I was reading a mental health journal this afternoon and the following phrase leaped off of the page and smacked me in the forehead,

” ‘Defiant, combative, hostile, and uncooperative,’ were labels used by many people who knew Sarah…but what if we saw her as “frightened, struggling to cope, confused, and abandoned” and dealing with the effects of extreme stress?”

Yeah.
What if?

It occurred to me that those labels used by so many mental health professionals, teachers, social workers, and other folks tasked with teaching and serving individuals with mental health issues and developmental disabilities are selfish. They reflect not the individual’s feelings or challenges, but the frustrations of those around them.

How many times have I seen someone from afar in public who is acting in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable or sad or afraid and labeled them according to what I feel instead of thinking about what they might be feeling? I would say, pretty much always.

And while it is important, to be certain, to protect ourselves if we feel as though we’re in danger from someone, these phrases – defiant, uncooperative, hostile, combative – are generally used to pigeonhole people who would benefit more from our help than our defensive posturing.

I am reminded of a time when Eve was little and we were meeting with our toddler group. The kids were all around 18 months old and had varying degrees of language. They had all had lunch and were tooling around the living room playing while the moms cleaned up and visited a little bit.  One of the boys walked up to the keyboard, climbed on the bench and sat down to play, but within seconds he was throwing an absolute fit, screaming, red-faced, flinging himself off the bench and causing all of us to come running in to see what was wrong. Nothing was immediately apparent – none of the other kids had touched him or tried to take his place, he was simply freaking out and nearly inconsolable.  When his mom picked him up and folded him into her arms, he arched his back and pulled away, screaming and clawing at her hair and face. We could have easily called those behaviors erratic, defiant, hostile, combative, uncooperative, and so on and so forth.  I remember pulling Eve close to me as she stared wide-eyed at the spectacle.

After running through a few options of what could be making him so angry, all the while fending off his little fists, his mom laid him down on the carpet and undid his overalls. None of us actually believed that a dirty diaper could be causing this much mayhem, but it was worth a shot.  When she undid the velcro fasteners and folded down the front of his diaper, she found a fork. Somehow, he had taken one from the lunch table, slipped it down the front of his overalls, and as he walked around and eventually climbed up onto the piano bench, it had fallen so far down inside his diaper that the tines were stabbing him in the penis. Every time his mom had moved him as she tried to console him, it poked him again. I’m pretty sure I’d scream and resist, too.

Even as we age and become more able to communicate with those around us, it isn’t always possible for us to find ways to express what we’re feeling, especially if we struggle with mental illness or developmental disabilities.  If we take the time to unravel the stories and really pay attention to the individual, it is possible to come to a point where we take their actions less personally and begin to see them as indicators of what this person is dealing with. Many people with mental illness have suffered significant trauma in their lives and while that doesn’t excuse all of their actions, labeling them with things that reflect how they make us feel rather than what they are feeling only serves to keep us at arm’s length, and connection is a powerful tool when you want to help someone. I have a feeling it’s going to take a lot of practice to shift my thinking, but I’m willing to try.

Stephen Hawking. Photo by NASA

I’ve been thinking a lot about communication lately. I just finished reading Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius. It’s the story of Martin, who succumbed to a mystery disease when he was a young boy that put him into a coma for two years. When he “awoke,” he was unable to speak or move any part of his body other than his eyes and some minimal movements of one hand. It took years before someone was able to assess him for brain damage and fit him with a computer device that enabled him to communicate with the world and everyone was shocked at how much he was aware of and understood during the time he was mute and paralyzed.

I have to say, the book wasn’t my favorite, literarily-speaking, but it did spark a lot of thought processes in my head.  And ultimately, it led to me watching The Theory of Everything last Friday night. I have loved Stephen Hawking’s brain since I first read Black Holes and Baby Universes for fun in high school. (Yes, I was that nerd). I went on to read “A Brief History of Time” and was completely hooked.  His story was different, in that people knew he was brilliant before he began struggling with the symptoms of ALS and could no longer speak or take care of himself, but I was still fascinated by how heavily verbal communication weighs in our assessment of each other as human beings.

I remember when my grandmother was rendered mute by Alzheimer’s disease. Although she had been increasingly confused prior to that time, it was still confusing to me whether or not she understood the lion’s share of what was going on around her. I recall thinking that I would go crazy if I were trapped inside my own head and body, unable to respond or make my needs known.

As a young mother, I recognized my infant’s frustrated cries as just that – a desperate longing to tell me what she wanted and to have some control over her world.  Fortunately for her, normal developmental progression let her gradually gain that control. But until she could, I had to change my response to her by listening in a different way, paying attention to her body language and context, the time of day and where her eyes moved. I had to trust that she was doing her best to communicate with me and it was on me to slow down, change my expectations, decipher the clues.  When I came from a place of love and genuine desire to know, while it was often challenging and crazy-making, I was able to be more patient.

Some of the stories Martin told about how he was treated by caregivers in various care homes were horrifying. The lack of humanity he was shown simply because he was unable to speak or move his body the way he wanted to made me sad. And it made me think about how often we expect others to communicate with us in the ways we are accustomed to, instead of thinking outside the box. Fortunately, there are those out there who are committed to finding ways to help people like Martin and Stephen Hawking express themselves.  As for me, the next time I encounter someone who doesn’t communicate exactly like I do, I hope I’ll have the presence of heart to slow down and find another way to listen.

I have Operation Babylift to thank for my little sister. And perhaps some divine intervention, given that she was on the plane that crashed in 1975 and killed over a hundred of the passengers – orphans and adults evacuating them.

photo from the Daily Mail, UK

To this day it is hard for me to imagine strapping scores of infants to airplane seats. We would be reported to CPS these days for doing such a thing, and I suspect if I had been one of the nurses charged with tending to the babies, I would have been a nervous wreck trying to keep an eye on them all. 

photo from the Daily Mail, UK

Every time I think about this amazing story, I can’t help but feel that my sister’s survival, at less than two months old, means something big. That the fact that she not only survived her birth in a war-torn country, but then lived her first four weeks of life in an orphanage, was strapped into an airplane seat with hundreds of other infants and survived a horrific crash, only to be flown across the world to a foster family who would come to discover she had a tapeworm and multiple food allergies means something big. 

I don’t know what it means. I can’t imagine that it means the same to her that it does to me. I don’t know what it’s like to not know where you come from (all of the orphans’ records were destroyed in the crash) and to grow up in a small town in Oregon where nobody looks like you – not even the people in your own family. 
I do know that when she arrived in our house, the local media showed up, too. I was three years old and completely unfazed by the reporter or the photographer, but I was entirely enthralled by this tiny little doll someone placed in my arms. She was so minuscule and weightless and warm with enormous brown eyes and crazy black cornsilk hair that stood up in all directions. I promptly christened her mine – a moment not lost on the reporter, as he quoted me in the article for the newspaper. 
To this day, I am still not sure what it all means, but April, 1975 is an important part of my life and it always will be. It was the month that I gained a sister. Regardless of the political or humanitarian implications of the war in Vietnam and the resulting evacuation of orphans, it forever changed the course of my life.

On self-awareness and how much I love it when my kids have it:

 – Lola got some sad news yesterday that her beloved mentor is moving to the East Coast. I braced myself for her reaction, given the fast, intense friendship the two of them developed that quickly grew into a foursome with her mentor’s partner and Eve. I knew this was going to be a tough pill to swallow. When she gave me the news, her face was so sad and I had to remind myself around the lump in my throat that the best thing I can do is follow her lead and hold space for her.  I hugged her tightly and offered to hang out with her for a bit, but she declined, saying, “Nah, I’m just going to go upstairs and be sad for a while by myself. Thanks.” It sucked for me because I want so badly to soothe her feelings, but I love the fact that she knows herself well enough to make sure she has space to just sit with them for a bit.

 – After a busy weekend including one sleepover on Friday night and a matinee of Mamma Mia on Saturday followed by a dinner out with a girlfriend, Eve came down to lunch today and announced that she was putting her phone on “airplane mode” for the rest of the day so she isn’t tempted to answer texts or check social media. She has too much she wants to get done. Hallelujah!

On condescension and unsatisfying “conferences” or “town hall events:”

 – A few weeks ago I was invited to be in the room with the Surgeon General and MomsRising constituents to talk about the recent measles outbreak and vaccines.  I was told that I would be one of only a dozen or so folks in the room and spent the weekend doing research and polling friends so that I could go in prepared to advocate and ask the kinds of questions that get past the hype and rhetoric. I was, in fact, one of only a handful of people in the room, but it turns out that this “meeting” included nearly 12,000 other phone-in audience members and, as such, we were relegated to asking questions via index card without any opportunity to follow up or challenge misinformation. I later discovered that the Surgeon General was on a country-wide tour of cities with the lowest vaccination rates in the US and I suspect it was more of a PR stunt than any real opportunity to have dialogue with folks about their actual concerns.  (To wit; when MomsRising did real-time polls of the 12,000 people online, they discovered that only about 35% of them were concerned about the measles outbreaks in the US and that more than 50% of them are concerned about the safety and efficacy of the MMR vaccine.  He did nothing to address either the media hype or the actual concerns people had.)

 – It makes me crazy that my experience was not very unusual. Elizabeth writes here about an epilepsy conference she was invited to as a parent who could share her unique perspectives with medical professionals and other families where she was condescended to as someone who is not a medical professional (duh, that’s the point) and not given the airtime she deserves.  I wonder how much the organizers of these events pat themselves on the back because they think they’re providing opportunities for sharing of diverse perspectives. I wonder whether they realize that what they are really doing falls so far short of that it is laughable (if it didn’t make me want to shout and cry, instead).

On priorities:

 – I had a great phone call with a friend on Thursday that reminded me how important it is to occasionally revisit the things I do on a regular basis with an eye toward whether or not they still “feed” me. On any given day, there are a number of things on my to-do list that I don’t particularly love doing, but I also have a tendency to get sucked in to doing bigger things that fall in my lap one way or the other and become part of my routine. It’s really easy to just keep plugging along, putting them on my list week after week without stopping to ask if I still enjoy them. And if there is an overwhelming number of things on my list that drain me, I have to also remember to populate the list with a few things that replenish me. On those days, a 30 minute power nap or a walk with a friend or sitting down to read a chapter of my book is just as important as everything else.

It is often hard to remember that listening is the best first step to creating solutions, especially when the solutions are not for us, personally. The older I get, the more I understand that listening is truly the best first step in nearly every situation, though, whether it’s meeting someone new, planning a project, walking with a friend.

If we don’t listen, it’s easy to forget that someone else’s perspective might be incredibly valuable.  Last October, Gloria Steinem told this story to a room full of people I was lucky enough to be in.

She had traveled to Africa to attend a summit on sex trafficking with many, many organizations and governmental representatives all gathered together to come up with ways to combat this rising challenge.  During a break in the meetings, she was approached by a woman who asked her to travel with her to a small village where several women had recently been lost to this trade. Gloria was flattered and shocked, unsure of what she could do to help this small village, much less how she would manage to communicate with the villagers, but she went.

She described a scene where a feast was prepared and blankets spread out on the grass, with all of the women in a circle ready to address her.  Translating their concerns was difficult, but they found a way to get their request across – the women of the village wanted elephant fences.  Gloria was confused. What do elephant fences have to do with sex trafficking? The women explained:

The livelihood of this village was largely dependent on growing maize.  Over time, though, as elephant habitats become smaller and smaller, the elephants discovered the fields of maize and came  to the village to feed on them.  This left the village in dire straits – they had not enough maize to feed their own families, much less to sell to others.  It is because of this that three young women traveled to the nearest large city to find work to send home money to support their families. When they arrived in the city, they were kidnapped and sold as sex slaves.  The rest of the villagers reasoned that if they raised the equivalent of a few thousand dollars to erect fences that would prevent the elephants from eating their maize, they could keep their young women from having to leave the village to find work.

Gloria was stunned by this simple solution – one that nobody at her enormous conference would have come up with. She traveled back to the city and worked for several days to raise money to build the fences.   More than that, she demonstrated the power of listening. By traveling to the village to hear the ideas of the people most affected, she was enabling them to empower themselves and helping them find a way to prevent their girls from being sex-trafficked.  It is not a solution for the many, to be sure, but for this village it was monumental. And it cost mere pennies compared to the proposals being raised at this multinational conference, most of which were not preventative solutions, but punitive ones for the traffickers themselves.

I am so often struck remembering this story as I read stories in the news about government agencies or non-profit organizations who are puzzling over potential solutions to poverty, hunger, major health issues, and violence in particular countries or communities. The first question I ask myself these days is whether the folks with the leverage and money to provide help have asked the communities in question for their stories, their ideas, their solutions. Bringing American-style answers to questions that exist in non-western countries may turn out to be wasteful or overkill and it may well be that if one or two people listen to the individuals living with the struggles and ask for their perspective, they can come up with simpler, more comprehensive solutions.

It seems obvious, but it is so easy to get caught up in our own viewpoint and the belief that wanting to help is enough. I do the same thing with my kids all the time, swooping in to offer advice or put into place some new system that I think will fix a pervasive problem in our household without asking them what they think. And, especially when it comes to kids, I think adults do that a lot. I watched my daughters’ middle school revamp their dress code four times in four years, having discussions with staff and administration, parents and board members, but it wasn’t until they listened to the students that they came up with a solution that everyone feels good about. It was a student that got so frustrated she crafted a PowerPoint Presentation to illustrate the issues and potential solutions, and it took a month of student council meetings to come up with a new set of guidelines that has everyone breathing a sigh of relief. Four years (at least). Four years of meetings, research, discussion, fiddling with different ideas, and nobody was happy.

I have a photo of an elephant fence tucked inside my nightstand as a powerful reminder that listening is one of the most effective, efficient things I can do every day. Even if I see my strengths as collaboration and a strong desire to help, it turns out that the best way to do that is by asking the stakeholders what they think, no matter who they are.

There is an autographed, glossy, 8×10 photo of Bill Cosby on
my mantle. It has been there for years, although in the last several months it
has been face down so I don’t have to see it every time I sit down to watch TV
with my kids.
Many of the most cherished moments of my childhood involved
Bill Cosby.  Much of my childhood
was tumultuous, peppered with divorces and multiple moves and brothers and sisters
split up into different households.  My parents hated each other, but in the years before their
divorce, at least once a week my siblings and I would lie belly-down on the
shag carpet in anticipation while Dad packed his pipe with sweet-smelling cherry
tobacco, pushed the 8-track in, and settled in his favorite chair. We spent
hours listening to tales of Fat Albert, rolling around in hysterics and trying
desperately to stifle our giggles so we wouldn’t miss the next hilarious line
about the dentist or Buck-Buck Number 5. Those evenings were magical. There
were few things that we could all agree on – vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s
syrup and Cosby’s routines being the only two I can recall now – and we
listened to those tapes until we could recite them verbatim. I used to delight
in spontaneously rattling off a line in the middle of a boring road trip or
somber meal just to see everyone crack up.
After an ugly divorce from my mother, Dad and I had issues.
He was a complicated man who didn’t always do the right thing. He cheated on my
mom. He cheated on his second wife. He had a terrible temper and ruled with
shame and fear. He was also committed to teaching us to be better people,
coaching my brothers’ soccer team and letting me help him wash and wax the cars
and change the oil. He was serious and meticulous and didn’t laugh easily, but
when he did it was like Christmas morning and my birthday all rolled into one. I
was simultaneously terrified of him and desperate to make him proud of me. For
much of my life there was no more powerful force in my world than Dad.
 Mom had a lot
of really terrible things to say about him and nearly a decade after their
split when his second marriage began crumbling, my stepmother added to the
accusations. I was a senior in high school and a budding feminist. I was
disgusted by the tales of my father’s cheating and indignant in my defense of
my mom and stepmother. I began to distance myself from Dad, which was fairly
easy since I was soon to be off to college, anyway. I never confronted him,
certain that he would deny their allegations, and kept all of our interactions
purely superficial.  I didn’t trust
him and wasn’t about to put myself in a vulnerable position.
When I was 29 and expecting my first child, things changed.
I had been too afraid to formally disengage from Dad’s life since that would
have required having an honest conversation about why I was choosing that
route. Instead, I held him at arm’s length, determined to protect myself. But
as my belly grew, I began daydreaming about the life I wanted to give to my
child. I recalled my own family Christmases smack in the eye of a tornado of
cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents; torn tissue and ribbons and smiles
all around. I remembered that allies don’t always come in the form we expect
them to and, regardless of how fiercely I hoped to be the one my child came to
when she needed help, it dawned on me that I may not be the one she chose. I
decided that I wanted to give my baby the biggest, most loving family in the
history of the world. I wanted her to know her aunts and uncles and cousins and
grandparents. I wanted her to hear their stories and see their hilarious
antics. I wanted her to stand in the center of a room full of her people and
feel loved and protected and cherished, and I realized that that group included
Dad. My heart melted as I recalled some of my favorite moments with him  – playing Heart and Soul together on the
piano, hiking in the mountains on a sunny summer day, lying around cracking up
to Bill Cosby routines. I had forgotten how safe I had felt with him as a kid.
But I was unsure how to go about it. I would have to steel
myself for this conversation, this decision to let him into my life for real. I
figured I would have to confront him with all of the accusations Mom and his
second wife had made and ask him to answer for them. I lay in the darkness, one
hand on my belly, my anxiety ratcheting up as I imagined the awful fight we
would have. The baby started kicking furiously, turning somersaults and
flipping around.
Gradually it began to dawn on me: was there anything he
could say that would appease me? Could I imagine a scenario whereby he would
say, “I cheated on your mom because of ‘x’” and it would be okay with me? Could
I come up with any plausible explanation for some of the crappy decisions he
made as a parent? Anything that would make me nod my head and say, “Oh, I get
it. I totally would have done the same thing.”
The baby stopped moving and I went cold. It was in that
moment that I realized I had been vilifying my father for decades and he was
simply a human being. He hadn’t had a set of rules or guidelines for being the
perfect parent any more than I would.
Yeah, but did he do
his best?
the devil voice on my shoulder sneered.
The answer surprised us both. Yeah. I think he did.
When faced with this question I was forced to admit that I
didn’t honestly believe anything my dad ever did was motivated by hatred for me
or my siblings or even my mother. I don’t think he was ever trying to hurt any
of us. Not that his actions were excused or excusable, but it wasn’t my job to
make my father pay for his mistakes, especially those he made with his wives.
And so Dad and I started over. From that moment, as adults,
we began again, without mention of or atonement for past mistakes, with an
acknowledgment that we were both human and fallible. Our relationship as adults
was based on mutual love and respect and while I still wanted him to be proud
of me, I no longer needed his approval. Most importantly, I stopped judging him.
We had eight fabulous years as father and daughter. We spoke
on the phone a couple of times a month about anything and everything and he
never hung up without saying, “I love you, Kari.” Watching him get down on the
floor with my girls and play Polly Pockets and build Lego houses and sing goofy
songs, I often thought my heart would bust wide open. He was funny and
irreverent and would have done anything for his granddaughters. He was amazed
at how smart they were and wanted them to have every opportunity in life. More
than once, I saw threads of him woven into the fabric of my children – their
tenacity and determination came straight from him through me, I’m sure. Because
of my children, I was able to recapture the good memories of Dad. Before that,
I only saw the cheating and lying.
My father died in my arms after a brutal battle with lung
cancer six years ago. I spontaneously offered to write and deliver the eulogy
at his memorial service and for a few terrifying hours I sat on the guest bed
at my in-laws’ house searching for inspiration. What came to me was Bill Cosby.
As a kid, Dad was stern and serious except for those nights when he lit his
pipe and put his feet up and laughed at Cosby’s routines until tears rolled
down his cheeks, and that is what I told the room full of people that came to
pay tribute to my father. I chose Dad’s favorite routine – the one where God is
trying to convince Noah to build the ark – and wove the humor and persistence
of that bit into my acknowledgment of Dad’s gifts.
Today, I mourn for the tainted memories. I am relieved that
my daughters never took to my attempts to hang out and listen to Bill Cosby CDs
as a family because now I don’t have to dismantle that family tradition for
them. They are too young to have watched The Cosby Show or have seen any Jell-o
adds featuring Cosby, so all they know about that autographed 8×10 on the
mantle is that it belonged to Papa. I will throw away the CDs I’ve had tucked
away in my car for long road trips, naively thinking that the girls would stop
listening to their own iPods long enough to hear the “snakey lick” routine that
still makes me giggle, but I’m torn about how to handle the photo. Do I burn it
and repurpose the frame? Do I throw the whole thing out? And what do I do with
the memories? How do I reconcile the bonding that occurred over his comedy
routines with the possibility that, during that time, he was drugging and
sexually assaulting young women? 
Oddly enough, I’m very clear on how to handle such things
with my children. They are very aware of which music I refuse to buy because
the musician is not someone I wish to support.  The misogynist characters who build their reputations on
objectifying and, at times blatantly threatening women and girls are not
welcome to be heard in my car. One day as we drove to school, a PitBull song
came on the radio and my youngest quickly reached for the dial to change the
station.
“You know, it’s sad, Mom. He is a horrible human being, but
he is a really good rapper.”
In our current era of social media and citizen journalism, I
suspect we know far more about today’s celebrities than we ever have
before.  It wouldn’t surprise me to
find out that many of the artists I listened to as a teenager did awful things
but were lucky enough not to get caught by the general public, and it makes me
wonder whether I would rush to get rid of all of their music now in response.
If I discovered that Robert Plant or Jimmy Page had committed terrible acts
against women or gay people or Latinos, I would be devastated. Would I never
again listen to “Stairway to Heaven?” I don’t know.
Can I separate the individual acts from the performance? In
the case of entertainers like PitBull and Eminem, it is clear from their music
that they espouse certain beliefs and claim particular entitlements. It has
been claimed that there
were indications
in Cosby’s routines as far back as 1969 that he wanted to
drug women. I remember the Spanish Fly bit and, honestly, I don’t remember
thinking anything of it at the time, mostly because the whole notion of Spanish
Fly seemed confusing and “adult” to me.
I am a firm believer in consequences and if it turns out
Bill Cosby did the things he is alleged to do, he deserves to pay harsh
penalties and he has a lot to atone for. But the organizer in me wants to know which file to put those memories in, or whether I ought to just bag them up and throw them out with the dog poo. 

I have so many sad thoughts running through my brain after
yesterday’s attack on a military school in Peshawar, Pakistan. Most of them are
surface thoughts, mourning for the loss of life and the feeling of fear that
must be in the air for families, for children going to school, for teachers who
put their lives in danger by just going to work. The deeper thoughts run to the
absurdity of war, of “conflict,” of targeted attacks and drones and the ongoing
back-and-forth in so many parts of the world.
“We want them to feel our pain,” said one Taliban commander
as a justification for the attack.
Well of course you do. Regardless of your politics or
religious beliefs, you are human and you feel pain. And the relentless attacks
on North Waziristan have most likely caused much collateral damage.
Instead of contemplating that statement (which I only heard
on one news outlet one time despite the nearly constant coverage of this
incident), the Pakistani government – no doubt with a significant amount of
support from our country – retaliated almost immediately, sending air strikes
to Taliban strongholds.
Rather than answering for the innocent women and children
they have killed and the “tens of thousands” they have displaced, the Pakistan
military decided to take it up a notch.
Let me be clear. Nobody is right here. This continued
escalation of violence with no nod whatsoever to the loss of life, the
impotence of the entire endeavor, the impossibility of the stated goal
(Pakistani Prime Minister has said that they will keep fighting until
“terrorism is rooted from our land”) can only serve to further entrench both
sides. There is no weapon that can secure peace. I know that there is no simple
solution, but I do know that this is no solution at all. It feels to me like
two teenage boys punching each other in the arm.
“Take that!”
“Oh, yeah? Well I can punch harder than that. Take that!”
“That’s nothing. Here, how does that feel?”
Eventually, one of them will get tired of the one-upmanship or
too hurt to go on, but if they’re mad enough, they might come back with a
different weapon later on. And what has been proven? The one with the most
might is not necessarily the one who is right.  Continued escalation of violence, state-sanctioned or not,
falls under the definition of insanity as far as I’m concerned. How long will
we continue to take this same approach to no avail before we acknowledge that
it isn’t working? And how many more people have to die during the learning
curve? War is a failure of imagination, of creativity, of willingness to find
other solutions. We can’t lose much more by stopping the violent attacks and
trying something else than we already are by escalating things.

In the meantime, I will continue to breathe in suffering and
breathe out compassion. I will feel their pain, the suffering on all sides of
this issue. Someone has to.

It is increasingly difficult not to feel lucky that I am white, that my children are white, that they are girls who are not likely to incite fear because of their size and their race and their gender. Somehow, it feels horrible to think that way, to feel relief that, while we may as women and girls suffer some indignities and challenges, at least we don’t have to worry about an overzealous response to a real or imagined crime.

The girls and I have talked off and on in the last weeks about the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York City, all of us baffled at how a group of impartial individuals could come to the decisions they did. I am careful to acknowledge that I don’t have all of the details and I can’t judge the  outcomes or the people without having first walked in their shoes, but it doesn’t keep us from feeling despair about what these incidents are doing to our communities.

I have resisted doing much research because I don’t believe it will give me any vital information that I don’t already have and I suspect that if I did discover egregious errors such as are being alleged by many, especially with regard to the Ferguson case, it would only lead my heart to ache more.

I am sad that the takeaway from President Obama’s response to the Ferguson grand jury decision was his encouragement of the wider use of body cameras by police officers as a way to build trust between communities and the police.  If I told my girls that I trusted them, but I was going to put video cameras in their bedrooms so that I could capture footage of them at all times, I doubt they would believe my expression of trust. I think that the president is correct in his assertion that the breakdown is the lack of trust, but in order to have a trusting relationship, there has to be a relationship and it is there where things have broken down.  If there is no sense of commonality, no investment in each other, we cannot hope to combat the fear that exists on both sides of this equation. If there is one shared goal, that is where the conversation needs to start and stay grounded. Yes, everyone needs to be held accountable for their actions, and in that respect, perhaps body cameras have some place in the solution, but first there has to be serious work toward preventing altercations that result in physical violence.

In an interview with NPR, Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney who works with the LAPD to overcome trust issues, Ms. Rice talked about how many of the police officers she interviewed expressed fear of black men. While she says those officers don’t “experience that as a racist thought,” it absolutely screams racism to many in the black community and that very real fear often translates into overzealous physical contact with black suspects.  Addressing that fear has to be the first step in relationship building. Understanding varied viewpoints and coming together around the common goal of safe communities is a much better strategy than arming police with body cameras. Especially in the case of Eric Garner, there is no guarantee that video evidence will lead to accountability or trust. In fact, if there are more cases where the video evidence seems clearly in favor of one story over the other and the decisions made fly in the face of that evidence, we risk causing even bigger rifts in our communities.

Ms. Rice cites one program that “brought LAPD officers into projects to set up youth sports programs and health screenings, things that made people’s lives better and brought police and predominantly black communities together,” as being particularly effective. That is because those efforts clearly endorsed a common goal and unless we begin there, we have little hope of effecting positive change.  It is time for civic leaders and police departments to step up and talk about the fears that lead to this kind of violence. Because police officers are put in harm’s way nearly every day, it is important for them to acknowledge which fears are grounded in reality and which ones are not. Because they are trained to react in a split second, they need to know which instincts to trust and how to draw on alternative methods of conflict resolution before making a decision that will have ripple effects for us all. We need to put more resources into finding common ground than we invest in body armor and cameras and the justice system. Moving forward with conversations and positive acts within the communities where there is deep mistrust of the police department will go a long way toward building bridges that we can all stand on together.

  1. Don’t assume that just because your niece/granddaughter/friend is a teenage girl, she is interested in watching your children for hours on end while you go drink wine with the rest of the family and get a break. She may well enjoy spending time with your toddlers playing games, coloring and watching Frozen for the 437th time, but she also enjoys being part of the adult conversations going on. That’s how she learns to interact with adults and her opinions are important for the adults in the group to hear as well.
  2. Please don’t ask her where she wants to go to college and what she thinks her major will be (or any other questions related to that, including what she wants to be when she grows up). If she wants to talk about those things, she will bring them up on her own. Generally, though, this is a great source of stress for many girls in high school – they spend a lot of time thinking about their future and being told that their high school grades matter a lot when it comes to where they will go to college – they don’t need more pressure during their holiday break.
  3. Please don’t ask her if she has a boyfriend, especially if you do it with a certain tone of voice or a wink and a smile. Again, if she wants to talk about her love life, she will bring it up on her own. Intimating that you are truly interested in this aspect of her life will either feel incredibly personal and a little too familiar (even creepy) or it will put her on the defensive wondering whether you’ll follow up by telling her she’s too young to be in a serious relationship.
  4. Don’t comment on her wardrobe or physical appearance before you ask her how she is or tell her it’s good to see her again. In fact, unless she has a new haircut (or hair color) or a pair of boots you want to try on because they are so awesome, it might be wise to abstain from talking about her physical appearance at all. Girls get so much reinforcement from the world that their looks are of paramount importance that if you want to connect with them on a personal level, it would be really great to talk about who they are and what they’re interested in.
  5. Don’t comment on her plate. Don’t point out that she is eating mostly carbs or five desserts or avoiding the greens at the table. Again, teenage girls are so conditioned to think about food that spending a holiday with people who love them ought to be devoid of any of that nonsense. Trust me, anything you say will only make most girls feel badly about themselves.
  6. Don’t offer your advice unless it is specifically solicited. Much of what these girls need is a compassionate ear and your comments about “when I was your age…” aren’t tremendously helpful in general. When you begin talking about what you think without being asked, they feel judged and belittled and are not likely to open up to you again. Listening carefully and keenly will endear you to her, I swear.
  7. Don’t make back-handed comments about her phone or tablet use. Girls this age are committed to their friends like nothing else and it’s important for them to feel connected to them. It may  make you uncomfortable to see the glow of the screen on her face for most of the day, but unless her parents have an objection, your sarcastic judgments about how much time ‘kids these days’ spend with technology will not help her relate to you.
  8. Do not compare her to any other teenage girl, real or fictitious (or you when you were a teenager). There are far too many opportunities for girls to measure themselves against the photoshopped, airbrushed celebrities and come up short, or to weigh themselves against the unbalanced information their friends and cohorts post on social media and find their own lives lacking. These girls are all individuals and just because there might be another ‘ideal’ teenage girl in your life or your mind doesn’t mean they aren’t great, too. Get to know them, you might be surprised.
  9. Don’t, don’t, don’t belittle or make fun of their interests in music or movies or books. PLEASE. I’m begging you. Think back to when you were a teenager and you loved KISS or “Sixteen Candles” or thought that comic books were the best thing since acne medication. They have a right to their own tastes and if you want to connect with them on a genuine level, you should ask them questions (honest, not sarcastic or snarky ones) about why they love “The Fault in Our Stars” or have that enormous Justin Bieber poster on the ceiling above their bed. 
DO: 
Listen. A lot. Ask open-ended questions about what is going on in her life (not her favorite subject in school – ask her about the most fun she has had in the past week). If she complains about school or friends or the stress of the holidays, listen. 
Invite her to do something with you that she enjoys doing, even if you couldn’t care less about it. If she senses that you are truly interested in who she is as a person and willing to spend time with her on her terms, she will be grateful and engaged. Better yet, ask her to teach you something – the lyrics to her favorite song, a goofy dance kids her age are doing, or anything else she is particularly knowledgeable about that you are clueless about. She will feel empowered and intelligent and you just might have fun together.

I had the great good fortune to spend five days in NYC last week, walking some of the same streets that the woman from this Hollaback video walked while she videotaped the response. If you haven’t seen the video, it is essentially the distillation of ten hours of footage as she walked around Manhattan in jeans and a t-shirt. The reason it is worth watching is because of how she is treated by strangers as she strolls the streets alone. Some of the unsolicited attention is very disturbing.

Like I said, I walked those same streets last weekend and, with the exception of street vendors trying to sell me something or hand me a flyer for a bus tour, nobody talked to me at all.  Because I’m patently unattractive? I don’t think so. Because I was walking with a man. 


He happened to be my husband, but he could have been my brother or my uncle or just a friend. And that is what I think makes all the difference.  The two of us witnessed many incidents of street harassment of other women as they walked alone or in groups and I may or may not have told one man as he repeatedly increased his volume and pled for one woman to respond to his “compliments” that I thought he was an ass and he should just shut up.  Bubba may or may not have squeezed my hand and started walking faster.

Since this video was posted, there has been much debate on the subject of catcalling and street harassment and many of the usual players have cried foul. On Fox’s show “The Five,” host Eric Bolling said he didn’t see anything wrong with most of what happened in the video and his co-host agreed so wholeheartedly that he catcalled her from the set of the show. In addition to the more famous folks weighing in, there have been scores of others who have defended catcalling as “polite,” and a legitimate way of greeting people on the street.  It is this notion of ‘people’ that I take issue with.

If you are a straight guy on the sidewalk and a couple walks by, are you likely to greet them both with “good morning,” or a leering “God Bless You” if they are a particularly handsome couple? When a single guy walks by, would you look him up and down and say hello or comment on his choice of clothing? If you answered yes to either of those questions, you might live in the Pacific Northwest or some other locality known for its neighborliness or polite culture. But if you are in a big city and the only people you “greet politely” on the street are young women, either walking alone or in a group, then you are likely giving them unwanted attention.  If you persist by asking them for something (a phone number, an enthusiastic response, acknowledgment of your physical prowess or simple glee that you noticed them), you have crossed the line into creepy and aggressive and inappropriate.

If you, like men’s rights activist Paul Elam, believe that men who catcall are simply as “innocuous” as “panhandlers, strangers who talk too much…salespeople, survey takers and even officious video makers,” you might want to realize that these obnoxious folks on the sidewalk are Equal Opportunity Offenders. These folks are starting unwanted conversations with people of all ages and genders. Their motive is generally to make money and, occasionally, to incite discomfort. Folks who catcall are not neighbors simply trying to connect with other human beings. I cannot say exactly what their motives are and I suspect they are complicated and not necessarily universal, but the fact that most of the remarks are sexualized in nature or tone adds an insidious element to them that is not present when a shiny pamphlet or petition is being shoved in your face.

There are already too many situations where a woman can be uncomfortable in public given the culture of objectification in this country. I fully admit to being very nervous in an elevator by myself with a man I don’t know or walking down a dimly lit street alone when a man or two is coming toward me. That may be unwarranted, but the balance of power is shifted such that I, as a female, feel vulnerable in those instances. Add in comments such as the ones Shoshana Roberts heard in her daytime stroll through a crowded city, and I don’t think you can fault women for crying foul. If it isn’t something you would say to someone you aren’t sexually attracted to, it isn’t something you should say at all.