Monday, July 8, 2013

Child Activist or Inappropriate Pawn?

Photo taken from Admittedly not the bastion of high-brow journalism, but I researched and found the photo reprinted several other places and no evidence that it was photoshopped

I applaud civic activism in kids. I discuss current events, in an age-appropriate matter, with my daughter and son on a regular basis. They know who the president is, and some of the men who preceded him. We talk about how government is structured and what laws are. We discuss civil rights and voting and international relationships and our collective humanity. Being engaged in the world matters to me and I want it to matter to them. One of the most important things my mom ever said to me growing up was, "You are not allowed to say, 'I don't care'." Pretty good rule to live by.

I don't need my kids to agree with my political and social opinions (even though they are all correct). In fact, I hope they study the issues on their own and come back and challenge me. It will make for fantastic Thanksgiving conversations as they get older. Even if we never vote the same way or they someday march in D.C. for an issue on which I find myself completely opposed, I will respect their convictions if they come by them honestly and intellectually. (Well, I should stipulate that this appreciation for differences has its limits. If my son ever leads a rally promoting forced child labor or my daughter gives a speech about how genocide isn't so bad after all, I will know I have failed them as a parent . . . but I'm optimistic that neither of these things is going to happen.)

But, here's the thing. While I'm all for kids participating in the political process and holding up their own poster board signs, pictures like the one above are just sad. This photograph was taken during the showdown over abortion that took place recently in the Texas state legislature. Regardless of where you fall on the abortion issue, I would hope that you would find using this girl as a pawn to be offensive.

First of all, the sign contains the implication of a word that would not be included in any movie this girl would be allowed to see in a theater. But, more importantly and much more disturbing, the sign sexualizes this young girl. I imagine she can read. Did she not look at the sign and wonder why she might want to "f*** a senator"? The other signs the kids are holding . . . great! You've got my full support with that message. But who are you rallying to your side with the written exclamation from a girl who appears to be nine or ten years old that she will just march into the Capitol building and have sex with an elected official if she really wants the government to find a place in her uterus?

I'm hoping, and I imagine, that the woman who provided this girl with her lovely sign and those who yelled "Hail, Satan!" as politicians opposed to abortion gave speeches in the State House are part of the fringe. Both sides have got such folks. I'm not one to say, "The woman in this photo represents all pro-abortion activists!" But the photo struck me because it captured several ideas about which I'm passionate, both in its illustration of the potential for success and the actual utter failure. These ideas are: 1. Teach your children to care about people and issues; 2. Encourage your children to think for themselves; 3. Approach number 1 and number 2 with respect and kindness for self and others, both in the language that you choose and the actions that you take.

I hope that events like the one in which this girl participated excite her to pursue a life of civic engagement. That would be great. And when she is older, if she decides to make signs that reference a hypothetical sexual encounter with someone in power, then so be it. But for now, I just feel sorry for her.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

I'm a Snitch

I receive birthday money every year from my parents. Maybe that makes me sound like I'm twelve, but I always look forward to it. The intention is for me to spend the money on myself, which is a rare occurrence, and most years I've been pretty good about doing just that. (Occasionally, other life necessities have taken precedence over indulgences.) This year, I decided to use my birthday money to renew my membership at the Y.

I used to go to the Y several times a week and found it to be a welcome opportunity for alone time and recharging when my life was consumed by baby and toddler life. But when I got my full-time job two years ago, there just didn't seem to be the time to go and the monthly fee was being wasted.  Circumstances have changed, though, and I now have both kids by myself all the time, 365 days a year without breaks. I decided I needed to allow myself an hour a couple times a week to kick my own butt in the gym. With this long holiday weekend off work, I've already been three times in five days and it feels fantastic.

One of the benefits of our particular Y location, and one of the reasons that my kids go to the childcare without complaint while I exercise, is the outdoor pool that all three of us enjoy once I've exhausted myself on the treadmill and weight machines. 

In order to access the pool, everyone first must walk through a locker room. There is a women's locker room and a men's locker room. If your child is of the opposite sex and over the age of six, he or she is supposed to depart from your side for the few moments it takes to journey through the locker room and meet you on the other side. While my daughter is of the same sex as me and therefore this rule does not apply to her, she is seven years old and I would have no problem with trusting her to navigate from one end of the locker room to the other by herself.

I share all of that to bring you to the point of my story. A couple of days ago, the kids and I walked into the women's locker room after a couple of hours outside at the pool. Standing at the lockers was a mom with her two boys, who appeared to be around nine and eleven years old. The older one was as tall as his mom, and she wasn't particularly short. The mom was pulling together the towels and other accessories they would need for their time poolside while the two kids roughhoused and asked when she would be done.

I get that there are circumstances involving special needs of children and I'm very sensitive to that. Of course age limits do not apply then. But, let's assume that such needs were not a factor, which appeared to be the case here.

The way I saw it, I had four choices:

1. Do my best not to care that boys of that age were in the women's locker room and just move on with my day. My daughter already had poked me and then pointed in their direction, so their presence was obvious to her as well.

2. Adopt the passive-aggressive approach. which would involve something like me whispering loudly, "Wow, those boys look awfully big to be in here, don't they? Do you think they're only six?" Admittedly, not the most mature approach.

3. Walk up to the mom and politely ask her if she was aware of the policy that boys seven and over needed to use the men's locker room. How do you do that without seeming completely annoying and self-important?

4. Snitch.

I decided on the last option and, to be fair, it wasn't a straight out snitch. It had been a year since I'd been to the Y and when I last was a member, there were signs on the doors of the locker room that clearly stated the age policy. Those signs were no longer there. So, I walked into the membership office right next to the locker room and said, "Has the rule about opposite sex kids in the locker room changed since last summer, because there are some boys in the women's locker room who look much older than the cutoff?" I honestly wanted to know the answer and if enforcement was a side effect, so be it!

The Y worker jumped out of her seat and ran right to the locker room, saying as she went past me, "No, the rule hasn't changed, and we take it seriously." To reinforce that point, the next day I saw the same employee stop a dad who was about to take his two girls, who appeared to be around the same age as the boys I mentioned earlier, if not even older, into the men's locker room. The employee reassured the dad they would be fine in the women's locker room, and I saw with my own eyes that they were happily reunited by the pool moments later. (Side note --  I would MUCH rather my eleven-year-old girl walk through the women's locker room solo than spend any time in the men's locker room.)

Since this incident, I have asked several friends of mine with boys who range in age from seven to thirteen what they thought of their sons joining them in the locker room. I just wanted to make sure that I wasn't being unreasonable in my opinions as a parent who isn't faced with such circumstances yet. I don't go with my daughter into public restrooms anymore, so I guess that's similar at least. All agreed that their kids take care of bathroom needs and locker room walks without them. And, in the case of the Y, I'm not talking about showering or anything that requires extended solo time . . . I get why that would be an issue . . . I'm just talking about walking through to the pool.

If anyone out there is reading this, I want to know what YOU think. What would you have done in such a situation? Or, are you a parent who takes older kids of the opposite sex with you in the locker room and you think I'm totally off base for taking issue with it?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Proud . . . or Humbled?

On the evening of September 14, 2001, I stood on a random street corner in Arlington, Virginia with a crowd that grew larger and larger as the night progressed. Only a few blocks away from the still smoldering Pentagon, we hugged and sang songs and waved to honking cars passing by. Among the lyrics that we offered with our collective voice in that moment were those of "Proud to Be an American" by Lee Greenwood. I think it's a great song because I DO love this land and I WILL defend her. But, I sometimes get stuck on the word "proud."

I watched some of The Story of Us on the History Channel today, which now means I've seen at least part of the documentary at least ten times. It's one of my favorites. As the stories of the Boston Tea Party and Lexington and Concord and the Declaration of Independence were told, I felt a huge knot in my stomach. It still blows me away that a group of untrained farmers and silversmiths and fur traders gathered in the forests first of New England and then throughout the colonies to change the course of world history by toppling the most powerful military on the planet.

I read the Declaration of Independence every Fourth of July. These men pledged their lives and their fortunes to the notion that all of us are created equal and deserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What a radical notion! I get chills every time I read it and imagine what it must have been like to gather in the streets of Boston or Philadelphia or New York City with fellow colonists and hear those words read aloud for the first time.

But, when I think about those who stood up to an empire or the beautifully crafted (although certainly flawed in light of who really had freedom in our country in the 18th century) founding documents that provide the foundation for the world's most successful and enduring republic, I'm not sure that pride is the word to which I am most drawn. I didn't have anything to do with those amazing events in history, after all. Even if I had been alive in 1776, my whole being a woman thing would have been frowned upon in Independence Hall. And pride is first defined as "a feeling of pleasure from one's own achievements."

Instead, above all else, when I take time to realize how fortunate I am to be an American, my overwhelming feeling is that of being humbled.

Somewhere, in another country, there is a woman who was born on the same day as me who never learned to read those books she admired in her family's living room because if she had, she may have been shot.

Somewhere, in another country, there is a woman who was born on the same day as me who has no fresh water for her children and already has seen three sons die at the hands of malnutrition.

Somewhere, in another country, there is a woman who was born on the same day as me who is told where she has to work or how many kids she is allowed to have or where she must live or which websites she is allowed to visit or how she is to worship.

But I was born here, in the United States of America. I joined this population of earth dwellers in a hospital in Washington, D.C., at 38 degrees latitude, 77 degrees longitude. I am no different from those women I described except for geography of origin, and for that one reason my opportunities and my experiences are completely transformed. I think about these women often and wonder, why me and not them? That's humbling.

So, I think I'm going to stick with humbled, and also grateful, when I think about being an American.  I am humbled when I watch men and women in uniform going off to defend the principles for which our flag stands. I am grateful for a natural landscape that offers oceans and mountains and deserts and rich soil and gorgeous forests. I am humbled when I hear of a fellow American who has overcome great challenges to achieve amazing success through hard work and perseverance in a nation that still rewards such efforts. And,  I am grateful that I can walk into my church every weekend without fear or persecution and also that I've had Jewish and Muslim and Hindu and Buddhist and atheist friends, roommates, and co-workers who can choose to do something completely different.

So, happy 237th birthday, America! I know how fortunate I am to live here. Our country isn't perfect, and we certainly argue loudly and regularly over what would make it better, but it is pretty spectacular. May I always continue to be humbled and grateful for the unique gifts and lessons you offer.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Happy Birthday to Me!

I don't write New Year's Resolutions. Instead, every year on the eve of my birthday, I sit down and make a list of "What I Want to Do While I'm ____ Years Old." As I face the waning hours of being thirty-seven, I must admit that I did not accomplish much on my list this past year. Yes, I can use the excuses that I work full-time and I'm a single mom to two small kids and that as a trio we've faced some challenges this year that aren't to be shared on cute Facebook posts. But, I also know that you make time for what matters to you . . . and writing matters to me. I pledged to myself that as a 37-year-old I would write more, and I didn't. So tonight, I'm giving myself the birthday present of this blog in hopes that thirty-eight will be better.

I've always loved to write. I love the way that paper smells. I love the way that paper feels after newly indented with ink or granite. In fact, most of the time that I type an article or book review or just minutes from a meeting on my computer keyboard, I've first written it out on paper.

As a child, I often would grab a blanket and spread it out in my front yard or back yard or in a corner of my dad's garden. Then I would open up a spiral notebook, pop open a Bic pen and write. About anything and everything. I started my autobiography when I was eight years old. I still remember the opening line: "I wouldn't say my childhood was always the best time, but is it really supposed to be?" I occasionally would write poems, but not very often. I wrote lots of letters to Ricky Schroder. Sometimes I would write fictional short stories. In fact, I won the weekly creative writing contest in my fourth grade class sixteen times. I don't share this to brag on my nine-year-old self. But instead, I think back on those affirmations of my writing while at James H. Harrison Elementary in Laurel, Maryland as an early sign that a piece of my happiness and my creative fulfillment would be found in writing.

When I got old enough to drive and was granted the car keys, I would take a blanket to the lake near my high school and write. I would put my feet in the grass, watch the birds fly across the water, and pour my teenage heart onto the page. Sometimes I would write about silly crushes or how I was getting along with my parents. Other times I would project myself into the future and write about my life in 2000 or 2025. I asked a lot of questions on those pages, most of which I would never speak out loud. I ranted through the ink about politics and current events. Even as an adult, some of my favorite writing has come from sitting by a lake on a blanket. And, I still rant about politics and current events, among other things.

Notebook and a Blanket is a reminder to me of how my love for writing started -- by grabbing an old blanket and some blank sheets of paper -- and to cultivate even deeper that love I have for how words strung together in just the right way look like a work of art and how each carefully crafted syllable, when spoken aloud, sounds like music.

I want to offer myself the gift of coming to this blog often. I want to write about working and parenting and religion and music and sports and, yes, still politics as well. Maybe no one else will read it, but I like knowing that I've created it and I'm putting my writing out there again.  The blog doesn't look particularly fancy yet, but I'll work on that. I've purchased, and I'll figure out how to make it link to this account. That all will come. But tonight, with less than two hours left before I begin to tackle my "What I Want to Do While I'm 38 Years Old" list, I just wanted to start.