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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

That Time I Sat Behind Bella Abzug and Her Fabulous Hat at the DNC Platform Committee Hearings

I slipped quietly into the back of the conference room at the Bond Court Hotel in Cleveland. A woman a few rows in front of me wore an enormous, beribboned hat. It was May 1992, and not many women, aside from fully turned-out church goers, wore hats during warm weather.

"Who is that?" I whispered to my companion.

"Bella Abzug," she replied, "Congresswoman from New York."

I was still learning. Learning the people, the issues, the talking points. I was a newly elected member of the executive board of the Greater Cleveland Chapter of the National Organization for Women and I was attending the platform committee hearings for the DNC. I was rapt, listening to Nancy Pelosi, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Madeline Albright and Jesse Jackson.

Most everyone has a moment, a moment when the political becomes personal and the only option is to join the fray because staying silent is no longer possible. My moment came during the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. I was not yet married and newly moved to Chicago. As I unpacked boxes and organized our apartment, I listened to the hearings on NPR.

I heard Professor Hill calmly and clearly describe the behavior of Clarence Thomas, betraying no emotion. She spoke as women speak who have learned to erect walls around themselves in order to go about their daily business unscathed by the leers, jeers and fears of men. There was no doubt in my mind that she spoke the truth. She had no motive to lie; everything to lose and nothing to gain by giving this testimony.

I listened in disbelief as the Senators questioned her, disrespectfully and disdainfully. I learned what "gaslighting" meant that autumn. And I was pissed. I had recently finished my first full year of practicing law and during that year, I was subjected to plenty of nonsense from the men I worked for, the judges I worked with, and my adversaries. It was not as though I did not know this sort of thing happened. I was, however, shocked to see it happening so publicly, even proudly, by men who were supposed to uphold the Constitution and directed toward a woman who was smart and dignified and composed.

Enough was enough.

I registered to vote in Illinois that week. I located a local chapter of NOW. I voted for Carol Mosely Braun for Senate. And I studied for the Illinois bar exam.

When we moved back to Ohio a few months later, I swung into action. I joined Greater Cleveland NOW. I studied the issues. I spoke at local events. I spoke at legislative hearings at the Ohio Capitol. I wrote to my legislators. I marched, I rallied and I picketed. And I attended the Democratic National Committee platform hearings.


(That's me, right in the middle!)

Later that year, I met Hillary Clinton. She was campaigning for her husband and when I heard her speak, all I thought was, "I want to vote for her!" I asked her, as I shook her hand, when she would be running for President. She smiled and laughed, and said "Not any time soon."

Last night, with my daughters by my side, I watched her win the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. I doubt they understand why I had tears in my eyes, and maybe that's a good thing. Maybe that means something: to them, it's not such a big deal that a woman was nominated for President of the United States of America. 

But it is to me. 

It is to me.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

I Am So Very Sorry



I love you, you know that, right?

My sister, my sister-in-law, my friends from church, my writing buddies, my friends from the old days in NOW, my former clients, my neighbors, my friends from law school, my friends from college, my friends from high school and elementary school, friends of my friends who became my own friends - I'm picturing your faces, each of you, as I last saw you in person or as I see you on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter.

And I am sorry. So sorry.

Because I don't see you as "other" in your gayness, and because you choose not to dwell on the awful things that are said to you and about you, and because I see you smiling with your partners, husbands and wives and children and pets as you go about your everyday lives, I assumed, wrongly, that the hate out there in the world was more trivial than it truly is. That it was annoying, but not life-threatening. Because of the way you live your lives, I assumed that it didn't touch you.

I was wrong. I was myopic.

And I am sorry. So sorry.

I am sorry that it never occurred to me that you have to decide, on any given day, if you are willing to withstand comments, stares and rudeness by simply holding your partner's hand in public. An act of love and affection has greater weight for you, and I never realized just how much. Even simple, personal choices like your clothes, your hairstyle, your make-up (or not) are loaded with the amount and type of attention they might draw.

And I am sorry. So sorry.

I see you as my friends, my family, my colleagues: witty, smart, handsome, and beautiful; loving, compassionate, and generous, and all those other amazing things that you are.  I don't see you as victims.

I always saw the Kim Davises and the Pat Roberstsons and the Westboro Baptist Church folks as outliers, kooks, and fanatics; well outside the mainstream. And then a hate-filled man with a gun invaded a space where you could be free from the weight of the hate in the world, for just a little while. He killed and injured innocent people: human beings who just wanted to relax and have a good time in a safe place. I never saw it coming.

And I am sorry. So sorry. For the loss of lives, for the pain of the injured survivors, for the terror everyone in that club went through. For the pain and sorrow of their families and friends and the entire community. And I am sorry for how this affects you personally, because I know that it does, in ways that are different than the horror I feel.

I am sorry for being so clueless. I should have known better.

The good news is that, at 52, I am still learning. The bad news is that, at 52, I still have so much to learn.

Photo credit: Therese Fanta

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Scary things in Bathrooms

We were on our way to a family party.  We had been driving all morning. The girls were about 4 and 6 and it was just the three of us. Somewhere along Interstate 77 in rural West Virginia, the alarm call came from the back seat of the minivan.

"Mama! I have to go potty!" the four year old announced.

"How bad?"

"Bad."

"Bad like you can wait a little while or bad like you need to go right now?" I asked, checking her face in the rear view mirror.

"Bad like really soon."

I scanned the road ahead. We had just passed Parkersburg, and it would be a while until we reached the next populated area with fast-food restaurants and more-likely-than-not clean restrooms.

"Okay, honey. I'll find a place to stop."

A few minutes passed.

"Mama, I really need to go."

I spotted an exit sign that boasted a lone gas station logo. Off the ramp, it was several miles of winding road before we came to it. I pulled in and unbuckled.

"Okay, girls. This one might be a little dirty, so hold my hands."

As we entered, I caught the eye of the girl behind the counter. I didn't even have to ask; she pointed to the far corner. One lavatory, unisex. Ugh.

I opened the door to a spacious, if grubby, restroom, with a formerly white tile floor and a big condom dispenser on the wall, alongside a tampon machine.

"Do not touch ANYTHING," I told my girls. "If you need something, I'll take care of it."

As I was settling my younger daughter onto the toilet, lined with paper to protect her little tuchus, the other began to make use of her budding reading skills.

"Fem, fem-i-nine, fem-eye-nine sup, sup-please? Is that what it says?"

"Feminine supplies. That's what it says."

"What is that?"

"The machine has supplies in it that keep underwear clean."

"Why would you need supplies to keep your underwear clean?"

"It's for teenagers and grown up ladies, not for little girls."

"Are teenagers and grown up ladies dirty?"

"No, honey, not at all. Bodies can get a little messy sometimes when they get older. How about we talk about it when we get home? I can explain it better then."

"Okay, Mama. What's this one? Rib-bed for please-yoor? What does that mean?"

Pretending not to hear her, I ask my little one if she's done.

"Almost, Mama. I really had to go."

"Hurry up, please," I request, as daughter number one continues sounding out words.

"What is this Mama? Rib-bed for please-yoor? Lay-text? What IS this?"

"They are supplies to keep people from getting pregnant, from having babies."

"Why are they in the BATHROOM?"

"That's a very good question, honey. I'll have to think about that."

"Can we buy one? I want to see it."

"Sorry, sweetie, I don't have any change."

"Yes you do. I saw it in your purse."

"We don't need those today, so the answer is no. Do you need to use the toilet while we are here?"

"No, Mama."

A relieved sigh escaped my lungs.

"Let's get going, then!"

Hands washed, I opened the door, propping it with my foot as the girls stepped out ahead of me.

Another patron stood just outside waiting to enter.

"I'm sorry if we kept you waiting," I said. "Sometimes we take a while."

"No problem at all," she said with a smile, in a surprisingly deep voice. I returned her smile just as a little voice popped up.

"Mama? That lady talks like a man."

"Yep. She does."

"She was nice, though."

"Yep. She was."

"I liked her dress."

"Me, too, Mama. It had polka dots."

For a mother with small children, there are far scarier things in restrooms than a male in a dress.

#youcanpeenexttome


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Sing, Sing a Song

I can't sing.

But I do. All the time. Loud and proud and embarrassingly off-key.

In elementary school, I was relegated by Sister Thomas to the back row of the choir only partly due to my height. Mostly it was due to my lack of ability. In a sea of melodic Little Drummer Boys, I was a "Rum-Pum." I still loathe that song.

I had a Raggedy Ann & Andy portable record player on which I spun a bizarre collection of 45's and albums I scavenged from the recesses of our home. The 45's were mostly leftovers that my Aunt Rosie had passed along to my oldest sister. They included gems from Pat Boone, Chubby Checker and Elvis.

I still know all of the words to "Hot Diggity, Dog Ziggity, Boom - What You Do To Me" and "Dungaree Doll". I can blast out "Witch Doctor" like nobody's business, followed by "I want you, I need you, I -hi-hi-hi, lu-huv you...." in perfect imitation Elvis.

Interspersed among these 1950's gems were later additions, like "In A Gadda DaVida" and "Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter" and "Love Potion Number 9," likely purchased and then forgotten by older brothers and sisters.

Puberty arrived and I began to listen, obsessively, to Tapestry by Carole King, and Bette Midler's The Divine Miss M, which I found in the treasure trove. Imagine the sight of me, hovering over my little portable record player, singing along to "You've Got a Friend" over, and over, and over. It was not healthy. And then I found The Beatles White Album, which was the perfect antidote.

Soon my paper route money allowed me to expand the collection. I loved Elton John and Abba, Jackson Browne and Pat Benatar, Blondie and Billy Idol. I purchased Dire Straits' debut album at Dick's Record Shop, in Ironton, Ohio. The prices at Hills' Department Store were lower, but the convenience of Dick's couldn't be beat, since I could bike there. I was there every chance I got, analyzing the wall where the Top 40 were displayed in that week's order. Each 45 rpm single cost about a buck.

In junior high and high school, when Father Gabis at St. Joe began the process of pulling together our annual Variety Show, I was tapped for comic relief between acts because, clearly, I wouldn't be singing. For acts requiring a larger chorus, I was allowed to hum. Yes, hum. At some point, my friend Sally convinced me that if I stood next to her (defiantly, because at 5'2" with a good voice, she was front-row worthy) and listened carefully, I could follow her alto.

Sally was an enthusiastic and encouraging vocal coach. Without regard to decorum, she'd break out in the middle of "Endless Love" (the lyrics of which were edited by Fr. Gabis to include Jesus as the object of said Endless Love) to shout: "YOU DID IT! You GOT it! I heard it!"

I beamed. I glowed. I sang! And when Sally was absent from chorus practice, I was sent to the back row, to hum once again.

When I got to college, upgraded but still portable stereo in tow, I discovered that not everyone was a fan of my eclectic collection, which now included both Alabama and Electric Light Orchestra. I spent my money on beer instead of records and relied on the jukebox and DJ's for musical variety. I came up with the cash to see A Flock of Seagulls when they came to campus, though. Oh, I ran, alright!

These were the days before karaoke in bars, so my friends and I sang along with whatever was playing and voted on songs with our quarters. Madonna, Prince, The Talking Heads and U2 appeared in my collection of cassettes - no more albums for me, now that I had a Walkman. Mix tapes were the romantic gesture of the '80's, truly, and I have been unable to part with my collection.

With every move, from dorm to dorm, apartment to apartment to apartment, my collection moved with me. At some point in the early '90's, I finally started buying CD's. Now, with a subscription music service, I don't buy anything. I create my own playlists for every conceivable occasion: birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, pizza night. I even create playlists for the characters in my novel.

My albums, now merged with Hombre's, wait patiently in the basement along with my cassettes and CD's. Like the well-loved Velveteen Rabbit, they are "real" and I can't bring myself to throw them away. Too many memories.

Though lacking in talent, I still sing anything and everything, everywhere: especially when driving. I've amused fellow road warriors for decades with my shameless in-car performances. It's my personal way of spreading the love.

I'm like a walking Wurlitzer. Put on a song and unless it's death metal or rap, there's a reasonably good chance I'll be singing right along. And probably dancing. And most definitely embarrassing my offspring.









Monday, March 9, 2015

It's There, Just Waiting

In our never-ending quest to simplify, simplify, simplify, we recently scaled back our telephone service. Since most people call us on our cell phones, eliminating the charges for call-waiting, three-way calling and voicemail seemed very logical. In the event someone called and needed to leave a message, we had an answering device on our telephone set itself, though I could not recall that we had ever used it. I dutifully recorded a message and pressed the "Answer On" button.

I arrived home this afternoon to see the "new message" light blinking. It was the pharmacy; a prescription was ready for pick up. And then I noticed we had 8 old messages.

How old, I wondered?

The first was from Purple Hearts; a pick up was scheduled on our street for next Friday. The machine announced that the message was recorded on Monday.  But which Monday? Today is Monday.  Hmm. A mystery. Delete.

Message number two was from the Bainbridge Library. A book reserved by B had come in. The machine announced that the message was recorded on Monday.

"Honey, did you reserve a book at the Bainbridge Library?" I called down the stairs from my office.

"I haven't reserved a book there in ages, Mom."

Not current. Delete.

Message number three was from a pharmacy we only used once, in 2010 or 2011, shortly after we moved and until I figured out that another was closer to home. Stale. Delete.

Message number four was from one of the kids' old friends, asking for  our new address for a birthday party invite.  Ancient. Delete.

Message number five began and my heart stopped.

"Hi Margaret, it's Dad," he began, his voice strong and clear.

He was calling from his cell phone, a South Carolina number I still know by heart, though it's been nearly three years since I've called it. He's still the only person who ever calls me Margaret.

"I wanted you to know I had to take your Mother to the hospital. "

Which time?

"She woke up this morning and her chest was so congested she could hardly breathe. She started coughing and couldn't catch her breath."

When was this? Was it up here, in Ohio, or back in South Carolina?

"She was coughing so hard she threw up."

Poor Mom!

"Her blood pressure was sky high. Maybe from all the coughing; I don't know. So I took her to the emergency room."

If he drove her and didn't call an ambulance, it had to be before his lung surgery.

"They started some antibiotics and took a sputum sample. They gave her something for her blood pressure, to bring it down."

I don't remember her having pneumonia in the last year or so. Or did she? Hmmm.

"They are going to keep her overnight. I'm sure she will be fine, but I wanted you to know."

Of course you did.

"I don't have her room number in front of me, so if you want to check on her, just call my cell phone."

Which hospital, Dad?

"Well, I better get off here and call the other kids. I have a whole list to go through. I'll keep you posted if anything changes."

You will; you always did.

"Tell the girls we said hello."

Always.

"Love you, Margaret."

I know, Dad; I know.

For a moment I just sat there, stunned. And then I pressed "save."

I don't know why. I don't know that I will ever be able to go back and listen to it again.

But still.

I know it's there, just waiting.

Just in case.

Just in case I ever want to hear his voice again.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Necessary Awkwardness

For every stage my daughters go through, every life event they experience, I have a memory of myself at that very age and stage. I try very hard to meet them where they are, acknowledging their unique personalities, but I also try to recall where I was at that point and what might have helped me, in case they can't articulate what they need.

We have talked about menses openly and regularly (ha!) since they were in elementary school. I wanted them to be comfortable and knowledgeable. Unashamed. I wanted them to feel competent to care for themselves. Nobody did that for me and they wouldn't know to ask. I've taught them to track their cycles and to carry spare supplies. When they find themselves unaccountably emotional, I gently remind them to check the calendar. Might that be why they are feeling this way?

We have talked about sex. Not in a titillating way, but in a matter-of-fact way.  The mechanics are old news around here. They knew about egg and sperm long ago. They have known how the baby "gets out" for what seems like forever. They were curious and interested and so I explained it all to them. We use no euphemisms in our house. We name the parts accurately. I have always acknowledged (out loud) that they may be attracted to someone of either gender or they may be attracted to both genders and it's all perfectly normal.

For quite a few years, that was enough. A couple of years ago, I realized it was time for a different kind of sex talk. The sex talk I wish I had been given. The sex talk that might have prevented some of my own bad experiences.

My first boyfriend, when I was 13 and in 7th grade, was a 17 year old junior in high school. Our paper routes were adjacent, so we walked many miles together every afternoon for a few months. As time progressed, many of those walks ended in make-out sessions that I was completely unprepared for. He gave me attention and made me feel special, so I went along with it for a while. We broke up before things got too far out of hand, but not before I had a neck covered in hickeys that I tried in vain to cover with make-up. I truly had no idea how it happened. I thought he was just kissing me. I don't recall either of my parents commenting about it, though how it could have escaped their notice I don't know. I was the talk of St. Joe's for months.

So, instead of the mechanics of sex, now we talk more about the feelings. We talk about having crushes. We talk about how overwhelming it can feel when you really, really like someone and you want them to like you back. I have spoken to them about how nice it feels to be physically close to someone you care about, but how that does not have to result in intercourse. There are many, many ways to be close and to express love and affection. One act does not necessarily lead to another. There is no time-table or standard progression and anyone who tells them there is, is lying.

My daughters know that they own their own bodies.  They and only they decide who - boy or girl - touches them, where, and when. They must respect the boundaries of others, as well, if they are more physical than the other person is comfortable with.

I try to teach them to pay attention to their instincts. How does a person make them feel? Do they feel respected and cared for? Do they feel pushed, rushed or manipulated? Are they having fun? There are allowances to be made for adolescent awkwardness in flirting and in communication, surely, but if they are always feeling like they are defending themselves or arguing about why they do not want to do something, that should be a warning sign. If a situation makes them uncomfortable, they have a special code to text me so I can retrieve them without embarrassment.

I tell them about a couple of my high school boyfriends: big, muscular boys who were like octopi the minute the lights dimmed in the movie theater. I tell them how it felt to be constantly wrestling with those boys; that I thought it was normal. I tell them they don't have to put up with that. They can just get up, walk out and call me. It's not okay to be treated that way, but nobody ever told me that. Nobody ever told me that I could set a boundary and expect it to be honored. And so I tell them.

We talk about how our culture teaches boys that they are expected to push girls for sex, but often the boys may not really want to do it. They may not feel ready, but they are feeling pressure from their friends. Maybe some boys don't have anyone telling them the truth: that sex is only good when it is fully, joyfully consensual.  I don't want to scare them, but I tell them anyway.

We don't have these talks all at once, but in bits and pieces, and most importantly, often with Hombre. We touch on it during car rides or waiting in the drop off line at school. Maybe if I see something on TV or hear a song on the radio that brings it to mind. My girls are embarrassed, more so now than when they were younger, as the implications are far more real now that they are in middle and high school. They roll their eyes and tell me that I am "awkward." I probably am, but I don't care. I want them to know what to expect and to feel like they can handle it.

I worry and yet, as I watch my eldest walk out the door to the waiting car of her first date, I find I am mostly concerned about his driving skills.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What Would You Do If You Had No Fear?

I have turned a corner and I'm never going back. I am now fully "in" my 50's. What does that look like? Pretty goddamn terrific, if you ask me.

At my birthday last year, I had started working out and lost some weight. I was feeling good. I was excited about life and where it might take me in the next year. I was feeling bold and brassy and ready to try all kinds of stuff. I put away once and for all my worries about what other people thought.

My motto for the year was, "What would you do if you had no fear?"

Here's what happened.

I put my writing out there and for the first time, submitted an essay to another site and it was published!

I got another piercing. Yup, I'm bad-ass.



I bought a bikini. For the first time since 1987. I wore it, in public, jiggly middle and all, and you know what? No one laughed. In fact, I don't think anyone really cared.


I took off said bikini on a nude beach. It was awesome. I went back the next day and did it again. I felt breezes in places I have never felt breezes and I guarantee I'll do it again.

When our house caught fire, I held it together and kept the family on track and myself moving forward. In the worst winter of recent record.



I attended my first pagan, witchy fire circle. It was inspiring and heart-opening.

I created my first ever vision board. It was fun and thought provoking and I think I'll do it every year.

I rode the wave-rider at Kalahari. I made a spectacle of myself and laughed and laughed and laughed.

I sent my baby girl to her first winter formal, shaking my head that this could be happening.



I had a poem and photo published.

I entered a poetry contest. I did not win. Not even honorable mention. I lived.

I watched with pride and tears as my eldest child soared to new heights in Science Olympiad, earning medals at both the regional and state levels.



I became a Master Gardener after attending 72 hours of classes, performing 50 hours of volunteer work and taking a gazillion question test. I remembered a bit of high school Latin in the process.



I was diagnosed with skin cancer and had a chunk of my back removed.





I gave myself a black eye trying to launch into crow in yoga class. More importantly, I went back after that and tried again.



I quit coloring my hair. I discovered just how much silver was lurking in there. (A LOT.)




I had lunch in Quebec, visited three new states and the Almanzo Wilder homestead with my wonderful family.



I enjoyed the hell out of my girlfriends.



I paddle-boarded for the first time.

I did a high ropes course that scared the bejesus out of me and cheered for my daughters who went higher than I did and my Hombre who did the Black Diamond course.





I started running again for the first time since 1998 and completed a 5k with my daughter and good friends.





I went rock climbing for the first time.





I wrote a novel.




I got my first free-lance writing gig.

And then there was all the normal stuff, the bits of everyday life that glued these highlights together. The mortar between the big bricks I laid down this year.

As I stand back and look at my 50th year, a couple of things stand out.

First, we really are the architects of our own lives. We make choices every day about not just what we do but how we do it: with enthusiasm and verve or with obligation and dread. Laundry is never fun, but with loud music to sing to, it becomes infinitely more tolerable. Life is a lot more fun when you just put yourself out there. I had forgotten that.

Second, our lives impact others in ways we can't even imagine. I thought I was just trucking along, doing the best I could, until my daughters expressed their admiration for me. Sure, I wanted to set a good example, but that wasn't my main intent this past year. The surprise result was that they became emboldened, too, and sought out new challenges for themselves: Power of the Pen and the high school bowling team. The high ropes course and the paddle board. The 5k. They are cooking meals for the family and learned how to do the laundry to support my writing schedule.

The support and positive comments I received from friends and family regarding my adventures all year long were so humbling. I use Facebook as sort of journal of what I'm up to. I try to be a little witty and entertaining, but I'm not fishing for anything when I post. Nothing surprised me as much as the enthusiastic support I received as I posted my daily word counts during NaNoWriMo. I was doing it to hold myself accountable. I learned that my friends were paying attention and they cared.

I'm digging this mid-century modern thing. I think 51 will be just as awesome as 50 was. I'm never looking back to those days when I listened to the shoulds and the ought-tos ever again.