I’m Disappointed

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I’m disappointed that Hillary Clinton recently came out of virtual seclusion to hawk her book rather than to lead the resistance against the Trump Administration.

I’m disappointed that President Trump treated an appearance at the site of massive flooding in Texas as another campaign rally: “Look at the crowd; look at the turnout.”

I’m disappointed that petty Americans are spending their time criticizing Melania’s choice of footwear.

I’m disappointed that Berkley antifascist groups used violence to counter a white supremacist march.

I’m disappointed that deniers refuse to concede that climate change might possibly have something to do with the heaviest amount of rainfall ever to fall on the 48 contiguous states.

I’m disappointed that even a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey can’t seem to bring our country together.

Life is just full of disappointments. And yet . . .

Online and on TV, I am seeing first responders and volunteers helping residents of Texas escape the floodwaters. Everywhere from furniture stores to churches are opening their doors to shelter the displaced. In my home town, residents are making plans to collect needed supplies and drive them down to the Houston area. Donations are pouring into relief agencies.

The innate goodness in people seems to be taking over. I am going to choose to ignore the hate and snark and acrimony that is ever present on the internet these days, find out how best to help others, and go do something.

 

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Back to School Reading

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As kids head back into classrooms, they will undoubtedly be given plenty of reading assignments as well as suggestions for educational and wholesome titles to read on their own. But I’d like to recommend some slightly edgier children’s literature that will appeal to kids’ more devilish, irreverent side.

Everyone is familiar with Maurice Sendak’s classic misbehaving kid, Max, in Where the Wild Things Are. But there are plenty of other literary children who give adults – and readers – a run for their money. Even the youngest of preschoolers will appreciate the high jinks of the title character in David Shannon’s David series. Starting with No, David, Shannon portrays a high-spirited toddler who is perpetually getting in trouble. With minimal words, Shannon shows kids that they are loved no matter how exasperating they may be to their parents. Another less than perfect preschooler for young ones to relate to is Kevin Henckes’ Lilly of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse fame. In a series of picture books, Lilly learns about boundaries and how to deal with sibling rivalry.

But the queen of high-maintenance children has to be the irrepressible piglet Olivia, the creation of artist Ian Falconer. Olivia’s mother is continually sighing to her eldest, “You wear me out” while Olivia tries the patience of not only her parents but her beleaguered teacher. Being the mother of an Olivia myself, I’ve really appreciated reading about the challenges of her precocious literary doppelgänger.

Slightly older children will love the Miss Nelson books by Harry Allard. In Miss Nelson Is Back, the sweet Miss Nelson’s absence inspires her students to act up – until her alter ego, Viola Swamp, shows up. “The Swamp” also makes an appearance in Allard’s other Miss Nelson books, always as the perfect antidote to naughty behavior.

School age kids also have plenty of inappropriately funny literature to choose from. One of my son’s favorites was the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey. Pilkey is a seriously underrated children’s author because he writes comic books about two best friends making their way through elementary school while being the bane of their principal’s existence. Of course, the presence of a superhero in “tighty whities” doesn’t help (or hurt!).

Another author who creates school-themed havoc in his books is Louis Sachar with his Wayside School series. Crazy antics and strange teachers abound in this school that extends vertically rather than horizontally. Sachar has also written numerous books for middle school children, most notably the Newberry- and National Book Award-winning Holes, in which troubled kids get sent to an ominous place called Camp Green Lake.

For generations, some of the best children’s authors have recognized that there is a dark side to the world of childhood. From violence-tinged nursery rhymes to the original very Grimm fairy tales, children’s literature gives voice to many childhood issues and fears. A master of that kind of literature was the great Roald Dahl, whose Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was sanitized in the Seventies with the movie Willy Wonka. Dahl’s young characters are relentlessly plagued by mean or downright evil adults, even witches. Their heroic efforts to escape are a regular theme of his works.

More recently, Lemony Snicket (pseudonym of writer Daniel Handler) has created a world of peril for the Baudelaire orphans, rich children whose guardian, Count Olaf, constantly schemes to get his hands on their inheritance. And of course, it goes without saying that the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are destined to become classics.

Sure, there are many inspiring works about good and wholesome children for our kids to read, among them Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. But for a change of pace, these slightly more jaundiced or sometimes harrowing views of childhood can be fun to explore. And in their own ways, they can teach kids valuable life lessons.

 

 

Taming Political Discourse

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When I first heard that ESPN had asked a reporter not to cover a UVA game because his name is Robert Lee, I’ll admit I found the decision utterly ridiculous. But I was loath to admit it out loud. Why? Because I knew the incident would be trotted out endlessly on every Fox News show and by every right wing politician trying to discredit liberalism.

Such is the state of public discourse today. Non-stop news coverage, political blogs, and social media have made communication a polarizing and fraught enterprise. The brouhaha about Confederate statues is a case in point.

There are legitimate reasons for citizens to call for the removal of statues glorifying the era of the Confederacy, a secessionist movement that amounted to rebellion against the United States. Despite what many Southerners see as an assault on their heritage, there is no denying that Confederate leaders stood for the preservation of slavery and used that cause to motivate Southern forces to fight the North.

On the other hand, there are arguments to be made about keeping the statues, and from my point of view, the biggest argument in favor of leaving statues alone is that we have much bigger fish to fry when it comes to racial justice. Furthermore, the threat of removing them has given white supremacists a cause to rally around, bringing them out en masse with sometimes devastating results.

On the Right, of course, pundits and politicians wonder aloud if it’s a slippery slope from removing Robert E. Lee to getting rid of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. They ridicule calls for defunding the Jefferson Memorial or removing Confederate statues from the Capitol building. Some rightly point out that many Southern Democrats were themselves segregationists back in the day.

This whole issue makes my head hurt. And I feel that it’s a distraction from policy-making in Washington. Republicans have been trying to do serious damage to social entitlement programs. Our president keeps threatening new countries with military action. The Trump Administration is dialing back progress on the environment by refusing to admit to the realities of climate change and by encouraging the revival of such destructive practices as coal mining.

Let’s get back to discussing these important issues in a reasonable and respectful way so that positive change can be made in our society.

Totality

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My experience of the solar eclipse yesterday was underwhelming. With extensive cloud cover over Chicago and a lack of specialty eclipse-viewing glasses, my attempts to spy the moon’s shadow over the sun were mostly in vain. My husband adorably made me a pinhole viewer out of an old Frosted Flakes box, yet all I could really see was a white hazy glow.

Still, yesterday’s event – the first time a total solar eclipse has traversed the continental United States since 1918 – was exciting. For one day, citizens across our vast country were united in enthusiasm and eagerness for the same thing. Political and social strife aside, we collectively looked to the heavens and marveled at the mysteries of the universe.

My husband and I watched the coverage on Fox News and found Shephard Smith to be like a little kid running around the newsroom and forcing his colleagues to keep shouting out “total solar eclipse” at random moments. Interviews with eclipse watchers at various locations where totality would occur found people in festive moods. Everyone from the president and his family on the White House balcony to young school children to Americans of all stripes camping out in Oregon or Carbondale, Illinois, or South Carolina were there to witness the same phenomenon: the moments when the moon was positioned perfectly in front of the sun, blocking out most of the light, dropping the temperature, and revealing stars and planets. Even the International Space Station managed to “photo bomb” the sun as it traveled in space.

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I had read a description of totality by a New York Times Magazine writer, which described the moment as otherworldly. The writer described people crying or shouting and hugging each other after the moments passed and the sun’s light returned. Eclipse chasers go to great distances and a lot of trouble to secure a spot in the path of totality. Here in Illinois, there was gridlock on I-57 as people made their way down to Carbondale, the city that experienced the longest period of totality during yesterday’s eclipse.

I find it comforting that scientists could pinpoint the exact time and location of the total solar eclipse down to the minute. It tells me that we exist in an orderly universe with some predictability. I also find it reassuring that all of us still find wonder and awe in our natural world. A Facebook meme I saw today joked that children everywhere went outside for the first time. My daughter’s entire high school congregated on the football field wearing their ultra-hip safety glasses and looked up to the sky for a change rather than down at their smart phones.

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Mostly, I felt lucky to be alive. I felt happy to be thinking of something other than my own cares and worries, as well as the controversies of our current times. Totality reminds me that we Americans – indeed we human beings – are all in this together. I hope that reminder seeps into our decision-making and our public discourse, admonishing us that “united we stand; divided we fall.”

The Supremacy of Hate

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It hurt my heart to watch HBO’s coverage of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, on its news series VICE. The white supremacists wore their naked hatred towards Jews and people of color as a badge of honor.  While Donald Trump blamed the violence on “many sides,” it was the Unite the Right demonstrators who came armed to the teeth with bats and guns, helmets and shields. They were clearly spoiling for a fight.

Add to the mayhem the sight of a car plowing into the crowd and dozens of injured on the ground crying and screaming in pain. A black woman cried out in anger and frustration that this terror is what she and other blacks live with on a daily basis in an American South that is still nursing its wounds over the Civil War.

Leaders of Unite the Right ominously promised that this was only the beginning of their quest to “take back” the country for like-minded whites. One of them, Christopher Cantwell, spoke of his disgust that Trump would allow his daughter Ivanka to marry a filthy Jew. He proudly displayed the personal arsenal he was bringing to future demonstrations and predicted that many more people are going to die.

I feel as if a time machine has transported us all back to the 1950s. The threat of nuclear war hangs over us as our president gets macho with the unstable North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. And torch-wielding mobs of white men menace Southern towns.

Two days after I began writing this post, another scene of terror unfolded in Barcelona, Spain. The agent of death was the same: a motor vehicle plowing into a crowd. Yesterday 13 people were killed in that horrendous attack, and many more were injured. The terrorist group ISIS has claimed responsibility. Once again, an armed group of (mostly) men expressed their hatred for the “other” through violence and the threat of violence (fake suicide vests).

In my present mood, I am hard pressed to believe that “Love trumps hate.”

 

Swift Justice

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I love Taylor Swift. Not just because she’s pretty and sings catchy pop tunes. But because in her recent lawsuit against a radio DJ, she stood up for everywoman. Yesterday, a judge awarded Swift the symbolic one dollar she sought from David Mueller, a Denver radio jock, for sexually assaulting her during a backstage meet-and-greet.

After Mueller grabbed her buttocks at the event, Swift and her mother complained to the radio station management. She did not file criminal charges against Mueller or tweet about the incident to get public sympathy or support. But Mueller was fired and decided to sue Swift, her mother, and others for setting out to cost him his job. That’s when Swift decided to countersue.

The judge found that the alleged assault had indeed taken place and dismissed Mueller’s original suit. But not before Mueller’s lawyer tried the time-honored technique of blaming and shaming the victim. First he questioned why she did not do anything at the time of the assault and why no one else noticed it happening. Her answer to the latter question is priceless: “‘The only person who would have a direct eye line is someone laying underneath my skirt, and we didn’t have anyone positioned there.'” (“The essential part of Swift’s court case,” Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune, August 15, 2017)

Then the lawyer tried to make Swift feel guilty about Mueller’s having lost his radio DJ job. Again, Swift stood up for women everywhere when she replied,

“I’m not going to let you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions – not mine.” (Tribune, Aug. 15, 2017)

Taylor Swift has the money, fame, and power to stand up to those who would assault her and to a justice system that allows victims to be publicly shamed for someone else’s abuse of them. In doing so, and in claiming her symbolic award of damages, Swift sent a message to women, courts, and would be sexual predators everywhere that sexual assault will not be tolerated and will never be the victim’s fault.

Thanks, Taylor. I hope you can now “shake it off” and continue doing what you do best: entertaining your fans.

 

 

Is Trump a Racist?

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birthertoon10It seems a pretty open and shut case when answering the question: Is Donald Trump racist? He began his political career, after all, by questioning whether Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya, not Hawaii. His dog whistle campaign to “Make America Great Again” was seen by and large as code for “Make America White Again.” And let’s not forget his references to Hispanic immigrants as rapists and “bad hombres,” not to mention his repeated vilification of Muslims as terrorists.

Since taking office, Donald Trump has only solidified his white supremacist “street cred” by appointing such figures as Steve Bannon as White House strategist and Jeff Sessions, a man condemned by civil rights groups, as attorney general. One of Trump’s first executive orders was to ban residents from 7 Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States. He has increased the detainment of illegal immigrants. He has formed the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, a thinly disguised vehicle for enhancing voter suppression in minority areas. And, of course, he refused to condemn white supremacists for their brazen and violent demonstration at the University of Virginia. Instead, he spoke of the violence “on many sides,” as if calling out bigots and neo-Nazis for the despicable creatures they are is somehow wrong.

Yes, there’s plenty of evidence to conclude that Donald Trump holds racist views. But what if he doesn’t? What if he really doesn’t believe any of the hateful things he’s been spewing since he set his eyes on the prize of the presidency? In a way, that would be worse. It would mean that Trump is cynically stirring up bigotry and hate only to gain and hold onto power. The ruthlessness of a man who believes in nothing except his own financial gain and self-aggrandizement should take our breath away.

Yet White House officials are standing behind the president and making excuses for Trump’s failure to call white supremacists by name. Why won’t Donald Trump excoriate such hate? Well, he’s already raising money for his re-election campaign. He needs those disgruntled whites who blame all of their failures on non-whites in order to win another term. Are we horrified enough yet?