretzel sandwiches with processed cheese inside.

Although my Lenten abstention from eating sweets has made me much more judicious about how much sugar I consume, my active kids can afford to eat it, and I don’t have the heart to deny them the pleasure of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies or a bowl of ice cream.

This morning I also broke the cardinal rule of grocery shopping. Never shop when you are hungry. That may explain the massive load up of carbs at the checkout.

I’m sure I am just being paranoid when I feel others are judging me for the contents of my cart. Once when I was a young teacher, I was hosting a small party, so I went to the local supermarket to stock up on a few bottles of wine. As I headed to a checkout line, I noticed that one of my students was in the line ahead of me. So I made a quick detour before he could see what a lush I appeared to be. It didn’t help that back in those days, the underage cashier would yell, “I have liquor!” at the top of her lungs since she couldn’t ring it up herself. Nowadays the clerks use the more subtle code “21.”

To be sure, there are plenty of times when I stock up on the produce and nonfat dairy products. My family is reasonably healthy and not overweight. So I should probably just relax and enjoy my grocery shopping time.

And if it’s true what they say, “You are what you eat,” then my family and I must be awfully sweet!

A Rape Culture on Campus?



The stunning disavowal by Rolling Stone magazine of an article accusing fraternity members at the University of Virginia of gang rape should give all of us pause about our prejudices and assumptions.

Far from questioning the alleged victim with a critical eye, the reporters and many others, myself included, were quick to judge and assume. The most damaging assumption made was that gang rape is a commonplace phenomenon at fraternity parties.

As an ardent feminist, I have almost always erred on the side on women and the many struggles, prejudices, and discrimination they have historically faced in America. However, this case has made me reflect on my attitude toward men and their sexuality.

The quickness to judge seems to stem from a willingness to paint young adult males as ruthless sexual aggressors who, given half a chance, will have sex with any unconscious female who crosses their paths. In point of fact, however, I don’t know any men who would commit such a heinous act.

Rape is not an act of sex but of power and violence. Although date or acquaintance rape is more difficult to prove due to the possible consensual actions that may have preceded it, the act of forcing a woman (or a man) into sex is still an act of violence. Do we really want to presume that all the men around us are potentially violent predators?

This attitude strikes me as little better than the all too prevalent opinion that women who dress or act provocatively are “asking for it” – that is, bringing sexual violence upon themselves.

As a society, we need to stop conflating sex with violence. This is the problem with the recent film Fifty Shades of Grey. While I am all for people’s freedom to do what they choose in the privacy of their bedroom, I think popularizing sadomasochism with a blockbuster “chick flick” is a bad idea. It gives people the idea that only through violence or the hint of violence can sex be exciting. A recent case at the University of Illinois, in which a student was accused of sexually assaulting a female student during a Fifty Shades– inspired encounter, bolsters my argument.

I was saddened when I saw the most recent attempt by colleges to deal with sexual assault on campus. Ads feature college students and celebrities holding up signs that say, “It’s on us.” But what, exactly, is “on us”? Holding up standards of common human decency? Rape is not a norm anywhere, including on college campuses. I fear the belief that it is normal will only breed a climate of fear and alienation.

I have two daughters and two sons. I hope I have raised them all to be respectful and kind – and certainly nonviolent. Let’s expect that of our young men and women in college. They may just rise to our expectations.

The Democratic Process



It’s election day for many cities and municipalities today. To be sure, there are no major offices for which to vote, such as president, Congress, or governor. Still, in the city of Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel faces a runoff election against opponent Chuy Garcia. And in my own humble suburb, we are voting for, among other offices, our local school boards.

Our high school board election has been the subject of much controversy and a great deal of effort on the part of many, myself included, to campaign for our slate of candidates. While I have always taken seriously my responsibility to vote, during this election I have played a much more active role and it has been very exciting.

Exercising one’s right to vote is not something to take lightly. Yet in many elections, a small minority of eligible voters decides the makeup of city councils, school boards, and other legislative bodies. Even in presidential elections, many people opt not to exercise this all important right.

I still remember seeing photographs of the first free elections in Iraq after the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Voters waited in long lines for hours and proudly displayed their ink-stained fingers for the cameras. I’m afraid that here in the U.S., we take this right for granted.

Today has been an inhospitable day to vote in the Chicago area. It is cold and blustery, and there’s not a ray of sunshine to be seen. Sure, it would be easier to stay inside one’s home or office than to brave the cold and go out and vote. But it is our civic duty  to do so.

After months of political ads, robocalls, and editorials about the candidates and the issues, we the people will be heard through the power of our vote. So if it’s election day for you and you have not yet voted, I urge you to go out and exercise that treasured right.

Otherwise, in the words of some sage, “If you don’t vote, you lose the right to complain.”

New Pass



The New Pass Grill sits on a strip of beach overlooking Sarasota Bay in Florida. A modest shack with a large following, it serves simple fare such as burgers, fries, fish and chips, and beer to the line of people snaking along its deck. Just next door is another shack where one can purchase live bait for a fishing excursion in the bay.

On this Good Friday, I stood in line with the lunch crowd at New Pass and reflected on the great goodness of a savior who would suffer and die an agonizing death for every single soul, even all the oblivious people down here vacationing, overeating, getting sunburned. No one here seemed to be praying or pondering the momentous nature of this holy day.

I should have felt guilty, but all I felt was an inexplicable joy and fondness for all the people I saw eating, drinking, laughing, and talking. Not the personal fondness I feel for family and friends, but a feeling born from the recognition that Jesus loves them so incredibly much that he willingly gave his life for them, whether they pay attention to him or not.

Humans – in all our imperfections, needs, weaknesses and cravings – hold a spark of the divine. Each of us is on a path, a journey that we hope will lead to peace and love.

The sun shone and the breeze blew outside the New Pass Grill as I sat with my two girls on stools facing the sparkling blue water of the bay. I filched fries from their baskets and reminded myself to pray in thanks for the most precious gift I have ever received.

A Good Friday indeed.

Family Vacations: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly



Put six family members on a plane, send them to a beautiful, tropical location for a week’s vacation, and what do you get? Misery. Sounds dramatic and ungrateful, I know. But that has often been my experience on family vacations.

As a child, I seldom went farther away than a small lake in Michigan for holidays. Thirteen of us crammed in a station wagon with no air conditioning and plenty of weekend traffic out to the east of town, where families flock to enjoy swimming, catching minnows, and getting a mean sunburn.

Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I remember those weeks at Van Auken Lake with fondness. We spent hours splashing around in inner tubes in the warm water. The local dogs loved us because we never tired of throwing sticks into the water for them to fetch. I always had a good book to read under the giant weeping willow.

On the other hand, I was not the mom back then. My only responsibility was to obey my parents and, occasionally, my older sisters. Somehow, now that my husband and I are in charge of the fun, it’s not as much, well, fun.

First of all, we are all sharing a much smaller space. Jockeying for position and shower time in the bathroom, trying to dress discreetly, tiptoeing around in the dark so as not wake others up. As an early riser, I was always the parent stuck trying to entertain our young children while hubby slept in. Now that our kids are older, they are the ones grumbling when we attempt to wake them up to go to breakfast.

That’s another difficult part of traveling. Everyone develops his or her own schedule of going to bed, waking up, and getting hungry. We spend fruitless time trying to decide when, where, and what to eat. Some of us are starving while others just ate and are not at all hungry.

Probably the biggest issue for my husband and me is that we both like to be in charge. This works fine at home where he orders people around at work and I am the master of the home domain. On vacation, however, we argue a lot about the best way to get to a destination, the restaurant at which to have dinner, or what the agenda is for the day.

Still, I must admit there are lots of good times to be had on a family vacation. I enjoy watching the kids clown around in the pool or build sand castles on the beach. Souvenir shopping can be fun – until it gets tiring and I need to sit down. Warm weather, great dinners, ice cream cones, and staying up late to watch a movie have all been enjoyable parts of our trips.

And it’s amusing to recall funny events or mishaps that happened on family vacations – for instance, my “heart attack” in Phoenix, Arizona, that turned out to be bronchitis and the disastrous Triple Chocolate Utopia that made my son hurl all over our rental car. (I guess you had to be there.)

As much aggravation as there can be traveling with one’s family, there are also memories to be made, pictures to put in the photo albums, and even essays to write back at school about that ubiquitous subject, “What I Did on Vacation.” At my worst on a family trip, I have been known to make the pronouncement that this is the last family vacation I will ever go on. But my husband and kids know I don’t mean it.

They know that come December, I will be looking out my window at the wintry world and booking our tickets for fun in the sun once more.