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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Miscarriage of Justice

I am writing this after hearing that the policeman who shot Philando Castile has been acquitted.

There are no words. I have no words. This is beyond words.

A blind miscarriage of justice.

Because our police are trained to jump the gun, literally and figuratively, as though they are living in war zones instead of civilized societies.

In memory and in honor of Philando I am posting what I wrote last July after driving past his memorial at the place where he was shot. Because I am too upset to write anything else right now.

And because this is something we need to keep talking about.

Isn't He Behind You? Thoughts on Philando Castile

(July, 2016)

The side of the road is covered with flowers and memorials and a small half tent has been erected. A sign asks visitors and passersby: what would Philando want you to learn?

I heard about Philando Castile after driving home from an evening meeting. It was after 10 p.m. and I was looking for weather related news, but my eye fell on a headline about a shooting in Falcon Heights, which is close to my neighborhood.

I watched the video, horrified. What struck me most was the poise and composure of Diamond Reynolds, who loved Philando Castile and  was trying to save him, but whose pleas were being ignored. The other thing that struck me was the policeman who shot him sounded like a panicked soldier in a war zone. Cursing over and over, with no regard for the fact that a four-year-old child was watching him, saying in a tight, hard voice, “I thought he was reaching for his gun.”

"He was reaching for his wallet, sir," Reynolds replied, in a voice completely devoid of malice or dissimulation.

Lest you think in reading this I have any kind of vendetta against the police, I need to share a little more with you. As a child I watched close family friends lose their son, who was arguably one of the best people on the planet, because he was a policeman and was shot in the line of duty. His wife was left to raise three darling little girls without him and I will always treasure his name and the fine memories he left behind.

I understand what police are trying to do and why they are trying to do it. I have had good experiences with police in my neighborhood and truly appreciate the help they've provided. But I am afraid for them when I see videos like the one that records Philando Castile’s death.

I have watched the video several times, and am always struck by the unbridled panic in the policeman’s voice as opposed to the measured response by Reynolds to watching the man she loves  as his life ebbs away. I am astonished that no first aid was administered and 911 was not called; instead, the policeman seems to sound as though he, and not Mr. Castile, had been shot.

Much has been said about this tragedy and other tragedies have followed it, including the shootings of other police and other unarmed African American civilians. I am still unable to stop thinking of this one, because Mr. Castile was shot mere minutes from where I was, driving home; because I see those flowers and signs every day; and because of all the terrible violence in our communities lately, this one seems to vilify a man who was one of the best of us.

It seems he had been pulled over multiple times for various driving infractions and was constantly being fined. This reminds me of a young man named Jo in Dickens’ novel Bleak House, who was exceedingly poor and always being told to “move on” -- until he couldn’t move any more and died. Yet somehow, here in Minnesota where we are supposed to be progressive, this man who had a good job and paid taxes and championed children was persecuted mercilessly by a system that cannot seem to stop itself from grinding down the poor.

Philando Castile, I didn't want to learn about your life because it had been taken from you. Now I am mourning your life without knowing what to do. What is it you would want me to learn?

When I was sixteen, I saw a film by Ingmar Bergman in a park called The Seventh Seal. In it, a disillusioned knight plays chess with Death to try and defeat him during the Black Plague in the Middle Ages. One scene made a particularly strong impression: a young woman being persecuted because she is believed to be a witch. She is tied up, awaiting some awful fate, when the knight stops to talk with her.

The knight asks the woman about accusations that she has consorted with the Devil and she agrees that she has. When asked if the Devil is present, she says he is; and when asked where the Devil might be, the young woman replies, “Isn’t he behind you?”

Of course, that is the most frightening line she could say, because, as a friend once pointed out, we can never truly see what is behind us.

What was the policeman thinking when he saw Philando Castile? Why did he sound as if he was seeing the Devil himself?

But isn’t he behind you? I want to ask. Isn’t he in the rearview when you are rolling down the road? Who was it who made you see demons everywhere, who made you afraid that people were ready to hurt you at every turn? He was not in front of you and Philando was not in front of you because you were not seeing PhilandoHe was never your enemy.

We have seen news reports of a military-style training called “Bulletproof Warrior” and learned that the policeman who shot Philando Castile received numerous hours of this training. From what I have learned, the training makes it sound like enemies are around every corner, waiting to kill police.

Yet it was Reynolds' four-year-old daughter who watched the policeman kill Philando Castile, a man she loved and relied on. “Mom, the police are bad guys. They killed him and he’s not coming back.”

This is the lesson she will have burned into her brain for the rest of her life. This is the lesson people learned in Salem when they were burned for being witches. This is the lesson we are not learning, so tragedies and unnecessary killings are happening over and over and over again.

Bulletproof Warrior is doing no policeman on our streets any favors. It is teaching them to shoot first and ask questions later. It is motivating police to kill innocent men and haul their mothers into jail overnight while their children watch, terrified. 

The stones themselves should weep at the thought of it. And yet they do not.

Philando's name still  wakes me at night, graceful as the flowers lining the sidewalk where he was shot. What do we have to do to find justice for him and others who are dying on our streets?

Where is the Devil in all this? Where is the Enemy who lurks, ready to pounce?

Isn’t he behind you, the young girl asks. We must look in the mirror and answer yes today. Yes, yes, he is.

Blind Justice Photo: Nan Palmero

Monday, June 12, 2017

If Kids Don't Like Change - Do YOU?

Changes, risk, turning points -- how do you deal with them? People say it gets harder to deal wit the older you get, and I don't disagree.

On the other hand, there is something in me that wants to take the risk, even though it may be stressful or may not turn out the way I'm hoping.

I don't always know why I feel this way; sometimes it 's more about compulsion and impulse. But I've become the type of person who needs to be "85% sure" when I take a leap that I'll get to the other side intact. So I'm hoping the risk I'm thinking of taking (selling our house) turns out the way I want it to.

If it doesn't... do I have a backup plan? Kinda sorta, but not much of one. My husband is wary of making this move, but I believe in my heart it's worth trying. I hope I turn out to be right, and I will take responsibility if I'm wrong.

But still.

Change is scary, and it's scaring me. I'm trying to fight that because I believe there is a good chance of finding a better house or at least a newer one that doesn't require so much maintenance. (We live in an "It's a Wonderful Life" type house - which I love some days and which drives me crazy on others.) 
On the other hand, there are a lot of reasons to stay here. So.

Which road to take? Which is the one less traveled and why do I seem to gravitate toward that road?

I don't know, really. I think we are sometimes wired to want something better, whatever we think that means for us.

As a child there was very little change in my life, save for moving once when I was little. I changed schools in seventh grade (and hated it), though high school was better and college better still. I've heard that people with traumatic childhoods have the worst time with change, and I understand how that applies to me.

When my son was a child, he had to deal with his parents divorcing, and I still feel guilty about that. But I'm grateful to see what a wonderful young man he's become (in spite of his parents' messes). Change is scary, but it can teach us resilience in ways nothing else can.

This post was supposed to be about how to help your kids deal with change, but I don't think there really is a good way of doing that. On the other hand, maybe just learning how to deal with change yourself -- and then modeling that -- is the best way to go.

If your kids are dealing with changes, you might want to check out these articles:

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Sophisticated Lady

“It’s not sexy, it’s sophisticated.” So says the Beat girl Ruby of one of her mother’s paintings in The Beat on Rubys Street.

For a very long time, if not for as long as I can remember, I wanted to be sophisticated. When I was growing up I thought that meant wearing black a lot, having a cool job and drinking wine every night.

I also thought it meant impeccable taste in music, (somehow including the song The Lady is a Tramp) -- though the most sophisticated music of all to my mind was always jazz. (Classical music is lovely and can be very cool, but only because it’s unfashionable.)

I don’t exactly know what sophisticated is these days, but I know I don’t make the cut for it, much as I’d like to. I am just not as sharply defined as you need to be, I think, to achieve sophisticated status.

I don’t drink wine every day. I’m not emaciated, like the picture here, which was a costume sketch for a show I was in some years ago). I wear black but other colors too. My footwear is usually abominable, like the Abominable Snowman or Belle’s boat sized boots in the latest opening-song version of Beauty and the Beast.

Not that I’ve seen the latest version.

I’m not sure sophisticated people would love horror movies the way I do, either. They might like cabarets, but it would have to be certain cabarets, dedicated to certain kinds of moments on certain kinds of nights.

I suppose being sophisticated is a little like being cool. (Dressing like the woman in the Madam X painting by John Singer Sargent wouldn't hurt, either). You know because of the way people look at you or follow your lead, but I think it’s really about the things you care about, and that can’t be taught.

Can it?


More importantly, is it something to aspire to--and want your kids to be? The "right" answer is probably no, but I can't always want the right answer.

So, however incorrect it may be I continue to believe that some day, some way, I really can improve my sophistication score.

Might be in another lifetime, but… I’ll still be trying.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Why Presidential Museums #Fail

Before I start ranting away here, I need to tell you about a special Memorial Day sale here for The Beat on Ruby's Street, which just won the Gold Award from Wishing Shelf Awards last month. The e-book version is on sale for just 99 cents at the following sites between Saturday May 27 and Tuesday May 30.

You can find the 99 cent sale price at the following sites:


Barnes & Noble



Now back to my "regular real" post (as Ruby would say) about presidential museums. I started thinking about them because of Memorial Day weekend and remembering all the people we lost in wars. 

I also started thinking about presidential museums after reading about John F. Kennedy's. It's not that I begrudge a president the right to memorialize or remember. 

And yet... and yet.

Do we really need an ever-increasing number of presidential museums, full of all the tiring paperwork and boring memorabilia we already know about? What do people find at a presidential museum anyway? Picture albums, trinkets, wedding rings, recordings, letters... STUFF, right? 

Do we really need more stuff, presidential or otherwise?

I have never once ached to see what's inside a president's museum. I did go to one of Lincoln's "summer" houses in Washington D.C. once, because my cousin (a native Washingtonian) recommended it; and my husband and I heard some interesting stories and had a good time.

But that was back in the day when presidents really were, um, interesting. And aside from seeing one for Lincoln and a few founding fathers, I'm really good, thank you, and in fact, more than fine if I never see any of museums for presidents. What I really wish they'd do instead is create museums (or maybe just websites?) for people who really built something or sacrificed their lives  for the rest of us, like our troops.

It would also be great to see people who create and created great architecture or art like the Brooklyn Bridge or the people who created all the theaters all over the country. Or a hundred other buildings, books, recipes, businesses and inventions that Americans bring into the world every day. Or a foundation to help people when their money runs out, for whatever reason. 

What if we took all the money we're putting into presidential museums right now and started foundations that offered grants and funding to medical research, libraries, hospitals, children's crisis centers, theaters? 

What if, instead of building a museum in his or her honor, a president said instead, "It's not about me. It's about them."

Meaning the people all over this country that he/she is supposed to be working for.

That would  be something, wouldn't it? Something we really need.

Graphic: Pamela Labbe
Mount Rushmore photo: loomingy1

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Censoring is Not Protecting: a Meandering Case for Letting Your Kids Read What They Want

I have a friend who talks about her affection for a woman known as "the Culture Lady" in her community. This is someone who knows what theater, operas, and concerts are the ones to see and why, and brings kids or friends to these events.

I tend to wince when someone says "Culture lady" because to me, art isn't "culture." It's breath and air and oxygen, respite and escape, and the word "culture" almost diminishes it.

But I get what my friend is talking about. She wants art to matter more than it does, and she hopes people will take it seriously. Or at least get engaged with it.

That's turning out to be a tall order in our phone-obsessed, technology-driven world. But if we are going to respect art, we need to respect people's right to view it, interpret it, and become moved or angered or excited, as the case may be.

My mother was strict in many ways, but liberal in what she allowed me to read or see, so films or books considered "adult" were not forbidden to me. I remember my sister was reading a book about a prostitute and no one hid the book when I was around.

Naturally I tried reading my sister's book, though I was only 8 and a lot of it was over my head. I don't think I finished the book or even read most of it. But just skimming through made me feel like the world was a bit wider and more open to me. And I liked that feeling.

That's probably why I tried to be liberal with what I let my son read as well. I say this because again, art isn't "culture" to me. It's everything. And I want my son to be able to live and breathe in artistic waters as freely as possible.

Plus, my son had (has) lots of other things vying for his attention, such as TV and video games. So I felt if I censored his book choices, I'd be cutting out a lot of his reading time.

I know there are people who don't agree and who are very committed to sharing only "age appropriate" books or films with their kids. I tried to stay away from violent films (but good luck if you're a parent of a ten-year-old.) If I have to choose, I'd say it's better if your kid reads adult books instead of adult films. 

Regardless of what my son was reading or seeing, what I always tried to do was explain the artist's intent and talk about it. I guess I did that because I think it's important to support reading. And I'm happy to see that today, my son is reading a lot of what might be called "difficult" or "classical" books that I never would have thought he'd like.

Your thoughts on this are welcome, of course! And here's some other viewpoints on this subject.

Do you Censor Your Kids' Reading Material?

Kids Should Read Whatever They Want, Whenever They Want

Should You Censor What Your Kids Read?

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Evening and Morning: My Best Mother's Day

Since it's Mother's Day and all... I thought it might be fun to remember the very first day I turned into a mom.

It was June; closer to Father's than Mother's Day, but both had passed. I knew something was up about four in the afternoon. It was June, hot and sunny, and I was getting cramps like you do when you have a period, only these were much more insistent, and didn't seem to let up.

I think I must have called the doctor, who told me to wait until the cramps, aka pains, were just a few minutes apart (three? four? Who can remember this stuff)? Eventually (maybe around dinner time?) Josh's dad and I went to the hospital, and the nurse on duty met us there. It turned out she was pretty young and this was only her third time attending someone in labor.

Yes, it did make me a little nervous, but she was so friendly and warm I decided quickly this was the best possible nurse I could have, and started out by giving her lots of chocolate. (Tip: I was told to bring chocolate for the nurses, and can't recommend it highly enough.)

Most of what I remember is hanging out in one of those hospital beds in a pretty nice room. The idea was that I'd be able to have the baby right there, without having to go into a delivery room.

 I also remember asking Josh's dad to crank the bed up and then crank it down at least three thousand times.We also played music (more rock than classical) and after a while, the pain became more persistent and the breathing exercises they give you in class weren't helping much.

The nurse described a drug that "wouldn't change the pains, but would make it so you don't care any more." I thought that sounded good and we tried it, and I do remember it working for a good long time.

At one point my "good" nurse left for a little while and a second arrived, much more stern and demanding. She probably needed them, but did not receive any chocolates.

As we got closer to midnight, I could see Josh's father's arm was getting tired of cranking and I was starting to experience serious pain. I think we had a monitor by then and I could hear my son's heartbeat, going harder and faster every once in a while. It seemed to me he wanted to get born very badly, but I couldn't figure out how to help him.

Our doctor was called. It turned out my dear friend's father was on duty, which turned out to be wonderful - as by then I really needed a friend. He came at about 11:15 and immediately criticized Josh's dad for his choice of music (which in fact was my choice). The doctor then determined that a membrane needed jabbing in order for the water to break, and that's what he did.

Within minutes, it seemed, things were rolling, and they asked me if we could go to the labor room to make sure everything went the way we wanted. Of course we all said yes, and at two minutes after midnight, our son was born.

Joshua Gabriel entered the world with great determination and no wailing. The nurses told me to open my eyes and I thought that whatever else I did, I had to remember this moment--the face and body swimming up toward the light, a tiny bruise on his upper lip, thinking how did that happen, and never finding out.

My doctor did some weighing and measuring and told us Josh got a 9.9 on his Apgar scale, which sounded lucky, whatever it meant. They wrapped him up and handed him to his dad, who sang a song to him. And because it was two minutes after midnight on a Saturday morning, his dad informed us it was a magical time because Jewish tradition says this is the time when the Female Spirit of God (Shek-hina) is supposed to be hovering.

I thanked her, silently, for showing up, and I have to say I've called on her more than once in the years since. Last night I was talking to Josh, and he said he thought maybe the Spirit was responsible for his deciding to be a cantor when he grew up.

Being a writer, I'd love to think so. But what I do know is the best mother's day I ever had was the day I became a mother. Because, in a way, a new version of yourself gets born along with your child. A different window into seeing things you'd only seen one way flies open. And all of a sudden, new dimensions and layers appear.

The funny thing is I hadn't been sure I wanted to be a mom, and Josh's dad had kinda-sorta talked me into it. But I think that's why I feel so lucky and blessed to have had the opportunity. And I pray everyone who wants a child can have the opportunity, too.

Happy Mother's Day.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Kids and Clothes: Who Decides?

Do you stand in front of your closet fitfully in the morning, trying to decide what to wear? If you decided the night before, do you change your mind once you see yourself in the mirror?

Not every day, but yes, I have done this and still do it. I was fortunate in some ways to have a son because his peers (if not him) were less interested in being supremely fashionable at every moment. Not meaning to be sexist here, but having been a girl in middle school, I remember some pretty awful times when my clothes (and I) were judged harshly.

Girls can be brutal about this sort of thing. On the other hand, my son had extremely strong opinions about what he should wear and what sort of hair cut he needed. At one point, he badgered me about getting tips of his dark hair frosted blonde, and after a month or so I consented. "It looked terrible. Why did you let me do that?" he asked recently, after looking at an old picture of himself.

"So you'd leave me alone," I replied. The truth is, I find dressing myself so exhausting, I have barely any brain space to dress anyone else.

Meanwhile, my son also tried an earring at one point,  due to the example of an older stepbrother at his father's house. My husband complained that he didn't like hearing his wife and son discussing earring choices. I can't really say I blame him, because I had hoped having a son would buy us tickets into a fashionista-free zone. No such luck.

On the other hand, I am still convinced a girl would have been worse--really much worse, based on my own experience. My middle-school peers had strict rules about where you were supposed to buy your clothes, and they were often far more expensive than I could afford.

In high school, I found ways around that by wearing jeans, and to be fair, my high school was a LOT cooler than my middle school by virtue of being a LOT more diverse. It gave me the basis for a different way of looking at things, and a window into the kind of Beat Generation community I created in The Beat on Ruby's Street.

Right now, though, I'm thinking about how we choose clothes for our kids. I learned to always bring my son with me to pick out whatever he needed, whether it was jeans, shorts, bathing suits or winter coats. If I didn't, I ended up bringing the clothes back because he refused to wear them. So unless you are part of a religious community where dress codes are prescribed, (and maybe then too?) I think it's a good idea to at least consult them about what they wear.

I'm not saying they have to have the final decision. If you feel uncomfortable with something your kid chooses, tell them. If they balk, ask them who pays for their clothes (and remind them it's you, if necessary.) If you and your spouse or ex-spouse don't agree, then you need to hash it out and ask your kid why he or she is making the choice to wear the outfit in question.

All in all, though, I think kids mostly figure out a middle-ground of dressing that isn't too extreme, but you need to give them some of your hard-earned wisdom and guidance (whether they're listening nor not). 

Because it IS our job as parents to make sure we're involved in their decisions. Otherwise, you're likely to wind up with an eleven year old who wears earrings and dyes his hair.

Oops. Well. At least his hair was never purple.

For more on this topic, I found these posts: