Another day, another abortion ban struck down. I am happy to see it happen, but frustrated at the vast sums of money and energy and time that are spent in the effort to keep women from having reproductive freedom in this country. I know it’s been said before, but it is so absurd to me that these resources aren’t directed toward things that would educate and support women and girls instead of punishing them.

I heard a story yesterday about a clinic in Montana that was so severely vandalized a year ago that it had to be shut down. And since the woman who has run the clinic for over thirty years can’t really afford to revive it, women in the Flathead region of that state are forced to drive 120 miles each way to receive care. Not just abortions, but any kind of reproductive health care, because the clinic provided a huge range of services to women in that rural area, like most clinics that are targeted by anti-choice lawmakers and protestors alike.

Toward the end of the story, the reporter noted that the man who destroyed the clinic was sentenced to 20 years in prison – fifteen of them deferred – and forced to pay restitution.  I won’t get into the sentence that was handed down for a variety of reasons, but the notion of restitution was what piqued my interest. So many questions flitted through my head:

  • like squeezing blood from a turnip. I wonder how much money he has, anyway, to pay restitution. Do you suppose it will ever be fully repaid? 
  • restitution to whom? To the clinic owner? To the staff that lost their jobs? To the scores of women whose lives are affected by his act? Does he have to give them gas money to get to Missoula? Does he have to pay child support for all of the babies that were born to mothers who now have no option but to raise them?
  • how do you calculate the proper amount of restitution to compensate for the trauma someone suffers when their life’s work is brutally destroyed? 
As a teenager, I worked in a small-town clinic that provided abortions two days a week. The rest of the time, we provided routine family practice services like treating infections and offering vaccines as well as contraceptives and vasectomies and OB care. Two days a week, the sidewalk was lined with protesters – many of them bused in from the big city 30 miles away. They laid spike strips across the entrance to the driveway, shoved their signs in patients’ faces, yelled and chanted, sang and cried and occasionally threatened both the staff and the patients. One day, as I left work, one of them started to follow me home and I drove around for an hour and finally parked outside the police station until he gave up and drove away.  Twice, the clinic was stink-bombed after hours and once there was a small fire set in the back of the building. The doctor and nurse practitioner wore bulletproof vests to work. My boyfriend begged me to quit. 
Decades later, I continue to be shocked at how blasé people are about these kinds of tactics. I am horrified that an organization could get away with putting together an “expose” on Planned Parenthood, alleging that they sell fetal tissue for profit, be exposed themselves for blatantly lying and creatively editing the footage to show things that never actually happened, and suffer no consequences. There is a vast difference between protected free speech and lying, bullying, in-your-face terror tactics. Make no mistake, these are terror tactics. It is terrifying to go to work and have to cross a line of angry protestors. It was surely terrifying to come to work and see your clinic burning, get death threats in the middle of the night on the phone, watch the protestors laughing and chatting in the quiet moments as they ate their lunches together as if this was just another day at the office.  
The continued legislative attacks on women’s reproductive rights – abortion bans at 20 weeks, at the first sign of a fetal heartbeat, restrictions on contraceptions, the latest bill that would allow employers to fire single women who get pregnant – these things add fuel to the fire of the protestors and the organizations that are adamant that women not be able to control their own bodies. They set up a climate in which it feels normal to tell women how to live their lives. It presents the view that a woman’s health is something to be parsed out by those in power. We will let you have fertility treatments, but not oral contraceptives. We will allow your employer’s insurance to pay for your hospital stay when you have a baby, but not if you have it at home with a midwife. We will pay for your mammogram but not your D&C.  
I have come to the conclusion that there is a culture of bullying that encompasses both right-wing legislators and protestors and everyone in-between who is determined to restrict a woman’s right to control her own body. The same groups of lawmakers continue to craft new bills restricting clinics and imposing time limits on abortion services. Even though the majority of them are ultimately overturned, the time and money that is spent by the target of this abuse is debilitating – a fact I’m sure the perpetrators of this brand of abuse are well aware of. Perhaps if the lawmakers had to pay restitution when their restrictions are deemed unconstitutional,  it would slow them down. What if we acknowledged these repeated efforts to curb reproductive freedom as frivolous and saw them for the bullying tactics that they were and forced those who push them to pay the legal fees for both sides when they lose? At this point, other than the punishments handed down by judges and juries to individuals who are caught vandalizing clinics or harming abortion providers, there is no real consequence for the organizations and politicians who continue to push women of childbearing age around. This is bullying, plain and simple, and until we figure out a way to make it hard for these kinds of laws to be written, we will continue to waste our time and money on taking them to higher courts.  

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.

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.


“Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.” Josiah Charles Stamp

Ahh, personal responsibility. We are a nation enamored with the concept. We are also enamored with the notion of individuality; individual freedoms (to a certain extent), individual rights, individual responsibility. We expect people to clean up their messes if, for some reason they haven’t managed to avoid making them in the first place. Unfortunately, we don’t always provide them with the tools they need to do either of these things. And therein lies the rub.

We are a nation that loves instant gratification and thrives on the ability to “keep up with the Joneses.” Hallelujah for credit! Visa and MasterCard give us the opportunity to spend money we don’t have on things we want now. Sub-prime mortgages and “zero down” financing offer us chances to spend money we won’t likely ever have. Our children and grandchildren see the economy collapsing under the weight of such ridiculousness, and hear every day on the news that the economy would rebound more quickly if we just went out and spent more money. Huh? Is it any wonder they’re confused? And how many of them will learn about money management in school? How many of their classes will educate them about saving money and contingency planning? If these classes aren’t available, how many of their parents will be able to talk to them about these things? I remember two of the “life skills” classes I took in high school: Personal Finance and home economics. We talked about calculating interest rates and were taught the proper way to write a personal check in Personal Finance class. In Home Ec, we did a little sewing, a little meal preparation, and one very memorable day, a cosmetics expert came in to teach us the proper way to apply our makeup without creating wrinkles around our eyes. I didn’t feel precisely qualified to manage the finances of a household upon graduation. I’m certain I’m not qualified to teach my kids money management skills based on those two “practical life” classes.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed yet another bill that is aimed at blocking access to reproductive healthcare for millions of American women. They claim that their intent is to reduce the number of abortions (hopefully to zero) in our nation. If this is an attempt to force women to live up to the consequences of their mistakes (ie. premarital or unprotected sexual activity?), I fear that they are asking women to sweep up a mess without providing them a broom or proper instruction on its use. Defunding Planned Parenthood and making access to other facilities where women can get objective, non-biased information about their own bodies is worse than that. It is actively denying them access to the broom and the class on sweeping. How can we expect people to avoid mistakes or learn from them when we don’t offer them information? If we fight against sexual education classes in our schools and rail against birth control, we are expecting people to gain this vital education by what, osmosis? If we don’t teach each other what we know about the more difficult things in life, we can’t expect any change. You can’t hold someone responsible for making a mistake they had no way of preventing.

Individuality is important. Differences are often what creates color and vibrancy in life. But not enough can be made of the power of tapping into a collective base of information. There will always be people who learn best by making mistakes over and over again, but for those who could benefit from the wisdom of others, isn’t it our responsibility to pass that information on?

Albert Einstein once characterized insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This applies to entire cultures as much as it does to individuals. We can’t keep telling generation after generation that we expect them to clean up their own messes if we don’t provide them with the tools to either do so, or avoid those messes in the first place. Rebuilding our economy by asking people to spend more money only props it up for the next generation to overspend again. We will find ourselves right back in the same position, just as we have so many times before. And telling women and girls that they ought not to get pregnant without giving them ways to prevent pregnancy won’t affect the rate of unwanted pregnancy in our country. Personal responsibility is a good thing, but it is impossible to sustain without knowledge.

“Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.” Dalai Lama

         The fact that the phrase “school shooting” exists is clear
evidence of how we are failing our children. The fact that we have systems in
place to mobilize grief counselors within our communities, that there are
protocols and sample dialogues to help parents talk to their children about gun
violence in their schools tells us we are doing something wrong.  That a “popular,” “happy” high school
student from a “prominent” family could post his anguished feelings multiple
times over a period of weeks on Twitter prior to shooting his friends and
turning his weapon on himself and the media headlines read “Motive Still
Unknown” is shocking to me.
            I
am not blaming the family and friends of school shooters for not intervening,
not anticipating that they will react this way to their deep sadness. I am
saying that we as a society are failing our kids in an elemental way by waiting
until something horrific happens to talk publicly about difficult emotions
instead of teaching our kids how to recognize and process those emotions throughout
their lives.
            Two
vital things we know are at play here. First, adolescent brains are literally
wired differently than adult brains. The brain of a teenager is subject to
emotional storms that are not yet mitigated by logic, primarily because that
portion of their brain is not yet fully developed. When a teenager is feeling
strong emotions, they are not being ‘dramatic’ or ‘over-reacting,’ they are
simply responding to the chemical reactions swirling around in their heads. To
expect them to push aside or disregard those biochemical impulses is simply
unrealistic. Instead, we have to teach them to mitigate those responses, to
acknowledge their feelings and process them appropriately, but all to often we
expect them to “get over it” or we feel uncomfortable when they are upset and
we minimize their feelings to make ourselves feel better.
            We
spend billions of dollars each year teaching our children to read and write, to
apply mathematical formulas to complicated problems, to find patterns in
history and science, and we neglect to talk to them about what it means to be
human. While it is vitally important to have these kinds of conversations within
family systems, it is equally as important to acknowledge these emotional
challenges within a wider audience, to normalize them as much as we can.  If we continue to send the message that
learning to identify and process deeply painful feelings is a private endeavor,
we are missing the opportunity to show our children that they are supported
within a wider community, that they are not alone.
            The
second thing that we know is that violence is often rooted in disconnection.
People harm others when they feel powerless, often because they are struggling
with ideas of their own worth or their place within the community. When an
individual does not feel part of the system or supported by it, they are more
likely to objectify and dehumanize the other people around them. It is through
that objectification that the threshold for violent acts is lowered – it is
much easier to harm someone you don’t feel connected to, that you have
demonized. Our educational system emphasizes individual accomplishments and
competition, values independence, and isolates students who are ‘different,’
both academically and socially. Without some sort of social-emotional education
that acknowledges the developmental stages of teens and tweens within the
context of the demands placed on them, we cannot expect them to flourish. We
may be raising a generation of students who can compete in the global economy,
but without teaching them what it is to be human, to experience pain and
rejection, to accept discomfort and work through it, we are treading a
dangerous path. Every time our children cry out in pain we are presented with
an opportunity to listen, to validate those feelings, to model empathy and compassion
and to teach them how to navigate those difficult times. This isn’t about
individual or family therapy, this isn’t about mental health treatment, this is
about acknowledging that our children are whole human beings who are developing
physically, mentally and emotionally and ignoring their social-emotional
development is creating a problem for all of us.  Our children are killing each other to get our attention.
What is it going to take for us to start listening to them?