B.F.F.

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It’s my best friend’s birthday today. (No, my best friend was not Adolph Hitler although my kids do think we were contemporaries.)

I met my best friend at the beginning of eighth grade. I was a small, insecure teenage girl who was new to town and the intimidating junior high in which I found myself. She was tall and blond with sparkling blue eyes and a ready smile. Finding ourselves in every single class that eighth grade year, we became fast friends.

Over the years we shared secret crushes, had numerous sleepovers, and spent many of our high school weekends inexplicably dressed in 50s costumes. I was from a family of 13 while she had only her mom, dad, and one brother. We spent many hours in her quiet house, where she annihilated me at the game Stratego.

We stayed friends through college, rooming together freshman year. Our only real arguments were over what music to play on her record player. She favored Aerosmith and Peter Frampton while I enjoyed Elton John and Linda Ronstadt. And even though we pledged different sororities, we still managed to keep in touch.

We have had one major falling out over these past several decades. When we were in our mid-twenties, she became involved in a romantic relationship, and I felt left out of her life. Out of spite, I failed to inform her when my path took me on a move out of state. I’m still ashamed of being so unkind. But true to form, my best friend forgave me, and we reconnected. She even went so far as to visit me during my short sojourn in Florida in the mid-80s.

My best friend has stood up at my wedding, and we have traded photos and stories of our children and our married lives. Time and distance haven’t really changed much about how we relate to each other and how easy it is to be in each other’s presence. At our 40-year high school reunion a couple of years ago, it was almost as if we were still roaming the halls together and gossiping about boys.

So happy birthday to my best friend! You know who you are. I predict that we truly will remain Best Friends Forever.

 

 

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I have been avoiding the comment section of Facebook posts lately. Other than wishing my friends a happy birthday or anniversary, or sending a complimentary word about a family photo, I have tried to stay out of the fray of these comment threads – especially political ones.

First of all, I doubt that my arguments with other Face-bookers will change their minds. Whether the subject is Donald Trump, gun violence, sexual harassment or racism, people have their strongly-held beliefs, and I’m just not going to change them. Worse, arguments on Facebook often lead to ill will. Without the social filter of physical proximity to the person with whom we are arguing, we tend to get more strident and offensive.

I’m also trying to eschew online comments because they are bad for my own mental health. Every time I enter the fray of a heated argument on Facebook, my blood pressure starts to rise at some of the responses I get. The only way to calm myself down is to refer to the point above and realize that my righteous indignation will change nothing.

Still, it’s very hard for me to refrain from offering my opinions. I grew up in a very argumentative household where it was almost a badge of honor to shout the loudest and make one’s judgments heard. Yes, family dinners did often give my poor mother a headache.

Also, I like to think of myself as a maven. I fancy myself in possession of lots of knowledge and wisdom, and I just know others would benefit from my sharing it. Well, in the context of Facebook or other social media, not so much.

So I will continue to work on repressing the need to comment on Facebook posts while still being my friends’ online cheerleaders. It won’t be easy, though. I shudder to think what would happen if I got an account on Twitter.

In Praise of Moderation

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America is a nation of extremes. Either we are subsisting on grass and twigs with the Paleo diet, or we are Supersizing our fast food hamburgers and fries. We can’t just use our phones to stay in touch with each other. We have to have them in our hands constantly to check email or go on social media. And watching a television show or two won’t do. We have to binge watch an entire series in one sitting.

Nowhere is our penchant for extremes more obvious – and potentially more dangerous – than in our politics. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have been skewing far to the left and right respectively in the past several years. The Tea Party movement on the right has pushed candidates with views that go way beyond traditional conservative beliefs about limited government. Tax cuts at all costs seems to be the new Republican mantra, regardless of how severely they will impact the national debt. And the election of Donald Trump shows a disturbing trend on the right to vilify immigrants and minorities, roll back environmental protections, and normalize the white nationalist movement.

On the Democratic side, we see the popularity of socialist-leaning Bernie Sanders and such idealistic but impractical agendas as providing free college for all Americans. And while I personally favor a single-payer health care system such as the ones found in most Western European nations, the hue and cry over the baby steps of Obamacare shows that the country is not ready for quite that massive of an overhaul. I believe that Sanders supporters’ refusal to get behind Hillary Clinton in the presidential election was in part responsible for the election of Trump.

The political polarization is being fed and magnified by social media algorithms and the various websites that have sprung up pushing extreme agendas and often fake news. There is no more talking or meeting of minds. We are simply shouting at each other, and our political leaders are, for the most part, perpetuating the great divide we have between the left and the right.

There needs to be a new movement: not the Tea Party nor the Coffee Party. Let’s call it the Milk Party. Milk is a little bland and unexciting, but it’s also wholesome and nutritious. It builds strong bones and teeth. Likewise, we need our leaders to come together and work with each other. Compromise is not a bad word. As Sheriff Hopper explains to Eleven in Stranger Things, it means “halfway happy.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be halfway happy than completely miserable.

After the recent tax bill passed, legislators admitted that they had not even read it. And already the U.S. Treasury Department is being deluged with complaints about ambiguous language and unintended consequences of the new law. We are paying our government leaders well. I think we deserve better than the dysfunction in Washington, which, contrary to the intentions of the Tea Party, has grown worse.

In short, we need the moderates to stop hiding or being co-opted by the extreme right and left. We need the leaders in the sensible shoes and serviceable haircuts to step forward and lay claim to being the voices of reason in the insanity that has grown up around politics in America.

As in most areas of life – including our diet, exercise, religious practices, child-rearing, and the like – moderation in politics may be the key to saving our democracy.

Guns and (Peanut) Butter

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My son has a life-threatening allergy to peanuts. Ingesting even a tiny amount of peanut protein can send him into anaphylaxis, shutting down his airways and potentially killing him. He and I have lived with this scary phenomenon for virtually his entire life. And even though he is now in his 20s, it still hurts every time I have dinner out with him and he has to inform the server about his allergy.

Early on I learned to read every label of every food item I purchased to make sure there were no peanut products or potential cross contamination that could harm my son. I provided him with safe treats to bring to school so that when there were birthday cupcakes for a classmate, he wouldn’t feel left out.

When my son was first diagnosed, I still kept peanut butter in the house for my older daughter, reasoning that since she did not have the allergy, she should not be deprived. But I learned through some incidents of accidental ingestion on my son’s part, along with scary rides to the ER, that having any peanut products in the house was unsafe for my son. So my kids grew up without peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and have been no worse for the wear.

Of course, if I had my ‘druthers, this scary potential killer legume would be banned from supermarkets, restaurants, and anywhere else food was sold or served. But I realize that is neither practical nor fair. The vast majority of people do not share my son’s allergy and should not be told they can never have peanuts under any circumstances.

Still, I appreciated our schools’ efforts to keep peanut-allergic children safe. In the lunch room, for instance, there was a peanut free table at which my son would sit to eat. When he went away to camp, I worked with the food service personnel to make sure he could eat safely in the mess hall. As awareness has spread about the life-threatening nature of peanut allergies, most airlines have discontinued serving them on flights. Ironically, my airline of choice, Southwest, still serves peanuts but will refrain from doing so if they know a peanut allergic person is on the flight.

I see the parallels in my son’s situation to the issue of guns in America. Although recent calls to repeal the Second Amendment have gun rights advocates on the defensive, I respect the right of law-abiding citizens to own a gun. Still, a household with children is no place for a gun, just as peanuts posed a threat in my family to my son’s safety. And while we can’t completely ban firearms in America, we can take common sense measures to keep people safe, in much the same way that society has taken steps to protect food allergic individuals.

So while the NRA and other gun rights extremists rant about how everyone is coming for their guns, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we take some logical steps to keep people safe from being shot.

Come to think of it, guns are not like peanuts. After all, peanuts are generally a safe and healthy food that can sustain life. In fact, some products made to help malnourished children in developing nations are made up primarily of peanuts. But guns are made for one purpose: to kill or injure a living thing.

So I don’t think passing common sense gun legislation is all that nuts; do you?

Cult of Celebrity

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America’s cult of celebrity is ruining our democracy. Our obsession with being famous brought us the presidency of Donald Trump, a reality TV star more than anything, who gloried in shouting “You’re fired!” each week at a hapless contestant on The Apprentice. Now Trump is playing a high-stakes version of The Apprentice with the highest office in the land.

The ouster of National Security Chief H.R. McMaster yesterday is just the latest in dozens of firings from our volatile president. I used to be worried about Trump’s peopling his administration with military men. Now, as Trump starts combing the ranks of Fox News pundits and resurrecting the career of John Bolton, I’m missing those generals with wistful fondness.

It’s a measure of our fascination with famous people that someone like Oprah is being considered a great presidential candidate in 2020 . And just the other day, Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame announced she will run for governor of New York. Of course, we’ve already had the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in California, as well as the presidency of the late Ronald Reagan, an actor who parlayed his work with the Screen Actors’ Guild into a stint as governor before becoming a two-term Republican president.

I’m not saying celebrities have no right to run for office or that their fame makes them unqualified to hold a government position. But I think that if we continue this obsession with electing people on the basis of their fame, we are apt to have Pauly D. from Jersey Shore as our next president (with The Situation his chief of staff).

I understand that voters are tired of business as usual in government. Career politicians whose every move is calculated against their chances of winning re-election have left a bad taste in our mouths. But we still need thoughtful, principled and knowledgable individuals to make laws and shape policies so that our democracy continues to be the thriving and vibrant envy of the world it has always been.

Politics as entertainment has to go. As volatile as this fledgling presidency of Donald Trump has been, I dread the prospect of seeing the reruns in 2020.

 

Walkout

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180221094543-parkland-other-schools-support-signs-super-teaseTomorrow students in many parts of the country will participate in a national walkout to protest the increase in school gun violence. The walkout is a response to the latest mass shooting to occur at a school: the Parkland, Florida, massacre that killed 17.

What is different about this movement is that it has been started by our children. In the aftermath of the shooting, students at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School held a rally where they spoke out about the epidemic of mass shootings. The public stance taken by these teenagers, many of whom were vilified and accused of being media plants, has inspired students across the nation to take a similar stand.

In my local high school district, there has been a great deal of angst about the district’s response to the planned walkout tomorrow. Parents, in particular, are incensed that the district is not supporting the students’ plan to leave the building for a 17 minute protest. We should be encouraging our children’s passion for an important cause, these parents feel. They worry about the possibility of negative consequences for their children in terms of school discipline.

I wonder, though, if that shouldn’t be the point of a walkout. If a walkout is a school-sanctioned activity, what is the actual meaning of it? If it costs nothing to go outside for 17 minutes and perhaps carry a poster or listen to a fellow student’s speech, why not just hold an in-school assembly on the issue of gun violence and making our schools safer?

In his podcast “Revisionist History,” Malcolm Gladwell makes this very point in reference to recent student efforts to force the administration at Yale University to remove the name of Woodrow Wilson from school buildings, on the grounds that Wilson was an avowed racist who promoted racist policies as president. The students demanded action, yet they were not willing to refuse to attend a school that elevated a known racist.

That may sound like a drastic consequence, but it is only when people lay something on the line that their conviction speaks loudly and effects change. During the 1960s, college protesters braved not only disciplinary action in protesting the Vietnam War, they faced tear gas, arrest, and even, in some tragic cases, death for their convictions.

I’m not suggesting our children face riot police in order to make a point about school violence and the need to change our laws to make schools safer places. And I’m not opposed to school administrations that decide to allow or facilitate their students’ walkouts tomorrow. But I think children and their parents need to be willing to face opposition to stand up for their beliefs.

Whatever happens tomorrow at my daughter’s school and at schools across the country, I hope that the movement marks a turning point in our response to gun violence, not only at schools, but in all places in the U.S. And I hope that, whatever the consequence, my daughter learns something about individual and collective responsibility for making our world a better place.

Everybody Needs a Friend

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I recently found out that my best friend from childhood had passed away in her late teens or early 20s. Kathy and I were both shy little girls, and we gravitated toward each other because of that. When we were young, we were both obsessed with horses and pretended to have stables of them, each with a unique name. As we got older, we’d spend hours in her quiet room (unlike the bedlam in my family of 13) listening to 45 rpm records on her record player.

Although I got along fine with the other kids in my small Catholic school, it was Kathy I spent time with outside of school. Then in the summer before eighth grade, my family moved away. I quickly made a new best friend in the junior high I attended, one whose friendship I have maintained to this day. But I regret how easily I let my friendship with Kathy slip away.

Everybody needs a friend. A friend is a buffer against the harsh realities of life – the pressures of school, the meanness of children, the dysfunction in families. A friend can make us laugh, share our secrets, and have our backs in tough situations. Family is important, sure. But a friend is someone who chooses to be in your life.

Lately I’ve been wondering whether Donald Trump has any friends. He seems like a lonely figure in the White House. I can’t know for sure, but his relationship with his wife seems frosty and with his son, distant. He always seems to have so much to prove, tweeting away at all hours of the night, viciously attacking allies and enemies alike, needing to have the upper hand.

The Parkland shooter didn’t seem to have any friends. There is some indication that his odd behavior made him an outcast. So when he lost his mother, he must have felt overwhelmingly alone. Without a friend to be that buffer against life’s vicissitudes, he turned into an angry and vindictive young man.

Society needs to recognize the danger of looking the other way while kids are bullied, people suffer from depression, and others are raised by harsh, demanding tyrants who leave them feeling unloved. Not having a friend not only affects the lonely person, but can have devastating repercussions for those around him. It’s important to reach out to those on the margins, to those who spend their time building up paranoid fantasies in their minds – before they do something harmful to themselves or others.

I truly hope President Trump has a trusted friend, someone with whom he can laugh and let off steam, someone who can listen and try to understand.

Everybody needs a friend.