Wish

Bayboh gets very talkative at bedtime tonight.  

“For Christmas I’m going to ask for a talking robot.  The robot will be for me.  And me and the robot will be great friends.  I’m going to ask Santa to bring a robot for everybody, for you and Daddy, too.  And it can do things for you guys like fold the laundry.”

“Oh?  Wow!  Folding laundry is actually very hard for a robot to do.”

Bayboh is perplexed, “Why?”

“Well, because it’s just a hard thing for a robot to figure out.”

“Well, Nanny will show the robot so he will learn.  But we need to have stuff to build the robot first.  The robot needs to know how to fold laundry first.”  

“Before we build it?  It has to know how to fold the laundry before we build it?”

“Yes.”

“But then how can it learn?”

“Nanny will have to show the robot how to fold the laundry and on days when Nanny isn’t here then you and daddy can show the robot how to fold the laundry. Aw!  Now we just need it to be Christmas but that’s so long!”

Roar

Another of the 5 minute poem exercises from the workshop I did months ago was to pick a picture postcard for inspiration and write a Fibonacci poem (in which each line obeys the Fibonacci sequence either in the count of words or syllables).  I picked a photo of the National Archives, which is a place I have some important personal memories of (and I counted syllables).  (And although a correctly countable draft was done in 5-ish minutes, I fiddled with it for longer than 5 minutes just now.)  

One of the things that struck me most at the Women’s March in 2017 was the sound of a roar coming up from one section of the masses and traveling through the rest.

 

shield

of

paper.

so fragile.

shielded under ground,

under glass in perfected gas

while hundreds of thousands throng past its echoing home,

giving their living noise to raise fading words from crumbling pages, shielding each other.

Emmanuel

In a Quaker meeting, the congregation waits and tries to listen. Sometimes, the whole hour will go by in silent waiting and listening. Sometimes, someone or several will feel moved to speak to the group.

Twenty five years ago, my First Day School teacher shared with us how she knows it is time to speak.  When her heart is racing and her body is shaking, she said, that is the time.

I didn’t know quite what she meant then, but I’ve felt it a few times since, a lot like stage fright with the pounding and the shakiness, and I try to follow it.  If I feel it and yet I don’t stand, I regret it.  If I think I have something to say and I don’t feel it, I can remain comfortable in my quiet sitting.

The other thing I always understood was that you really shouldn’t come to Meeting having already planned what to say.

But I think it’s ok to sit a while as the shaky feeling grows and come up with some idea of how you’re going to start, what you’re feeling moved to communicate in the middle, and where you’re intending to end up.  Then jump off the high dive of speaking off the cuff to a hundred people, which is a bit easier if you can accept the community belief that it is not exactly you that is speaking, just as it is not necessarily (or at least not only) you that the message is for.

And although it’s not ok to write down what you plan to say and read it, I do think it’s ok to write down what you said, after the fact.  So here is what I said this morning:

“I’ve been thinking about a morning a number of years ago, when my family and I found ourselves having breakfast with a Catholic priest.  My son had a question for him.  I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I think it was along the lines of, ‘Why do you have that upsetting image of a dead guy on a cross hanging up in your church?’  I remember the priest’s answer with more fidelity than the question, but I’m still definitely paraphrasing here.  He answered, ‘That’s so that when I’m having a bad day, I can look up there and remember that my God is here with me in my suffering, that my God understands human pain.’

“And I’ve been thinking about the book The Life of Pi, which starts with Pi recounting his childhood in India and how he came to be a devout follower of all three of the major religions of his country: Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity.  He had beautiful things to say about all three, but about Christianity in particular he said that the story of Christianity is a story of love.  And he wrote about how preposterous the story seemed from the Hindu perspective, which was his first, how preposterous was the idea that a god would choose to give up their power, would allow themselves to suffer and to die.

“And I’m thinking about the protest that I went to recently, a protest against the family separation policy.  I’ve been asked so many times over the past year and a half, what good does protest do?  And I have a lot of answers to that question, but at this protest it felt like maybe the main thing we were doing was just saying, ‘We see your suffering, and we are with you.’”

Flower Tree

“Mom!  Come look out here!”  Bayboh has suddenly noticed the apple tree, which has been blooming for at least a week.

I, busy at the sink, tell him, “Yes, I know,” but he insists.  “No!  Come!  Look!” 

He has several questions about this blooming miracle and as I give several answers, his understanding grows until he can proclaim the truth as he has grasped it, but with the loud intonation of a very skeptical question, to make sure I know that even if he does believe me it is a very extremely surprising thing to believe, “We’re going to grow apples on our flower tree?!”

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Childhood, Trails, Butterfly, Lost

Somewhat begrudgingly, I went to a short poetry workshop last weekend while Shmoogie was at one of her own.  It turned out to be pretty fun, though.  And the teachers had some nifty prompts, which made me think, oh, maybe I could write more often again.  Maybe I should.  Maybe I would...

One of the exercises involved a piece of paper with a bunch of word groups printed on it, four words in each.  Just pick one group and make a poem out of it.   Then another.  Try to write 5 poems in 15 minutes.  (Ha ha ha!!!  I managed 2.5, including this one:

Red leaf,

half caught in a frozen puddle, 

tracery trails of some butterfly’s childhood

about to be lost

under the first snow.)

I’ve since spent longer than 15 minutes (a) dithering over definite vs. indefinite vs. left-out-altogether articles and (b) trying to figure out from google whether any butterfly larva does make the leaf trails I was thinking of... and I’m still not sure.   Lots of different insects do lots of interesting things to leaves, though!

Valentine’s

Bayboh told Daddy this morning, “Valentine’s is for cutting out hearts and scribbling on them and giving your hearts away to other people.”  Also, he said, he is too little to know how to cut out hearts.  

I do not believe in reincarnation

When Bayboh demands “pick me up” and the untidy end-of-day kitchen falls away into blurry periphery, he settles his weight around my hips, untroubled by any thought I might topple, even as I lean a little in unconscious counterbalance, tossing careless answers to his swarm of half-listened questions.

He catches my “when I was a baby” and his face squinches up in consternation around eyes locked onto mine, the intricate liquid colors of them beguiling in the too-close focus struggle where I see one iris crisply sharp while the other floats distractingly, jealous for attention.  “Isn’t it interesting you can only ever see one eye clearly at a time?” my dad said in early games of Don’t Blink (which I always won because children always do, plumped up as they are with water for a lifetime’s evaporation).

“You were a BABY?!”

“Yes, a long time ago!  Everybody was a baby once!”

“But then did I held YOU?”

He leans in a fraction of a breath, peering deep into the blackness at the center of my own miraculous eye, staring back at him.

But the spell shatters over us, broken by my laugh and I say “No, no, that was a long time ago, before you were born,” as the crusted dinner plates and smudgy lunchboxes come back into view and he asks, “But who DID holded you?”

Kissing his smooshy cheek I answer, “My parents held me, just like I hold you,” and set this voluble cherub’s feet down again on the unmopped floor.

Marshmallow Mittens

From January 1st.

The sump pump discharge has made a thick and wavy pan of ice across the back yard, school starts tomorrow, and Bayboh has no wool mittens. I might be able to knit a pair that small in one day, but there are a lot of other things to pack into today and a partially cut up felted cashmere sweater that’s been hanging around my fabric stash for years, so having a go at sewn mittens is a perfect New Year’s project.

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I took queues from this lovely little tutorial  https://makeanddocrew.com/make-a-sweater-into-mittens/ but made my own pattern based on a hand tracing for size.  And I didn’t line them because who wants to be protected from cashmere?

Bayboh says, “Ooh!  Are they a-durable?  Can I name them?  I will name them... Fluffy!”

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Epilogue:  After one ten minute walk outside, his hands were cold (cashmere being cuddly, but thin).  So these mittens got some boiled wool (been hanging on to that for a while!) outer mitts and that got us through a week of extremely (for us) cold bike rides to school to drop off Shmoogie.  For snow, they all wanted modern mittens with the synthetic outers and stuffing because they didn't like how the snow stuck to wool.  But I wore three layers of wool mittens for a windy sledding expedition and my hands were comfortable.  Especially in weather this cold, the snow doesn't melt enough to soak through that much wool.  And wool, as Eagle Scouts will tell you and sheep probably would if they could, will keep you warm even when wet.

Dance Bug

 (this has been languishing in my drafts for a while)

The band is loud, no question, and Bayboh isn’t sure about it.  The one thing he is sure of is that I shouldn’t leave his sight.  Well, and that lemon bars are not worth eating (“you finish it!”) and that a cupcake is only valuable as a handle for efficiently consuming frosting.

The band starts a cover of something classic I know I recognize but can’t quite place and I pick him up to bounce side to side with the music.  He’s got a look on his face that kind of says “What is happening? Do I like this?”  But he hangs on for the ride as I start to shuffle.  He tenses up and grabs my shirt when I bounce spin to the right, then left, but by the time we’re spinning right again, he is grinning like a fiend.  And when I stop to catch my breath, he starts bouncing and wriggling like a gigantic landed fish.

I put him down and he wriggles some more, pumps his arms back and forth very much in time with the music, shakes his head in total bliss.  He won’t let me pick him up again the whole evening and when it’s time to leave he sobs, “but I not ready to go yet!”

Eight

You’ve come a long ways since the day you were born and I hope there’s a long and splendid way left for you to go.  I see you studying the world, trying to figure out How things work and how you’re going to fit in it and I’m afraid to say anything, since whatever I’m thinking will be at least half wrong and whatever I say will be wronger still, cast with too much pessimism hoping to guard you or too much optimism hoping to encourage you.

You are good at many things these days.  Making friends and making rubber band bracelets and making worlds in Minecraft and making a ruckus when you feel aggrieved.  Making art and making your room a mess and making it cleanish again and making your brothers furious.

You say and do the most amazing things, in the humble opinion of your own mother.  May you always light up whatever corner of the world you’re in and always know that we love you.

What Game are We Playing?

Does anyone really enjoy musical chairs?  Someone must, right?  But I don’t think it has appeared at a single birthday party of my kids’ experience.  Kind of a brutal game, really.

I don’t love outdoor team building exercises, either, thanks to fear of heights and the outdoors always being too hot or too cold, but at least it’s heartening to face a seemingly impossible wall knowing that everyone is committed to getting all of you over or no one.  If you tossed me into competitive wall climbing instead — everyone for themselves and last one over the wall loses — I’d probably just give up and wander in the woods alone pondering the stupidity of walls and humanity.

It seems like a lot of psychological research reports averages and tendencies, drawing general conclusions about all of us.  “People cheat more when they think no one is watching,” “People feel calmer in blue rooms,” that kind of thing.  Lately I’ve been pondering the differences more, though.  Just now, I'd rather read a deep explanation of why some people want to fight over a chair while others would rather heave their teammates over a wall.

It feels like maybe psychologists are starting to pay more attention to differences, too.  (Or maybe I'm just noticing it now?)  I was handed an article recently (although it was published years ago), on a gene associated with ADHD.  The researchers had studied neighboring tribes, one of settled farmers and one of nomadic hunters.  (I can’t find the exact article, but it was very similar to this one.)  Among the farmers, where routine ruled the day, ADHD was a liability.  People with the gene ended up with less food.  But among the hunters, where quick reactions counted and every kill went a little differently, the gene meant more food.  It was the calm less-distractible people who more often went hungry.

There are unsettling implications to this kind of thing, especially if you see life as a zero-sum game of musical chairs.  Unsettling in that eugenics seems to have made a stunning comeback recently, with a Tennessee judge offering reduced jail time for prisoners who accept sterilization (the policy has since been pulled back after public outrage), a former senior advisor to the winning presidential campaign talking about immigration on CNN as “this is about who’s in your [national] gene pool," and congressional leadership fighting hard to make health insurance too expensive for many  people to have.  As twitter user @anthoknees put it, “I’m convinced that people want poor people to die bc they believe in eugenics (often without realizing it)”.

But if a musical chairs mentality draws us towards endorsing eugenics, could a no-one-left-behind exercise push the other direction?  Instead of survival of the fittest, the goal is survival of all.  Which is aided by building trust (generally hard to do if you're ditching teammates whenever that seems convenient) and preserving a broad set of skills with which to tackle the unknown challenges of the future.

These thoughts were humming in the background, not quite jelled, while I read How Fear of Falling Explains the Love of Trump (New York Times).  It points out the cultural divide between coastal elites and middle Americans, not over hot topics like abortion and gay marriage, but over fundamental how-the-world-works assumptions that run under the surface, powerful and unseen.  In middle America, “valuing hard work means having the rigid self-discipline to do a menial job you hate for 40 years, and reining yourself in so you” don’t “have an attitude” and create “disruption,” which would just “get you fired.”  But for elites, “hard work… is associated with self-actualization; ‘disruption’ means founding a successful start-up.”  (I feel compelled to note those quotes are all from a book, which I have not read, by Joan C. Williams, a law professor, which is quoted in the article, which I have read.)

In one world, disruption means success.  In the other, disruption means failure.  Like the hunters and the farmers, different circumstances easily end up favoring opposite traits.

Soon Twitter tossed another article into my mental stew.  Disabled and Disdained (Washington Post) shows the conflict in a struggling rural community through the lens of the McGlothlins: a woman on disability, her 19 year old son, his wife, and two other adults who live with them, all depending on that one disability check.  Her son’s been following the rules, finished school, hasn’t been in jail, etc. but things aren’t working out for him or any of them.  And many of their neighbors who haven’t fallen so far off the ladder see the world the way they’ve always seen it, with the clarity of traditional American calvinism:  workers are good, non-workers are bad.

Calvinism is another thing that’s been on my mind lately (what a segue!), and with it old memories of sitting in a plastic chair with a bolted-on “desk”, watching and listening in fascination to my favorite teacher as she scrawled chalk notes across the blackboard and responded to our comments with frustration or excitement (but always with intensity) as we tried to make sense of the theological and economic roots of the Protestant Reformation.  “Predestination” was definitely on the chalkboard (I remember she had a particular way of writing e’s so they always looked like capitals).  “Pre-“ for “before” and “destination” for “destiny” — God decided before you were even born whether you were saved (one of the “elect”, also a word on the chalkboard) or damned.  The decision was secret, of course, because God likes secrets, and there also wasn’t anything at all that you could do to change it, because otherwise how could God be all-powerful?  You’d think this would be a recipe for all kinds of hedonism because LOL nothing matters!, but people are people and they figured out a solution faster than you can say “sinners in the hands of an angry God”:  of course, no one could truly know the will of God, but they could guess.  And the guess they came up with was not impressively creative:  achieve worldly success while making a show of self discipline and you were probably one of “the elect”.  Misfortune, though, was strong evidence of your irredeemable depravity.

So let’s go back to the McGlothlins.  By Puritan standards, they are contemptible. (Did I mention it was the Puritan Pilgrims of Massachusetts that brought Calvinism to America? are all those words really supposed to be capitalized?)  No jobs between them, whiling away their days playing video games or holding a sign by the side of the road hoping for some cash to buy food.  Their neighbor calls it like he sees it: there is a “resistance to work” these days.  He himself “worked 60 hours a week — despite a thyroid condition, despite two bankruptcies, despite the depressed local economy — not because he felt like it but because that was who he was.”

Researchers have described this attitude as “a tendency by Americans in the second lowest quintile of the income ladder — the working or lower-middle class — to dissociate themselves from those at the bottom, where many once resided,” according to Who Turned My Blue State Red? (New York Times and Pro Publica, last year).  Not really surprising, is it?  I mean, if not working is evidence of incurable moral failure, then you’d want to distance yourself from that stigma as much as possible, wouldn’t you?

And if you felt like you couldn’t escape the ranks of the damned, you’d want to avoid coming into contact with the “elect” as much as possible, right?  Indeed, “She knew how she must look,” we hear of the elder McGlothlin, “in her pajamas and mismatched socks, to people who work. She knew what they must say… She would sometimes consider how she would answer.  But it’s simpler to say nothing at all, so she rarely leaves the house now.”

The societal consequences of this withdrawal are huge, explain the academics of Who Turned My Blue State Red?  Those who rely most on public assistance have “become profoundly disconnected from the political process” and mostly do not vote.  Thus their thesis: it’s not the needy stupidly voting against the programs that are barely keeping them afloat.  Instead, those who don’t need assistance at the moment are voting to take it away from their damned lazy undeserving neighbors.  And their damned lazy undeserving neighbors are too depressed and ashamed to bother voting at all.

At the end of the story about the McGlothlins, the son has been shooed away from his spot on the highway where he “holds a sign” when the family is desperate.  It’s what his father used to do, before he went to prison on drug charges (addiction followed the pain from his 30 years in coal mining... 30 years when they weren't so contemptible).  It’s what his father told him to do when necessary.  But then the cop told him to leave.  So he calls his mom from the grocery store.  “I don’t know what to do,” he says, “What should I do?”

What do you do when your strength is following the rules and doing what you’re told, but the rules have all changed without much notice and there’s no one left to tell you what to do?  What do you do when you’ve been a successful farmer but now your land won’t produce and you’ve got to try your hand at hunting?  And what do your neighbors do?  Who decides whether we're playing high-risk musical chairs, with the chairs disappearing faster to ditch the undeserving more quickly, or whether we're up against a wall of change, for the umpteenth time in human history, needing a plan to pull as many as we can to the other side so we can face the next danger together?

Always Be Prepared

One thing I’ve learned in the past ten years is that if we’re all in a bad mood, it’s probably not going to be helped by staying home all day.  Which is why on Saturday, with absolutely everyone whining, bickering, teasing, snarking, and generally being dreadful, we got on the Metro and went downtown.  A museum or two was the first plan, but a friend tipped us off that the Smithsonian Folklife Festival was on and just the word “Festival” began to shift the mood.  “Like, with food and stuff?  Can we have our own money to spend??” asked Mr. P.  

Shmoogie was more wary, “Are we going to have to walk really far?”  I said no, but it turned out her definition of “really far” was different than mine.  Still, we had the most wonderful adventure, with drums and ice cream and joining the end of a very long but very swiftly moving line that swept us right into some of the last seats left in a real big top circus tent for an hour of astonishing acts from around the world.

The noise and adrenaline was a few notches past our family’s usual comfort level and there were some requests to leave, but whenever I said “OK, let’s go,” they said No, let’s stay.

Gymnasts from China made astonishing arrangements of their bodies atop five, then three, then two, then one moving bicycle.  “That’s impossible!” said Mr. P, over and over.

A slow rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow accompanied a woman “from South America” who climbed a rope as if it were a staircase and wrapped herself in it dozens of ways to strike elegant poses with no apparent fear of falling, then make some imperceptible tug so that she did fall, beautifully, her hands and feet inscribing a few heart-stopping circles in the air before the remaining hitch caught her in yet another state of grace.  I’d never seen anything like it, but, while the miracle of the open Internet lasts, it’s a thing you can watch on YouTube.

Things get blurry in my mind at this point.  There were clowns (Mr. P says he’s afraid of clowns; I didn’t know but, also, he didn’t seem very serious about it) and a slapstick tumbling troupe and rollicking dancers who did the limbo under flaming poles while grinning men on 10’ stilts ran and danced around the ring (the flames frightened me, packed as we were into a *tent*, and I missed the lowest limbo while I was looking behind me for an emergency exit..).  There was a group of male contortionists (another chorus of “That’s impossible!”).  Acts from Cameroon, Rwanda, and Ghana, if I remember correctly.  The ringmasters — from Johannesburg and… somewhere else in Africa but with a lengthy stop in London and then maybe the Caribbean? — distracted us between acts, getting us singing and dancing and bouncing huge beachballs around.  That was entertaining enough that I have no idea how long it took them to bring in and set up the final act, the Wheel of Death, from Peru.

This is where I have some serious ethical qualms.  I mean, it was extraordinary to see.  An openwork steel beam on an axis with two steel hoop cages rimmed with handles mounted, one on each end, so that once they got it spinning, performers could jump inside the hoops and keep it going with the momentum of their running… or stop it to balance horizontal or vertical.  But mostly it kept spinning and people kept hopping in and out of the wheels.  One grabbed the handle on the outside and sailed up, centripetal force pulling his body away from the contraption until he swung himself inside the hoop at the apex.  Then there were four people on the thing, one inside each hoop and one on top of each hoop, running and kind of dancing and then jumping and then jumping rope.  Both of the jump ropers tripped at some point, but recovered themselves by grabbling the beam as their hoop descended.

And then came Carlos.  “One of only three people in the world to attempt a front summersault on the Wheel of Death!”  By this point I was holding the kids hands rather tightly (they’d been saying “That’s really dangerous!” for a while already and I could only tell them, "Yes, it is.  But these people have practiced a lot.")

I thought of that guy that walked the tightrope between the World Trade Center towers.  People that jump out of airplanes and do other astonishingly dangerous things.  I can worry, and I certainly do, that attending a performance like this encourages people taking terrible risks for the sake of entertainment, but I can also marvel at brains and bodies that clearly operate on some other wavelength than mine.  I can sit in the bleachers, shaking with fear, and watch this guy strutting around a steel hoop at the end of a rotating beam, looking utterly relaxed, playing to the crowd, and I can hold open the possibility that he might be enjoying himself.  Even though Wikipedia says this act was out of favor for decades after a series of fatal accidents.

Carlos survived.   I thought about not watching, but realized that was quite pointless, so I saw him retreat from flirting with the crowd to focus on the rhythm of the wheel, getting the feel of the spot on the top where rising turns to falling, the place where, for a few turns, he took a little jump, testing the timing and the distance before finally, terrifyingly, to the gasp of the crowd, he jumped higher and tucked and summersaulted and landed just in time to keep trotting along with the momentum of the thing.  And then he did it again.  And again, landing just a little back from where he intended, so he had to run faster and lean forward to grab the rail to recover his equilibrium.  And then he did it again.

I was still shaky eating ice cream much later, after the Wheel was taken down, after the kids stood to take “The Ringmaster’s Pledge” of unity and respect across difference — You may have different beliefs, your skin may be a different color from mine, but we are all one human race, we are all equal! — after we found seats in the shade next to the outdoor trapeze where performers were practicing, swinging high and letting themselves fall limply into the net.

People.  People are amazing.

Finally, we thought, we’ll see the Constitution at the Archives.  Mr. P was especially excited about this and it was on the way home and (as it should be) free.  We tried two entrances before finding the real one, which had a long line but it was moving well and the kids were committed so there we stood, enjoying the breeze that kept the heat quite bearable, and chatting with the couple behind us.  The wind picked up and dark clouds came in while we checked smartphone forecasts and told ourselves it would blow over, but soon I was holding Bayboh, with the folding stroller balanced on my head in some hope of shelter and the other two kids were fighting to get closer to me even though that wasn't going to keep anyone any drier.  I almost dragged them off home when we were thoroughly drenched and all of them were crying, but the suggestion put a stop to the crying, at least from the older ones, and we stuck it out.

Which is why we now all own souvenir t-shirts from the National Archives, both to save some of my modesty (a thin white shirt is a great choice for heat, but a poor choice to combine with a chance of thunderstorms and no umbrella) and to avoid hypothermia from taking small wet children on the air-conditioned Metro for up to an hour.

For next time, though, there are now some thin cheap ponchos stashed in the diaper bag.

Freedom

I've never been without health insurance.  Never.  Not for a single day.

As a child, this was not a thing I worried about and it was not a thing I had anything to do with.  That was just luck.  But as a college student, before Obamacare, graduation loomed like the end of a pirate's plank.  I had no idea how I was going to get a real job, and no idea how I could have health insurance without one.  

I was unwilling to consider going without health insurance.  Not because I was seriously sick or ever had been, but because I loved people who had had sudden expensive health problems pop up out of nowhere and because I had parents who emphasized how insurance of all kinds smooths out the small risk of catastrophe with regular, theoretically affordable, payments and shared burden.  You don't drive a car off the lot without auto insurance, you don't move into an apartment without renter's insurance, you don't go a day without health insurance.

And, like I said, I haven't.

I've had many moments of regret, though.  What if I'd been a little younger and being insured separately from a job had been possible when I was starting out?  What if I'd had a little more tolerance for risk and been willing to just go uninsured for a few years in my twenties?  Because as it was, I narrowed down my career options from the very beginning to a rather thin slice, largely because of health insurance.

Knowing we wanted to have kids some day, and knowing that part time work usually doesn't come with health insurance, we limited our ideas of how we could be parents years ahead of time.  Those limits rippled through a stream of life choices, large and small.

And, yeah, I know it's still a thing to be grateful for, having never gone a day without insurance.  Millions of us in this country don't even have the option.

But this is why I was most excited when Obamacare passed.  Certainly, it was good to know that fewer people would be choosing between bankruptcy and watching a loved one die of cancer without even knowing whether treatment might have saved them, or between food and taking their full dose of prescriptions.  But I was excited to think of the possibilities opening up for the people a little younger than me, the possibilities that would hopefully be well expanded by the time my own kids were facing the adulthood cliff.  Possibilities not just for individuals, but for our whole society as a result.

So, I could sit here and make the heart wrenching appeals and angry denunciations of cruelty that you'd probably expect and have already heard.  I agree with them completely.  But what usually gets left out is freedom.  The freedom to search for a job without half your attention on health insurance.  The freedom to quit a bad job without fearing a gap in coverage.  The freedom to start a family without fearing bankruptcy.  The freedom to share domestic responsibilities with your partner however you see fit, not however your employers and the insurance company see fit to allow you.

I've been voting my whole life for the opportunity to pay more taxes to see those freedoms spread from sea to shining sea.

One Week

Shmoogie was very excited to go.  A week of undivided grandparent attention, I could see her thinking, yippee!

Bayboh thought less of the plan.  "Is Shmoogie back?" he asked in the afternoon, hearing the dog bark at the door.  "But can we go get her?"

In the morning, realizing the school routine wasn't happening, he saw another chance.  "Is Shmoogie coming back?" he asked.  "Can we go pick her up?"  Informed that Shmoogie had camp today, out by DiDi and PaPa's house, he asked brightly, "Can I go to camp wiff her?"

Confession

A few years ago, when Mr P wasn't even in kindergarten yet, we rode our bikes to the river and walked out on the public dock, where we found a father and son fishing.  They'd already had some luck and the dad was sawing fillets off these little fish, gills still flapping, eyes still staring, mouths still trying to open and shut.  Having cut the flesh roughly away from both sides of the spine, he dropped each twitching skeleton casually back into the water, to the darkness and the crabs.

I felt queasy.

I'd fished as a child, sure, but we kept our catch in a bucket full of sea water, watching with mingled interest and sympathy as they quietly expired from lack of oxygen.  Once, fresh water fishing from a row boat with friends, there'd been an argument between the dads whether a quick bash to the head was more humane than slow suffocation.  Which side won, I can't remember, but the point is that I didn't know anyone who would carve the living flesh off a creature without the mercy of killing it first.

I didn't say anything at the dock, though, telling myself they're just fish, and going to be dead soon either way, and surely a father fishing with his son deserves to be left alone to treat his catch as he sees fit, and what do I know about the nervous system of a fish, anyway.  So I exchanged a few polite pleasantries with the live filleter, hoping Mr. P just wouldn't notice what was happening, or wouldn't care, and trying to ignore it myself.

But Mr. P did notice.  And he was horrified.

I don't remember exactly what he said to me or even whether the man heard him, but I remember the way my son shrank into himself, the shock and confusion that made him whisper instead of shout that it must be hurting them.  And I remember telling him he was wrong.

"They're dead already, hon," I said, "They can't feel it."

I knew it was a lie, and I think he knew it, too. But I made him doubt.  Whether he doubted his own eyes or my honesty or just my intelligence, I'm not sure.

I think about this little moment fairly often, whenever I look away from suffering because I don't want to see it.  Whenever I find myself saying things that can only be meant to help the people around me construct and reinforce the fiction that the suffering isn't real, isn't as bad as it looks, or at least was probably somehow deserved and certainly can't be helped.

I remember that dock, the heat and the dancing water throwing shards of blazing sun into my squinting eyes while I lied to my son about the truth of the world.  And I let myself feel ashamed.

But I wonder, too.  I wonder about the rare people who physically feel any sensation they witness happening to someone elseLucky I don't have that.  And I wonder about sociopaths, unable to feel empathy for others, who think themselves lucky to have escaped the burden of "useless" emotional pain.  I wonder where do the rest of us lie scattered on the spectrum in between and what purpose does all this variation serve?

I'm sure I used to think sensitivity was a measure of goodness.  The more empathy you naturally felt, and the wider the circle of living creatures for whom you felt it, the better a person you must be.

I don't quite think that's how it works anymore.  Maybe, after all, the most sensitive among us most often just look away.  But I do agree that, if nothing else, we'd better not trust anyone goading us to shrink our circle of empathy or discount the suffering we see.  And we'd better feel ashamed, and let shame make us stop, when we realize that charlatan is us.

Easter

I've been taking a mostly bare minimum approach to holidays this year, since just keeping things going on normal days generally feels like quite enough, thank you.  And Easter was going to be fine.  We've never made a big deal about the bunny, church was going to have egg dying and an egg hunt, which I worried about because while finding actual hard boiled eggs is beautiful and simple and all that, my kids (who definitely don't believe in the Easter Bunny, I thought) do look forward to candy.  But the grandparents were coming through with that - a candy egg hunt at their house after the pure and healthy boiled egg hunt.   It was all going to be just fine.

Mr. P even made a point of telling me over and over for the past week "I know you're the Easter Bunny."  I rolled my eyes and said nothing.

Whether she overheard or not, I don't know, but Shmoogie was on Friday suddenly laser focused on "Where are the Easter baskets?" And "Do you think the Easter Bunny will come?"  Which might be actual belief, she is only 7, but I kind of doubt it... she is, after all, almost 8 and pays such close attention to everything around her that she lettered "you need to releese your taxes Trump" with near perfect spelling and spacing on her protest sign all by herself while I was in the shower (I was pretty upset when Bayboh added all the scribbles a little later when no one was looking, but she didn't seem to care as long as people could still read it).

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But anyway.  There I was on Saturday, with a seven year old I'd just discovered was expecting a visit from the Easter Bunny, but also with a pretty tightly scheduled day and nothing to put in Easter baskets and also no milk.  Or bananas.  So on the way home from my afternoon late birthday outing with a friend, I stopped at Trader Joe's for Easter basket candy and milk and bananas, and maybe also deli ham and tortillas... and $83 later I had several bags of unplanned but clearly necessary groceries, and was an hour late for the babysitter.

Then the unearthing of the Easter baskets.  Bayboh was thrilled, Shmoogie was pleased, and Mr. P was MIA.  Bayboh's basket had grass already in it, but the others didn't, so I took his out saying the bunny would take care of that, but that was not ok with Bayboh.   Shmoogie's basket has a lid, and she took it off, happy babbling about it all the while, to which I replied, walking up the stairs to fetch something or other, thinking only of table space and dinner that hadn't yet been eaten, "Oh, you can leave the lid on, the bunny can take care of that," which provoked a sudden shift in mood as she yelled after me, "How, with PAWS?"  And I scowled to myself, thinking "still with the Easter bunny is seriously a real bunny? isn't this all just a ploy to get more candy?" and yelled back "Then how does it carry the eggs??"  To which she hissed, "IN. THE. BASKET!"

So there.

It was going just great, Bayboh and Shmoogie asleep, Mr. I-don't-believe-in-anything-except-maybe-all-the-Greek-mythology-because-that-stuff-makes-SENSE Pants was awake but in his room in the basement, and I was almost done putting out these few eggs filled with candy that no one needs (really, seriously, because it turned out the boiled eggs were for giving out to grownups, the kids egg hunt was candy after all, so we now have a pound of candy each, not to mention what they ate already), when suddenly there was Mr. P wandering into the dining room, trying to look confused and half asleep.   Clutching an egg half-guiltily to my chest, I glared at him, turned him around and pushed him out the door with a firm, "Good NIGHT."

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Tune In, Tune Out, Tune In

In a cold, dark winter, when the sun breaks through and there’s a five inch patch of warmth and light on the floor, a cat will find it and lie in it as long as it lasts.

My ray of sunshine, quite unexpected, was to spend three days in London with Mr. Right, the first stretch of days we’ve had alone in years.  I won’t try to say we “deserved” it, but the patch of light was there, briefly, and I’m beyond grateful that we were able to curl up in it while it lasted.

We walked a lot.  We talked a lot.  We thought a lot.  And, long-winded though it turned out to be, this is what I want to share:

The British Museum seemed like a good place to warm up (it wasn’t) and see some cool stuff (it was!).  With our hats and coats and often mittens still firmly in place, we wandered through the Assyrian wing, marveling at huge mystical beasts of stone and carved slabs bearing the portraits of brutal men deeply impressed with themselves but yet looking pretty much identical to each other.  They don’t look brutal or deeply impressed with themselves, smiling and holding out their arms as if in offering, but from the waist down they are covered in regimental lines of cuneiform helpfully translated on the signs below as saying things like “I slaughtered them all and painted the hillsides red with their blood.”

We wandered the Greek statuary, admiring bathing Venus and reading with interest the British Museum’s pamphlet on “The Parthenon Controversy”, in which they calmly — although with evident discomfort — argue that it is right and just and good for the world that half the statuary from the Parthenon is housed here and not in Greece, as the Greeks would like it to be.  We looked at the Rosetta stone, picking out the cartouches that enclosed the names of famous ancients, the key that broke the phonetic code of heiroglyphs.

We saw so much statuary from the Roman Empire, but I spent the whole time puzzling over where was the stuff from the Republic period?  (It was only day one in London and already the weight of imperial history was starting to get me down.)  And we saw a fascinating, tiny special exhibit called “Defacing the Past”, which displayed coins and statuary whose faces had been broken or scratched off to condemn the memory of hated (murdered) emperors.  A custom I had never given much thought to, they point out how it persists to the modern day, with examples of Saddam Hussein’s statues attacked and Gadaffi’s face scratched off of paper currency.

In the Egyptian wing, the smooth clean lines of massive pharaoh faces struck me with their beauty and the story of a giant stone sarcophagus caught my attention:  carved for the last native-born pharaoh, it was never used for burial because that pharaoh got driven into exile before his death; instead, it was used as a ritual bath in a mosque (they drilled some drainage holes in the bottom) which later became a church.

If there’s one thing I will always remember from my limited travels near the Mediterranean, it’s the way buildings were always being converted from mosques to churches and vice versa.  Same with the Roman and Greek temples.  We humans like to fight about our gods.

Later, at the National Portrait Gallery, I lingered at a huge painting of a dramatic scene, but failed to take a photo of the description, so this is from memory and I might have slightly garbled the details:  In the sunshine, Peace is represented as a lactating mother, squirting milk from her breast into the mouth of a chubby baby Prosperity.  Also enjoying the warm light and appealing greenery of the countryside, the female figures of the Arts and, I think, Justice approach Pax with smiles and arms full of good things.  In the dark and stormy background, the angry god of War, sword drawn, attempts to reach Peace… but Wisdom, also in the form of a woman, fully armored, fends him off with her shield.

People have known what’s what with people for a good long while.  We just haven’t got a foolproof defense yet.

When I asked Mr. P if there was anything he wanted me to bring him from London, he had said, “A picture of the Crown Jewels… and a snow globe.”  (Lucky he understood the Crown Jewels themselves weren’t possible, but it turned out a postcard was the best we could do — no photography allowed.  Snow globes, on the other hand, are very easy to come by.)

In search of the Crown Jewels, therefore, we walked 6 miles to the Tower of London on our second day, much of that on the river walk beside the Thames.  Benches and lamp posts screamed “Empire!” through every symbol worked into their design.  I raised an eyebrow in particular at the benches supported by regal resting camels.

On the other hand, at regular intervals the railing on the river side was interrupted by a portion of high stone wall with a metal bas relief plaque mounted to it.  One had a portrait of the senior engineer who constructed London’s new sewers (a crucial achievement for human health and, therefore, prosperity), another honored a poet, another a journalist.

I was a little apprehensive about the Tower tour, to be honest.  The whole concept of execution makes me sick, and I knew that was a big part of the Tower’s history.  Turns out, it’s also the part of the Tower’s history most easily sensationalized, and which the tour guides share with gusto.  Interesting, though, that the UK banned capital punishment in 1965 (we, much to our shame, have not) and that the tour guides are in fact Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary.  To become one, you have to retire with honor from at least 22 years of military service.  This all leads to a strange mix of stories and attitudes throughout the tour.  Starting with a rich description of a typical execution day, in which the assembled tour group is heartily encouraged to play the “very loud” part of the drunken crowd shouting “Huzzah!” or “God Save the King!” as the guard mimes lifting a severed head and shouts, “Thus to all traitors!”  (I refuse to play along, but I don’t think anyone noticed my silent protest.)

“At least we don't take kids to public executions as entertainment anymore,” I mutter to Mr. Right as we enter the gate for the rest of the tour.  I remember realizing I was going to have to do a lot of on-the-fly editing while reading Peter Pan to the kids years ago; the first page describes the thoughts of young children drifting off to sleep, “public hangings” being listed as one among many perfectly normal bedtime thoughts.

We have come so far.

As the tour goes on, the stories get more specific and the mood gets more somber.  We hear about the boy princes who were brought to the Tower by their uncle for their “safety”, then (allegedly) murdered and their bodies disappeared, although two child skeletons were discovered two hundred years later and presumed to be their remains.  This is told somewhat in the manner of a ghost story, but with a strong layer of condemnation for the presumed murderous uncle, Richard III, whose own ignominious end became clearer in 2012 when his body was discovered buried beneath an asphalt parking lot.

And we hear, of course, of the wives of Henry VIII, along with several others of “noble birth” who were executed in the courtyard of the Tower, rather than on the hill outside.  Curiously, the guards mention the “trumped up” charges against these women, but not the amoral character of Henry VIII himself or the issue of producing (not producing) heirs.  The thing that came through most strongly — from the facts of the stories (nobles executed within the walls instead of outside) and the manner of telling (focusing on the point of view of the executed royalty here, where outside the point of view was more that of the crowd and the executioner) and the presence of a very modern memorial on the sight — was the visceral understanding that some people’s deaths at the Tower were more regrettable than others because of their social status, even as it seemed to be held as basically inevitable that their status had condemned them to death because… that’s just how power struggles worked back then.

The tour ends in the chapel a few yards from the execution site.  “Gentlemen” are reminded to remove their hats, we are all asked to turn off our phones before entering and to treat the space with respect.  We quietly shuffle into chairs over stones so worn that you cannot read the names, can barely even tell there were ever names there at all.  We look at the alter as we are told that beneath its steps lie the murdered wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, as well as the sixteen year old “uncrowned queen” Lady Jane Grey and her eighteen year old husband, Guildford Dudley, both executed after Bloody Mary (murderous daughter of the murderous Henry VIII) seized the crown.

But our guide doesn’t want to leave us glum!  He is soon back to humor, if not quite free of gore, and sends us on our way.

Which finally brings us to the Crown Jewels.  Housed in a much larger exhibit than I would have expected, paid for by the diamond giant De Beers (insert tone of moral questioning here), several rooms of immersive multimedia displays are devoted to impressing on us the history and meaning of the Jewels, the coronation ceremony, and by extension the monarchy itself.  What hits me most is the heavy use of Christianity, not only in symbol (I’m so used to seeing that cross on top of the crown, I might not have even noticed that), but explicitly in much of the exhibit’s explanation.  The coronation ceremony is a “christian worship service of deep history”.  A gleaming gold orb, encrusted with jewels and topped with a cross, is placed in the newly crowned monarch’s hand as “a symbol of christian leadership”.  There are way more gold and jeweled objects than just the couple of crowns I always imagined, and there are crosses everywhere.

On the way out, special custom-made (duh) travel cases for various pieces in the collection are laid out above a reminder that the jewels are “working treasures”, used in ceremonial roles by the royals on a regular basis.  Start to finish, the Crown Jewels experience feels like really expensive pro-monarchy propaganda.  Interesting, though.

Then we walk through the several floors of the Tower itself, but I have to say I’m somehow disappointed that it’s all laid out as a museum, mostly of armor, with no trace of what it might have been like when people lived there (although you can step into one of the garderobes and imagine chilly royal behinds relieving themselves into the air two stories above the ground).

Finally, a walk around the circular monument in honor of the executed, which you must walk around if you want to read the inscription:

Gentle visitor pause a while, where you stand death cut away the light of many days.  Here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life.  May they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage under these restless skies.

Reading about the memorial just now, I find that the inscribed names include everyone executed on the site, the royalty and also the three Black Watch soldiers killed by a firing squad of their fellow soldiers for what sound like pretty thin charges of mutiny.  The piece was unveiled in 2006, by which time we’d come far enough to make it possible to honor them side by side (possible, but clearly not expected, if you read the artist’s statement).  As far as I can tell, though, no mention of the WW1 and WW2 spies which were the last executions within the walls.  So I guess capital punishment is no longer morally acceptable, but still the historical deaths of traitors and foreigners are less regrettable than those of native criminals, which are less regrettable than those of noblemen, which are less regrettable than those of queens.

One more stop…

The Churchill Museum.  In the cramped basement of the Treasury building, you can walk through the rooms where Winston and Clementine Churchill and a small committed staff lived (it feels a bit like a submarine) and worked through the war.  You feel the shock of dawning modernity, with a secret transatlantic telephone to the White House hiding in a closet while decisions were made in a large technology-free room papered with maps pinned to the wall in curved array to cover the whole word, while Churchill himself and all the others slept in tiny beds next to wooden tables holding porcelain washing pitchers and the weather above ground was reported by the manual changing of wooden signs in the hallway.

A Nazi propaganda poster in the exhibit area is still clear in my mind:  a thin woman slumped over a bare table, reaching for an empty bowl, surrounded by her thin worried children.  A cartoon Churchill, fat and smugly chomping a cigar, leers over them from behind and a slogan in French splashes across the bottom.  I can’t read it but I’m pretty sure the message was, “That nasty well-fed Churchill is starving you French people!”

It’s a dirty trick, hurting people and then telling them someone else is to blame.

So, we stayed a little too long at the war rooms and hit a crush of people on the underground which caused a little stress about getting to the airport on time, but I didn’t miss my flight so all’s well that ends well, right?

I’m listening to this really interesting book, The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, and reading a useful book called Crucial Conversations, which is how I spent most of the flight, but then I opened my phone and caught up on the tweets that had loaded before we took off.  So the last hour or so I was awash in a flood of tidbits about the chaos brought on by the muslim ban.  I was upset.  I thought hard about how to ethically go through customs and border control during this crisis.  But by the time I’d landed, I’d decided to behave as I always do, then find the protest after clearing customs.  I thought I’d have to hunt for it.  But as soon as I walked through the exit doors, hundreds of people were lining the walkway, chanting and waving and holding signs of love and welcome.  It was the best most patriotic homecoming I have ever had.

I cannot overstate the power of seeing so many people willing to give up their time and comfort and take on unclear risk to stand up for their values and their fellow humans.  This is the weirdest time I have lived through and it is seriously scary, but I am in awe of how massive numbers of us in America and around the world (London was in the streets bigly the day after we left) have reacted with love and courage and reached out to each other to fend off despair.

We always will be stronger together.

Nine Years

Of all the things my father taught me, the trick of switching time scales to put present troubles in perspective is the one on my mind today.  The whole of human history is but a blink of the cosmic eye, each of our own lives so infinitessimal.

As a child, I was both terrified and fascinated by the astonishing vastness of space and time which he described.  When I feared the implosion of the sun or the final fate of the whole universe, his idea of comfort was to calmly point out that we and everyone else would be very long dead by then, so why bother worrying?  When I understood the threat of nuclear war, I was supposed to be calmed by the idea that we'd be instantly vaporized and never know it happened.

I doubt this is the standard advice for soothing an anxious child.  I don't think it soothed me much at the time, in fact, but I definitely internalized the idea that it should be calming.  And by now I understand the lighthearted but purposeful approach to life that can come from embracing the dizzying terror of it all. 

On that note, a short video this week that I loved and which I think Dad would have loved, too:

Also, an article that is long but absolutely worth the time to read:  Neanderthals Were People, Too  by Jon Mooallem for the New York Times. 

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Love

It's a rainy, midwinter morning.  Bayboh has climbed into bed with me to say hello.  He would like a "cuddle".

Hugging him, I say, "I love you."

He furrows his brow and then grins, "Love. kocolate!"

Points at me, "You. love. kocolate!"

Warming to his theme, "Shmoogie. love. kocolate!  Mr. P. love. kocolate!  Daddy. love. kocolate!"