My Bat Mitzvah Speech to my Daughter: Storyteller

Emily, the last but not least…

I can’t believe you are 13….and not because time flies, which is true, but because you are a wise story-telling sage inhabiting the body of a 13 year old.

One of my favorite things to hear when you come home from school is: “Mom, I have a story for you.” Or the occasional, “Mom I have three stories for you.” This is after our required routine exchange of: “Emily, how was your day?” and your reply of “Normal.”

Your story-telling gift was evident from the time you were five years old during our bird conversation outside at Flatbranch Restaurant in town. It was a lovely day, and we managed to get one of the coveted outside tables. But you didn’t think it was so great to sit outside. Soon small little finch birds started to flock around our table. You were dodging them and had a frightened look on your face. To ease your worries, I said, “It’s okay, Emily. They won’t hurt you. They are more afraid of you than you are of them.” Without skipping a beat you looked at me and said, in a perfect deadpan inflection, “What if today is the day they decide to face their fears?” I remember pausing for a second to register what you had said. Your dad and I looked at each other with wide eyes and just laughed. How could we argue with that? I mean Alfred Hitchcock called that too… many years before you were born.

At that moment at the ripe old age of five, I knew you were smarter and wittier than I could ever hope to be. And I knew your timing, quick mind, and delivery would make you into a great story-teller. From that time on you have been sharing your daily observations that most people don’t think twice about. You manage to turn those almost imperceptible moments into thoughtful musings and detail filled stories.

My hope is that you continue to keenly observe your world and share your insights with a wider audience to help make the world a better place. Whether it’s analyzing how your P.E. teacher is being sexist by only asking the boys to be team captains or contemplating how to deal with our dog Kirby using the appropriate dog therapy, your perceptions of the world are a daily gift to me and our family…and, yes, that includes Kirby too. And I know others will benefit from your observations and insights as you make your way in this world.

The Jewish people are wonderful story-tellers, and I look forward to seeing you fully cultivating your gift as you grow older and even wiser. When I think about you as a story-teller, I also think of Maya Angelou. You share her name and you chose her for your fourth grade project on famous Missourians. Coincidence? I think not. She had some story-telling wisdom to share and that I hope you will remember: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Stories can be a way of passing down histories and memories, and they can also be a way of connecting observations to see patterns. In this way, sharing your unique perspectives on the world with others can also be an avenue for action, for making change so that all people are treated justly with dignity and respect. I can see you contributing in this way because you are already a wonderful humanitarian. I am so very proud of you and honored to call you my daughter. I love you.

 

My Amazing Son Who Responds To His Jewish Camp

Context:  My mother is elderly, is chronically ill, and is under doctor’s orders to not travel. We decided to celebrate her in life and throw her a big “birthday” bash.  Relatives are coming from as far as Mexico to be at her side.  It is most certainly the last time she will have all of her children and grandchildren by her side to celebrate her life.  My children have attended Camp Ben Frankel since the oldest was age 10, he is now due to be a first year camp counselor at age 16. The camp administration has decided not to let him miss 2 days of an 8 day training session because they’ll be bonding and learning safety procedures. I offered to help train my son in safety procedures for the two days he’ll miss (what to do in case of lightening, etc).  But this was to no avail. I asked if he’d be excused for a funeral and they said they’d make accommodations for that, but to celebrate life one last time, “a party,” would not be okay. My son, knowing how this completely broke my heart, wrote this letter to camp administrators. I’m so incredibly proud of him, so if nothing comes of it, other than he wrote this letter…I can’t help but give gratitude for the process.  I didn’t give my son enough credit for these words…I’m humbled, honored…the tears are streaming from my face…

Dear Fraya,

I’m writing this E-mail because I don’t think my Mom is going to say this – you are completely missing the point. In your emails you used words such as “Birthday Party” to describe the event that we wish to attend. Not only is this inaccurate, it completely undertones the value of this event. This isn’t just some “Birthday Party.” It’s meant to be the last time my Grandma will ever be able to see her ENTIRE family alive. It’s about being able to celebrate my Grandma’s life while she is still alive, because the scary truth is, if I don’t go, the next time I will be in California will probably be her funeral. To our family, this isn’t a “Birthday Party,” it is like a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and to others in our family it is even more important and valuable than one. To define this event as a “Birthday Party” is not only severely incorrect, but just reflects a lack of understanding of what this means to my Mom and my Family.

I understand that missing two days is very inconvenient for the camp, but if I do go the plan is to come back on the 14th. If camp starts on the 21st that gives me 7 days to bond with the other counselor’s (whom I already know) and to learn the camp rules. I also understand that you have to think about the safety of the campers and I truly do respect that, but to tell me that missing two days of content is going to endanger my campers, and that I won’t be able to make up those two days of content, is absurd. If missing two days is truly going to put my campers at risk, then tell us what we’re missing, prove us wrong, because to us it sounds like you’re putting bonding time (with people I already know) over seeing my grandma for a possible last time, especially since you said that you would be able to handle it if I missed a few days for a family emergency. If anything I said at all reflects that I don’t understand the gravity of missing camp, then tell me exactly how missing camp will put my campers in danger, because I’m trying to understand your situation but I really don’t. To us, your situation sounds like an excuse compared to what could be the last time our entire family is united before my grandma dies.

The only point you’ve made in this argument that I’ve seen as valid is you mentioning the contract. Yes, I signed the contract saying that I would be there, and yes, technically by not going I would NOT be honoring my contract. But what is more important in life, and dare I say it, in Judaism – honoring a contract or honoring a family? I personally feel like family is a much more important concept in Judaism than honoring a contract, and I feel like that should also be a value a Jewish Camp respects. It shouldn’t be camp policy to turn someone down because they want to try to see their grandma one last time with their entire family. My family has already tried to change the date. They tried everything before making me aware of this date, and it just won’t work any other day. You mentioned that there would be an exception if there was a family crisis (funeral), but that only further reflected your lack of understanding towards our scenario. In saying this, you send the message that it’s more important to celebrate the life of someone when they are dead, rather than celebrating their life when they are alive. I feel like this contradicts many important values in Judaism. Rules and policies shouldn’t restrict the celebration of family, or the values of Judaism.

You could tell me that the fact that I’m putting family over camp is my decision and not the camp’s decision, but the point that we are trying to make is that it is camp’s policy that is forcing me to have to make a decision, and that is disgraceful. I shouldn’t have to choose between my two families, especially if the one forcing the decision is Jewish, but right now I’m being forced to all because in your eyes, two days of bonding is more important than seeing my entire family together one last time. Family is supposed to be an important value in Judaism and should not be a topic you can deescalate by calling our important gathering a mere “Birthday Party”. I hope this Email both makes our anger, and disappointment towards your decision clear, but also shows how we view your perspective. If you could help us better understand how your two days of training is more important than seeing a scattered family united one last time before my Grandma dies, then maybe this decision will be easier to make. If the only way you will excuse us is if we have a family emergency, then consider this a family emergency. That is how important this is.

Sincerely,
Ben

Dear Fraya,

I’m writing this E-mail because I don’t think my Mom is going to say this – you are completely missing the point. In your emails you used words such as “Birthday Party” to describe the event that we wish to attend. Not only is this inaccurate, it completely undertones the value of this event. This isn’t just some “Birthday Party.” It’s meant to be the last time my Grandma will ever be able to see her ENTIRE family alive. It’s about being able to celebrate my Grandma’s life while she is still alive, because the scary truth is, if I don’t go, the next time I will be in California will probably be her funeral. To our family, this isn’t a “Birthday Party,” it is like a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and to others in our family it is even more important and valuable than one. To define this event as a “Birthday Party” is not only severely incorrect, but just reflects a lack of understanding of what this means to my Mom and my Family.

I understand that missing two days is very inconvenient for the camp, but if I do go the plan is to come back on the 14th. If camp starts on the 21st that gives me 7 days to bond with the other counselor’s (whom I already know) and to learn the camp rules. I also understand that you have to think about the safety of the campers and I truly do respect that, but to tell me that missing two days of content is going to endanger my campers, and that I won’t be able to make up those two days of content, is absurd. If missing two days is truly going to put my campers at risk, then tell us what we’re missing, prove us wrong, because to us it sounds like you’re putting bonding time (with people I already know) over seeing my grandma for a possible last time, especially since you said that you would be able to handle it if I missed a few days for a family emergency. If anything I said at all reflects that I don’t understand the gravity of missing camp, then tell me exactly how missing camp will put my campers in danger, because I’m trying to understand your situation but I really don’t. To us, your situation sounds like an excuse compared to what could be the last time our entire family is united before my grandma dies.

The only point you’ve made in this argument that I’ve seen as valid is you mentioning the contract. Yes, I signed the contract saying that I would be there, and yes, technically by not going I would NOT be honoring my contract. But what is more important in life, and dare I say it, in Judaism – honoring a contract or honoring a family? I personally feel like family is a much more important concept in Judaism than honoring a contract, and I feel like that should also be a value a Jewish Camp respects. It shouldn’t be camp policy to turn someone down because they want to try to see their grandma one last time with their entire family. My family has already tried to change the date. They tried everything before making me aware of this date, and it just won’t work any other day. You mentioned that there would be an exception if there was a family crisis (funeral), but that only further reflected your lack of understanding towards our scenario. In saying this, you send the message that it’s more important to celebrate the life of someone when they are dead, rather than celebrating their life when they are alive. I feel like this contradicts many important values in Judaism. Rules and policies shouldn’t restrict the celebration of family, or the values of Judaism.

You could tell me that the fact that I’m putting family over camp is my decision and not the camp’s decision, but the point that we are trying to make is that it is camp’s policy that is forcing me to have to make a decision, and that is disgraceful. I shouldn’t have to choose between my two families, especially if the one forcing the decision is Jewish, but right now I’m being forced to all because in your eyes, two days of bonding is more important than seeing my entire family together one last time. Family is supposed to be an important value in Judaism and should not be a topic you can deescalate by calling our important gathering a mere “Birthday Party”. I hope this Email both makes our anger, and disappointment towards your decision clear, but also shows how we view your perspective. If you could help us better understand how your two days of training is more important than seeing a scattered family united one last time before my Grandma dies, then maybe this decision will be easier to make. If the only way you will excuse us is if we have a family emergency, then consider this a family emergency. That is how important this is.

Sincerely,
Ben

“To Michael Brown, With Love and In Solidarity: My Day in Ferguson, Missouri”

photo[7]

On Sunday, August 17th I traveled to Ferguson, Missouri to show my support, love, rage, and hope for the community of Ferguson that has suffered the killing of Michael Brown, the unarmed Black teen, who was shot six times by a white police officer.  The teenager whose parents have been left with an emptiness that I can’t fathom and don’t even want to imagine.  The teenager who didn’t get to start college, who didn’t get to fulfill his goals, and who simply didn’t get a chance to live the life that was ahead of him.  His name was Michael Brown. Michael Brown. Michael Brown.

By now, of course, the news of his killing is known across the globe, as the people of Ferguson began protesting soon after he was killed, and his body lay in the street for four hours.  The militarized presence of the police and the aggressive ways in which they were confronting protesters, as well as media (with tear gas, rubber bullets, and rampant arrests) brought much attention to this town.

Some have asked me what made decide to go to Ferguson. The answer is quite simple. I wanted and needed to be there in solidarity demanding justice for Michael and for the long list of young people of color who have been killed with impunity by police and others functioning under the guise of “stand your ground” and the fear of black and brown bodies. Yes, it is racism.  I only live two hours away, and I couldn’t sit comfortably on my couch watching the violence against a community unfold and demands for justice be turned into narratives about “unruly thugs.” I went to grieve, to support, to demand justice, to witness, and to provide testimony. I went because the treatment of black and brown bodies as discardable cannot stand.

As I approached Ferguson via highway 70, five SUV police cars and three police cruisers sped passed me. I was headed to the Greater Grace Church memorial for Michael. I arrived there around 3:45. As I walked toward the church I met a woman who was wearing a “don’t shoot” t-shirt. She was headed there too, and we talked about the injustice to Michael and his family, and the fact that brown and black people are killed because the skin we’re in makes some white people fearful.

BvRS5X9IIAAWpGF.jpg-large

When I arrived to the church parking lot I saw a crowd that was diverse in age: kids, teens, babies, elderly, 20 and 30 some-things, and middle-aged. There were at least 200 to 300 people outside the church in an overflow crowd. There was no way to get in; it was packed. I hung out with the crowd participating in chants of “No justice, No peace.” I took pictures of signs and talked with folks. And, no, the gathering was not violent or unruly. All was peaceful. It was a crowded space, and I didn’t see or experience anything other than cordiality, friendliness, and openness. I don’t say that because I expected anything else, but I say it because there is a false narrative about the people of Ferguson circulating, collectively describing protesters (read Black protesters) as violent and unruly. It’s, in fact, maddening to write this, having to provide this kind of testimony to combat the racist rhetoric surrounding the protests. In fact, just a few days ago, (August 20, 2014) my local paper the Columbia Daily Tribune published a cartoon by Gary McCoy with racist images of Black people holding signs saying, “No 60” plasma TV no peace” and “steal to honor Michael.” Simply disgusting.  You can see it here.  The response to complaints of racism by the Columbia Tribune is no better.  You can see their response here.

Having said that, I’m also not interested in establishing a dichotomy of “good” versus “bad” protestors. While I do not condone destruction of property and looting, I do understand it. Frustration doesn’t begin to capture what happens to communities of color when Black and Brown people are killed and murdered because of skin color. When systematic racism exists throughout institutions: educational, political, legal, etc. And to think that the history of Civil Rights in this country was all about peaceful compliance and protest is to believe in a myth. The complexity here it too much for this post, but I want to be clear that I’m not interested in engaging in a respectability politics to frame protest.

One of the first signs I spotted was one that said, “I’m a black PhD student and I fear police brutality on me.” A young woman was holding the placard high on a stick, and she was standing next to a young man with a sign that read, “Let your voice be heard #Time4change #studentsvoices. I was curious about their fields of study so I approached them, and we began chatting. It turns out that they are graduate students studying social work. Like everyone I spoke with, they said they were there to support and to demand justice.

BvRlsI9CQAASeYE.jpg-large

I met a child and his grandmother. She was carrying a sign with a picture of her son that read, “Justice for Michael Washington. No justice. I love my son too…” Her grandson’s sign: “My dad was killed. We are his children he left behind. He left 2 girls 5 boys.” His sign had a picture of all of the siblings. He is the youngest of seven and was just a baby when his dad was killed. His grandmother explained that her son was not killed by a police officer, but by another Black man. Her reason for being there was to make known that she has still not received justice for her son who was murdered 8 years ago in 2006. She feels the police have not done enough to bring justice to her son’s killer.

photo[2]photo[1]

Another woman was carrying a sign that read: “1 shot stops you from reaching for his gun 10 shots stopsyou from telling yourside of the story.” I asked if I could take a picture of the sign. She agreed and asked her son to hold the sign. She said, “He’s my son. It could have been him.”

BvRVywgCIAELWDT.jpg-large

There were various groups chanting, “No Justice. No Peace.” One man was letting children take turns at his bullhorn to lead the chants. I thought of that as both a somber and hope-filled lesson on political participation and civil rights activism.  A number of discussions that I heard as I walked around talking to people were about political activism and changing the local level politics and structure.  See videos here:

http://instagram.com/p/r0LjM2E6lO/ and http://instagram.com/p/r5vsT3E6m9/

Another woman invoked Trayvon Martin and asked those around her to “wake up!” See video here: http://instagram.com/p/r5wIbiE6ng/

Other pictures at Greater Grace Church:

BvRcl04CEAIBbl4.jpg-largeBvRbcFuCcAApabz.jpg-large BvRk3ZECYAAIP5M.jpg-largephoto[9]BvqAnaCCEAAKqcq.jpg-thumbBvqBK6OIAAALXM7.jpg-thumb

I left the church at around 7 p.m. And by then there were just a few handfuls of people. A crowd had gathered around MLK III, who stayed for quite awhile taking pictures with folks and doing media interviews. He was one of the last people to leave the area. I was fortunate to meet him as well and shake his hand before I headed over to W. Florissant and Ferguson, where the street protests were taking place.

 photo[8]

Ferguson Market:

photo[3]

One of the first groups of people I saw was celebrating a family reunion. There were about 15 of them, and they all had orange matching shirts with their reunion family name. I asked one of the women in the group why it was important for them to be here, and she replied, simply, “to support Michael’s family.” I got to talking and she explained that they had also buried a loved one that day. It was a day of family coming together for them, and also a day of mourning. Yet, they felt it important to come to the area to show their support. As we were talking a man walked by and chanted, “Let’s keep this going. Let’s march in Clayton.” As he continued walking the woman who I was chatting with said, “Why should we go there? This is where he died.” I understood that for her, her presence was more about paying respects to Michael in terms of a memorial. The man who passed by us had in mind a broader agenda about seeking justice from the powers that be—Prosecutor Bob McCulloch—in Clayton.

BvSMNmnCcAA2tPg.jpg-largeBvS7cnzIQAEEHno.jpg-large

And then there is the little girl who is pictured at the beginning of this blog. I asked her mom if I could take a picture of the sign (“I stand with Michael Brown. Police need to protect and serve”), and her daughter posed for me. It struck me that so many kids were present learning a very visceral lesson about civil rights and social justice. They may not have known a lot about what was going on, not old enough to cognitively digest it. But I believe, for many, their senses captured something of that moment.  That sweet child’s face, with the expression of ages, stays with me.

The story of Lawrence Jones stays with me as well. He and his mother were near the street in front of Ferguson Market. He had a sign that read “Victim of Ferguson” with 11 pictures on it documenting his injuries. I asked Mr. Jones what had happened, and he said that he had been pulled over by police and asked to get out of the car. When he did, he said the police put a police dog on him. His mother explained that he had been driving her Porsche, and said that her son had been racially profiled. Lawrence described his injuries from the dog as occurring on both of his legs and his left arm. This happened on July 21, 2013, and his mother said that they have been seeking justice since then but to no avail. They were both wearing t-shirts they had made to bring attention to his plight. They read: “Stop K9 and Police Brutality. Justice for Lawrence. Stop Racial Profiling.” Mr. Jones’s mother said they had been able to speak with some of the journalists around the area, and she would continue to try to get justice for her son. When I asked Lawrence how he is doing today, he said we was doing better but still feeling the effects of the attack in his arm and legs.

 photo[5]photo[6]

Protestor walking down W. Florissant with his hands up:

BvUhG92CYAAGIpt.jpg-largePolice lined up on W. Florissant:

BvUgUGvIcAANBXU.jpg-large

I had a two-hour drive ahead of me so I left Ferguson around 8:45 p.m. I was alone and parked a ways down Ferguson road, which was poorly lit. I had a flashlight, but, as a woman walking alone, I was uneasy. I saw another woman walking my way and asked if she wanted to walk with me. She said her ride was waiting for her, but they’d follow me to my car. And they did exactly that. They stayed with me for quite a while (I was parked far away). I kept waving and thanking them. After seeing that I still hadn’t reached my car, she rolled down the window on her passenger’s side and said, “How far are you parked? Just get in and we’ll take you to your car.” I happily jumped in the back seat, and thanked them profusely for the ride. That was the type of kindness I’d been experiencing all day in Ferguson.

By the time I got on the highway it was after 9 p.m. I later learned that there were confrontations between protestors and police, and tear gas was fired. More police had also been called into the area. That night I saw images on TV that looked vastly different from where I’d just been. Things seem to have devolved pretty quickly that Sunday night, with many arrests and tear gas canisters fired.

I went to show my support for Michael Brown and to the people of Ferguson. I also went to be part of a movement that doesn’t let up on ensuring that the lives of people of color in this nation matter. As the sign being held by that sweet child in my photo says, “I stand with Michael Brown. Police need to protect and serve.”

This quote by Audre Lorde also keeps playing in my head:

“When I envision the future, I think of the world I crave for my daughters and my sons. It is thinking for survival of the species — thinking for life.” — “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response,” Sister Outsider

photo

Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles M. Blow

10456018_10204301118472351_4618419076682346417_n

I was fortunate to get my hands on an advanced copy of Fire Shut Up In My Bones by New York Times Op-Ed columnist Charles M. Blow. From the very first sentences of Charles Blow’s memoir, I was captivated. So much difference between our lives and, yet, so much sameness. His story telling perfectly exemplifies the connection Maya Angelou spoke of when she said, “I am human, therefore, nothing human can be alien to me.” However, the ability to capture the depth of this connection is a gift that few writers have actually given me. I feel like he pulled thoughts right out of my head and channeled them through his fingers and onto his keyboard.

Charles’s memoir can be succinctly described an account of growing up in the South, but as a person from such a very distinct geography from “The South” as Southern California, I don’t think that captures the connections, the bridges of human experience that his story provides. As a Chicana (Mexican-American woman) who grew up in poverty in Southern California, my experiences resonate with those of a Black man who grew up in poverty in Louisiana. And that is the mark of truly breadth-reaching and breath-taking writing.

When he speaks of growing up in the South, there is little of that physical location that I can relate to, but his descriptions of his surroundings bring me there. My senses captured sights and sounds through his words…from descriptions of the landscape that I could see in my mind’s eye to the packed earth that I could smell, feel, and taste, bringing me back to the keen observations that children have of their world.

It was the emotion palpitating from each sentence that carried me lyrically from one to the next. Many passages sang out so beautifully that I read them over and over, like I was playing my favorite song. I savored each word and lingered on each one.

His memoir also speaks of pain with an incredible bravery and courage. Those of us who are survivors of childhood abuse will feel a strong connection. He makes you feel not so alone… The anger, pain, and healing are all palpable.

He describes the complexity of psychological, social and emotional formation from childhood into adulthood with a clarity that is intensely relatable. I found myself thinking a number of times, “I was like that as a kid” or “I did that when I was a kid.”

And when I read about the kittens…well, my heart filled with a warmth of knowing, “I knew that’s what he’d do.” I’ll leave it at that…

Not only will you know about Charles’ life and character after reading his memoir, but you may very well know yourself more profoundly as well. It’s writing that emanates from the soul and made my heart both ache and sing. That’s what great writing does…leaves us mesmerized, fulfilled, and yet, contradictorily wanting more, and, in the end, we don’t quite know exactly how all of that was accomplished.

Fire Shut Up In My Bones is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is available September 23rd. You can pre-order it now: http://www.amazon.com/Fire-Shut-Up-My-Bones/dp/0544228049  I highly recommend that you do!

My hopes and wishes for my son on his Bar Mitzvah: “The Gifts of Birth”

My dearest Tomas, these are my hopes and wishes for you as you continue your life’s path, marking this special transition from childhood to adulthood…well, young adulthood, anyway.  I’m going to read a quote dedicated to you from Dr. Laurel Walter who helped me take care of you as you grew inside of me and assisted me in bringing you into this world.  She wrote this down in a book that she gave me called the “12 Gifts of Birth.” It’s dated 1/17/01 (one day after you were born).

She writes: “It was an honor and joy to watch you grow and witness your beautiful birth. Your mother was so strong and courageous as she delivered you just 13 minutes after arriving at the hospital, with your father nearby to assist her. You are truly blessed to be born into such a loving and wise family. May you always know these gifts of birth and the love surrounding you.”

I thought it very meaningful to use her words, noting that you were born 13 minutes after we arrived at the hospital, and here we are celebrating your becoming a Bar Mitvah at age 13…from 13 minute delivery baby to 13 year old young man. From the very beginning you set your own agenda. You were going to make your appearance into this world with a flourish, barely letting me get onto a delivery bed, and with Dr. Walter only able to catch you with a one-gloved hand. You knew when you were ready even if no one else did. You weren’t about to wait for anyone. You were ready to get going with your life’s journey.

And this brings me back to “The 12 Gifts of Birth.” In this book the author describes the gifts bestowed upon us at birth that we can cultivate throughout our lives. I have chosen a few that especially resonated with me as I thought about my hopes and wishes for the path that you walk.

The first one is STRENGTH. I hope that you will live your life seeing strength as the ability to discover the light when there is darkness.  To admit when you are wrong, and listen to those who can teach you what is right. To stand for your conviction of being socially just in the face of those who would ask you to stand against the weakest among us. In the words of Anne Frank, “A quiet conscience makes one strong!”

The second one is COURAGE. My wish for you is that you draw upon your strength to be courageous in following your own path. Don’t shun the things that you fear. For your fears will teach you about your courage.

The third one is COMPASSION. I knew from early on that you possessed compassion for all living things. Those who know you, can attest to the fact that at an early age, you would come up with the most witty, insightful and truly funny observations. I kept a list of your musings. In fact there’s a document on my laptop titled “Funny things that Tomas says.” I’ll just quote you on the subject of eggs and compassion when you were around four years old: “I do not like stealing eggs from animals, birds or nothing. If we laid the eggs we could eat them, but it’s not our eggs. If we didn’t steal the eggs, the birds and the animals would be much happier because they would have a new child to love…a youngling.” My wish for you is that while being compassionate towards others you do not forget to be compassionate towards yourself. This is one of the greatest gifts of all, for we can only be empathetic, forgiving, gentle, and kind with others if we practice doing these things for ourselves. In the words of the 10th century Jewish Scholar Hasdai Ibn Shaprut: “If one is cruel to himself, how an we expect him to be compassionate with others?”

The fourth one is TALENT. I hope that you keep pursuing your artistic talents, whether it be through your drawings, photos, writing—all of the above—and/or ones that you discover in the future. You have the eye and soul of an artist, which helps you to see and to experience the world in ways that many of us cannot. Treasure and honor your talent by continuing to share your unique vision and sense of the world. It is a gift that you bestow upon us.

The fifth one is JOY. The key to a good life, you ask? The Dalai Lama said it best: it’s happiness. My wish for you is that you always find the joy around you. An optimist always manages to find gratitude in the seemingly most insignificant experiences of daily life and even in the significant upheavals that we are all guaranteed to experience, while the pessimist manages to find the negative in even the most joyous of events. Keep choosing joy, as you have always brought joy to your family with your incredible humorous wit. I will never forget your response to your kindergarten teacher Mrs. Kruse when she asked you, “You like school, don’t you Tomas?” and you replied, “Yeah, but it takes a big chunk out of my day.”  We both laughed the ugly laugh.  We reveled in the joy that you so innocently gave us.  May you forever give and receive such joy in the every day.

Finally, The sixth one is LOVE. As Dr. Walter stated in her book dedication to you when you were born, “May you always know these gifts of birth and the love surrounding you.”

[Hugs and tears ensue]

Gender, Sexism, Sports Reporting

I have a growing interest in gender, sexism, and sports and follow some pretty cool folks who write about these issues. This week I went to my usual blogs and was taken aback by a blog by Jeff Pearlman. His blogs are spot on and entertaining and fun to follow. At the same time, he has a voice in sports journalism, and folks listen to what he has to say so is his latest blog about Erin Andrews and and the Richard Sherman interview unnerved me (see http://www.jeffpearlman.com/erin-andrews-is-sorta-like-alex-rodriguez-without-the-ped/ )

Okay, here I go…to Jeff Pearlman:

I understand and appreciate your wanting to point out sexism in sports journalism with your piece. And that is particularly why I’m appealing to you to think about some things about gender that might not have consciously entered your mind. You have a voice out there in sports, and I think gender is an important topic in sports to address. Not many of you do it, so when it comes up it’s a great opportunity to discuss issues like sexism. I want to point out some things to think about in addressing sexism by arguing that a woman is unqualified for her job and only got it because of her looks.

You state that Erin Andrews performed poorly – lets’ agree that that is a matter of opinion. But let’s take the perspective for a moment that she messed up and performed poorly (again, I’m not agreeing that she messed up): A) Okay, has a male sports reporter ever messed up a sideline interview? I’m going to assume yes. What might the conversation around that look like? Is it taken as a sign of incompetence over HIS whole career? (Or is it seen as “dude, you messed up…funny…next subject”?) (Sidenote: thank god I’ve never flubbed a research talk because people might brand me as unqualified to be researcher. I think you get what I’m saying here. We are all fallible, even in the BIG moments. For those who’ve never experienced that, it’s a shame because it’s an important part of personal and career growth). Another question: Is the conversation around how HE IS incompetent (versus performed that one time incompetently), and how HE only got the job because he is attractive (appealing to the 45% of NFL fans who are women)? I’m not asking if that convo has EVER happened, but whether it is routinized. That is a big difference because often the response to these kinds of inquiries is, “it happens to men too.” Imagine this being a routinized and normalized discourse around a male reporter on the sidelines. If we are honest, it wouldn’t be: “Mike messed that interview up. See, it goes to show he just isn’t qualified for the job. They only hired him because he’s cute.” (please don’t say Tim Tebow, I know…I’m talking about how it’s routinely done to women to diminish)

The thing is that women are constantly scrutinized for how we look, whether it is because we are perceived as being unattractive or attractive. The point is that when women are scrutinized for being unattractive OR attractive, both are problematic. For women, the dialogue around attractiveness exists in ways that it doesn’t for men. (I’m not saying it doesn’t exits too, btw.). Is it wrong for women who are perceived as unattractive to not be hired because it’s assumed she will negatively affect ratings and the bottom line dollar? A resounding YES! Is it wrong to assume that a woman is incompetent and unqualified for a job because she is attractive? A resounding YES! Women should not be presumed incompetent because of their looks.

Now let’s take another scenario…one that I’m sure you’re asking now: Is it wrong to hire a woman for a job ONLY because she is attractive? Let’s deconstruct this a bit because it’s a point you made central in your piece. You were concerned with women being objectified and treated as eye-candy. The thing is that there was a subtext and dichotomy created that was a taken-for-granted assumption: women can’t be both attractive and competent. We can probably agree that we can’t really KNOW whether she was hired for being attractive. What I’m really interested in getting at is the perception. I’m assuming she has some qualifications: prior work experience, a degree, etc. You yourself also mentioned that she used to work in sports at another network. So, it’s not as if an attractive woman was pulled off the street and given a job in sports reporting. Yet, the framing of the Andrews/Sherman interview in your piece, unwittingly, takes the lens that attractiveness and competence don’t go together. Why is that? It could have been framed a number of ways. The focus in your blog was linking her attractiveness with incompetence. And let’s remember that viewing the interview as incompetence is simply an opinion. A number of sports writers have said that she did a fine job, also a matter of opinion. The crux here, though, is linking the opinion of incompetence to attractiveness and ultimately to the conclusion that she is unqualified for her job.

Having said that, what if her attractiveness was part of the equation in being hired? Why is this such a big concern when things that routinely land men jobs—other than qualifications—are not? Let’s take the “old boys network” and nepotism. Why isn’t the public discourse around competence dominated by questions about white men who got where they are because they had the connections? Sure, this comes up now and again, mostly by people of color, but the reason it isn’t mainstream is telling. And the reason the combination of women’s looks and competence (scrutinizing attractiveness and unattractiveness) is a mainstream convo is also telling. Sure, the “old boys network” is brought up now and again, but let’s be real, it is firmly entrenched and there is no real concern that white men all over the U.S. are getting access to positions that they are unqualified for (cue George Bush)…Let’s dwell on that a while. And, okay, before I get a “well, that doesn’t mean we should be hiring unqualified women” quip…let me deal with that right now too. Sure, let’s all of sudden get a mainstream concern over competence by focusing on attractive women. Really? C’mon now. Y’all need to know better than that. Sure, errybody concerned over competence when it involves attractive women. Why is that? And if anyone is interested in the Megyn Kelly example because progressives do make fun of her being hired just because she is an attractive woman…THIS: how many unintelligent-speaking men are at Fox News that no one cares about critiquing based on appearance? (oh god, I’m in some way defending Megyn Kelly. How did this happen?)

Now let me shift a bit and engage in an exercise that I use in class…what if we substitute race and ethnicity for gender?: “You know he only got the job because he’s black; he’s not qualified for the job (yeah, that superficial exterior marker…ya know…his looks…his black looks). Does that feel just a bit uncomfortable? Good. Yes, I’ve been told I only got into school and earned a Ph.D. because of my skin color…ya know affirmative action..that external skin color thing. But how come, again, is there no mainstream conversation about legacy admittance into college? Are there national mainstream conversations demanding that universities stop legacy admittances (ya know, the dim folks that get into college because they’re rich…and largely white?) Are there legal suits around this resulting in the dismantling of this practice? (cue affirmative action lawsuits in California and Texas with resulting decrease in African Americans and Latinos on college campuses). I’ve heard these mainstream convos: “don’t you want to get into college based on your intelligence and not your skin color?” (cue Clarence Thomas) and “shouldn’t the BEST person be hired for the job without attention to skin color?” No, not about gender, as in Pearlman’s blog, but about race and ethnicity. The BEST person for the job is complicated by race, class, gender….why do we tend not to worry about the BEST person for the job when it comes to white men?: “That white man fucked up that interview. I wish we’d quit hiring based on the old boys network and legacy.” The point I’m making is that “competence” is fraught. Is it likely that attractive women have to prove themselves in ways that attractive men don’t? Yeah, likely. Will an attractive woman’s PERCEIVED messed up interview be judged more harshly than an attractive male’s? Yeah, likely. Again, let us all dwell on that a while… (Side note: And I’m trying to hold intersectionality in my head at the same time…being aware of the complexities of intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.)

Switching gears again..might it be that the producer cut the interview because he wanted to cut the adrenaline rushed Sherman off as quickly as possible? Maybe they were afraid he was going to start cursing (Okay, crazy black man cursing may be playing in their heads?…another blog post) Has it ever happened in sports reporting history that an interview is cut short? What if it had happened to a man? Would the automatic assumption be that he was unqualified and couldn’t handle the interview? Or that he looked scared? (thanks Dave Zirin @edgeofsports for your insight). Or might the assumption be that producers wanted to cut the player off in the middle of an adrenaline moment that could escalate to cursing? (again, “crazy black man” rearing his head) Why might one interpretation be chosen over another? It is so difficult to recognize our unconscious biases. For example, when I give students examples of when I’ve been hetero-normative in my analyses, it’s painful. At the same time it allows growth. I will mess up again…of this I’m certain. But what I’m also pretty sure of is that I’ll be able to recognize it because I try to practice self-reflexivity. And then the moments where my bias happens will be less and less. AGAIN…WHY IS ONE INTERPRETATION CHOSEN OVER ANOTHER?…THIS IS IMPORTANT.

Conversations around sports, gender, and sexism are extremely important. I think there needs to be more cross-disciplinary work, where those interested in these topics can bring their expertise to bear, learn from each other, and help change the dominant discourses that exclude and marginalize.

On a personal note, Pearlman, I really like your work and hope that you can take something from my observations. We need you out there in social media talking about gender issues in sports the way I’ve seen you do it before…it’s important. You’ve got a big voice in sports, and I appreciate that. Because you have been an ally in discussions of race and gender in sports I care about what you say, and I hope that in some way you can use my observations to move the discourse further. In peace–and gender in sports–solidarity!

Dressing Up and Connecting

Image

Dressing Up and Connecting…No, not what you may be thinking…

From the time I can first remember, I was into fashion.  This can be hard for a kid with very little resources.  I’m the youngest in a family of five “kids.”  I’ve stated in previous blog entries that we grew up working-class poor, and by the time I came along, money was pretty tight.  Yeah…few pictures of me, the usual stuff for the youngest, but it was also a time when my dad was chronically ill, we were living through a bad economy (he was laid off), and/or was on strike…not great economic times in the U.S.

But, if you’re me, at five years old, on school picture day, you’re just thinking about looking cute with perfect hair and an amazing dress.  Money, be damned!  So, yes, that is my kindergarten picture, and I HATED it.  Yes, ask any one of my siblings…oh, did I make a stink about kindergarten picture day and THAT picture.  I was so excited for picture day.  My mom indulged me and set my hair the night before with those hard pink curlers that had to be attached with bobby pins.  I swear I don’t even know if I slept, or how I possibly could have.  I awoke the next morning excited to see the results of those curlers wrapped around thin wisps of hair (I have thick hair now, but I had thin, unruly hair, that refused to grow until maybe third grade.)  She unwrapped those curlers, and…no, not cute.  Oh. No!!…this was not okay.  Not by a long shot.  A huge damn poof on my head.  (I swear I can feel the emotions of that day, and no…no bueno.)  If I knew the words, I would have asked, “and what the hell is this mess on the top of my head?”  I remember my mom frantically trying to tease it out.  She is a patient woman.  (Because I almost died at birth I think she was especially patient with me.)  As far as I was concerned no amount of combing was going to save this thing.  It was a mess.  And then there were the socks…oh, sure the dress had been picked out and was ready to go, but what about the socks???  This hadn’t been worked out, I’m sure to my mother’s chagrin.  They needed to match the dress!  (okay, so maybe I should have been diagnosed with OCD, but we didn’t know about those things then.)  We finally found some socks that calmed me down; some ankle ones with the lace frill trim.  Yes, I do remember.  Don’t judge.  Some may call my reaction “spoiled rotten.”  I can see that, but I blame my dad…

And this is where I had a light-bulb moment in therapy.  (Side note:  If you are tenure-track in academia and not seeing a therapist, pick up the phone right now.  I’ll wait.  You’re welcome.)  My dad was a debonair man.  Sure, I mostly remember him in polyester pants with white tank tops, but he loved to dress up.  Yes, I’ve mentioned the Old Spice wafting in the air (I love smelling good too).  When he would go to church, it was in full suit regalia.  And when he’d take my mom to the “Latin American Club” dance and dinners, same thing.  I loved watching them get ready.  My dad was especially about attention to detail.  He’d work on that thick wavy black hair, smoothing the Breel Cream on until it was just right.  See where I get it now?  He was tall, dark, and handsome.  I am glad to always have this image of him.  (When he died I refused to see him in the coffin; I knew that image would haunt me forever.  I’m glad I made that choice at 16).

So about those socks…my dad had to match too…the tie, shirt, suit, even if not the best quality, he insisted on looking good when he went out.  He loved dressing up.  I love dressing up.  He was all about “the fashion.”  And I am just like him in that regard.  My dad came up in therapy as he regularly does.  This time in relation to my feeling guilty about how hard he worked for the family.  As I was growing up I saw him tired and sick, and still working on his sense of style :).  It came up in the context of my brother being sick.  He was just diagnosed with kidney cancer (side note: my sister’s husband died of kidney cancer in January so we are basically shell-shocked right now).  He works at an oil refinery alongside all kinds of nasty chemicals.  I think this may have something to do with his being sick, but who knows?  Up until my other brother got a B.A. much older in life, I was the only one to attend a four-year university and eventually obtain a Ph.D.  Sometimes I wonder, “why me?”  Why did I get this opportunity and not them?  This hit me in the gut with my brother being sick.  What if he didn’t have such a difficult labor-intensive job with chemicals surrounding him?  How come I’m the only one of five who went on to college?  For as much stress as a tenure-track job can be, I love what I do.  Maybe he loves what he does too?  Maybe.  But his body gets wracked, and he may have wanted a different path.  As a first generation Latina college student the odds were against me, so why me?  (My dad had died the year I would be applying to college.  The financial aid forms alone where enough to make me want to stop the whole process.  It’s an academic version of survivor’s guilt.)

If you know me (or have read my other blog entries), I digress…but it’s all related…so hang on.  My guilt was a topic of therapy because I was having a very hard week and reverted to buying a dress online that I didn’t need (but it’s soooo cute!).  I told my therapist and felt like a failure.   She said, “Are you returning it?”  I replied, “of course not!”  She smiled and said, “So why are you beating yourself up?”   I laughed, “At least you recognize it as a coping mechanism.  Don’t be so hard on yourself.”  I’m a perfectionist in all that I do, and I don’t like failing at therapy.  Retail therapy? Yes, it’s a real concept.  I told her that I feel guilty for my dad working so hard and for my brother working so hard.  Those damn Vans tennis shoes are still in my head.  I was in junior high school and wanted them so badly.  My dad got them for me.  He may have worked overtime.  I don’t even know, but we were poor at that time and could NOT afford them.  Yet, he got them for me.  Those light blue and white slip on Vans.  Oh, those shoes!!  When this came up in therapy I was beating myself up.  (My therapist is constantly telling me that I’m very hard on myself, and that it doesn’t accomplish much.  This part hasn’t sunk through yet though.)  She told me something that then made me feel very connected to my dad.  She said that from what I’ve been telling her about my dad, he was into getting me the latest fashion.  This was a joy for him too.  He wanted to do that for me.  And she said, “you’d do that for your kids too.”  Yes!! I would!  Fashion was important to him; it wasn’t superficial.  It was an expression of who he was.  And I’m just like him.  He wanted to see me enjoy the latest style, just like him.  And it’s funny but I just took my son Tomas to the mall to buy clothes because it’s an expression for him too.  Yes, I get it.

Often times, dressing up is seen as superficial, but it isn’t.  It’s about connecting.  My sense of style connects me to my dad and to my son.  When my son first laid out his clothes for picture day I had a flashback…like this is payback!  He was so insistent that his under-shirt match his sweater.  He missed the bus because he was still working on his outfit.  Oh, what a headache.  I though, “you deserve this.  LOL.”  It means something so powerful to me now to think about this connection through dressing up.  You want your loved ones to be happy, and you’ll do what it takes to help them fit it and support their expression because we cannot escape our culture.  Dressing up is not superficial.  It’s connection.  Why do we consider this form any less than other forms of connection?

Then, I had another light-bulb moment that sealed the connections for me.  A former student of mine who is now in grad school posted a picture of a beautiful maxi-dress with the caption: “I can’t wait until I can afford this.”  I was moved.  I love beautiful dresses, but it was more than that.  I’ve been there.  I wanted her to have that dress.  Normally I do things like this anonymously, but it was difficult in this case.  I needed an address.  I bought her the dress and sent it to the address she provided.  I can explain it now…dressing up…it’s important.  It’s expression.  My connection with her was also my connection with my dad and my son.  Don’t tell me dressing up is superficial because I know better…

Oh, and that kindergarten picture?  I got through it.  I like that picture now.  Just a bad hair day 🙂