The Invisible Mom

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In the 1980s television series thirtysomething, the character Elliot Weston complains to his best friend and business partner Michael Steadman that they have become “invisible to teenage girls.” That remark really resonated with me as a new mother whose body was now a soft and nurturing landing place for my infant daughter instead of a curvy and sexy one men might find attractive.

That feeling of invisibility has changed over the years as my children have grown and I have experienced a different way of being invisible to teenagers. As a mom, I’m sort of like Mt. Everest – never-changing, solid, and just there. Immersed in their world of Snap Chat and Instagram, my kids seldom really notice me, except when they’re hungry or need money.

I’ve felt that same sense of invisibility in the hallways of the local high school. On the few occasions when I have been there during the school day, I will be walking down the hall and hear all kinds of profanity being shouted between teens who are blissfully unaware of the middle-aged woman in knee-length skirt and sensible shoes. It’s a bit jarring to hear, as is the sight of boys and girls canoodling in corners. This is their world, and I am just a vapor floating through it.

Still, there are some benefits to being invisible to teens. As frequent chauffeur for my kids and their friends, I have the ability to be a fly on the wall, listening to their teasing, gossip, and teenage patois, all while being perfectly unseen. The only way to break that spell of invisibility in the car is to interject my own comments, so I have learned to be the silent specter getting a glimpse into the teenage world.

On my recent visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, puppeteers did a skit depicting the story of a man gifted with a cloak of invisibility. Thus clad, the man was able to escape Death, who roamed the Earth ceaselessly in search of souls. Harry Potter himself uses the cloak to defeat the powers of evil represented by Lord Voldemort.

Invisibility can be both blessing and curse. It can hurt to be ignored by others because everyone wants to feel important, to feel recognized. I sometimes get annoyed or hurt by my kids’ seeming indifference. But invisibility can also be a gift, wherein one can be a spectator in life, observing, noticing, and learning.

I’m keeping my invisibility cloak handy for that next chance to gain insight into the world of my teens and their friends. Who knows what fascinations I may find?

No News Is Good News

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My daughter is on spring break this week, so we are enjoying the beautiful weather in sunny Florida. Yesterday, we spent the entire day at a theme park, away from real life and immersed in the fantasy worlds of Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, and King Kong. So it was jarring to come back to the condo and hear the news emanating from our television set.

When I am away, especially in a relaxing place like Florida, I forget about the outside world. The daily newspaper doesn’t arrive here, and I’m not in my regular routine. Instead, I am slathering myself with sunscreen and hitting the beach or pool with a water bottle and a good book. It’s a great, albeit temporary, existence.

My husband the news junkie never likes to be far away from the world’s events, so I make a conscious effort to avoid the TV and tune out the radio in order to take a break from the news. As much as I care about what is happening in my country and in the world, I sometimes need to get away from the constant strife that is the bread and butter of journalism. After all, I’m not the president, so I don’t need to deal directly with any major crisis that might occur.

Taking a break from ordinary life is restorative. Here I don’t have my mountains of paperwork, house to manage, school schedule to monitor. Relationship drama and family squabbles seem very far away. My biggest decision is what to choose from the restaurant menu. I am separated from home by a time zone, but more importantly, from a mental and emotional zone that, short of a life-threatening crisis, I can choose to ignore for a little while.

Still, there’s no place like home. After a week of lounging in la la land, I will start missing my bed, my neighborhood, my friends, the routine that grounds me, the news that sparks ideas for my writing. But for now, no news is the best news of all.

 

Hate Has No Ideological Boundaries

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Wednesday’s attack on London’s Westminster Bridge has once again raised the specter of Islamic extremism and no doubt will unleash further animosity against Muslims living in the West. Although British authorities believe the terrorist, who died in the attack, had acted alone, ISIS claimed responsibility for inspiring the terror that killed 4 and seriously injured many others.

Without minimizing the effects of ISIS’s promulgation of hate against the West, I hope cool heads will prevail and leaders will not overreact to this instance of “lone wolf terrorism.” The truth is that hate, while inconsistent with the beliefs of any major religion, is unfortunately a universal emotion that plagues the human heart, and practitioners of religions ranging from Islam to Christianity to Buddhism have used a twisted take on their religious beliefs to justify their hateful and terrorist actions.

How else to explain why an Israeli Jew was just arrested for spreading bomb threats throughout U.S. Jewish centers? An attorney for the unnamed Jewish man is claiming mental instability as a cause for the cyberterrorism that has “sent a chill through the American Jewish community.” (Chicago Tribune, Friday, March 24, 2017)

And one need not go back very far to find instances of right wing Christian terrorism, such as the Planned Parenthood attack by Robert Dear or even the massacre of blacks in South Carolina by KKK admirer Dylann Roof. These individuals espoused extremist Christian ideology that justified attacking abortion providers and those who are not white.

Our great religions have striven over the centuries to inspire, comfort, and guide human beings in their quest for meaning. Many sacrifices and acts of heroism were guided by people’s religious beliefs. For example, numerous Christians acted to save Jews from the holocaust during World War II.

But humans being human, there are those among us who, for whatever reason, allow hate and anger to be the guiding forces of their lives. They also seek meaning in religion, but they must twist it to their violent desires.

At the risk of sounding trivial, the story of the Stars Wars saga puts it well: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to the dark side.”

We will not solve the problem of hate crimes and terrorism by unleashing more hate or violence. We can only do that by strengthening the forces of love and community that might help turn some of these marginalized individuals away from violence and help them gain a sense of purpose that comes from healing, not hurting.

Sadly, GOP Will Always Be With Us

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The Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare has been very revealing. As members of the House of Representatives discuss the American Health Care Act, or as one Chicago Tribune reader cleverly named it, “TryanCare,” the true colors of the Republican Party are being shown to the public.

Rep. John Shimkus, for instance, wanted to know why men should have to pay for prenatal and childbirth coverage. Aside from the fact that such a question shows a total ignorance of how insurance policies work, Shimkus’s comments reveal  his selfishness. “What’s in it for me?” should be the new GOP national slogan.

Republicans are simply tone deaf when it comes to ordinary Americans. Rep. Jason Chaffetz suggested that people might be able to afford health care if they simply refrained from buying such luxuries as an iPhone. If only a year’s worth of health care insurance cost $600, Jason! But what disgusts me is the likes of this privileged politician whose health care is paid for by taxpayers showing condescension toward Americans who are struggling to make ends meet.

Rep. Roger Marshall was even worse, misrepresenting Jesus by quoting from the Bible, “The poor will always be with us.” Say what? I’m pretty sure Jesus did not mean that we should ignore the poor since we’ll always have them to kick around. Marshall continued to dig his own grave by saying that poor people don’t take care of themselves and don’t really use health care services except in emergencies. That’s because until Obamacare, they had few decent options for obtaining regular health care services, you heartless buffoon.

There is a persistent theme among Republicans that people are poor because they are lazy and don’t want to work. Such attitudes go back, at least in my memory, to the Reagan era, when the black welfare queen was the image of poverty favored by the GOP.

The irony of all this is that Paul Ryan, architect of the new health care law and would be destroyer of Medicare and Medicaid, would not be where he is today if the Social Security system had not helped him and his family after the untimely death of his father. If we examined all the ways “corporate welfare” and other preferences made the fortunes of so many Congressmen and women, they would be hard pressed to defend their ruthless attacks against struggling Americans.

I’ve read that no one in the GOP wants his or her name on the new health care bill. I’m not surprised. I have a suggestion. Let’s call it the Ebenezer Scrooge Health Care Law and give Republicans a big fat “Bah, humbug!”

 

Where There’s Smoke

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Darth-Smoke-lThroughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Republicans kept trying to find a smoking gun to indict Hillary Clinton. Investigators combed through her emails, and her family foundation came under scrutiny. It all amounted to very little, but with the help of FBI Director James Comey, Clinton’s campaign was hobbled by allegations of misconduct.

Now we have high level members of Trump’s  Cabinet who have been less than forthcoming about their meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and conservatives are trying to act as if that’s no big deal. Pundits on Fox News have been pointing out that Kislyak, a fixture at Washington gatherings, would have spoken with any number of Trump’s campaign supporters in the regular course of social events.

There are a few things wrong with this attempt to downplay Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s interactions with Kislyak. First of all, these men were not chatting about the caviar at a Washington social event. They met privately with Sislyak on more than one occasion during the presidential campaign and then failed to reveal those meetings during their Cabinet post hearings.

Furthermore, Kislyak is considered the “eyes and ears” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Therefore, any conversations American political candidates and their surrogates might have had with Kislyak should give us pause. These were not government officials doing official business with the Russian government. They were supporters of an unabashedly pro-Putin candidate, so their actions merit the scrutiny they are receiving.

What’s more, the fact that Trump’s advisers were speaking to the Russian ambassador during the campaign is germane because U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed Russia’s meddling in the campaign and its clear preference that Donald Trump and not Hillary Clinton be our next president. In other words, these weren’t meetings that happened in a vacuum.

If it were to be found that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government during the presidential campaign, that would be grounds for impeachment. The American people deserve to know whether that did or did not occur. If the Trump Administration has nothing to hide, it should welcome an airing of these issues. I truly wish more Republicans would demand answers on the nature and extent of Donald Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. Doing so would go a long way toward reassuring the American people that our leaders expect honesty and transparency and will not allow a foreign government to have influence in our democratic process.

 

The Spectacular Now

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Chicago’s Art Institute recently announced that it will soon be displaying the world-famous painting known as Whistler’s Mother. The portrait, known as the “Victorian Mona Lisa,” features the simple composition of an older woman sitting in profile and looking ahead. While most portraits depict an individual head on, Whistler’s painting almost looks as if he were catching a glimpse of his mother in repose.

What strikes me when I gaze at Whistler’s Mother is her absolute stillness. While most mothers are busy doing, this portrait seems to capture a woman simply being.

In our modern age, it is a radical move to practice simply being. While life can only be lived in the present, human beings persist in either dwelling on the past or looking to the future. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal puts it,

The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.

Pascal’s statement reminds me of playing pretend with my siblings when I was young. One of our favorite games was called “Journey,” in which we pretended to be pioneers getting ready for a journey out West. But our play consisted entirely of preparation: collecting our stores, readying the wagon etc. We seldom, if ever, got started on our journey.

I am particularly prone to this future-leaning tendency. My mind is always scanning the horizon for what comes next. I need to plan. What items does my daughter need for school? What holiday do I need to prepare for? What am I serving for dinner? I make notes and lists for myself. Obviously, some planning is necessary. We can’t simply hurtle from one moment to the next without being aware of our schedules. But we tend to be so fixated on the destination that we don’t enjoy the journey.

My family drives through Michigan on a regular basis to visit relatives in Detroit. Our goal is always to get there as quickly and painlessly as possible. I have often fantasized about getting in the car with my children and starting the drive, but instead of high-tailing it to the Motor City, we would stop whenever and wherever we wanted to. A detour to the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan or a winery or the now-closed Kellogg’s Company attraction, Cereal City: we would take our time and just enjoy being together.

What is more likely to happen nowadays on a trip with my children is that they will be submerged in their music and their smart phones, barely glancing up to notice natural scenery or the skyline of a new city. Last fall we brought my youngest with us to visit her brother in college out in California. We tried interesting her in the look and feel of the campus, but she was 2,000 miles away, communing with her friends back home.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have diversions, especially for young children on a long car trip. But I feel we have lost something in the process: an appreciation of the here and now. For my part, I would like to practice the stillness and “being-ness” of Whistler’s Mother. Perhaps her age-old wisdom would help me dwell in the spectacular now.

Glimmers of Hope

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ct-jewish-cemetery-vandalized-20170222Lisa See’s memoir On Gold Mountain describes the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. After the law passed prohibiting Chinese nationals from obtaining visas to come to America, racist hatred of the Chinese escalated into terrible violence against Chinese immigrants. That history so closely parallels Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban that it is scary. Even before the president instituted a ban against travel from 7 Muslim-majority countries, indeed immediately following his election, verbal and physical attacks against Muslims increased. Trump’s angry rhetoric about non-whites also awoke latent anti-Semitism in this country.

Yet with all these unwelcome developments since November 8, 2016, I see some glimmers of hope. First of all, the courts immediately struck down Trump’s initial ban, and I have hope that they may see his latest attempt as equally unconstitutional. The Administration has hidden behind vague and unspecified threats to American security in order to justify the ban. Perhaps the cooler heads of the judiciary will see through such tactics.

I have also noticed that Americans are standing up to the hateful racism that has become more overt since the November election. For instance,  when an airline passenger asked a Pakistani couple, “That’s not a bomb in your bag, is it?,” nearby passengers alerted the flight attendant and the racist man was booted off the flight. As he and his female companion gathered their belongings, passengers jeered, “This is not Trump’s America!” and “Goodbye, racists!”

Those “up-standers” were not unique. As a white male terrorist shot and killed two men of Middle Eastern descent at a bar, another white man came to their defense, getting shot himself. Thankfully, this up-stander is recovering from the gunshot wound.

Similarly, when the headstones at a Jewish cemetery were desecrated and knocked over, Muslim groups collected funds to repair the damage, and people of many religions and ethnicities gathered to do the work. People have also been taking it upon themselves to remove Nazi and anti-Semitic graffiti from subways and other public spaces. Such actions make me hopeful and remind me that the vast majority of Americans are decent, well-meaning people who will not stand by while others are subject to hatred.

Even in Republican states, lawmakers are showing some reluctance to further the divisive agenda of Donald Trump. Although Trump rescinded the executive order regarding transgender bathroom use in schools, proposed state anti-transgender bills have been facing intense backlash. These states are learning the lesson of North Carolina, which has lost quite a bit of revenue since passing its famous “bathroom bill.” Numerous sports organizations and other groups are refusing to hold events in the state until that bill is revoked. Once you hit them in the pocketbook, even the most conservative Republicans may yield to public opinion.

Finally, I recently read an article about white extremist “recovery” programs such as Life After Hate. Run by former white supremacists, Life After Hate seeks to help extremists leave behind their abhorrent ideology and find belonging with others who had learned to channel their anger into hatred of the “other.”

To be sure, we need to remain vigilant about attempts to undermine civil liberties in our country. We need to keep standing up for those who are attacked because of their race, religion, or gender. We need to remember our history and vow to do better than our predecessors at championing tolerance. Let’s not slide back but move forward proudly and compassionately to show the world that the greatness of America resides, not in our power or military might, but in our hearts and minds.