Civil Rights

The silence of friends

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

On a recent evening, I stood in the middle of the basketball court behind the McDonald’s at 390 W. Market St. The rectangular court has two hoops on each of the long sides and one at each of the shorter sides.

At 9:30 p.m. bright lighting floods the court in an otherwise dark parking lot, making it difficult to see much outside of the court, which is entirely enclosed by a high fence, 10’ in some sections, 12’ in others.

The only usable entrance into and out of that rectangular cage is in the northwest corner. The people playing basketball in that court on the night of June 2 were shot at with rapid-fire water pellet guns like fish in a barrel. In order to escape their assailants, they first had to move toward them.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who died in 2015, was an ardent opponent of the death penalty. He once wrote, “I tremble at the thought of how I might react to a killer who took the life of someone in my own family. I know that I might not be able to suppress my anger or put down a desire for revenge.”

There is a particularly painful grief that comes with burying one’s own child. It’s not the natural order of life. But it does happen. Untimely deaths due to disease, auto accidents, drug overdoses, suicides, drownings—at my age I’ve known them all.

And, of course, there’s violent death. In 2017, a friend whom I first met in the fifth grade was killed by her husband of 30 years. I still easily cry when thinking what her family lost with one gunshot.

“This society should strive for something better than what it feels at its weakest moments,” was Cuomo’s response to what he knew would be his own desire for revenge.

From the beginning, the language surrounding the events at that basketball court on June 2 has been loaded. The police said race wasn’t involved and then proceeded to publicly judge the three Black suspects they eventually arrested.

The New York Post reported that “[The three] allegedly ‘punched’ and ‘assaulted’ each of the four victims.” How is it that the four who started the altercation are the victims? Did they shoot at the unsuspecting three and then just stand there? Of course not. They allegedly recorded it for a TikTok challenge and, rather than fleeing, fought with those they’d assaulted.

When the Firestone students (who, along with Ethan Liming, broke multiple laws that night during their water pellet shooting spree) called 911, they said nothing of Liming being beaten to death. But they used that term in their later affidavits, and it has stuck.

Given the factual evidence that’s been presented, what occurred that night was a deadly fight among seven young men. Liming’s autopsy results do not comport with being repeatedly kicked as his companions later claimed. Yet the media persists in misleadingly calling it a “beating death.”

A grand jury recently lowered the charges for brothers Shawn and Tyler Stafford and their cousin Donovan Jones, all of whom have been held in the county jail since June 11. The new charges of involuntary manslaughter and assault are more appropriate than the original murder charges.

The county prosecutor’s office stated it has more information it has not yet made public. For now only one side of the story, and little else, has been readily available, which is why I reached out to the families of the three in jail. I’ve also spoken with neighborhood residents who witnessed various portions of the night’s events.

Among other things, I was told that Shawn Stafford, who is 5’5” and 135 pounds, was punched and knocked to the ground by Liming, who was 6’1” and 165 pounds, as the two fought one another. The grand jury findings seem to support this account for Shawn received the most serious indictment—two charges of involuntary manslaughter.

The three basketball players’ accounts of the events should be given the same weight as those of the Firestone students, but few have been interested in finding out that information.

I’ve received many emails telling me I am brave to have written my last two columns. I don’t consider examining the prejudgment of the police and the lopsided reporting by the media as inherently brave, so the encouragement begs the question: What there is to fear?

We live in a society with a criminal justice system that is not uniform, but instead metes out different treatment based on ethnicity and wealth. And pointing out this wide-open secret, like the elephant in the room that it is, riles up the enemies of equal rights.

Yes, I’ve also received plenty of emails that are slurries of racism and misogyny.

More concerning are people who don’t see their own bigotry when they refer to the Stafford brothers as “thugs.” Or when they tell me I’ve vilified the Firestone four by pointing out that they broke laws, initiated the night’s events and willingly engaged in a fight when their final victims (they’d shot at others that evening) refused to be bullied.

The letters that concern me most, however, are by White people who tell me my last two columns put to words what they’ve also thought, but can’t tell most of the people they know.

The late congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis encouraged folks to “get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” There remains much work to be done, much necessary trouble to cause, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel, to make ours a nation that treats all citizens equally. Silence in the face of unequal justice is complicity.

Postscript:

This column was submitted to the Akron Beacon Journal on Tuesday, August 2, 2022. Later that day I was told they would not run this piece because they don’t want to “poke the bear.”

On Thursday, August 4, Summit County Judge Tammy O’Brien, a Republican, reduced Donovon Jones’s bail to zero (he was required to sign a letter stating he’d return for trial), Tyler Stafford’s bail to $5,000 (of which he needed to pay $500 to be released), and Shawn Stafford’s to $25,000 (of which he needed to pay $2,500 to be released).

The false narrative on the fight created by Akron Police Chief Stephen Mylett and promoted by Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan never added up under the slightest inspection. But the media, including the Akron Beacon Journal, didn’t ask the obvious questions and simply reported the false narrative as though it was fact. The same day the bail was reduced for the three arrested in the case, I learned that the reporter on the story for the ABJ still had not visited the scene of the fight, did not know the court was enclosed by a fence nor that it has only one entrance.

Without giving it a second thought, far too many found it acceptable to sacrifice the lives of three Black men as payment for the life of a White man who attacked the three without provocation and from whom they defended themselves.

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Diverse, welcoming Akron now openly divided by race

All cities have personalities and for more than 20 years I have told anyone who will listen just how friendly Akron is. People from all backgrounds and ethnicities regularly engage with each other in their neighborhoods, jobs and stores in ways you don’t see in all cities. 

African Americans account for just 13% of the nation’s population but comprise nearly a third of Akron’s residents. It’s statistically likely for Black and White Akronites to have the opportunity to get to know one another. 

That’s not to say it’s perfect. In 2011, a secretary at Firestone High School told me that the student one of my sons, who was then in the eighth grade, would be shadowing was Black and asked if that was OK. 

“Why on earth would you ask me that?” I demanded. 

“Because other parents have complained in the past when we haven’t told them,” she replied. 

Recent events have exposed deep racism in Akron

Yet, unlike Akron’s Black community, I was surprised (and deeply saddened) when horrific events in our city this summer exposed a deep vein of outright racism in some White Akronites and far too much White fragility in others. 

My last column was about the deadly fight on June 2 in my neighborhood. I pointed out that the police and media prejudged the cases of the three young men arrested in the death of Ethan Liming, without acknowledging the alleged crimes Liming and three others had committed when driving down West Market Street shooting water pellets at unsuspecting strangers in multiple locations. 

The U.S. Marshals, however, created an online poster that makes it seem like they hunted down three scary criminals (according to their attorneys, none of the basketball players have criminal records) when all they did was arrest the basketball players in their homes. 

Furthermore, little information has been given about the lives of the three who were simply playing basketball in the West Hill neighborhood. 

According to a relative of the three, Shawn, 20, and Tyler Stafford, 19, are brothers and Donovon Jones, 21, who has significant hearing impairment, is their cousin. Shawn is a prior shooting victim with pins and wires in his leg where a bullet was removed. He is also his mother’s caretaker. 

The way someone views the deadly fight seems largely dependent upon the color of their skin. 

On the Akron Beacon Journal’s Facebook page, most of the hundreds of comments to my last column are by White people, many of whom describe the deadly fight in ways that are impossible to know, if not completely false. Many also share grotesque notions of what they think should happen to the three basketball players being held on $1 million bonds

Conversely, nearly 200 Black folks shared the same column on their pages with comments like this one: “Perspective! This article was definitely needed.” 

I’ve raised five children in the neighborhood where the fight occurred, three of whom graduated from Firestone in the past decade. I’ve thought long about that fight. The narrative started by the police, promoted by the media and exploded by social media mobs does not add up. 

There were four young men in the Firestone group who attacked three young men playing basketball. Four to three, not three to one. 

The Firestone youths’ activities that night are remarkably similar to yet another godforsaken TikTok challenge. After pulling up in their car after dark, some of the four from Firestone group ran at the three unsuspecting basketball players while shooting them with pellets.

What did the others do? I suspect they filmed it for TikTok

When the basketball players realized, after first running away, that it wasn’t metal bullets hitting them, they turned around and immediately understood they had been assaulted as a joke. 

The basketball players then approached their assailants, but the Firestone teens didn’t hop in their car and drive away. A fight broke out.

What exactly happened in Ethan Liming’s death is unclear 

What happened next, and this is very important, is unclear. Attorneys say that at least one of the basketball players was injured when his face was smashed into the asphalt. A Firestone teen called 911 and said a friend was knocked unconscious during a group fight — not a beating or stomping death — and was still breathing. 

preliminary autopsy report listed the decedent’s injuries, including a broken occipital bone (the only bone broken in his body), black eye and a single footprint on the chest wall. This list leaves open a number of ways in which the injuries could have been sustained. 

If video of the fight exists, perhaps who did what in that fight will soon be learned. But it won’t explain why four young men launched a surprise attack on three strangers, a violation of several Ohio laws including aggravated menacing, disorderly conduct and inducing panic. 

A little over three weeks after the fight, eight Akron police officers shot 46 bullets into the body of an unarmed Black man who is accused of firing one shot from his moving car as they chased him for purported traffic and equipment violations, neither of which are capital offenses. 

Akron, we have a serious race problem and it runs from the top on down. Now what? Consider South Africa’s post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Committee. It taught the world that healing racial divisions only happens after systemic racism is addressed head on, eyes wide open. 

I pray that we here in Akron have the courage to face our systemic racism head on and make desperately needed changes to our laws, policies, minds and hearts. 

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 24, 2022.

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Justice for all in Akron deadly fight

One evening when I was 14, five of my friends and I decided to play “ding dong ditch it.” Not an uncommon pastime for bored teens in the 1970s, we rang the doorbells at random houses and then ran away, our bodies giddily awash with adrenaline. 

We were lucky we didn’t die that night. 

At one house, we rang the bell on two occasions separated by about 15 minutes. The second time, the owner came out and chased us with a rifle. The house had recently been burglarized and the owner suspected the culprits of that crime had returned to strike again. 

The frontal lobes of the human brain are responsible for executive functioning, which includes impulse control, judgment and the ability to plan out steps for a desired goal or outcome.  

Unfortunately, however, frontal lobes do not fully develop until the early to mid-20s (later for males than females), which is why parents often ask young adult children who’ve done something reckless, “What were you thinking?” 

“What were they thinking?” is a question I’ve heard and certainly thought when considering Ethan Liming and three of his friends driving around West Akron the evening of June 2, shooting at random strangers (as far as has been reported) in multiple places with water pellet guns. 

Their fun ended when these four Firestone High School students targeted three young men, ages 19, 20 and 21, playing basketball at the courts next to the I Promise School. Assuming they were being shot at with real bullets, the young men ran. When they realized that was not the case, they turned back and a fight ensued. 

In a news conference, Akron police stated that Liming didn’t deserve to die. Those words land like concrete. The job of the police is to investigate. It’s up to the courts to consider the evidence and make judgments. 

Furthermore, the three young men playing basketball didn’t deserve to be terrorized by four young men who pulled up in a car at or after sunset (8:53 that night), jumped out and ran toward them while blasting two water pellet guns.  

And yet most of the reporting on this tragedy has painted Liming, who was white, as a good young man while leaning heavily on the engrained racist trope of the Black male criminal in the portrayal of the three basketball players, all of whom are African American. 

 If you’ve been following this case, ask yourself what you know about the three who were playing basketball. Are they related? Where’d they go to school? Are any in school now? Who do they live with? Where do they live? 

At most we know one of them has been employed at a warehouse for over two years. I doubt he is any longer after our county prosecutors and a judge decided that the three young men who were assaulted while playing ball are such a threat to society that they are being held in jail on $1 million bonds, or what lawyers sometimes call “publicity bonds.” 

According to Emily Bazelon in her book “Charged,” only two countries have cash bail bond systems: America and the Philippines (hardly a paragon of justice). The rest of the world simply expects people who are charged to show up at court because if they don’t a warrant for their arrest will be issued. 

I live two blocks from the I Promise School and presumably some, if not all, of the three young men playing basketball that night live in my neighborhood. I believe they should be released until trial. 

Let’s talk about my neighborhood.  

In 20 years of living in our neighborhood, my family has witnessed several gun-related incidents. The most recent was on a sunny afternoon last summer. 

My eldest son, Claude, was driving in the first block of Oakdale Avenue, just one block west of the I Promise School. In the span of no more than 15 seconds, the car ahead of him stopped, a man wearing a backpack walked from the curb to that car, briefly spoke to the occupants, then turned away. A passenger in the car held a gun out of his window and shot the backpack man in the lower back. The car peeled away. 

My son called 911 and then, along with other witnesses, aided the shooting victim. 

In my neighborhood, the basketball players had every reason to believe they were being shot at with real guns containing real bullets. 

If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck. When it sounds and looks like bigotry — be it racial, gender, ability or more — it is. Best way to check? Play screenwriter and change up the scene. 

What if my three (tall, fit, white, blond) sons in their 20s had been playing basketball at the I Promise courts that night when the Firestone four pulled up in their car and began shooting? And what if, in the ensuing fight, one of the two young Black men in the car with Liming had died? Do you think my sons would be sitting in the county jail under $1 million bonds? I don’t. 

And what if my (tall, fit, white, blond) sons legally carried handguns? With our state’s whack-a-doodle gun laws, my sons could have killed each of the Firestone four and used the “Stand Your Ground” law as their defense. No doubt they’d be cleared of all charges, if any were even filed. 

Or let’s say the four Firestone males instead drove to a basketball court in upscale Bath and jumped out, pellet guns a-blazing, at three white males. Again, if in the ensuing fight Liming had died, who would be in jail today? Anybody? 

Or, if you would rather not consider hypotheticals, recall what actually happened to a Black 12-year-old playing with a toy gun in a Northeast Ohio city park with his sister in broad daylight in 2014. A 911 dispatcher received a call of a “guy” with a gun, and two seconds after police pulled up in their patrol car, one of the officers shot Tamir Rice dead. Two seconds. 

Yes, Ethan Liming’s family and friends are deeply grieving his loss. But so are the families of three youths who were minding their business, playing basketball on a warm summer’s eve when they were assaulted by a carload of young men with guns that first appeared deadly. 

What would you have done if you were the three playing basketball? What did the Firestone four believe were the possible outcomes when running at three strangers while shooting them with pellets? I doubt they thought it through. And now seven families and six young men must live with the tragic consequences. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 10, 2022.

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Color my world, starting with my home

“How many houses have you had in the three decades since we met?” my friend Jen asked me this spring. “And you made them all so inviting. You have to come to Philly and help me with our new house.”

The answer to Jen’s question is six, none of which have been new construction. Built to last, costly details in older homes — like ornate brass escutcheons behind glass door knobs on solid hardwood doors — are rare in contemporary housing.

And the quirks of old homes, which they all have, charm me. I have a house with oak floors throughout except for the smallest bedroom, where the floor is pine. The bedroom’s door is solid oak, but the interior of that door, unlike any other in the house, has a pine veneer, presumably so that when the door is closed the wood of floor and door match.

Some old homes reveal messages from prior times. The house I had in central Pennsylvania was built in the 1880s by Quakers who owned significant interest in Thomas Edison’s electric company. When removing modern (and ghastly floral) wallpaper, I discovered the largest bedroom once had been two rooms. Workers removed a middle wall and then signed a remaining one with the date: 1917.

Today I own two homes, which I’ve named after the families who lived in each for several decades. In 2003, Herman Dreisbach was 88 when I bought the home he’d inherited in the 1940s from his uncle, the first owner. Next door lived Claire Cressler, an artist who became a dear friend and regular guest at our dinner table. He died at age 97 in 2008.

I moved into Cressler House two summers ago and have had more fun making it mine than any previous house. For one thing, it is the first house I’ve purchased as a single person. The contents of the home and any remodeling choices are mine alone. I’m not frustrated by someone else’s clutter nor need I negotiate color choices (oodles of purples!).

Secondly, and unlike the Arts and Crafts Dreisbach House, nothing in Cressler House is precious. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Claire and his wife, Gloria, sought to modernize the home. They took photos of themselves gleefully removing all the quarter-sawn oak paneling, pillars and fireplace mantel with crow bars.

That’s not to say that the Cresslers didn’t make choices I enjoy. Claire built a midcentury modern floor-to-ceiling sandstone mantel to replace the 1906 original. And the wallpaper in the front entryway is so groovy cool friends regularly use it as a backdrop for photos.

But the cheapest and easiest way to change the look of a house is paint. Walls rich in color encourage different moods and make art pop, and I have no fear of bold colors.

Standing in front of the seemingly endless array of color palettes at a paint store, however, can be overwhelming. I recommend, as step one, winnowing the choices. I have a few tricks for that, starting with two tips I picked up from Martha Stewart. The first is that green — not white or beige — is nature’s neutral and its various shades are often a good default when struggling to choose.

The second is to let the colors in paintings, rugs or textiles guide you. I’m regularly surprised by what I find when looking closely. For instance, I think of the Persian rug in my office as navy blue. But it also contains a good bit of coral pink and Pacific blue, colors I wouldn’t automatically put together.

I used the glorious 1960s entryway wallpaper, a dark terra cotta with black and reflective-gold abstract flora, as my starting point for choosing colors on my first floor. Farrow & Ball’s Down Pipe, a charcoal grey, in my high-ceilinged living room not only honors the dramatic wallpaper, it makes the room feel cozy — especially when entertaining guests in front of a roaring fire on a winter’s eve.

Feng shui, an Asian approach to creating healthy spaces, was a bit of a craze in the ‘90s and includes recommendations for certain colors in certain sections of a home. It’s not magic and installing purple Armstrong vinyl-composite tile in the prosperity corner of my house hasn’t generated winning lottery numbers. But it sure ties the room together.

I like to see photos of real spaces painted in the colors I’m considering. Farrow & Ball’s palette is my go-to and their website includes multiple photos of spaces, indoors and out, painted in each of their colors along with others that coordinate.

The color of one room should complement the colors of the adjacent rooms to avoid dissonance. The dusky lilac of F&B’s Brassica in my bedroom is accented by Sherwin William’s Camelback (my only non-F&B color) in the hallway, which looks great with F&B’s Vardo (peacock teal) of the bathroom.

Only once have I immediately repainted because I didn’t like a color once it was on the walls. The room looked like the inside of a cantaloupe.

I enthusiastically encourage everyone to consider painting white walls in vibrant hues. It can change not just how your home looks, but also how it abides.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 26, 2022.

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June is a balm for these trying times

After the 2020 election, I took a much-needed break from the news. But only a few months later, it once again dominated my daily brain diet. From the local to the global, there’s been a lot to consider.

During the school year, I can hear I Promise School students at recess from my house. It was on those same playgrounds that a Firestone High School student was beaten to death on the evening of June 2. 

My three oldest sons grew up in this neighborhood and graduated from Firestone. As a neighbor told me the next day, we see crime in our city neighborhood all the time, particularly sex workers and drug houses, but a kid getting beaten to death? 

I’ve spent most of my life in Ohio and for much of that time, it’s been a swing state with robust politics. But for a number of reasons, not least of which is gerrymandering, that is no longer the case. 

Republicans have controlled the Ohio legislature for over two decades. This year, the Republican majority on the Ohio Redistricting Commission played a game all too familiar to most parents: If you don’t get permission from Mom, slink off and try Dad. 

When Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, also a Republican, along with the three Democratic justices on the court, rightfully refused to accept the unconstitutional legislative district maps the commission submitted, Republican associates filed a lawsuit in federal court. Astonishingly and wrongfully, the two federal judges ordered one of the unconstitutional maps to be used in the next election cycle. 

Elected officials intentionally circumventing the Ohio Constitution, which they swore to uphold, is a cancer on our democracy. Every citizen should be concerned about it metastasizing. 

Rampant mass shootings make America a country in which going to school, religious services, grocery stores, hospitals, concerts and more a life-and-death gamble that was inconceivable in my childhood.  

The satirical online magazine The Onion runs a headline after each school shooting that best describes America’s ludicrous political coma on its gun problem: “No Way to Prevent This,” Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens. 

Meanwhile, 2022 is poised to be a banner year for rolling back constitutional rights, starting with Roe v. Wade, and quite likely thereafter many other so-called cultural issues. We need a better term than “cultural issues,” which implies that the legal recognition of equal rights for people who are women, Black or Brown, LGBTQ or non-Christian is as optional as going to a museum or listening to classical music. 

Globally, I feel like I’ve gone into a time machine to World War I and II. Reports from Europe of atrocities and war crimes perpetuated on civilians, often accompanied by graphic photos, pour in every day. Yes, we have not been as moved when other countries are war-torn, including when our nation, like Russia, was the unprovoked aggressor. But that does not justify apathy in the case of Ukraine. 

And then there are the more abstract concerns of climate change and inflation, which seem to have smashed into each other at the gas pump. Might sky-high gas prices spur a conversion to less driving and more electric vehicles? We’ll see. 

It’s a lot, but teaching university freshmen has taught me that not everyone reels from these paradigm-shifting times. In fact, many are blithefully unaware of the state of any affairs. 

Nearly half my freshmen this past semester could not tell me what country Vladimir Putin leads. And almost to a person, the same students did not know what country Adolf Hitler led. “Why should we know that?” asked one. 

Is there somewhere between the blissfulness of ignorance and the existential dread that accompanies an obsessive attention to dystopian headlines to find balance, and therefore sanity? 

Buddhism teaches that control is an illusion. As I’ve grown older, I take in the news more dispassionately, which is not to say I don’t care, I care deeply. But if I am constantly angry, how effective am I? 

A goal of meditation is to remain present in the moment, to keep your mind from galloping like an untrained stallion miles away from where you are sitting and breathing. 

There are other ways to cultivate mindfulness, including the month of June. For as poet James Russell Lowell wrote, “And what is so rare as a day in June?/Then, if ever, come perfect days.” 

Indeed. 

The past few weeks, I’ve planted several flats of vivacious flowers, two dogwoods, two azaleas, two rose bushes and several herbs. The floor of my front porch, which I had rebuilt last summer, has a fresh coat of paint and new rugs. I sit out there with coffee most mornings and wine most evenings, listening to classic jazz and reading. 

Holly Christensen relaxes on her porch with her dog Otto.
Porch reading with my German shepherd, Otto.

On my porch loveseat, the beauty of summer flora surrounds me. Plants grow without worry of crime, legal rights and wars. I gauge the wind by looking at the leaves high up in the tall trees surrounding my house. I howdy-do my neighbors who sometimes join me on the porch for a visit. 

Before the Buddha attained enlightenment, he was tempted and tormented by the demon Mara, who represents death, rebirth and desire. Mara sent beautiful women and aggressive armies in an effort to thwart the Buddha’s imminent nirvana. In response, the Buddha touched the earth with his right hand and called on it as witness to his transformation. 

Spend as much of June outside as possible. Get your hands into the earth either by planting or weeding. Take in all that fills the natural world and will continue to do so when this time, as with all others, passes. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 12, 2022.

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Investment of time with oldest friends pays huge dividends

I don’t usually take phone calls when I’m in meetings or with friends, but there are exceptions. One, of course, is any call from one of my children’s schools. Also, any calls from anyone over the age of 90.  

Elderly friends have been a mainstay in my life, possibly due to my long and close relationship with one of my grandmas. After my mother left my father and me when I was a toddler, my father’s mother, who was an elementary school teacher, kept me during the summer and picked me up from day care during the school year. 

Holly Christensen

Grandma was a talker, something my mother and stepfather churlishly joked about whenever they interacted with her. But I loved Grandma’s stories about people I’d never met (usually distant relatives) who lived in places I’d never been (usually Utah, or other parts of the West). 

More:Holly Christensen: Generational effects of COVID coming into view

As much as the elderly love to reminisce, I revel in their recounted pasts, for even stories told many times can offer new bits with each retelling. The oldest among us have witnessed and experienced a world most of us can only imagine. And when they die, they will take their memories with them. 

That’s the poignancy of having dear friends who are in their 90s or more. They have no terminal pathology other than mortality itself, a fact they intimately encounter each day. 

Several years ago, I received a letter from a Beacon Journal reader named Barbara Campbell. We corresponded regularly until January 2020 when she moved to be near her son and his wife in New Hampshire, fortuitously settling into her new apartment just before COVID-19 debuted in America. 

Barbara, who recently turned 97, still sends me encouraging notes, often filled with clippings of funny or warm-hearted stories she’s read, but now we call more than write. Like most of my older friends, she often starts by saying, “I won’t keep you long, I know you’re busy.” 

I’ve written before about my dear friend Bascom who will turn 100 in August. I tell him frequently that I can’t imagine my life without him in it. Like Barbara, age has not diminished Bascom cognitively. In fact, I don’t think anyone discusses all manner of things as well as Bascom does. 

If only it could stay this way. However, ignore it though we might, everything is transitory.  

I thought of Roger Angell as my friend the way many readers do of writers whose essays they regularly read. (David Sedaris and his siblings almost feel like my cousins having read his essays for 30 years.) 

I was introduced to Angell, perhaps best known for his books on baseball, in February 2014 when The New Yorker published his essay “This Old Man.” After reading it, I immediately sent it to a friend who teaches nonfiction writing courses, telling him the essay is about as perfect as it gets. 

“This Old Man” meanders through seemingly scattershot subjects but then Angell — as all philosophers and writers strive to but seldom succeed in doing — pulls together his observations on living, dying, loving, losing and remembering in such an approachable manner that you don’t see him sneaking up to make you suddenly chuckle or sob over a scene your mind momentarily inhabited. And for a few moments, while reading the essay, everything about being human makes sense. 

I went on to read many of Angell’s essays, in part because he kept publishing them. I’ve even found time for some of his pieces on baseball, which among all sports is the one I find the least dull (yeah, go figure). 

Virtuoso writers are not limited by a reader’s preexisting interest in a topic. No, they make the topic compelling by subtly tricking you into thinking you’re reading about X, when really you’re falling for the achingly familiar existential pang of aliveness.  

Besides, when Angell wrote about Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio, it was often from memory as, having been born in New York City in 1920, he’d watched them play in situ. 

Without minimizing the work involved in writing well, Angell came by his talent naturally. His mother, Katharine Sergeant Angell White, was the first fiction editor at The New Yorker, a position Angell himself held for many years, starting in 1956. His father was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union and his stepfather was author E.B. White. 

In one of my writing courses at the University of Akron, students must pick one important event from their lives and write about it. Many choose to write about the death of a grandparent. I understand why. For most of them, it’s the first deeply felt loss they’ve experienced. 

But inexperienced writers tend to get stuck in superlative circles polished with grief — he was the best grandfather, she baked the best cookies, he gave the greatest gifts, and so on. Rather than approaching the story at the front door, I tell my students, try sneaking in a side window. Write about something less obvious, like your grandad teaching you how to change a car’s oil/tires/battery. 

Angell does exactly this in his essay “Over the Wall.” His wife of 48 years, Carol Rogge Angell, died in 2012, and in the piece, he describes all the things that she doesn’t know, from election outcomes to weather and sporting events to the lives of their children. And in so doing, Angell avoids sentimentality while showing the tugging vacuum created by Carol’s absence in his daily life. 

Angell, who would have been 102 this fall, died May 20. Do yourself a favor and read some of his essays today. Right now, in fact. Many are readily available online, given his recent departure. 

And if, like me, you are lucky to have friends in their 80s, 90s or even 100s, block the door against life’s myriad demands and schedule regular calls and visits with them. And while you’re at it, print out a copy of “This Old Man” and give it to your senior friend. I guarantee it’ll be a hit, if not a home run. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 29, 2022.

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In-person event is a sign of returning normalcy

Back when street lamps were powered by gas, someone went by foot at day’s end and lit them one by one. Last week, it felt as though each of Akron’s trees had been similarly visited when leaves erupted seemingly overnight on branches long bare. 

It’s hard not to feel renewed by each spring, but especially this one. Not only because it marks the end of one of the hardest winters in years, but also because the worst of the two-year COVID pandemic may finally have receded with this year’s snow piles. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen repeated announcements of various events being held in person for the first time in three years. Dances, fundraisers, fish dinners, pancake breakfasts and, next Saturday, May 21, the annual Race for Case. 

Ten years ago, Craig Sampsell, one of Case Elementary’s interventionists, along with two other faculty members, Sarah Core and Jen Victor, organized the first Race for Case to raise money to create a computer lab, purchase iPads and a smart board for the building. 

In the years since, the Race for Case has funded inclusive equipment (read: accessible for kids with physical disabilities) and a rubberized surface for the school’s playground, as well as a greenhouse slated to be built at the end of this year. 

According to Sampsell, the proceeds from this year’s race will fund “school assemblies focused on social emotional learning as well as science, math and reading. We want to create the fun and joy of going to school again and increase the opportunities for our students to interact with outside resources. We will also see if we can fund a school-wide field trip.”  

According to a recent New York Times piece by David Leonhardt, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the United States increased both accountability and funding for public schools. “Typically, the funding increases were larger for low-income schools than for high-income schools. That may help explain why racial gaps in reading and math skills declined.” 

In the decades since, the data on funding increases for low-income public schools indicates that greater funding does, in fact, result in better outcomes, and not just while kids are in school, but long after they’ve graduated. 

The primary metric businesses look at when locating in a community is the quality of the workforce. This alone should cause all legislators, regardless of party, to prioritize maximum funding for public K-12 schools. 

Unfortunately, that has not happened in many states, including Ohio. As a popular bumper sticker reads: “It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our air force has to have a bake sale to buy a bomber.” 

Until schools have all the funding they need, supporting them with fundraisers, like the Race for Case, remains important, if not vital. 

This year’s race is the first of 10 in Akron Promise’s City Series Neighborhood Races. People who participate in four of the series’ races will be awarded medals. Rest assured, you don’t have to be a competitive athlete to take part. Participants ranging from those in baby buggies to elders using canes can run, walk or stroll the course. 

Unlike in years past, when the race started and ended at Hardesty Park, this year it will be held at the school (1420 Garman Road). There’s a 1-mile race that starts at 9:30 a.m., followed by the 5K at 10. Registration is online at bit.ly/race4case5k and will also be available onsite that morning. 

Perhaps best of all, at least from the perspective of the kids, after the races, there will be a carnival with inflatables and games for all ages. 

In 2018, my third child (who identifies as “they/their”) was at the time a junior in high school and came in second at the Race for Case. We were excited for their last year on Firestone’s cross country team that upcoming fall, believing they had a strong chance of making it to the state championships. 

Jules Christensen hugging their older brother Claude after the 2018 Race for Case

But that summer, they developed mononucleosis, which dragged on for many months. Eventually a rheumatologist diagnosed my tall, fit 18-year-old with chronic fatigue syndrome. That 2018 Race for Case was the last 5K they will likely ever compete in, making the event especially poignant for us. 

In the past two years, all of humanity learned how that which is taken for granted can suddenly end, or at least go on hiatus. As much of community life finally resumes, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this spring than by coming together to have fun raising money as an investment in some of our youngest citizens.  

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Generational effects of COVID coming into view

As we get to what everyone hopes and prays is the tail end of the first global pandemic in a century, history expects at least some of us to describe the experience for those who come along after all survivors have passed.

Over the past two years, I have described not only my family’s experience, which is similar to what many families across the planet have experienced, but also what has been happening in communities. From schools to restaurants to travel to masks and vaccines, I’ve written about an array of pandemic topics as the novel coronavirus evolved in wave after wave.  

If anyone feels that life at this moment is like the movie Groundhog Day with spring portending the end of masks and (knock on wood) COVID as we’ve known it, much as it did last spring — you’re not alone. But there are some key differences, particularly in schools. 

This time last year, it had only been a little over a month that Akron Public Schools had reopened buildings for in-person instruction. And the University of Akron was ending a third semester taught largely in hybrid or fully remote sessions.  

This school year, because of prudent measures taken last fall, both APS and UA have had buildings open, the majority of students in classrooms and, for the past few months, optional masking.  

As a parent of a child in APS and a faculty member at UA, I could not be more relieved to finally be at this point. And yet I’m at a loss for where far too many of our students are. 

I teach both freshman composition courses for UA’s English department and a seminar on thesis writing for graduate students in arts administration. The difference between the two groups is striking.  

I assumed a fair number of freshmen would not be COVID vaccinated as the university did not mandate the vaccine until after the fall semester had ended. Which is why, two weeks before classes began, I got my booster shot. 

Boy, was that the right call. While all of my graduate students were vaccinated, more than half of my freshmen were not. 

Given that younger people are more likely to experience milder cases of COVID, my undergraduates’ low vaccination rate was, while concerning, not alarming. I cannot say the same about their academic performance.  

I have in the past described my despair that so few undergraduates at my city university seldom (if ever) watch movies or TV programs. As for volitionally reading magazines, newspapers or — queue up an angelic choir—books? Fuhgettaboutit. 

And yet, with a lot of exposure, prodding and encouragement to dive deeply on topics that most interest them, I have for years been able to engage the majority of my freshmen.  

That is until this spring, which was the first semester we resumed normal requirements and deadlines.  

While my graduate students continue to produce work that is always passable and at times truly impressive, my current undergraduates remind me of people in a land where they don’t speak the language and I’m their only interpreter and there’s not enough of me for each of them. 

Weirdly most freshmen attended all classes and seemed truly engaged. And then the majority of them didn’t do the work. Multiple times in class I’ve sung the refrain from U2’s song “One”: Did I ask too much? More than a lot? You gave me nothin’ now it’s all I’ve got. 

At first I thought it was me, for it is the responsibility of leaders, which teachers are, to inspire. 

But in the past few months, I’ve heard the same concerns not only from other English professors, but across UA’s departments and from friends teaching throughout the country. 

APS teachers tell me they are seeing the same.  

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when regular school attendance in New Orleans Public Schools was not possible for the better part of a year, data soon revealed significant negative consequences including increased dropout rates and an average drop in performance of two grades. 

Today we must ask how many students have been negatively affected by all the measures we had to take in order to mitigate COVID? And what should we be doing as a community, a society and a nation to forestall a lost generation? 

The pandemic and all it wrought has been hard on everyone, but not uniformly. For those under the age of 20, the past two years comprise a significant portion of their lives. 

Now that the virulence of COVID is waning, the lasting repercussions are becoming visible. A top priority needs to be finding solutions to aid students who have gotten out of sync with what they need to succeed in school, and perhaps more. 

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, May 1, 2022.

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Ah, spring, a season of flowers and litter

Today’s elders telling children how winters were far worse back in their day is perhaps truer than ever before. This winter, however, was an exception that proved that fact.  

Siberian scrill, hellebores and daffodils are welcome signs of spring in Holly’s backyard

Living in the north, I prefer a white winter. I find sensorial pleasure in the muffled silence, nighttime brightness and diamond-like sparkles of landscapes buried in several inches of snow. 

As for shoveling — the cause of many backaches and heart attacks — honestly enjoy the vigorous activity in a season when the weather too often coops everyone up inside their homes.  

This year, the snowfall was not only substantial, it didn’t melt much between storms. Driveways soon resembled canyons. The first major winter storm, over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, deposited 14 inches in my neighborhood. Shoveling it felt great, until it didn’t. 

Even with a couple of helpers, I shoveled the deep snow for the better part of two hours that holiday weekend. By evening, both my thumbs, which were diagnosed with arthritis a few years ago, throbbed.  

For the most part, arthritis only limits my chances of getting picked for a jar-opening team, which is to say I’m rarely inconvenienced by the calcifications located where my opposable digits connect to my hand.  

I wore hand braces, took ibuprofen and rubbed liniments into my thumbs for weeks after that first major storm. And yet a pulsing pain woke me most nights.  

I eventually relented to steroid injections. Also, as a preventative measure, I became the proud owner of a snowblower, which of course means we won’t get much snow next year. (Feel free to thank me.) 

Extremes elevate appreciation. Color is a welcome delight after the browns, grays and whites of a long, hardy winter. 

Last week, my backyard was suddenly awash with the saturated blue of Siberian squill. My 12-year-old son cried out, “Look at the flowers!” when first spying them after a week with his father. The early flowers fill my lawn but will be long gone before the mower makes its annual debut. 

Get inspired by the top 2022 design and decor trends, go on a tiny-home tour, and explore Bridgid Coulter’s mindful approach to sustainable design.

Meanwhile, across the city, some unsavory things also have sprouted up. 

In March, receding snow released troves of trash onto the streets, sidewalks and devil strips. Where spring flowers generate smiles, loads of litter seemingly confetti-bombed throughout Akron are a dreary counterpoint. 

Keep Akron Beautiful is doing its best to address the litter but, like so many things, the pandemic has interfered. In the years leading up to COVID, the nonprofit assigned hundreds of workers with court-ordered community service hours to pick up litter. In 2021, it had only 39 community service workers, down from 577 in 2019. 

On April 23, Keep Akron Beautiful is holding a cleanup event at Summit Lake (meet at the Summit Lake Community Center, 380 W. Crosier St.) from 9 a.m. until noon. But the helpers won’t be visiting my neighborhood, which is why I now carry a grocery bag on my evening strolls. I’d not get many steps if I grabbed all the litter I see, but a little each time adds up. 

Something else also sprung up in every Akron ward this spring: speed tables. Unlike speed bumps, speed tables are flatter and tapered. Apparently a 2020 pilot program found speed tables reduced speeds by 23%.  

Over the past few years, the city has implemented several traffic-calming measures. In many cases, lanes on busier roads have been reduced from four (two in each direction) to three — a lane in each direction with a turn lane in the middle. 

While some residents complain about the reduced lanes, it’s hard to argue with calmer, safer traffic flows.  

That said, I’m not a fan of the speed tables. Who sees speed tables and says, “Gee, what a lovely neighborhood”? Nobody.  

But more importantly, speed tables are not as effective as some would have us believe.  

Drivers zoom up to the elevated sections, slow down to go over them only to accelerate again on the other side, something I learned 20 years ago when I sat on a traffic-calming committee in Cleveland.  

I’ve been watching people drive on Akron’s streets with speed tables. Not only do I see the zoom-slow-zoom behavior, plenty of cars fly over the flattish impediments at 10, 15, or even 20 miles over the speed limit.  

Narrowing streets is one of the best ways to calm traffic on streets suffering speedsters. (Hence the reduced lanes on Copley Road, Exchange Street and Memorial Parkway.) 

For residential streets, allowing parking on both sides is a free and easy option. This naturally narrows any throughway, causing most drivers to proceed with caution. 

Another attractive way to narrow residential streets is to create pinch points by bumping out the devil strip at the same place on both sides of a street. And unlike speed tables, pinch points don’t have to be removed in the winter for snowplows. 

Let’s tidy up Akron and rethink those speed tables so the blossoms alone are what catches eyes. For isn’t spring, especially after a cold, snowy winter, just grand? 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 17, 2022.

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More inclusion, less ableism

Recently I saw a photo of yet another young woman with Down syndrome who has become a model, in this case for Victoria’s Secret.

“Do you think she’s had cosmetic surgery on her eyes?” I asked my friend who happens to be an eye doctor.

“I was wondering the same thing,” he said before asking, “What do you think of that?”

Down syndrome, the most common chromosomal disorder, is caused by an extra copy of the 21st chromosome. It causes intellectual disabilities (from mild to significant) and a variety of physical features, including epicanthal folds, which is a prolongation of the upper eyelid fold.

I didn’t know the term “epicanthal fold” when I looked at my daughter moments after her birth and blurted out, “Her eyes looked kind of Downsy.”

Why would someone with DS undergo eyelid surgery if it was medically unnecessary? Perhaps because epicanthal folds, which vary from person to person, can make it easy to identify someone’s diagnosis of DS. 

The summer of 2018 my daughter, Lyra, was old enough to join her brother at the summer day camp in Michigan that he’d attended the previous two summers. Five minutes after I dropped them off on their first day, I received a call from the camp director.

Lyra with her brother (and best buddy) Leif.

“Lyra stepped in a puddle and needs a dry pair of socks. And, frankly, we’re just not set up for her,” she told me. 

“What do you mean you aren’t set up for Lyra?” I demanded more than asked, causing the woman on the other end of the line to sputter. 

To see my daughter’s features is to know she has Down syndrome. And ascribing outmoded or patently false notions about what it means to have DS is still far too common, especially among people my age or older. 

Lyra talks, reads, sings and plays like, well, other children. And she will happily outsmart anyone who mistakenly assumes she’s incapable of performing a task and let them do it for her.

There was a new camp director the second summer Lyra attended. She and the counselors have not only accepted Lyra, each is excited when assigned to Lyra’s group for any of the eight weeks of the program. Several email me throughout the year for Lyra updates and one wrote a paper on inclusion, with Lyra as an example, for a college course.

Like all bigotry, ableism, or the discrimination of people with disabilities, is learned. Probably the best way to unlearn bigotry is through regular interaction with people whose ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation/identity and/or abilities, are different than one’s own. Through conversation and interaction it becomes undeniably apparent that we are all “more alike than different,” which is the motto of the National Down Syndrome Congress.

Policies that embrace inclusion, in which people with disabilities are not sequestered, but included in typical classrooms, jobs and more, benefit everyone. Yes, Lyra’s DS effects her cognition, but that’s not a reason to have her in a room down the hall from her typical peers.

In inclusive settings my daughter’s abilities in everything from speech to somersaults improve. At the same time, her typical peers learn how to have a friend with a disability, how to be occasionally helpful without infantilizing. They also come to know my girl for the person she is and not the diagnosis she has.

This alone is reason enough to include people with disabilities in any setting. But beyond increasing compassion, and thereby reducing bigotry, typical kids who have a peer with DS in their classrooms have been shown to score higher on college entrance exams than students who do not have the advantage of having a classmate with DS.  

We recently enrolled Lyra in the aftercare program at the Shaw JCC. When the program’s director expressed concerns about meeting Lyra’s needs, I was reminded of Lyra’s first year at summer camp. 

But instead of resisting Lyra’s enrollment, the JCC has increased its aftercare staff by one and welcomed training from the Summit DD Board to ensure they are able to meet the needs of all the children in the program. 

And therein lies something about advocacy that is often overlooked: it can result in an improved situation not just for one child, but everyone involved with that child.

The answer to my friend’s question about what I think of people with DS undergoing cosmetic surgery is complicated. History is filled with marginalized people attempting to “pass” in order to avoid discrimination and even violence. 

When she’s an adult, my daughter may seek cosmetic surgery so as not to be unfairly assessed based upon misguided or even cruel assumptions. But I hope not because it’s a severe and frankly unfair solution to the societal problem of discrimination.

Meanwhile, I will continue working to make the world a place where my daughter and others with Down syndrome are seen not as their diagnosis but as the full humans and assets to their communities that they are.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 3, 2022.

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Making masks optional in Akron schools was the right decision

Like a lot of children, my 9-year-old daughter, Lyra, relies on routine to make life predictable and easier for us both. Conversely, changes in her routines can understandably take a minute.  

When I tell Lyra on the first warm spring morning that she needn’t put on a hat, scarf and mittens when getting ready for her school bus, she does anyway. I chalk it into the “pick your battles” category and she heads out overly dressed the first weeks of the season. 

Lyra and her dog Otto after sledding on March 12. Three days later it was 70 degrees in Akron.

Knowing this, I was surprised last Monday when I told Lyra she no longer needed to wear a mask to school. She made no attempt to grab a fresh one from the basket where I’ve stored them for nearly two years. 

Last August I wrote a column supporting Akron Public Schools’ decision to mandate masks when the buildings reopened for the 2021-2022 school year. At the time, COVID’s delta variant was engulfing Summit County where many of the school districts that initially did not require masks soon returned to remote learning due to significant outbreaks. 

In spite of my family’s best efforts to support Lyra’s remote learning during the full year APS’ buildings remained closed, her education stalled. Thus, my biggest fear this school year was a return, even temporarily, to online instruction. 

Now, seven months later, we must ask: Do the risks of contracting COVID (including hospitalization and death) remain greater than the educational risks associated with remaining masked? When can we reasonably, as we eventually must, choose to end mask mandates? 

One of the courses I teach this semester at the University of Akron is rhetoric. I tell my second-semester freshmen in this course that it is like a microcosm of college in which they will develop critical thinking skills. They learn how to find reliable data from credible sources, which they must read more closely than they are used to in order to analyze the effectiveness of each piece’s arguments. 

Rhetoric students also come to recognize fallacious arguments such as a red herring (Before allowing ice fishing shanties, we must first consider if they’ll increase prostitution) or an ad hominem (While Michael Cohen’s testimony to the Senate was impossible to disprove, we shouldn’t listen to him because he’s a confessed slime-ball).  

Whenever I teach this course, I assign articles on current events for rhetorical analysis. Last month, my students read multiple op-eds and one New York Times newsletter on when school mask mandates should end. 

The difficulty in determining a specific date to end mask mandates, which must take into account many variables that change daily, was ideal precisely because there is no one-date-is-perfect-everywhere solution.  

Here’s what we learned: Each new variant of a virus quickly supplants the previous one and typically successive generations of any virus are more transmissible but also less harmful than earlier ones. Which is to say, we are quickly getting to the same territory with COVID as the annual flu. 

Furthermore, there is evidence that masks impede education. Of course they do. The decibels at which I lecture from behind a mask are just shy of screaming. Beyond making instruction difficult, masks also hinder social connectivity. Younger students are reportedly taking months instead of the usual weeks to make new friends when masked. 

Politically, at least two extreme camps exist on masking. One is the camp that believes all masking was always pointless. The other holds that we should wear masks until the risk of contracting COVID is zero. As with most binary approaches, both are overly simplistic. 

Now that children ages 5 and up can be vaccinated, now that the omicron contraction rate has peaked and, as with previous variants, dramatically fallen and given that future variants will most likely continue to be milder than those that have come before, it is time to end mandatory masking where it makes sense. 

Hospitals and medical offices will understandably continue requiring masks longer than stores and schools do because people who are medically compromised or fragile are more likely to be in medical facilities. 

Last summer, after vaccines were available and COVID rates subsequently dropped, many believed we were done with masking. Then the delta variant debuted in America. That’s when I pitched our cloth masks for disposables, mostly for the sake of ease, but also because they had proved to be more effective. 

I heartily pray this spring is the real end of the pandemic as we’ve known it for the past two years. 

Akron Public Schools surveyed its families in the weeks before revisiting the district’s mask mandate. As a parent of a child in the district, I took the survey and answered yes, it is time to make masks optional in our city’s schools. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 20, 2022.

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Global power and the Ukrainian fulcrum

Shortly after I moved to Cleveland in 2000, I became friends with Alla, a Ukrainian woman in her late 20s whose son was the same age as one of mine. 

In her small house, the high shine of the wood floors made the old cliche of eating off them seem reasonable. Though normally soft-spoken and reticent, when Alla strapped on her accordion she embodied energetic merriment, transforming her tiny living room into a dance hall for our combined four boys who pirouetted and jumped to her music. 

Alla immigrated to the United States with her family when she was a girl and a few years later her father died of brain cancer. I asked if she thought it was due to radiation exposure from the Chernobyl disaster. She said no, but who would want to live with that specter and what else it might bring? 

A year after we’d become friends, Alla lent me a slim book about the Holodomor, or Great Famine. In 1929, Soviet leader Josef Stalin collectivized agriculture in Ukraine, confiscating farms and homes. Production dropped, unrest grew and Stalin, rather than fixing the problem he’d caused, brutally doubled down and confiscated food supplies. 

Between 1931 to 1934, nearly 4 million Ukrainians died because of Stalin’s genocidal famine. At the same time, the Soviets worked to dismantle the Ukrainian language, culture and religion in an attempt to Russify the nation. Many who resisted were executed or sent to the Gulag (forced labor camps). 

Filled with firsthand accounts of the Holomodor, I found my friend’s book hard to read to the end, which is why I did. Twenty years later, I remain haunted by one particular victim: a woman found dead with her infant at her breast where it suckled in vain before also dying. 

Alla, whose parents were born more than a decade after the Holomodor, carried her people’s collective memory of what Soviet occupation had wrought and wanted others to know too. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the first time the world as I knew it changed. The second time came 10 years later when terrorists flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center towers. The third is the current pandemic. 

Now the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia has begotten a fourth global watershed moment in 30 years. The geopolitical future of the world is on a fulcrum and what happens in Ukraine will decide which way it tips — toward democracy or authoritarianism. 

As Russia amassed a warmongering number of troops and armaments along its border with Ukraine in the first weeks of 2022, experts equivocated whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would invade a sovereign nation without provocation. 

Of those experts, Alexander Vindman, the former director for European affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, who, like Alla, immigrated from Ukraine to the United States with his family as a child, has proved most prescient. The transcript of his Jan. 10 interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly reads like the playbook for Russia’s invasion and the global response. 

I’m not alone in lately recalling author William Faulkner’s words: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

To know Ukrainian history is to know Ukrainians will fight any invasion and attempted occupation mightily and indefinitely. Ukrainians are not Russians. Ukraine is a sovereign nation for which the Russian government has no credible reason to invade, bomb and occupy. Large numbers of Russian citizens, who have risked imprisonment to protest Putin’s war, agree. 

After I moved to Akron in 2003, I saw Alla less frequently. When we last spoke on the phone in 2009, her second son was a toddler and she’d recently given birth to a daughter. She always had wanted a large family and I was happy for her. 

Alla told me that, like her father, her sister had died of brain cancer since we’d last talked and that she, too, had had a tumor removed from her brain, but assured me she was fully recovered. We talked easily for an hour, mostly about our children, before hanging up. 

When I called her cellphone several months later, her husband answered. He was disconcerted when I asked for Alla. She and her daughter had both died — Alla from cancer, the baby from complications of the treatment. 

Instantly I realized that Alla’s call, conversational and upbeat, had been a farewell. Her quiet, determined bravery in the face of death now seems essentially Ukrainian. Ukrainian bravery, on full display in the face of Putin’s orders to take their country no matter the cost of human life, is humbling. 

Just as COVID went from a distant news story to a pandemic that upended the world, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has placed the world order quite suddenly in a seminal situation. 

To Ukraine, its people, and the future of democracy, I say Солідарність, or solidarity. In this moment, Ukrainians are the vanguard protecting the free world. They deserve the full support not just of NATO allies, but all democratic nations. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, March 6, 2022.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Banning books an exercise in fear and folly

In 1994, I purchased a copy of “The Wild Party” after hearing an interview with Art Spiegelman about his illustrated version of the Gatsby-esque poem by Joseph Moncure March. 

It’s a dark little book, written a year before the Great Depression, in which a gin-soaked party spins out, well, wildly and ends very badly for most of the attendees.  

Last fall in a piece in the New York Times Magazine, Mark Harris wondered if March knew the world was on the cusp of change when he wrote his poem, considering “there are few things more glamorous than the belief that we are living through the end of an era — and there are even fewer times in recent history when we haven’t believed it.”   

Certainly COVID has made everyone feel like we are living at the end of something, which may be contributing to the current increase in book banning. If the school board in Tennessee that recently nixed Spiegelman’s anti-Nazi graphic novel “Maus” ever saw “The Wild Party,” it might try eradicating the author’s entire canon. 

In his recent article, “My Young Mind Was Disturbed by a Book. It Changed My Life,” author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote: 

“Those who seek to ban books are wrong no matter how dangerous books can be. Books are inseparable from ideas, and this is really what is at stake: the struggle over what a child, a reader and a society are allowed to think, to know and to question.” 

Like Nguyen, I own some well-written books, published in prior decades, that contain representations of people we recognize today as inappropriate, if not downright racist. These include several of Dr. Seuss’s books as well as the entire collection of Tintin comic books, all of which my children loved reading. 

Yes, there are portrayals of people in those books that are completely unacceptable —my children know this because we’ve discussed it. As a result, I trust their intelligence and compassion to recognize negative stereotypes anywhere and question why they are allowed. 

I’ve never understood why some parents, in something of a cyclical manner, want to ban books. New York Times parenting columnist Jessica Grose believes it’s about the illusion of parental control, though “delusion”  may be more appropriate. 

A 2019 survey reported that “more than half of American children owned a smartphone by the age of 11.” On that little screen, children can see many things they should not. Tell me you have parental controls on your child’s smartphone or, better yet, refuse to give them one? Great, but what about their friends?  

There is no shortage of books on how to talk to kids about pornography, and sex in general so children won’t turn to online porn as a form of sex education. And for good reason. In 2008, when smartphones were still novel, 90% of boys and 66% of girls had viewed online pornography before they were 18.  

Before the internet existed, children clandestinely read and shared books low on literary value and high on prurience. I was delighted that Grose, who’s easily 15 years my junior, revealed passing around “Flowers in the Attic” with her friends as a child. 

V.C. Andrews’ “classic” was equally popular when I was a girl. An actively evil grandmother locks her grandchildren in the attic while the passively evil mother seeks a new husband after the death of the children’s father, indicating that children are a deal breaker in snagging a man (so much misogyny to unpack there, whew). The story then devolves into a penny arcade of various horrors, including incest. 

The books being banned today, however, are not pulpy paperbacks. Many are literary classics dealing with difficult subjects, such as the Holocaust and slavery. Should works on violent, dehumanizing events in history be sanitized? 

I’d counter that teens, who live in the real world in which atrocities are reported daily, safely learn to deal with the complexity of life when they read about bad things happening to good people in books. 

Enslaving another human being has no upside for the enslaved and there were no “good masters” in the United States or elsewhere. When Toni Morrison wrote visceral accounts of the abuses committed by enslavers in her book “Beloved,” she drove home why parents would go to extremes to prevent their children from being enslaved.  

Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” in which Nazis are cats and Jews mice, is not a work of fiction. It’s a postmodern rendering of Spiegelman’s father’s experiences as a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust.  

While some books are banned for violent content, others are banned for telling the stories of people who are not white, or not heterosexual, or not Christian. 

Nonwhite, nonheterosexual and non-Christian children are inundated with books about people who are not like them. Why wouldn’t they want to read good books about people with whom they can identify?  

As for children who are white, heterosexual and Christian, how are they harmed when learning that not everyone experiences the world and life as they do? Good books about people from nondominant parts of society are additive, not subtractive. 

The only risk in reading something written from the perspective of someone who is, in some way, different than the reader, is that of cultivating empathy. In my book, that’s something to embrace, not fear. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 20, 2022.

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Long friendship is rich in unexpected ways

“Your friendship may well be lifelong,” I tell students when I see them hit it off in my classes. That they might also become close with each other’s families is an added bonus I let them discover for themselves. 

In the winter of 1992, I met Jen Tressler in a plant pathology class on Ohio State University’s Ag campus, where students working on degrees in agriculture and veterinary medicine were seemingly sequestered. 

Our professor was nearing retirement and while I cannot remember his name, I easily recall his face. Generous eyebrows, as dark as his thick hair was white, valanced his bright eyes. His nose, below which he wore a generous smile, was sturdy enough for the occasional tug he gave it. Syrian grandparents were elemental in the overall composition. 

Plant pathology fulfilled a capstone science requirement following two courses in botany. We studied plant diseases, their vectors and how to reduce or eliminate them. Not surprisingly, the roster was largely filled with men intending to farm after college.  

The oddballs in the course, Jen (who was also taking the course for the capstone requirement) and I sat together. A few weeks into the quarter, we felt as though the class was sponsored by a major pesticide company — the solution given to almost every disease and pest was to apply noxious chemicals. 

Jen and I discussed alternative approaches to pesticides with our professor. His eyes twinkled as he listened closely before suggesting, as any wise teacher would, that she and I teach a class on the subject. 

I’m not sure what, if any, impact our hourlong presentation had on the other students, but it cemented our friendship. 

After we graduated from OSU, Jen worked at an organic farm in Kansas before spending two years in Honduras with the Peace Corps, where she taught farmers sustainable practices. When she returned, she met and married Milan, they changed their last names to Marvelous and settled in Philadelphia. 

For eight years, Jen and I stayed connected through landlines and letters written with ink and paper. But since January 2000, when I moved to Northeast Ohio, Jen has visited me regularly when she stays with her parents, who live in Painesville.  

That same year we taught a class together, Jen’s parents drove down from Painesville and took us to lunch. I found her mom, a first-grade teacher who is now retired, very energetic and engaging. 

But it’s Mr. Tressler who I’ve come to know over the years. 

Until 2003 I lived in Cleveland, just off the Shoreway exit for West 49th Street. Mr. Tressler, who worked in facilities for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, stopped by for coffee and a chat whenever he was called out to Max Hayes High School, just blocks from my house. 

Born and raised in Reading, Pennsylvania, Mr. Tressler comes off as no-nonsense and a bit crusty. I’ve only heard about his temper, yet understood it to be as readily available to him as a favorite hammer is in the tool belt of a carpenter.  

So, too, is kindness. Once, on a sleety January day when I was 8 months pregnant, Mr. Tressler changed a tire on my Toyota Sienna (no easy feat), on the Route 8 ramp behind The Chapel at the University of Akron. 

Like many seemingly gruff characters, scratch the surface and you’ll find Mr. Tressler a softie, especially with his family. That’s become even more apparent in the months since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. 

After moving to Akron, I’ve met up with Jen and her dad many times when they come to town for our tag-popping emporiums. In case you didn’t know, Akron has killer thrift stores — clearly better than those in Philadelphia or Cleveland. 

A couple of weeks ago, I met up with Jen, her eldest daughter and Mr. Tressler at Village Discount on Waterloo Road.  

“I’m pretty sure he’ll remember you,” said Jen on the phone earlier that day, making my stomach drop.   

But, boy, did he.  

Much of the afternoon, Mr. Tressler reminded me of things I’d forgotten until he shared them. Like a lunch years ago at a downtown restaurant where he loved his hamburger. 

“I have dementia, you know,” he told me when he struggled to remember the name of the restaurant. (It was The Lockview.) 

Never overweight, but of sturdy, Ukrainian stock (Jen’s daughters call him “Gigi” and her mom “Baba”), Mr. Tressler is now considerably thinner. As a result, the blue of eyes, so much like those of my friend, really pop and he looked dashing in his Carhartt jacket and brimmed felt hat. 

After thrifting, we ate lunch at my house. I told Mr. Tressler his eyes were as brilliantly blue as those of Paul Newman’s. He wanted to know if Newman was still alive.  

“Sadly, no,” I told him. 

When they left that afternoon, Mr. Tressler, whose first name I only recently learned is John, lingered at the doorway after Jen and her daughter had gotten into their car. 

“Well, it’s been good knowing you,” he told me, holding my gaze with his own. 

“Take care, love,” I replied as I struggled to stay dry-eyed in the face of Jen’s father, a man who long ago became my friend, too. 

This was published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 6, 2022.

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Rules have changed on making a living

I am one of America’s 7 million working-poor citizens. My youngest two children and I are on Medicaid and for a few months each year we qualify for food stamps. Like many families living below the poverty level, I receive the Earned Income Tax Credit. Last year, a portion of my EITC, through the Child Tax Credit, was disbursed for six months in a row.  

Created as part of the Biden administration’s COVID relief package passed last March, the CTC gave monthly payments to qualifying families starting on July 15. Through its Build Back Better bill, the administration wanted to extend the CTC but with the bill stalled, the original deadline held and payments ceased.  

When it became clear that December’s CTC payment was, for now, the final one, proponents decried the loss. According to a study conducted by Columbia University, the CTC payments reduced the U.S. child poverty rate from 16% to 12%, or about 3 million children. 

The detractors of the CTC fall into roughly two camps: Those who blame the poor for being poor and others who deem the CTC as an imperfect solution to child poverty and, therefore, should be abandoned without first implementing anything better. In other words, the old “letting perfect be the enemy of good.” 

Blaming poor people for their situation is nothing new. And, yet, in recent decades, those who do have become more strident. For most of the 20th century, plenty of conservatives knew intimately that poverty is not essentially a character flaw. After all, many of them lived through the Great Depression and the lean years of World War II. 

In 1964, the Johnson administration introduced its War on Poverty legislation, which sought to solve the endemic problems that leave so many citizens behind in the world’s richest country. Instead, in the ensuing decades, legislation created by politicians of both parties (I’m looking at you, Bill Clinton) was more of a war on poor people. 

For three decades, I have worked hard and played by the rules. 

A first-generation college graduate, I took a smattering of classes after high school, only getting serious at age 21 when I enrolled at Ohio State University. I graduated five years later in 1992 with two bachelor’s degrees and paid off my student loans in less than two years. 

But then the rules on moving up in life changed. 

Federal funding for higher education, starting with the G.I. Bill in 1944, helped create the largest middle class in the history of the world. For several decades, the halls of higher education were no longer the exclusive domain of the rich.  

That tide changed starting with the Reagan administration. Using data that showed college graduates make more money over their lifetimes than those with only high school degrees, funding to colleges and students was slashed. This has continued until it is now nearly impossible to earn a bachelor’s degree without an insurmountable mountain of debt. 

In 2010, I graduated from Kent State with an MFA and $30k in student loan debt. It has since mushroomed to $40k even though I pay more than the minimum payments.  

Like many Americans, I am a gig worker. I teach at the University of Akron, I write freelance, I proofread for court reporters and I own a rental property. 

Also like many American workers, I didn’t choose this, but have few alternatives because American employers have moved positions at an ever-accelerating pace from actual employment to contract work. 

Why? It’s simple. Employers don’t have to pay contract employees living wages or provide them with benefits. This is a profit-driven strategy not only adopted by large companies in the commercial sector, but throughout the economy. 

A prime example is my work teaching at a university.

Based upon a review of best practices, the Modern Language Association recommends that part-time faculty receive, as minimum compensation, $11,500 for teaching a three-credit-hour semester course. Shoot, I’d be thrilled with half that.

As adjunct faculty, I make just under $3,000 for a three-credit-hour semester course, which is about $127/week (after deductions) for a position that requires a master’s degree, the same one I suspect I’ll die before paying off. In order for freshmen to learn to write successful academic papers, my students write, and I grade, a lot.

As a result, I earn less than $5 an hour teaching.

This scenario is not unique to my university or even Ohio. Colleges and universities nationwide are ever increasingly replacing what were once full-time teaching positions with adjunct faculty who receive subpar pay and little to no benefits.

This and other forms of indentured servitude is why, in this post-vaccine phase of the pandemic, workers are not flocking back to demanding jobs that offer no possibility of earning a living wage.

From the rearview mirror, I would agree that some of the choices I made early in life resulted in me having less income. But, in the world as it was then, there was no way to foretell this.

Research shows that families receiving the CTC spent it mostly on food and education. I used to buy reliable transportation — the base-model, used car I purchased last June. It was a godsend to set up a car payment to occur a few days after the monthly CTC payments hit my bank account.

So yes, the CTC, which simply provided some of the EITC funds monthly instead of in one lump sum as a federal tax refund, is not a solution to decades of rising economic inequality.

But it helped America’s working poor families make monthly ends meet in an economy that, after 1979, no longer rewards the hard or smart work of the majority of Americans. That the CTC should be maintained, even at amounts lower than those paid in 2020 as a part of COVID relief, is a no brainer.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 23, 2022.

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Where will we be a year from now?

Is this what you expected life to look like a year ago? 

When my children were all young, the changes I noticed from year to year were often typical milestones: first steps, potty training, starting school, riding bikes.  

In those labor-intensive years coated with more body fluids than I care to recount, raising children felt like my major contribution to the world. It still does. 

Three of my children are now grown and contribute to society. They are active citizens who participate in our democracy and in their communities. They also know how to cook and clean a home, and I’m fairly certain they regularly do both. 

In times of great change, however, simply contemplating one’s life at the end of the year seems remiss. 

We are about to embark on the third year of a global pandemic; the effects of climate change are no longer a distant cataclysm; and liberal democracy, of which this country has long been the world’s leading example, is looking precariously wobbly. 

Alone, each of these can overwhelm anyone paying attention. When dished up together, as they are, it might feel as though the best course is to rock to and fro in a fetal position. 

But I suggest otherwise. 

We can’t wish away COVID-19, a warming planet or an assault on democratic values. They are here and must be recognized and addressed with thoughtful urgency. 

And consider this: positive paradigm shifts can, and often do, occur alongside or just after major calamities. According to Stanford professor Walter Scheidel, the worse a pandemic or plague, the more it results in leveling societal inequalities. 

It’s hard to know how long the COVID pandemic will prevent economies from returning to the way they were (if they ever do), but what is clear is that many workers no longer accept wages that leave them below the poverty level and often working in unsafe conditions. 

I worked part-time at World Market, a retail store, for five years and even with sterling reviews I never received a raise larger than 25 cents an hour. When I left in 2018, my hourly wage was less than $10. This holiday season, new hires at World Market started at $13 an hour. 

As a freelance writer and adjunct faculty with the University of Akron — employment that paid living wages just a generation ago — I work hard for little. When receiving government assistance during the first year of the pandemic, it gave me previously unknown financial capacity, and what I reasonably should always earn. 

Endless fires in California, rapid increases in U.S. sea levels and tidal flooding, devastating December tornadoes in Kentucky — the time to sit back and chit-chat about the impact of and solutions for climate change is past. Yet only recently has it been possible to inject the topic of climate change into any serious political discussions.  

Yes, many corporations that deal in fossil fuels, as well as the politicians they lobby, give little more than lip service to seeking paths away from combustible energies to those that are renewable, but the shift has begun. Individuals, communities and states that recognize the consequences of ignoring the facts are moving ahead with changes. It’s still too little, too late, but the tide is shifting. 

Dissatisfaction with government and societal status quo abounds on both the left and the right, but how to address that dissatisfaction divides the nation. Autocracies have always existed elsewhere, but not in the United States, long a beacon of democracy. That is, for now. 

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Barton Gellman reminds us that just six days into this year, “insurrectionists injured scores of police officers and trashed the hallowed building revered as the citadel of our democracy. Chanting ‘Hang Mike Pence,’ they threatened the sitting vice president’s life. They bashed police officers with poles bearing the American flag. They carried the Confederate battle flag through the Capitol rotunda. They despoiled the building with their urine and feces.” 

That all Republicans are not unified in pursuing and prosecuting all participants — including those in government — of this treasonous assault on our government is horrifying, but hardly shocking.  

The title of Gellman’s article is “January 6 Was Practice” and in it he outlines how we now live in a country in which only one of the two major political parties, the Democrats, is willing to lose an election. 

Dispiriting as this is, American citizens of all political persuasions have stopped passively observing government and have become active participants, proving that election turnout is greater in countries with significant discontent, if not outrage, with the way things are. 

This time last year, I easily imagined the pandemic would by now be behind us and I was buoyed by an incoming president’s commitment to addressing climate change and systemic inequality. 

Today, I am certain of only two things: the times are a-changing and these changes challenge us all. When looking back next year, the world will be different, and hopefully better, than it is now. 

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Try for a lighter, more meaningful Christmas

Shortly after the Thanksgiving leftovers have been polished off, holiday stress begins its annual escalation.  This year the inevitable pressure to find the perfect holiday gifts seems accentuated, given the supply shortages caused by the ongoing pandemic. 

University of Minnesota professor Joel Waldfogel, who wrote “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays,” claims that while we are good at knowing what we need and want, figuring that out for other people isn’t so easy. 

Clever ad makers have used this conundrum to drive us to stores or websites with the promise of gifts so perfect you’ll put everyone you know on your list. 

While commercials of little children coming down the stairs on Christmas morning to the sight of a lit-up pine tree with cascades of presents under its lowest branches give my heart a warm tug, the anxiety that accompanies the thought of so many gifts leaves me feeling less than merry.

Oodles of presents are not necessary. Children are equally enraptured, if not more so, with one or two well-chosen gifts. In fact, between the ages 2 and 5, my children often left many wrapped presents under the tree for days, playing instead with the first they’d unwrapped. 

Overbuying simply feeds the cycle of make-sell-buy-discard that loads up landfills more than hearts. So if you can, stop stress-shopping and consider a lighter, more meaningful, giving season. 

For starters, buy local. There are many area artists who have created one-of-a-kind beauties from jewelry to paintings to garden statues. My holiday season never feels complete without a visit to the Don Drumm Gallery on Crouse Street, where the work of over 500 artists is sold. 

You can also consider shopping at companies with charity-based business models. Each year, my sons eagerly anticipate the following:  

Bombas socks, which are incredibly well-made, comfy and cute. For each pair purchased, the company gives a specially designed pair to organizations serving those who are homeless. Win-win giving. 

T-shirts from Out of Print, a company whose merchandise has “iconic book cover artwork and literary references,” and price tags that look like library check-out cards of yore. With a portion of their proceeds, the company donates books and supports literacy programs. 

Logo merchandise from WKSU, our local NPR affiliate, which my boys wear with regional, nerdy pride because “I heard on NPR …” are words one of us says daily. 

Recently, my 25-year-old son, Hugo, happily realized that his childhood education hadn’t been limited to school. “We learned all the time, like, we went to so many museums!” he told me before we waxed on about our favorite. 

And while it may not feel the same as giving a toy, when my children were young I was deeply grateful to receive annual memberships to museums, zoos and science centers, gifts that truly keep on giving for at least 12 months. Most memberships cost close to $100 a year, a prohibitive expense for many young families. 

Finally, as the word “holidays” means “holy days,” helping others seems abundantly appropriate. Each year former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes an annual giving guide, identifying impactful charities. This year, one of his recommendations particularly resonated with me. 

In 2012, my only daughter was born with Down syndrome, which I often write about. But she also had milky-white pupils. Cataracts. Before she was 2 months old, her lenses were surgically removed. Without those surgeries, she would have been blind. 

One of Kristof’s highlighted charities this year is the Seva Foundation, which restores eyesight to people around the world. A significant portion of their work is removing cataracts with a 15-minute surgery that costs roughly $50 per eye. 

If the gift of eyesight doesn’t resonate with you, that’s OK, many other nonprofits that improve lives in any number of ways also benefit from even small contributions. 

I understand that plenty of people find great joy in going all in on everything Christmas — one my eldest sons’ high school science teachers joyfully installed and decorated over 20 Christmas trees in his house each year. 

Others find great satisfaction in buying gifts — the first time my son Hugo spent Christmas with his girlfriend’s family, he felt like he’d won the present lottery. 

But if holiday gift buying feels like a chore, one you can never get quite right, consider changing the expectations. I’m pretty sure if you do, nobody will be as disappointed as the Madison Avenue ad makers would have you believe.  

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, December 12, 2021.

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Not today, COVID

While none of us gets out of here alive, we do have the ability to influence how we exit or, more pointedly, how we don’t. 

A healthy diet and exercise, for example, can prevent myriad issues from diabetes to heart disease. But without the fangs or claws of imminent demise, distant consequences seem improbable and make the call of fast food and couches easy to answer. 

The first global pandemic in a century, however, trucks in both distant and immediate devastation. 

In what felt like the flick of a switch, life changed in March 2020. Two of my five children returned home from college, while the elementary schools of my youngest two suddenly shuttered.  

Those first months were both a blast and terrifying. 

Together the seven of us raucously cooked and ate meals, played euchre and walked dogs in parks. I had luxuriously long talks with my children, particularly my second son, who adopted a puppy soon after he’d returned to Akron. 

Meanwhile, information how COVID-19 is and isn’t transmitted whiplashed our brains as fast-flung guidelines changed. Now seemingly absurd, at first we worried about touching items in the grocery store lest the last person who touched them had COVID, while simultaneously we believed masks to be unnecessary. 

Then we were told masks are the best first line of defense against the virus, which is commonly spread by airborne droplets, and that wiping down our groceries was unnecessary as the virus quickly dies on nonliving surfaces. 

This seesaw environment of safety protocols is actually how science works. Information yields new hypotheses and new standards, which is why scientists love being proven wrong! Unfortunately, there were those who used this important process to attack whether there really was a virus for their own political gain at the cost of millions of lives.  

My family decided to bunker down until we had what we ascertained as consistently reliable information. My two youngest children saw little more than home and yard for the better part of four months. 

Then came the 2020-2021 school year. I taught hybrid classes at the University of Akron, poorly dividing my line of vision between “roomies,” i.e., the students physically in class with me, and “Zoomies,” or those who attended online. 

 My eldest son began graduate school in Texas where masking regulations were few and seldom followed. He lived and studied in his apartment like a monk, leaving only for daily runs and weekly trips to the grocery. 

But that remote school year was far and away hardest on my youngest two children. Even though we regularly checked his browser history, our fifth grader was routinely discovered to have skipped out on classes to peruse websites. 

My daughter, Lyra, who has Down syndrome, was in the first grade. Benefits wrought from years of speech and occupational therapies seemed to wash away like sand castles at high tide as she went from mostly talking in complete sentences to speaking only key words. 

During the early weeks of the pandemic, hot spots in faraway cities brought hospitals to their knees as patient numbers exceeded capacities and health care workers struggled to meet the need. By the time the same happened in Summit and surrounding counties, it seemed an inevitability. 

Eventually several people I know contracted and recovered from COVID. It wasn’t until this fall, just as the infection rates of the delta variant began declining, that COVID began killing friends and family members of mine. 

The first was the cousin closest to my age on my dad’s side. Brent Christensen was 51 when he died in September. Twenty days before his death, he became a grandpa for the first time. I last saw Brent after the burial of our Grandma, who died at age 90. 

Like everyone, I long for this pandemic to be in the rear window of our lives.  

My second son, who worked in health care at the time, was the first of us vaccinated against COVID. I was the second, receiving my first two shots in April. My ex-partner and other two adult sons were all vaccinated soon thereafter. Last month, I boostered up. 

My daughter has long been my biggest COVID concern. Several months into this pandemic, ample data made it clear that when people with Down syndrome contract COVID-19 they are more likely to develop serious symptoms, require hospitalization and die. 

Perhaps the research moved as fast as it could, but the wait for a COVID vaccine for children age 5 and up was frustrating. Lyra desperately needs in-person education and while masks are excellent at reducing rates of infection, they are nowhere as effective as herd immunity. 

How do I spell relief? V-A-C-C-I-N-A-T-E-D. My youngest two got their first jabs at the earliest appointment we could find once the FDA approved the kid formulation. 

The science on vaccines is clear: They are the surest and safest way to stop cycles of COVID variants from shutting down our schools, businesses and lives. 

One day I will die, as will those around me. Loved ones, family, friends and strangers alike, we are all on this one-way journey together with little to no control over what brings us to our final destination. What we can control, by means of vaccination, is the likelihood that it’s COVID-19. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, November 28, 2021.

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WWII soldier’s dilemma then and now

For several years, I’ve had biweekly dinners with my friend Bascom Hill Biggers III. He turned 99 this past summer, but let me correct the image you may have of a doddering old man: That same week he danced a jig outside the Bureau of Motor Vehicles after renewing his driver’s license. 

Raised in Atlanta, Bascom was an ROTC cadet in college before being drafted in 1943 and stationed in New York City for nearly a year while awaiting orders. A month before his 22nd birthday, he was sent to Europe where he fought on the ground in the final months of World War II. 

During the spring of 1945, Bascom’s ragtag battalion, fill-ins for other battalions that’d suffered significant losses, moved through Germany, clearing remnant enemy soldiers from the enemy’s own country. Alongside Bascom was Russ Mohler, a lineman from Petaluma, California. 

On a cold spring day in 1945, the battalion waited at the edge of a forest near the town of Kameritz. Between the forest and the town lay 3,000 yards of fields. 

“We stand only slightly scattered in a patch of woods already littered with dead. There are so few of us left, so very few. There is a foreboding of panic within me. It is that sickening, helpless despairing feeling that comes when you know you must go on and you only want to escape — but not by death. Death is too close to be an escape.” 

While each soldier had his own weapons and pack to carry, the battalion also had a Browning automatic rifle, or BAR, a 20-pound machine gun. Bascom was barely 5-foot-5 and weighed 125 pounds. “Mohler and I were a team, and he was always there to take over for me when it was my turn to carry the BAR.” 

“We are told what our new C.O.’s orders are. Our new C.O. — a coward. Our real C.O., our leader, is dead. He died yesterday. And now we must take orders from a coward, a man who was too cowardly to come to the front. When someone suggests the unnecessary danger in the orders, his is only a sneering attitude. ‘It will be accomplished my way. You are just frightened. There is nothing to fear.’ Easy for him to say. What does he know of danger? He was safe. He is safe still.” 

Their orders were to take Kameritz and they determined the safest route was alongside a highway leading into the town. On the other side of the highway flowed a parallel stream overgrown with bushes that could easily hide enemy soldiers. 

Bascom, carrying the BAR, was ordered to go first and “spray the banks of that stream good.” He did, with Mohler close at hand. German soldiers hiding between the stream and the highway quickly showed themselves and surrendered.  

The Americans advanced to capture the would-be prisoners when bullets sprayed the ranks from across the stream. A “fellow with guts” went forward and captured three more Germans. 

While Bascom reloaded the BAR, Mohler helped process the new POWs. When he returned, he proudly showed Bascom the pistol he’d collected from one. Mohler had always wanted a pistol. 

“Then with the shock of a train whistle blast, an enemy machine gun opens up on us. It is in the black forest far to our left and it is playing for us. …The enemy is firing the dreaded 88 at us.” 

Bascom and Mohler fell to the ground. Bascom’s impulse was to jump into the stream, but he felt paralyzed. The explosions drew nearer until they were upon the battalion. 

Bascom didn’t realize it at first, but his right hand had been hit. As Mohler looked at Bascom’s bloody hand, a shell hit a nearby tree stump. “It’s my right shoulder,” he cried out before his head slumped forward. 

When the shelling stopped, Bascom called for a medic and worked to peel off Mohler’s equipment and clothing. Mohler turned ghastly yellow and made the noises of an animal in pain. But when Bascom exposed the shoulder, he found no wound. He frantically searched Mohler’s body for other wounds. There were none. 

For several minutes Bascom anguished over staying with his dying friend or leaving to save his own life. He stayed. Not yet 25, Mohler left behind a pregnant wife and two children. 

Eight months later, Bascom wrote a moving account of that fateful day in which death, always capricious, took one young man and passed by another. When I first read the original, typewritten pages, Bascom sat near me, his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands. 

Over seven decades later, survivor’s guilt hangs on Bascom’s shoulders like a sodden cloak. 

Two nights before Mohler died, the battalion bunkered down in an abandon warehouse. Two by two, the men shared their blankets with one another. Bascom and Mohler embraced, momentarily holding each other at the edge of uncertainty before collapsing into fitful sleep. 

My dear friend embodies the gentleness of St. Francis of Assisi and can harm neither spider nor fly that takes residence in his home. It’s hard to comprehend the impact his military service had on him.  

Just before Veterans Day, Bascom shared with me the conundrum of many a veteran, “I’m glad I went to war; I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.” 

A few days after leaving Mohler’s body behind, the spring weather was still bone-chillingly cold when the battalion set up in the garden of recently captured German leader. 

“My participation was so small, infinitesimal compared to what the real heroes did —slaughtered on beaches. Yet it was a perspective. That night in the garden I thought how wonderful it was to be alive.” 

A visible bit of shrapnel remains embedded in Bascom’s once-injured hand, a lifelong companion that reminds him of this essential truth.  

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 14, 2021.

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My plan for life always included travel

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? 

Tell me, what is it you plan to do 

With your one wild and precious life?” 

~From “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver 

As a parent, I’ve decided many matters with an eye toward how my children will judge me not in the moment, but years later. These include: 

Do your chores again because you didn’t do them correctly the first time.  

No, you can’t stay at the party past 11.  

Yes, you must meet weekly with a college-entrance exam tutor your sophomore year.  

Do NOT take a gap year in the middle of college. 

I also took the long-game approach as a child myself when I made many promises to my imagined adult self. The list, much of which I long ago forgot, included buying excellent trick-or-treat candy and high-quality toilet paper (growing up in a house stocked with POM bath tissue caused me to covet the neighbors’ Charmin). 

Along with those purchasing promises, I swore I’d take any child of mine who developed acne to the dermatologist.  Two of my sons took prescription isotretinoin in high school, which cleared their skin like a magic potion. As a result, their teen years were less insufferable than my own. 

Recently I’ve recognized how several, though certainly not all, choices my younger self made have paid off in unanticipated ways. Buddhist meditation and psychotherapy provided immediate benefits when first undertaken in my 20s, to be sure. After 30 years, however, the cumulative impact of both has been remarkable. 

But it was by purposeful intent that I organized my adult life to accommodate travel. 

A retired history teacher from Garfield High School regularly attended the wine tasting events I used to host at World Market. He once told me told me, “Boy, I’ve learned from your column that you sure like to travel.” 

It’s true. My ex-husband used to tell me that without looking at the calendar he knew when it had been about 12 weeks since I’d last left town because I’d get itching to toss the kids in the car and go. (Perhaps this served as training because my three adult sons remain eager travelers.) 

Knowing this about myself, while also understanding that the work I enjoy would never make me rich, I decided to live a low-cost life. I drive my cars until they die and little of what I purchase is new. And the few things that are, are usually deeply discounted. 

Most importantly, I do not spend a lot of money on housing. My monthly payment, including the escrow for insurance and taxes is just under $600 a month. Furthermore, I own and rent the house next to the one I live in. That income mostly covers the mortgages of both homes. 

Gosh, she must live in a tiny house, you may be thinking. No, my house is a three-story comfortable home with roughly 2,000 square feet of living space, a fabulous front porch and cozy backyard.  

Akronites know our city offers an abundance of affordable housing stock — timelessly beautiful homes built with a level of quality few are constructed with today. Still, the cost of my home would double if it was just half a mile to the west or north of where it is. 

My three eldest boys and I moved to the Hall Park Allotment Historic District on the west side, between Highland Square and downtown, in 2003. The neighborhood has a rich diversity of housing and residents. White-collar, blue-collar and cash-economy workers populate the houses of brick and clapboard along with a scattering of apartment buildings. 

That’s how I like it. My inner-city community has few, if any, people who are more concerned about lawns than lives lived. Neighbors on my street call out to one another from open porches that are furnished like outdoor living rooms. 

After two decades in this neighborhood, I’ve never had reason to worry about crime. One year, big multihued pumpkins voluntarily sprouted from my flower bed and filled the front yard. Nobody bothered them and that fall my boys harvested their own jack-o’-lanterns. 

I understand that the money and time necessary to travel as regularly and widely as I do is a privilege few can afford. But just as the decisions that didn’t please my children in the moment paid dividends in the long run, so too has choosing to live modestly helped fulfill several dreams of mine. 

My plan for this one wild and precious life always included travel. It still does.  

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, October 31, 2021.

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The horns give it away: My son is a Viking

My 11-year-old son, Leif, is in the midst of an extended, if not permanent, Viking phase. While I encourage his deep dive into our ancestral people, I am eager to see one thing literally fall apart: the horned helmet he’s worn night and day since January 2020.  

More than any of my other children, this son with the Viking name has delved into several long-lasting phases. 

Not even at day camp on the beach separated Leif and his Viking helmet.
Even on the beach with his day camp all summer, Leif remained helmeted

First it was the residents of the Island of Sodor — wooden trains pushed around wooden tracks, over wooden bridges and through wooden tunnels. By the time he was 2, Leif held his Thomas the Tank Engine like a 13-year-old does a first smartphone — all the time. 

Weeks before I gave birth to my fifth child, we went to the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. While looking down from a bridge at a duck pond, Leif accidentally dropped his 3-inch train into the murky water below. While the aviary staff scrambled to rescue Thomas, 2-year-old Leif cried at decibel levels commensurate with the horror and grief he felt over his dear train’s fate. 

A few months after he turned 4, Leif tossed Thomas to the curb like yesterday’s losing lottery numbers after watching “Titanoboa: Monster Snake,” a documentary about a prehistoric 42-foot snake. Its mind-boggling enormity inspired Leif to learn more about megafauna and soon thereafter he launched into a very long dinosaur phase. 

A year later, three of the four walls of Leif’s bedroom were decorated with dinosaur stickers. He informed me that, starting from wall with his doorway, the beasts were organized in geological order — Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. Yep, my kindergartner knew more about paleontology than his college-graduate mum. Pretty cool. 

Less fun was a wee kid regularly correcting my pronunciation of various dinosaur species or taking the Brontosaurus’s very existence from me, “There’s no such thing as a Brontosaurus, just Apatosauruses!” he’d assert whenever I’d call one of his long-necked figures the B-word.  

“Then just where do you think the Flintstones got their Brontosaurus burgers from, huh?” I’d triumphantly counter with adult imperiousness. Leif would roll his eyes and shake his head at my ignorance, and then giggle. 

A parallel, yet complementary, focus, Legos have been like a brick foundation supporting each of Leif’s phases from paleontology onward. The clever Danish company has kits for most things boys find interesting (girls, not so much), and Leif is no exception. His lifetime allowance earnings have largely been spent on interlocking bits of plastic. 

For about nine months, dinosaurs had to share space in Leif’s brain with all things Harry Potter. He read the books, wore ill-fitting graduation gowns and fake glasses and learned to play the John Williams’ theme song from the movies on our piano. (This was a definite improvement after months of him banging away at “The LEGO Movie” theme song, “Everything Is Awesome.”) 

Then, poof, Potter and his Hogwarts companions were gone as suddenly as if someone had cast an avada kedavra spell on them. 

Vikings invaded and conquered Leif’s absolute attention in the middle of his fourth-grade year. 

This is no coincidence. In Waldorf schools, such as the one Leif attends, Vikings are the culture fourth graders study. In a roundabout way, this pedagogical choice is also how Leif came to be called Leif. 

My second son, Hugo, also became obsessed with the Vikings in the fourth grade. Upon learning he would soon have a third brother, 12-year-old Hugo confidently stated, “My other two brothers are alike. This one will be like me and I will raise him in my own image and name him Leif.” 

And so it was. 

Hugo and Leif are bold extroverts with similar personalities. It was Hugo’s old fabric Viking helmet-hat, with a ring of faux-fur trim and soft horns on the sides, that Leif pulled out of the dress-up box just weeks before the COVID pandemic changed everything.  

“I really like your hat,” strangers regularly tell Leif. 

“Don’t encourage him,” I say. “He’s been wearing it for over a year!” 

“Yeah, I’m gonna keep wearing it just to bug her,” chimes Leif, pointing a thumb in my direction.  

Pick your battles.  

The hat has grown dingy (he never washes it) and a little tight on Leif’s head. After two summers hidden from the sun’s kisses, his hair is now resolutely dark.  

I let it go. I can think of far worse obsessions a nearly 12-year-old boy might have than a ratty old hat. It also doesn’t escape me that the Vikings, and by extension the hat, have perhaps helped Leif through the pandemic and the end of his parents’ relationship. 

I figure before he goes to college Leif will crush on someone who will tell him, “I’ll go out with you, sure, but only if you lose that moldering rag on your noggin’.” And just like that it’ll go the way of Thomas the Tank Engine. 

And for all my lighthearted complaints, I know that years after it does, my heart will swell when I see photos of my Viking boy in his helmet. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on October 17, 2021.

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Maturity brings changes in parenting habits

My eldest son, who was born six weeks after my 28th birthday, is now as old as I was when pregnant with him. The inner workings of my body had hijacked my brain that year, compelled me to reproduce and then, once I’d given birth, evaporated. I suddenly could not recall why I’d felt such urgency to start a family before I was 30. 

Partly a reflection of generational changes, along with individual choices, my parents were much younger — 19 and 20 — when they had me, their first child. In comparison, my three eldest sons, all in their 20s, are nowhere close to becoming parents, reflecting yet more generational shifts and personal decisions. 

It’s also possible I messed up my chances of ever becoming a grandparent when I gave birth to my fourth and fifth children at ages 44 and 46. My boys were 16, 13 and 9 when their next sibling, another brother, was born. All were old enough to help out and thus learned just how much work babies require. 

The first several years after the births of my last two children, the house was full of teens, tweens and tots. The big boys became naturals with their younger siblings, tending to them often without direction or even much thought. In fact, I sometimes had to tell my third son to back down and let me do the parenting. 

Those early years I also tried to replicate aspects of the older boys’ childhoods, including summer vacations, schooling and holiday traditions, with my littlest two. I wanted them all to share some collective memories so that the fourth and fifth children would be co-equal siblings with the first three. 

After a few years, I realized these efforts were unnecessary.  

No, the younger children do not have the same relationship with their older brothers as those three do with one another. But all five have a sibling relationship of their own that is equally embraced and secure.  

And when the big boys began heading off to college, one or two always remained in Akron. My eldest graduated from the University of Michigan and moved back home three years before my third son matriculated at Ohio State University. 

The differences between being a mom in my 30s versus my 50s weren’t obvious when my household included young adults. My youngest two children are lucky to have had five people raising them. It was a noisy, full home and mostly a lot of fun. 

But suddenly, just after we’d all hunkered together during the COVID shut down, everything changed. I raise my children to be independent, work hard and chase after their dreams. And by golly, if nothing else, that portion of my parenting has been an overwhelming success. 

The summer of 2020, I separated from my youngest children’s father just as the last of my first three moved far from Akron. My two littles now live with just one adult at a time as their dad and I alternate custodial weeks. 

My energy, or lack thereof, is the primary difference I have observed as an older mom now alone with young children. This is not necessarily bad — Elsa from “Frozen” could come to me for a few lessons on how to let it go. It also means I’m less gung-ho about monitoring the completion of homework and chores.  

I never overbooked my first three kids. Children need downtime and I have always needed to pursue goals beyond parenting. That said, I plan even fewer lessons, sports or activities with my youngest two children, and they generally entertain themselves. At 55 I’m not quite a free-range parent, but I’m also not far from it. 

Other things, however, remain constant: my home is video-game free and we don’t watch TV on school nights. And when my youngest son complains of boredom or won’t leave me alone when I’m working, I give him additional chores — a deterrent as powerful as it ever was. 

I’ve mulled over whether I’m as good a parent to the younger two as I was with the eldest three. I’ve decided it’s a false comparison. I’m a different mother today because I’m a different person than I was 20 years ago.  

While my 30-something self was a more hands-on parent, one approach isn’t necessarily better than the other. I also remind myself that most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were youngest children, which is to say they did well enough. 

Meanwhile, my attentions, however scant, to my bumper-crop kids take some of the pressure off of my eldest three to hurry up and give me grandchildren. For now. 

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on October 3, 2021.

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One of life’s hardest moments

When she was about 75, my grandma sat for a headshot at the nearby JCPenney photo studio. She sent 5-by-8-inch prints to her four sons and me, her eldest grandchild, with notes telling us, “This is the photo I want at my funeral.”

At the time, I was in my mid-20s and found Grandma’s funeral photo prep bizarre, if not macabre. At the service 15 years later, as she smiled from a framed print of the Penney’s photo placed alongside her casket, I was grateful for her foresight. Grandma in the photo looked like I most remember her, not as she did in her final years after diabetes had ravaged her body.

The notion that we will all one day die is something many prefer not to think about, conducting life as if death will never come. While that may provide some sense of comfort, it’s kinder to those who will carry on after us to be prepared.

But sometimes death comes like Carl Sandburg’s fog, on little cat feet, and there is no time to prepare.

The humor in Steven Pastis’ comic strip “Pearls Before Swine” is acerbic. Yet it’s the only comic that has ever left me in tears. When friends post about the loss of a pet on social media, I often accompany a photo of Pastis’ strip describing the sadness he and his wife felt when they had to euthanize their dog, Edee, who had cancer.

Certainly the loss of a pet is not as grave as the loss of a human. And, yet, the deaths of these creatures, who love us with a simplicity most humans are not capable of, often leaves owners with an acute ache tinged with guilt. We have all the power and sometimes we must make difficult decisions with that power. 

I adopted Goldie, the first dog of my adult life, when I was 17. I was 31 and the mother of two small boys when I had to put her down. It frustrated my then-husband when, for months after Goldie’s death, I’d randomly weep. What he didn’t understand is that grief is commensurate with love for the departed. 

On NPR’s late-afternoon show, “All Things Considered,” I once heard a piece by a woman who had an irascible hound dog who bayed unbidden, chewed furniture with abandon and frequently escaped for far-flung adventures. 

The woman’s description of her very naughty dog conveyed frustration, yes, but also her abiding affection for him. I suspect many commuters who heard that piece considered pulling off the road. Torrents of tears blinded my vision when the woman described putting down her once vibrant, then cancer-filled, dog.

Last fall I shared how my bi-black Sheltie, Lily, had disappeared for four days only to turn up in Cuyahoga Falls, easily 12 miles away. Lily was bred to be a show dog but was rejected because her coloring had too much white. 

It’s likely Lily spent much of her first eight weeks of life crated because while sweet, she’s a hesitant dog. Where my other dogs rush in to greet me, Lily’s always a few away from the fray, waiting for a quieter moment, avoiding competition for attention and affection.

While I was in Michigan with my youngest children this summer, their father, Max, took care of my three dogs. Lily developed a GI sickness the week before we returned and Max took her to our vet, who reasonably treated her for an intestinal bug.

Two days after we returned to Akron, I went to Max’s house and found Lily extremely lethargic. She was clearly dehydrated and decompensating. I rushed her to Metropolitan Veterinary Hospital. As they still have COVID curbside service, a vet tech carried Lily inside to obtain her vitals. The vet tech quickly reappeared at my car door. 

Lily, who’d turned 11 last month, had gone into cardiac arrest and died in the young woman’s arms before she’d gotten to an exam room. 

Where I had expected to help my dog with IV fluids and then determine the source of her illness, I instead picked out a cremation package while waiting for Lily’s body to be brought into the exam room so I could say goodbye.

Unlike Grandma, Lily left unexpected and without any preparations. That she didn’t suffer for long brings some measure of comfort. 

Meanwhile the two collars Lily wore remain on the passenger-side floor of my car where I placed them just before the vet tech took her inside the hospital. I don’t plan on moving them for a while.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 22, 2021.

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Akron school mother breathes sigh of relief over COVID measures

As I listened to a voicemail from a News 5 Cleveland reporter at 7:20 p.m. July 26, my stomach dropped. She wanted to know my thoughts on Akron Public Schools’ announcement at that evening’s school board meeting — which was still ongoing. 

While I have written several columns critical of APS’s approach to education during the COVID-19 pandemic, I had no clue what the district just had announced. In fact, I hadn’t known to anticipate an announcement. 

Once Joe Biden was inaugurated, I went on a much-needed news diet. Since Donald Trump’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination became ascendant in 2016, I took in the daily news like I was drinking from a fire hose. 

I was not alone. During the Trump administration, unprecedented numbers of people from all political persuasions turned to their favorite news outlets. Subscriptions to the New York Times, for instance, doubled. Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all experienced ratings bonanzas.

A news diet, however, is not the same as going news free. I still get daily newsletters from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. But I don’t read them as closely, nor do I open as many embedded articles, as before.  

And, unlike last year, during the six weeks this summer when my youngest children and I lived in a small camper in my parents’ driveway in Michigan, I didn’t stream WKSU while cooking dinner. Instead, I listened to music and kept blissfully not up to date.

Which is why my first thought when hearing from the reporter was, “Uh-oh, I’ve missed something important.” 

During the past school year, I advocated for Akron Public Schools to reopen for in-person instruction in some measure, particularly for children with individualized education plans. In mid-March, they finally did, after an entire year of remote-only learning.  

Now I was afraid the district was going to reverse course, as it had last July, and return to remote-only learning. 

Luckily, my fear was off mark and I sighed with relief when I learned Akron schools will reopen for in-person instruction this fall with protocols in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19. 

Class sizes will be reduced to no more than 24 students — a decision any public school advocate can get behind. With any luck, this class-size cap will remain in effect after COVID-19 precautions are no longer necessary. 

And, as with last spring, the district will not require students to wear uniforms this year. The benefits of uniforms in K-12 public schools is mostly anecdotal and several studies have shown uniforms have no effect on performance. Four of my five children have had to wear uniforms — none liked it and all now eschew collared T-shirts. 

But the point that is perhaps most controversial, and probably why I was asked my thoughts by News 5, is that masks will be required of everyone inside APS buildings. 

Yes, we are all tired of masks. And, yes, as a fully vaccinated person, I have enjoyed a dramatic reduction in mask wearing this summer.  

However, I unequivocally support Akron Public Schools’ decision to require masks to be worn indoors.  

The delta variant of COVID-19, which is far more transmissible than other variants, is spreading rapidly in the United States. And it is 2.5 times more likely to infect children than the original variant. 

Currently, vaccination is not required of Akron Public Schools’ employees. In addition, we do not yet have a COVID vaccine for children under the age of 12. As soon as one becomes available, hopefully most eligible children will receive it. You can be certain that my youngest two will. 

But until then, it is important to protect all children from unnecessary exposure to COVID-19. This is especially true of children like my daughter Lyra who has Down syndrome. There is now a large body of evidence that people with intellectual disabilities are significantly more vulnerable to the effects, including death, of COVID-19. 

And yet I want Lyra to attend school in person precisely because her intellectual disability made last year’s all-remote learning little better than a disaster.  

The benefit of mask wearing in schools has been widely reported, including in this New York Times piece from July 29: 

“A study of schools conducting full in-person instruction in Missouri, where mask use was required and 73 percent of schools enforced distances of three to six feet between students, found that secondary transmission was rare.”  

Supporting our schools means being willing to honestly respond to decisions the district makes. Last year I was highly critical of how long Akron Public Schools remained 100% remote in light of the evidence that schools are low-transmission centers when appropriate safety protocols are followed. 

Heading into the 2021-22 school year, I heartily applaud Akron Public Schools for making the wise decision to reopen for in-person instruction while putting in place all reasonable and responsible measures to ensure the safety of everyone in the buildings. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on August 8, 2021.

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Peruvians understand risks of COVID. Why don’t Americans?

The battle with COVID-19 seemed to round a corner last spring. Multiple vaccines were authorized for emergency use, which many Americans eagerly received when eligible. Then, as COVID infection rates began dropping, many restrictions were lifted.  

In mid-May, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people need not wear masks in most situations. After a year of masking up, it felt odd not to wear one — for about 10 minutes.  

Life will never be as it was before the pandemic. Some things we’ll miss, while others are best left in the annals of history. That’s the nature of change. But I was mistaken in thinking that the world was settling into a post-pandemic new normal. 

In early summer, the delta variant swept across the globe, and it didn’t skip the United States. By late July, as families prepared to send students back to school, COVID outbreaks once again began to rise.  

Today, COVID infection and hospitalization rates in much of the nation are now as high as they were last December. Masks are back, as they should be. 

When K-12 schools in Summit County opened this fall, only one district, Akron Public Schools, had a mask mandate for everyone in the buildings. That number quickly rose to 11 of the county’s 17 districts after exposure-caused quarantines kept many staff members and students at home. 

Instead of the pandemic ending, we must now protect ourselves against perpetual rounds of new COVID variants until enough humans on this planet have received the COVID vaccine to achieve herd immunity. 

While traveling last month from Lima to Machu Picchu, I found that Peruvians take COVID very seriously, and for good reason.  

While many things in America’s health care system need improvement, Peru’s seems almost nonexistent by comparison. When the original variant of COVID swept through Peru, hospital beds were hard to come by, and oxygen even more so — a plight common in many developing countries. 

When compared to 205 other countries, Peru ranks No. 1 in COVID deaths per capita, with 6,114 per million. That is more than double the COVID death rate of Hungary, the second country on the list.  

COVID vaccines first became available in Peru in May and, as of August, only citizens ages 39 or older who lived in urban areas were eligible to receive them due to limited supplies. 

All Peruvians, except in remote mountain villages, wear double masks both indoors and outside. On public transit, including the buses and trains I took, face shields are required along with double masks.  

And hand sanitizer use is ubiquitous. Not only is it required before entering any premise, most people wear sanitizer bottles strung on lanyard necklaces. They spray their hands, their masks, their clothes and each other with unabashed regularity. 

Peru has no anti-vaxxer or safety-protocol-resistance movements. The first months of the original COVID outbreak devastated the country. From that lived experience, Peruvians understand that the risks of contracting COVID are far and away greater than any risks associated with vaccination.  

Does the luxurious belief that our health care system will save us should we contract COVID (a notion no Peruvian can entertain) contribute to some Americans’ entitled resistance to following safety protocols and getting vaccinated? 

The only way this pandemic will stop disrupting daily life, including economically, is for widespread vaccination to occur. Globally, this means rich nations like ours need to aggressively obtain and dispense vaccines in developing countries from which new variants will otherwise continue to arise and spread. 

Meanwhile, back in the States, 179 million of Americans have been vaccinated with so few significant side effects as to be statistically zero. But in a country of 331 million, the U.S. vaccination rate is only 54%, which is not high enough to neutralize a disease. 

Like many, I have loved ones who are vaccine hesitaters. Last spring, my three eldest sons wanted to stage an intervention for someone in our family who is a hesitater with an autoimmune disorder. But I doubt that would have persuaded this person to get a COVID vaccine. 

Instead, our loved one finally got vaccinated because someone they respected kept admonishing everyone to do so: the pastor at their church.  

This year it was masks off in May, back on in September, but I don’t think it’ll become a regular seasonal switcheroo. Remember when white shoes and shorts were fashionable only between Memorial Day and Labor Day? If you broke that rule, however, nobody died. The same is not true of COVID safety protocols. Just ask any Peruvian. 

Mask mandates likely will remain in place all year for the foreseeable future unless the world comes together to achieve widespread vaccination rates and thereby herd immunity for COVID-19.  

Which new normal do we want?  

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, September 26, 2021.

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Music transports us through time

In 1984, I took a Greyhound bus from Arizona to the East and back. At the time, round-trip bus tickets weren’t restricted to specific dates. So along the way I stopped, visited friends and family for a few days, then hopped on another bus. I did this in Chicago, northern Michigan and Dayton before returning to Tucson, Arizona, where I was living.

Spending several days on a bus was mostly unmemorable. What stands out is the music of Kate Bush, an English artist with a haunting voice. I listened to her album “The Dreaming” nonstop on my Sony Walkman while reading “Christine” by Stephen King.

In the nearly 40 since, whenever I hear Bush’s music, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I immediately think of the novel’s ’58 Plymouth Fury possessing its owner and terrorizing the townspeople of Rockbridge, California. It’s creepy.

Music competes only with fragrance in its power to instantly transport a person to times past. That’s why couples fondly recount “their song,” one that reminds them of when they first fell in love, and class reunions play tunes that were popular the year the celebrants graduated.

The Beatles canon takes me back to my earliest childhood memories living in inner-city Chicago with my young dad and his hippy entourage. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” conjures the darkened high school gymnasium where my friends and I hoped to be in the arms of our crushes for that 12-minute slow dance.

“Time” by The Alan Parsons Project makes me think of the sun and sand on Lake Michigan Beach where, in the summer of 1982, I unfortunately thought it a good idea to work on a tan.

Long ago on NPR, I heard a story in which a man rued the fact that he listened to pop music as a teen while his wife grew up with parents who played jazz, blues and classical music. As a result, he knew all the words to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” whereas his wife could sing along with Billie Holiday’s entire catalog.

The takeaway was to give some consideration to the music played when children’s brains are at their peak memory-building capacity. While I’ve never specifically curated the music we listen to, my kids have grown up exposed to far more musical genres than the poor man in that NPR piece.

In 2007, soon after I left my three sons’ father, I took them on a cross-country road trip. We brought with us just four CDs, including a mix made by a friend. That limited musical repertoire resonates with each of us to this day. Recently, my son Hugo, who is now 24, told me one of the songs, Emmylou Harris’s beautifully depressing “Red Dirt Girl,” marks the end of childhood for him.

After the road trip, the boys and I had a few hardscrabble years. I discovered Damien Rice’s album “O,” which I exclusively played in the car for months. As odd as it may sound, Rice’s plaintive melodies buoyed my boys and me as they acknowledged that life is sometimes complicated.

This past spring, we watched an extended live performance of the album’s song “I Remember” and remember we did.

This has been quite a year for the irrepressible Jon Batiste, the music director and band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He’s won an Oscar, Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice Award for composing the music to Pixar’s fun, yet serious film “Soul.”

But it is Batiste’s latest album, “We Are,” that scores with my youngest children, Leif and Lyra. The tracks are a joyful mix with a dash of sadness that pull from jazz, pop, funk, rap, gospel, Motown and classical music.

My two littles have been attending day camp in northern Michigan since mid-June. At 8:15 each weekday, as we pile into my car, 8-year-old Lyra cries out, “Our friend, Jon Batiste!” while 11-year-old Leif connects my iPhone to the car and starts our friend’s album.

When the New Orleans Gospel Soul Children choir launches into the title song’s refrain, “We are the golden ones, we are the chosen ones,” Lyra is right there with them belting it out in the back seat.

When I pick the children up at the end of the day, Leif immediately restarts Batiste’s album. We’ve now listened to it so many times, Leif’s begun analyzing the structure of the songs.

“I like that bit, you know like video-game music bits, that’s in the song ‘WHATCHUTALKINBOUT,’ ” he recently told me, accurately referring to the recognizable sound of 8-bit music found in retro video games. I hadn’t noticed until he pointed it out to me.

There’s no way to know how Leif or Lyra will recall “We Are” and what memories it will one day evoke in them. But that they will, I have no doubt. And what splendorous music to have lodged in one’s long-term memory.

My children and I cannot recommend enough giving the album, along with Batiste’s recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, a listen.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 25, 2021.

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Driving around in my new automobile

“Are you excited about your new car?” friends asked me for several days. It wasn’t that I wasn’t, it’s just that for more than a week after I’d chosen it, I’d yet to see the car I was hoping to buy.

Boy, buying cars sure has changed since I last purchased one in 2003. That was my five-speed Toyota Matrix that, even in its jalopy latter days, drove like a peppy horse who seemed forever excited to have me hop behind the wheel.

I completely anthropomorphized my Matrix. I spoke to her when I drove, when I was a passenger and when walking by her in the garage. She also regularly received love pats on her dashboard, roof and hood.

Nor was I alone in fetishizing that little car. My first two sons, Claude and Hugo, each had a tour of duty with the Matrix, both learning how to drive her stick shift when they were 15. Claude took her to Ann Arbor his last year at the University of Michigan; Hugo took her to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, when he worked there.

But none of us get out of here alive and that includes our beloved Matrix, whom I donated to WKSU in 2019 after she needed yet another round of repairs that would cost more than her value.

Since moving to my own house last summer, I have continued to retrieve my possessions from my former partner, Max. We were nine years in the same house and my middle-age brain isn’t so clear on what’s mine and what’s his. Other things I didn’t think to collect until I needed them, such as gardening equipment this spring.

Meanwhile, I continued to drive Max’s Toyota Sienna while he drove his Prius. My plan was to buy a car of my own in the fall after my teaching gig at the University of Akron resumed, along with the paychecks.

My schedule was fast-tracked, however, when last month Max was in an accident in which nobody was injured, but his Prius was totaled. He needed his minivan back, which meant the time had come for me to buy a car.

I loathe car shopping. In fact, I’m not a fan of shopping at all. You’ll never find me spending an afternoon wandering in and out of mall stores. I know what I like and don’t need to squander a day looking for inspiration. Most of my clothes I buy online and used.

I guess it should come as no surprise that that’s how I bought my car.

The Matrix left big tires to fill, but that was my goal. Last summer, when my son Claude bought a 2019 VW Golf (manual transmission, you bet) with only 3,000 miles, he told me it reminded him of our Matrix.

Looking online at Golfs, I quickly realized I wasn’t so much beholden to a particular make and model as I was to a four-door hatchback with a manual transmission.

Holly Christensen is the proud owner of a 2020 Hyundai Venue.

Rather than spending ungodly amounts of time in dealerships, like I did 18 years ago, I chatted online with a representative at CarMax, a national used-car sales chain. In short order, I was introduced to a vehicle I’d never heard of: a Hyundai Venue. It sits a little higher than the Matrix, which I like, but is otherwise very similar.

CarMax located a 2020 Venue with a six-speed manual transmission and only 1,100 miles (methinks the first owner struggled with the stick shift) in Kenosha, Wisconsin. No matter, CarMax will ship a vehicle to a store near you for a reasonable fee.

But I didn’t commit right away.

First, I drove another 2020 manual transmission Venue at another dealership in the area. Even driving conservatively, given the salesperson seated next to me, I liked how it handled. I made an offer, but the dealership barely budged on the price.

So I pulled the trigger and paid to have the Venue in Kenosha shipped to Cleveland. As soon as it arrived, a friend drove me to CarMax to meet what I hoped would be my new car.

“The people in the car next to us looked at you with fear as you peeled out of the stop light,” my friend told me as I checked my new baby’s peppiness.

And like the farmer in the movie “Babe,” I whispered to my eager new girl, “That’ll do, love, that’ll do.” We drove home soon thereafter.

Name suggestions are welcomed.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 11, 2021. I’ve since named my car “Emma Peel.”

Uncategorized

A challenge worth the effort

It was the coolest thing I’ll never do again.

“Can you go to Peru with me next month?” asked my college bestie, Jen, in mid-July. Pre-COVID, she had booked a trip to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, but then Peru closed to tourists. When it reopened this summer, Jen was ready to go, but her travel partner’s passport had expired.

First, I confirmed that my children could stay with their father while I was gone. Then, after weighing the pros and cons, I decided this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and told Jen it was a go.

Ignorance can blissfully forestall doubts. I didn’t research what a four-day hike to Machu Picchu entailed. I figured it was like walking the Great Wall in China — mostly flat with gentle inclines.

I learned the truth the night before our hike began when our guide, Alex, met with me and the other member of our group, RJ, a 22-year-old recent graduate from Duke University. Jen was not at the meeting because earlier that afternoon she was felled by a GI bug.

Alex explained that we would be hiking the 26-mile pilgrimage route (there is an easier, equally old, commerce trail) up and down the Andes Mountains to the ruins of Machu Picchu, a 15th-century Incan city. He also gave me a list of medicines for Jen, including Cipro (10 500 mg. tablets for $8), which doesn’t require a prescription in Peru.

Soon after I returned from the pharmacy, I, too, became ill. When a van picked us up at 4:30 a.m., we weren’t sure we’d make it through the day.

In hindsight, Day 1 of the trek, with dirt trails and relatively gentle inclines, was easier than what was to come. The trailhead is 8,500 feet above sea level. By day’s end, we had hiked 9 miles and were 11,000 feet above sea level.

Looking back, the 26-mile Inca Trail is rugged as far as the eye can see in Peru.
Looking back, the Inca Trail is as rugged as the eye can see

But Jen and I were weakened from the GI bug, which, combined with the high altitude, made the first day seem like the hardest. Depleted of fluids, my body absorbed all the many ounces of water I drank that day, making bathroom breaks unnecessary. (I know, not medically advisable.)

That night I skipped dinner and was asleep by 6:30.

On Day 2, we resumed hiking at 6 a.m. and I reached the unfortunately named Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest peak of the trail at 14,000 feet above sea level, by 9:37 a.m. On the way up, hikers from the two other groups on the trail slowly passed me. Most were in their 30s and they frequently muttered, mantra-like, “Oh, my God, this is killing me.”

On Days 2, 3 and 4, the trail is rock paved. But the stone stairs erected 700 years ago have been rendered mostly akimbo by erosion over the intervening centuries. As a result, the mountain passes look like resting avalanche flows. Steps are anywhere from 2 inches to 2 feet high. And while going down was easier on the lungs, it was also terrifyingly treacherous.

Not surprisingly, RJ was the fastest hiker of our group. Jen was the slowest and, like a good shepherd, Alex would start out with RJ and then stop and wait for Jen.

This left me in the middle and frequently alone. I practiced walking meditation, listening to the sounds, smelling the fragrances, feeling the breezes as each erupted and passed.

As often happens when the mind’s nonessential chatter quiets, emotions arose. I found myself weeping over the abrupt death of my sweet dog just days before I departed. I also wept at the ineffable joy of reuniting with my first love this past spring.

But most of all, the child of mine who has been sitting on my heart much of this year grew heavier. My right hand, still clutching my walking pole, often pressed between my breasts when I stopped to catch my breath. Sobs occasionally escaped. Until recently, I sided with the dutiful child in Parable of the Prodigal Son. I’m now wiser. A child returned is cause for great celebration.

Persevering on the Inca Trail was an effort of mind over body. When climbing up, I often focused on my feet, for the view ahead was daunting. Periodically, I’d stop to take in the sensorially rich microclimatic diversity of the Andes. The trail starts in a desert that reminds me of the Catalina Mountains near Tucson, Arizona and ends in a cloud forest jungle.

“Take the four-day hike, they said. You’ll see many Incan ruins, they said. You’ll be too tired to walk 5 feet off the trail to look at them — Oh, that they didn’t say,” Jen riffed after we’d hiked 12 hours on Day 2, and we giggled like two crones. Older than any of the other four-day hikers by a decade or more, the exertion of hiking 26 miles up and down higgledy-piggledy trails left us a bit loopy.

But we did it, never falling behind schedule.

When we arrived at Machu Picchu mid-morning on the fourth day, it was jarring. Not the archaeological site, but the throngs of tourists, all shiny clean, wearing makeup and perfume, who’d arrived by bus that morning. Their guides told them to let us pass, these hikers who spent “cuatro dias y tres noches” making the pilgrimage to the sacred site.

How often in life do we tell ourselves we could never do something when in fact that’s just an excuse to avoid challenging situations? How much might we grow — physically, mentally and emotionally — if we forgo continuous comfort for even a few days?

When I ran for a connecting flight on the way home, I noticed I didn’t get winded. My 55-year-old lungs had developed new capacity for pulling oxygen out of the air in just four (physically taxing) days. Every arduous step along the Inca Trail was worth the effort.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on September 5, 2021.

Uncategorized

Adjusting expectations for child with disability

Effective parenting requires a tailored approach for each child’s unique personality. But when children have a diagnosis that makes them irrevocably different from their parents, the best approach isn’t always readily evident.

Holly and Lyra earlier this summer

In his book “Far from the Tree,” Andrew Solomon combines research and interviews with parents and their children who have a variety of such diagnoses, including deafness, dwarfism, autism and more. Repeatedly, parents recount struggling over difficult choices, such as cochlear implants, medical bone breaking or even if children should remain in the home with their families.

I read Solomon’s book in 2012 soon after my 8-year-old daughter, Lyra, was born with Down syndrome (DS). And while I read the chapter on DS closely and repeatedly, what struck me most was how parents throughout the book must mind the boundary where helping can cross over to harming.

“Fixing is the illness model; acceptance is the identity model; which way any family goes reflects their assumptions and resources,” writes Solomon. And while I insist on people-first language — Lyra is a girl who has DS, she’s not a “Down syndrome girl” — it’s also true that having an extra 21st chromosome literally affects every cell in her body.

Down syndrome causes intellectual disabilities and often other comorbidities (Lyra, for instance, was born with bilateral cataracts). As her mother, I have tried to help her maximize her potential so she can live her life to the fullest and pursue whatever dreams she may have.

But what if, in my efforts to support her, I lose sight of the fact that DS is an essential part of who she is? And if I do, is it because I have a problem accepting who she is? As with some parents in Solomon’s book, what if who I expect Lyra to be fundamentally conflicts with who she is and will be?

The weeks following Lyra’s birth were filled with myriad medical appointments. I also anxiously tried to learn all I could about DS and early interventions. One afternoon, just days after her birth, I held my baby in my arms and cried over her diagnosis. And then I carried on.

During Lyra’s first five years of life, I took her to weekly speech, physical and occupational therapy sessions. I patched her eyes to help her see better, I squeezed her into spandex therapy pants to help her move better. I used a series of straws that were successively harder to suck on to train her tongue to stay properly placed in her mouth.

Lyra’s father and I soon described our daughter as high functioning, a term I’d never considered with any of my other children. I now wonder if that term, which is falling out of use in many disability communities, doesn’t belie an attachment to typical accomplishments.

Just prior to her entering kindergarten, one of Lyra’s preschool teachers told me she was glad we’d advocated for Lyra to be in a general education classroom. The difference, however, between preschool and kindergarten is substantial.

Lyra struggled. We had her repeat kindergarten in the 2019-2020 school year and when we met with her educational team in February 2020, everyone agreed that Lyra would be first-grade ready the following fall.

The next month, COVID-19 stopped everything. As hard as remote learning was for most students, it was particularly devastating for those with disabilities like Lyra’s. The full impact of a year without in-person schooling is hard to assess, but it’s clear Lyra regressed.

As a result, I have been obsessively ruminating: Am I doing enough to help my daughter? Or do I need to adjust my expectations? The answer is never clear and it’s probably a little of both.

When Akron Public Schools finally reopened in March, Lyra was elated to return. At least for the first weeks. In early April, she began telling me she didn’t want to go to school. At the same time, her educators struggled to get her to work or engage in classroom activities.

After the school year ended, Lyra’s father and I had a candid discussion with Lyra’s intervention specialist. This fall, Lyra will attend a multiple disability classroom where she’ll have fewer classmates and worksheets, less pressure and more one-on-one instruction. We hope this will help Lyra to love school once again while catching up on what she’s not fully mastered.

There is much about Lyra that is easy to celebrate and rejoice in. But it’s also easy to want her to succeed on our terms — to flourish in school, to attend one of the many college programs springing up for people with intellectual disabilities, to find acceptance in the world, to let her voice be heard far and wide.

And it’s not wrong to want that. But sometimes it’s hard to know if our goals for her may not actually limit all she is and can be. If I pray for anything, it’s for discernment.

Uncategorized

Donor families find comfort in knowing lives were saved

In November 2014, Lynne Daus saved four lives when she resuscitated her daughter Jordan after an accidental overdose. Three days later, and after extensive testing, Jordan officially was declared brain dead even as the rest of her body worked as robustly as that of any healthy 18-year-old. 

Jordan Daus photo courtesy of Lynne Daus

It was then, at one of the worst moments in their lives, that Jordan’s parents consented to have their daughter’s organs donated.  

“It may sound strange, but donating Jordan’s organs gave us some happiness in the midst of our grief,” Lynne told me when we recently spoke.  

Organs donated from people who have overdosed can be profused, or flushed clean, of any residual toxins. However, as with all organ donation, donors who’ve overdosed must be in a hospital and ventilated when declared brain dead. 

These and other rigorous requirements all but guarantee that the deaths of organ donors are traumatic in nature.  

While some donors’ wishes are documented on their driver’s licenses or living wills, other times they are not, and families already confronted with extreme loss must quickly decide whether to allow the donation of their loved one’s organs. 

Lynne was no stranger to the process of organ donation, which she had discussed at length with Jordan and her other daughter, MaKenna. For five years, Lynne worked as an administrative assistant for a cardiothoracic transplant surgeon. As such, she came to know many organ recipients and, therefore, understood the value of donating her daughter’s organs. 

“Even in that moment, you find a place to have something good come from your loved one,” Lynne said. 

On Christmas Eve 2014, just a little over a month after Jordan’s death, Lynne learned that Jordan’s heart, liver, pancreas and one kidney had gone to four men in two states ranging from ages 48 to 71.  

At six months post-donation, recipients and donor families are given the option to contact one another, but only after agreed upon by both parties, which Lynne did. 

She received a letter from the recipient of Jordan’s kidney and wrote him back immediately. And then, for whatever reason, he did not write again for five more years. 

Roman Dann received Jordan’s liver and he, too, wrote to Lynne as soon as he could and the two regularly corresponded. However, Roman was hesitant to meet. Then, several months later while at her job at Chagrin Falls Family Health Center, Lynne helped a patient from the same town and with the same last name as Jordan’s liver recipient. 

“Are you related to a man named Roman?” she asked him. 

“That’s my brother,” he replied. 

“I’m Jordan’s mom,” Lynne told him, and they both burst into tears and hugged before going into the hallway to sit on a bench and talk. Roman felt that was the sign he needed and arranged to meet Lynne. Since then, Lynne and Roman have regularly visited Jordan’s grave together, including on Jordan’s birthday and Roman’s transplant anniversary. 

“Roman has taken such good care of Jordan,” Lynne told me.

On one hand, she means Jordan’s physical essence, her liver that gives Roman life. But mostly it’s in a larger, more spiritual sense.

“Roman said he’s always known that Jordan’s writing this story,” Lynne told me. “He and his wife are now like family to me.” 

Lynne Daus stands at her daughter Jordan’s gravesite with Roman Dann and his wife, Susan Dann.
Lynne Daus stands at her daughter Jordan’s gravesite with Roman Dann and his wife, Susan Dann.
Photo courtesy of Lynne Daus

In my last column, I described my childhood best friend, Kelly O’Brien Steverson, who is alive today because of a liver and kidney transplant she received from a woman about our age. At the time that the organs became available, there were terrible snowstorms in Indianapolis where Kelly had been in an ICU on continuous kidney filtration for four months. She imagines her donor likely died in a car accident.

But Kelly doesn’t know for sure because she’s not yet decided to contact the donor family. It is common for recipients to feel not only overwhelming gratitude for the organs that saved their lives, but also no small measure of guilt that someone else’s death provided them the opportunity to live. 

Lynne works with a donor family support group through Lifebanc, the organization responsible for facilitating organ donation in Northeast Ohio. Members of other donor families often tell Lynne they’ve not heard from the recipients of their loved one’s organs and hope that they will. For many donor families, hearing from recipients is something they eagerly await.  

After I spoke with Lynne, I called Kelly and told her this.  

“I just don’t know what to say,” Kelly told me.

I told her that Lynne said even a store-bought thank-you card with a signature means the world to donor families.  

It’s important to talk with your family about organ and tissue donation. Having a loved one die in a traumatic way is nothing we ever hope happens, and for most of us it won’t. 

But if, God forbid, it does, there is some measure of comfort in knowing that out of tragedy other lives may be saved.  

“I miss Jordan terribly,” Lynne told me, “but through her gifts of happy people living life, it gives me gratitude knowing something good has come from my loved one. It’s a legacy they leave behind.” 

To register to be an organ, eye and tissue donor, go to this Lifebanc link.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 13, 2021.

Uncategorized

Organ donation is emotionally complex

(Kelly O’Brien Steverson and Holly in 1983 after high school graduation)

In May 1975, when we were both 9, Kelly O’Brien and I became best friends. With only two weeks left in the school year, I was seated next to her after my family moved from Illinois to West Milton, Ohio.

Years later, I recognized how much a childhood best friendship, perhaps especially between girls, has many of the same characteristics as falling in love.

For five years, Kelly and I were together in class (where we passed notes), lunch and recess. Together we received “whacks,” or spankings at school with wooden paddles, for the trouble we’d get into. When we stayed at each other’s houses, we’d whisper in bed, rather than sleep, for much of the night.

And, boy, did we talk on the phone. Rotary-dialers hung on kitchen walls with cords long enough to stretch to nearby staircases where we’d each sit on the steps in our separate houses and gab in low voices for as long as we could, sometimes hours.

Then, a month into 10th grade, my family again moved. Yet, in the 41 years since, the past 20 of which have found me in Northeast Ohio and her in Indiana, Kelly and I have remained in touch.

But it’s not the same as keeping up with a friend in town. So I was surprised, yes, but what I really felt was flattened, when I learned in 2019 that, due to no fault of her own, Kelly would not live much longer unless she received a liver and kidney transplant.

After she was placed on the organ waitlist, Kelly went to her hospital for pre-op testing. While in the waiting room, she became unresponsive. For the next 3½ months, Kelly lived in two different ICUs while her kidneys were continuously filtered. And then, on December 28, 2019, my best friend was saved thanks to an organ donor.

Organ transplantations are relatively recent medical advances: The first successful kidney transplant was in 1954, liver in 1967, heart in 1968, heart-lung in 1981, single lung in 1983, double-lung in 1986 and intestines in 1987. More recently, face and uterus transplantations have become possible.

As a result, many lives for which no treatment options remain have been saved.

I recently visited Lifebanc, the designated organization in Northeast Ohio that facilitates organ and tissue recovery from donors, and allocations to recipients. In 2020 alone, Lifebanc managed more than 500 organ donations that saved the lives of 463 people (some recipients, like Kelly, need more than one organ to survive).

And while there is much to celebrate about the lives saved, organ donation is, of course, an emotionally complex event not just for the donor families, but also recipients.

The families of deceased donors (some organs now are recoverable from living donors, including kidneys, lungs and portions of livers and intestines) must make critical decisions during one of the worst times in their lives — their loved one, typically after a traumatic event, will not survive when removed from life support.

Area hospitals call Lifebanc only after a person has been declared brain dead. Once there, a medical and family support team respectfully discuss with the family whether the deceased wanted to be an organ or tissue donor. Sometimes the driver’s license or living will of the person on life support will indicate their wishes, sometimes not.

If you have a living will or organ-donation directive, it is imperative that your loved ones know where it is located.

This reticence can, however, fall away.

“Once I was on the waitlist, people came out of the woodwork about who’d had transplants,” Kelly told me. “Mom would be in the grocery store and people would volunteer, ‘Oh, my uncle Joe,’ or ‘My sister’ and then tell her about the people they knew with donated organs.”

Some donor families and recipients communicate with each other, but only when both parties agree. As of now, Kelly hasn’t decided whether she will or not. She told me she feels “a bit of guilt, a bit of sadness and a lot of gratitude” for her organ donor, whom she knows was a woman a couple of years older than her.

Yet from one family’s tragedy, Kelly, and possibly others, received the chance to live. What an incredible legacy each and every organ and tissue donor creates when giving something they no longer need.

To register to be an organ, eye and tissue donor, go to this Lifebanc link: https://www.lifebanc.org/how-to-help/register-as-a-donor/

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 16, 2021.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Ohio’s abortion law has nothing to do with protecting people with Down syndrome

Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban will not reduce the termination rates of fetuses prenatally diagnosed with the condition.  

Neither will it inform sectors of society — including expectant parents, educators and heath care professionals — what it means to have Down syndrome today, something far different than when infants with Down syndrome were overwhelmingly institutionalized, often for life.  

Nor will the ban further improve the lives of Ohio’s citizens who have Down syndrome — a goal in deep need of legislative support. 

All it will do, by making it a fourth-degree felony for a physician to perform an abortion if they know a woman is seeking it specifically because her fetus may have Down syndrome, is create a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. As a result, pregnant women in Ohio are now prevented from having meaningful discourse with their physicians. 

So why was this bill proposed and passed in the first place? The answer, I believe, has little to do with protecting people with Down syndrome, like my 8-year-old daughter, Lyra. 

The law was challenged in court soon after then-Gov. John Kasich signed it into law in 2017. The District Court granted an injunction, which a three-judge panel on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld, preventing the law from going into effect. 

But last month the 6th Circuit’s full panel of judges reversed course and upheld Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban, all but guaranteeing that the case will now go to the Supreme Court.  

The 1973 Supreme Court decision in the case Roe v. Wade declared that restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional. Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban does seem to cross that threshold of unconstitutionality. And the court’s 9-7 split decision underscores this. Get the Afternoon Update newsletter in your inbox.

The fact is, Ohio is not alone in passing restrictive abortion laws that don’t meet the constitutional qualifiers set out in Roe v. Wade. In 2018, a similar ban in Indiana was struck down in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. But other so-called “reason” bans, or prohibitions for abortions if sought for a fetus’ gender, race or medical diagnosis have been enacted in over a dozen states in the past few years.  

However, these laws do nothing to reduce discrimination or increase opportunities for women, people of color or those with disabilities. And it is not coincidental that these bans are being pursued simultaneously in a number of states. 

The true motivation behind these bans is the hope that one of them will not only make it to the Supreme Court, but will give the newly majority-conservative justices an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade. And this strategy may well succeed.  

But overturning the decision that legalized abortion won’t reduce abortion rates. In fact, they may just as likely increase.  

According to a 2020 Guttmacher Institute report, “In countries that restrict abortion, the percentage of unintended pregnancies ending in abortion has increased during the past 30 years, from 36% in 1990–1994 to 50% in 2015–2019.” 

Furthermore, in countries with legal access to abortion, such as the United States, abortion rates have continually declined since legalization. Why is that?  

Simply put, while a functioning democracy rests on four pillars, women’s rights are like a pedestal table. When women cannot control their reproduction, they are significantly less likely to be able to control their education, their careers or their finances. In essence, their full humanity is denied when reproductive rights are restricted. 

Yes, when women are legally and socially treated more equally with men, statistically they have fewer children. And the children they have lead healthier lives with greater access to education and opportunities, which enriches an entire society. 

For example, Bangladesh, which Henry Kissinger called “a basket case” country 50 years ago, is now stable, both economically and in terms of the health of its citizens. This is because for the past 30 years the Bangladeshi government has worked to empower women and support education for all children, including girls. 

Advocates for restricting legal abortions also sometimes rely on an implied falsehood: the notion that supporters of reproductive rights want women to have abortions. Nobody looks at her daughter, sister, friend and says, “Gee, I can’t wait until she has her first abortion.”  

The truth is there are many, many productive discussions that reproductive rights advocates are eager to have that absolutely can lead to a continued reduction of abortion rates.  

The most obvious place to start is with this question: Why do women feel they have no choice but to terminate pregnancies?  

Rather than infantilizing women by criminalizing abortion, let’s solve the problems that lead to abortions. Chief among them is access to contraception.  

If unwanted pregnancy rates decline, so do abortions.  

Take a look at Colorado which, between 2009-2017, used grant funding to provide IUD birth control to teens at health clinics, some in high schools. The abortion rate in that population subsequently dropped by 60%.  

Then, in 2017, Colorado made it legal to obtain birth control pills directly at pharmacies without a visiting a doctor. And, again, abortion rates declined further. 

Women do consider how they will raise a child with a disability when deciding to proceed with a pregnancy. What if, instead of outlawing abortions for children with Down syndrome (or other diagnoses, because it won’t be long before more become prenatally identifiable), we made Ohio the best state for all children to grow up in regardless of ability, race, gender or sexual orientation?   

When Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban was first enacted, I wrote columns expressing my opposition to it in this paper and NBCNews.com. Immediately I became the subject of several articles written in far-right websites. For a movement that identifies itself with the word “life,” many of its adherents resort to hate speech and death threats with remarkable alacrity. 

But here I am once again calling Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban what it is: feigned sympathy for people like my daughter, deployed to take away her reproductive rights along with those of all Ohio women.  

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 2, 2021.

Uncategorized

Value of Akron-Summit County Library is priceless

Carl Sagan once said, “Frederick Douglass taught that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom. There are many kinds of slavery and many kinds of freedom. But reading is still the path.”

Today, libraries still provide materials and programs to encourage literacy, but they also provide many other significant services to communities, including, but not limited to, free access to computers and the internet, as well as programming for all ages, from babies to seniors.

And, importantly, public libraries have become the de facto after-school program and day care for many latchkey children nationwide.

Many lifelong Ohioans may not know that our libraries overwhelmingly provide better services and materials than those in other states. I hear this frequently from people new to Ohio.

Funding is key to why we have such great library systems in Ohio. It allows for the creation and continuation of another anchor in our communities, along with schools, places of worship and businesses.

And within these anchors are dedicated librarians and staff. I sometimes wonder if they all must pass an empathy and kindness test before being hired.

My second son, Hugo, now 24, attended middle school at Miller South School for the Arts. After school most days, he carried his backpack loaded with books and his saxophone case down a hill and across a field to the nearby Vernon Odom library branch.

During the years Hugo was at Miller South, I had three kids in three different schools. The commute took over an hour, twice daily. Mornings were harried as I tried to get everyone to school on time. Afternoons, not so much because Hugo would safely work and play with friends at the library until I arrived.

When I’d walk in to find Hugo, I observed librarians taking their nonfunded mission seriously, providing extra programming, leading book clubs, holding craft events, game days and, once a week, showing movies to the Miller South students who filled the building.

One Mother’s Day, Hugo gave me a bar of lavender soap he’d made at the library. Not only did I love receiving a gift Hugo had handcrafted, he felt excited the way one does when giving the perfect gift.

A few years ago, the Akron-Summit County Public Library system partnered with the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank to provide nutritious snacks for the after-school kids, some of whom eat their school lunches as early as 10:30 in the morning. This program was necessarily paused during the pandemic, but according to the library system’s executive director, Pam Hickson-Stevenson, it is expected to resume when possible.

Since 2003, the branch we’ve most patronized is at Highland Square. The librarians know my five children by name and frequently ask me about my adult children.

One of my favorite librarians at the Highland Square branch was a woman named Amy. She had short dark hair, one of those Demi Moore gravelly voices and a wry sense of humor.

Several years ago, I noticed the display case near the entrance was filled with photos of Amy and her son. When I asked another librarian about it, she said, “Well, I don’t know if you know, but Amy lost her son not long ago.”

I did know. He was the light of her life, which she took after cancer stole him from her. I ugly-cried right there at the checkout desk while the librarian, who knew Amy far better than I did and who was still processing her own grief, comforted me.

Last fall, I took my graduate students from the University of Akron to the Main Library to show them how to do grant research using the Foundation Center directory, which is an excellent web-based service. But the website is not free, that is, except at Ohio libraries, which pay a fee to make it available to patrons without charge.

However, the website was not working that night, something two very concerned librarians determined after I’d alerted them that we were unable to log on. Fortunately, I’d also invited a professional grant writer to talk with my students, so the class was not a wash.

Then, for the next two weeks, I received regular updates from librarians until the website was once again available, each call peppered with unnecessary apologies.

On the ballot in the upcoming May 4 election is a renewal of the levy that accounts for 55% of Akron-Summit County Public Library’s funding. Without passage of the levy, it’s safe to assume that jobs would be eliminated, hours of operation would be slashed and, with such drastic cuts, after-school hours and programming would shrink.

Because the levy is a renewal, it will not increase taxes. (Frankly, if it were up to me, I’d give the library a bump up in its funding.)

The levy costs homeowners $4.21 per $100,000 in home value per month. That’s basement-bargain pricing for a priceless resource in our communities. Please vote yes to the continued funding of our amazing library system.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on April 18, 2021.

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The only constant in life is change

This is the fifth year in which I have shared with Akron Beacon Journal readers stories about my five children and our lives. 

I have two batches of offspring: my now-adult sons, Claude, Hugo and Jules, from a previous marriage, and my caboose troupe, Leif and Lyra. The father of the last two, Max, has been a constant in the lives of my first three children for 13 years. 

Long before our first kiss, Max and I were friends. A colleague at his law office invited him to our book club intending to set him up with another friend in the group. That didn’t pan out, but Max continued to attend and, as a former English professor, brought added insights to the book club conversations. 

At some point, I asked Max to join me on the board of an arts nonprofit of which I was president. Eventually we found ourselves working together on the difficult task of winding down the organization, which is how we became good friends. 

A year after I left the big boys’ father, Max asked me on a more-than-friends date. At the time, two other recently divorced women I knew were turning to dating websites to find eligible bachelors. Their results ranged from underwhelming to atrocious. I felt lucky to date a friend.  

Even after our relationship became committed, Max and I maintained separate households until our son Leif was 2 years old. That’s when Max bought a house in Akron big enough for all of us and we smushed the contents of two 2,500-square-foot houses into one with 3,000 square feet. Lyra arrived a year later and the house was full of children until the big boys began cycling out for college.  

Life is a continuum of change.  

Without going into any details, for the past few years Max and I have been trying to resolve some issues in our relationship. Last summer, we decided the resolution to these issues was to return to living separately. 

In order for me to move into my home, which Max began renting in 2015 as his law office, he first had to move his business to his home. Since then, and thanks in part to the stimulus money, I have made both necessary and pleasing improvements to what I call my “lady house” where I have lived since last fall. 

When Max and I became a couple, I told myself there are no do-overs. Then we had babies and I felt I did have a do-over. I’ve now parented with a man who takes an active role in the lives of our two children as well as my three boys. (For the past six years, the big boys’ father has not attempted to see them and has contacted them but a handful of times.) 

Now I’ve gotten a do-over in breaking up. Where my ex-husband was extremely difficult to divorce (it took over three years) and did so with a scorched-earth approach, Max and I have calmly worked out our arrangements and helped each other reconfigure our homes.  

As for the children we brought into this world together, they have gone between these two houses their entire lives, which they refer to as “Mama’s house” and “Dadda’s house.” 

Given remote learning due to the pandemic, it has been nigh impossible to set up a regimented custody schedule. Max and I have easily worked together during this most unusual school year to accommodate the needs of the children along with our mutual work schedules. 

This summer, I will again take Leif and Lyra to northern Michigan for two months of day camp on the shores of Lake Michigan. Then, when school resumes next fall, we will establish a custody schedule, the predictability of which is important for everyone, especially the kids. 

I know several readers will be surprised by this separation. Trust me, this was a decision made after long and deep consideration. These past few months I have felt a bit like Barbara Stanwyck’s character in my all-time favorite movie, “Christmas in Connecticut,” in which she’s a family columnist purporting to write from her Connecticut farm where she lives with her husband and baby, when in actuality she’s a single woman in an apartment in New York City. 

The truth is, as with any major relationship change, this has been a process. Until recently I myself did not know how things would play out and only now do I feel able to write about it. 

But this I’ve long known: The true character of a partner is revealed when you leave them. Max will continue to be a loving father invested in his children’s lives and we will continue to raise them together as committed co-parents — now from two homes, 2 miles apart. 

And so begins the next chapter. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on April 4, 2021.

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Spring holds promise of positive change

The arrival of the first warm, sunny days at the end of winter feel full of pleasant promises. Friends, and even strangers in the grocery parking lots, are compelled to comment, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

The renewal of existing gardens and plans for new plants and even new beds are, of course, investments in the regeneration of life after it lay dormant for several months. And how fast it happens! Just two columns ago, I was reveling in all the snow shoveling I was doing; now I’m delighted by crocuses popping up daily.

This year, springtime has me giddier than ever. COVID vaccines are making their way into people’s arms and even before we reach herd immunity, warmer weather will allow outdoor, socially distanced get-togethers to occur.

Like so many, I miss being with friends. FaceTime and text messages cannot replace sharing an evening with others. When has anyone belly laughed in a video conference? I sure haven’t.

Almost a year to the day that they closed, Akron Public Schools reopened for full-time, in-person instruction. My 8-year-old, Lyra, acts like every school day is Christmas, so glad is she to be back with her teachers and friends.

While seeing the light at the end of this long pandemic tunnel, I don’t expect life will pick up exactly where it was when things stopped a year ago. And that can be a good thing.

Hands down, the best change for Lyra is that she gained her very own friend for the first time. Her brother Leif’s friends always have accepted Lyra fully. That said, they are still primarily Leif’s friends.

Jocelyn Burkholder, 10, and Lyra Christensen, 8, stand with their educational pod teacher, Declan McCaslin.

Lyra met 10-year-old Jocelyn Burkholder when they were in the same Dancing Unlimited class at Akron Children’s Hospital a couple of years ago, but they didn’t really interact. The classes, run by Kellie Lightfoot, are a joy-filled hour of structured chaos where Lyra enjoys watching herself dance in the mirror behind the barre while ignoring all other children.

Last August, when we learned the schools wouldn’t reopen for in-person learning, Jocelyn joined the educational pod we created at our home. Now, after seven months of working together with the teacher we hired, Jocie and Lyra have their own true friendship. I know this because they squabble and make up just like all childhood friends do.

Furthermore, I don’t doubt that Lyra will visit Jocie at her house when it’s possible. Only one family has ever offered to have Lyra over without another adult from our family. I understand why:Most parents are unsure of how to treat a child with Down syndrome.

But parents of children with disabilities know exactly what to do with another child with a disability. (Answer: pretty much the same thing you do with typical kids.)

It is clear this past year has permanently altered what education will look like in America. For one thing, remote learning is here to stay in some form or fashion. While it’s important for kids to be physically in a classroom, there are other times when remote learning can augment or replace in-person learning. If a child cannot be at school for whatever reason, that no longer means education must stop.

Secondly, because most students need help regaining what was lost this past year, strides are being made to help struggling students with the support of federal funding. Many schools will undoubtedly create new infrastructures to solve educational problems that have held back students of all backgrounds for far too long.

There’s also talk of better mental health resources, buildings and funding for public K-12 schools. This is fabulous for there is no better way to address a variety of systemic problems in any country than by providing equal access to quality education.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a recent column on Bangladesh, a country that Henry Kissinger called a “basket case” 50 years ago. Today, Bangladesh has a robust economy and its citizens are vastly healthier. How did they do this? By providing accessible education to all children, including girls.

It’s often hard to get politicians to support substantive, proven plans to address systemic problems if the results are not immediate. But the COVID-19 global pandemic has been a cataclysmic event that refuses to allow anyone to just carry on. And therein lies the opportunity to re-create many things anew and better.

Am I glad there was a pandemic? Of course not. But since there was, how can we address the systemic problems it exposed while fixing the new ones it caused, thereby creating a better future for everyone?

Personally, I no longer take for granted many things I once did. Today, as COVID risks recede and positive changes are hopefully embraced, things are shaping up for a most promising spring and beyond.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 18, 2021.

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Talking with children about death

Today, many Americans live until their 30s or 40s before experiencing the death of a close family member or friend. The advent of antibiotics and vaccines in the early- and mid-20th century substantially decreased death rates while increasing life expectancy. And in the past 50 years, advances in medicine have grown exponentially, each development laying the foundation for future ones.

A childhood friend of mine who died of leukemia in the 1970s would likely survive today. Life expectancy for people with Down syndrome has increased more than twofold since 1980 because of the development of treatments for conditions, such as heart and gastrointestinal, that afflict the entire population.

But, of course, there are no guarantees.

Two weekends ago, we learned that a family at the school of our 11-year-old son, Leif, had been involved in an accident. The student’s father had died and the student herself did not survive her injuries and was removed from life support after organ donation.

The child’s only sibling is in Leif’s class and the school took great care when discussing the tragedy with the classmates. Afterward, Leif asked me for a hug, but seemed otherwise unaffected. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t feel real to him. But that may change, particularly when full-time, in-person instruction resumes.

In an effort to be supportive, Leif told his classmate during a virtual discussion that he knows how she feels, reminding me of the saying, “Better the friend who says the wrong thing than those who say nothing at all.” That afternoon, I told Leif there’s no way he can know what it’s like to lose a parent and sibling in the same week.

The fact is, none of us know how someone who is grieving feels, even if we ourselves have experienced great loss. Grief is unique to each person and each loss.

I don’t pretend to have the answers to fundamental existential questions, but having those answers isn’t necessary. I am always willing to honestly discuss anything with my children, even when the topics become complex.

To gauge what a young child is ready to learn, I respond to inquiries such as, “Where do babies come from? What happens when we die?” by asking, “What do you think?” Leif is the only one who’s ever retorted, “I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you!”

Leif’s next older brother, Jules, who also went to the same school, called him from college after the deaths and they talked at length. My second son, Hugo, told me he’s glad we openly discuss mortality in our family. He feels it makes living easier.

If there is a memorial service for this father and child, we will certainly attend, even if, due to the pandemic, it’s months from now. It is important to show up for survivors, both at a funeral and in the months to follow.

The last funeral all five of my children and I attended was for a dear friend’s mother just before Ohio went into lockdown. My adult children have been to enough funerals to know what to do and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do when they have to plan mine. Which, of course, we’ve discussed.

And that is the natural order of things: children burying parents who have lived full and long lives. Laying a child to rest is not.

But Death obeys no rules. Why did my children and I not die 20 years ago when our car slid across five busy lanes of interstate traffic just south of Chicago? And why did this family experience unfathomable tragedy on a simple outing?

In 2016, The Guardian published a piece by David Ferguson in which he describes grief with poignant accuracy. He writes, “There’s nothing good that comes out of the death of someone you love, but I have learned this: the magnitude and bottomlessness of the pain you feel is a testament to the love you shared.”

And he pines for the Victorian traditions of black ribbons being placed on front doors and worn as armbands and hat bands as “a signal to the world that says: ‘Be kind to me. I am in pain.’”

The only way through grief, which is not a sprint, but a marathon, is to grieve. And as communities, we need to be gentle to those making that journey. Never expect nor insist they follow any preordained protocols while experiencing the rawest of all emotions.

Be kind to them, they are in pain.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 7, 2021.

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Love for winter doesn’t melt

My first four babies wore cloth diapers, which I washed weekly and hung on a line in the backyard. The singular satisfaction of seeing stains disappear after a few hours in the bright sun is both simple and immeasurable.

I feel similarly when the sun melts the residual snow on sidewalks I’ve shoveled. From the chair at my desk, I periodically stand up and look over the front porch roof to admire exposed pathways, the sun evaporating what my shovel could not remove.

Hearty winters are one of the things I liked about moving to Northeast Ohio. For nearly a decade, I lived in Columbus where winters are grayer than they are here. Making it worse, it rarely snows in Columbus and when it does, it often quickly melts. 

During my first 14 winters here, bright snow made the darkest months of the year cheerful and fun. My children learned to ski at Boston Mills and Brandywine ski resorts where, yes, the slopes are small, but the skills needed are the same as anywhere. In recent years my big boys have skied on slopes across the country.

Since 2014, however, winters here have been annoyingly mild. Far too many weeks have been as dismally gray and snowless as they are in Columbus. Temperatures have not been cold enough to provide the important benefit of killing off invasive plant and insect species or reducing the pesky indigenous ones. Northeast Ohio pet owners know too well that treatments to prevent ticks and fleas must now be given 12 months of the year. 

Last fall, I received a rare phone call from my stepfather. He lives in Dallas, but grew up and lived much of his adult life in Ohio. 

“I could never live in Ohio again, I can’t take the winters,” he told me. 

“Pshaw,” I told him, “We hardly get below freezing here anymore.” 

Perhaps trickster gods overheard our conversation because 2021 is a banner year for winter in Ohio — and in Texas. Snow and cold have repeatedly visited Akron and set records in the Lone Star State. My son Claude is studying at Texas A&M and several days this past week endured rolling blackouts when it was colder there than here. 

Many, like me, love a good winter. Others do not. But remember, it could be worse. 

Last weekend, I took my two youngest children to Rockford, Illinois, to visit my second son, Hugo, his girlfriend, Claudia, and (most importantly) their dog, Rutabaga. During our four days there, the temperature never rose above 2 degrees. Claudia tells us it’s a typical winter for northern Illinois. 

On our way home, I accidentally chose a GPS route that took us through downtown Chicago. It was the first time Leif and Lyra had seen the city, but they didn’t see much. The region was enveloped in whiteout conditions. With traffic crawling at 3 miles per hour, it was safe driving until we reached the Chicago Skyway where traffic let up. Then, and for the next hour, I white-knuckled us through the storm on roads not recently plowed. 

Twenty years ago almost to the day, I was in the left lane on the outer belt south of Chicago when I hit black ice. My car spun so that I was facing oncoming traffic and then slid sideways across five busy lanes of traffic before hitting the guardrail next to the right lane. 

My three children, ages 7, 4 and 6 months, were sleeping in car seats behind me. They awoke at the moment of impact. A couple who stopped to see if we were OK were nearly as shaken from watching our accident as I was having experienced it. 

The car’s hood had been knocked sideways and no longer lined up with the latch. The couple helped me bungie-cord the hood to the grille and we all continued on. I crossed the border to Indiana and picked up speed when suddenly the car hood flew up and smashed the windshield.

None of my children were asleep that time and they all screamed before sobbing.

Flanking both sides of the interstate were farm fields covered in waist-deep snow. The nearest exit was too far to walk to with three small children and, like many people 20 years ago, I didn’t have a cellphone. 

I have family in LaPorte, Indiana, not far from the Illinois border. I again tied the hood down, this time to the bumper, and slowly drove in the right lane with my hazards on. Before long, but not far from a toll station, the hood again flew up, smashed the windshield and sent bits of safety glass into the car. 

Somehow, I made it to the toll station where the very kind workers let me call my grand-aunt and grand-uncle who came and collected us. 

Then, as now, we made it home safely, this time just before last week’s big storm. Now, as then, the dangers of driving in snow and ice have not diminished my love of a vigorous winter. 

I spent this morning clearing the snow from the storm. Several times since, I’ve peered out my office window to admire entire slabs of sidewalk being slowly revealed by winter sunshine. Such satisfaction.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on February 21, 2021.

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Loving children when it’s hard

When I was 16, my father and stepmother told my two sisters and me that as much as they loved their children — they’d die for us — they loved each other more, that their love had only grown in the dozen years they’d been together.

Eight years later, my dad moved to Arizona, divorced my stepmom and married a woman with three young daughters who essentially replaced us. In the 27 years I’ve been a mother, my father’s never visited. Any interaction with him required my initiation and follow-through, ultimately failing a cost-benefit analysis.

My stepmom, on the other hand, has remained constant in her children’s lives. She’s celebrated our weddings and supported our divorces. She came to my home and took care of me every time I had a baby. She’s the only grandmother my older boys grew up with, a role she’s embraced so fully, it’s a large part of her identity.

There are no guarantees that any relationship will be permanent. But it is more assured between parents and children than between lovers. Nobody knows anyone as well as a child knows a parent. And, when fully committed, a parent cannot be laid more emotionally bare than by a child.

A committed parent shows up in both easy and difficult times, holding their seat as the one in charge while empathizing with children’s often confusing emotions. “How to Talk so Your Children Will Listen,” which was published in 1982, remains the parenting bible on how to do this.

Young children and teenagers alike often seem irrational. Most school mornings my 10-year-old, Leif, ignores my calls to get up and is whiny and angry when I make him do so, even though he’s slept for nine or more hours. “Get your butt down here right now!” I’ve yelled more times than I wish to admit.

Yet yelling never works. What does is going to his room to comfort him, stroke his head, give him a hug and tell him he’s going to have a good day. That’s not always possible, however, as there are breakfasts and lunches to make and another child, along with myself, to get ready.

When he was a teenager, my second son, Hugo, once shouted at me, “I only have one problem and it’s you!” For years, he directed what felt like endless anger at me. But as unpleasant as it was to live with, I tried not to take it personally.

“Why is he always so hard on you?” my partner, Max, asked after Hugo had marched into our bedroom and told me all the ways I had disappointed him on his 16th birthday. I believed then, as I do now, that Hugo regularly tested my commitment to him from a place of pain over his father, who never made an effort to have a relationship with him.

Hugo’s now 24 and we talk daily. We’ve started our own two-person book club after he recently texted, “For whatever reason, I’m craving some depressing, overly descriptive and nature-focused literature. Do you have any Russian authors to recommend?” We’re starting with Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls.”

But what of the anger of an adult child? One who never gave me trouble before now claims that if he is to have a relationship with me, he needs me to understand him. He’s angry I didn’t intuit what he is going through. Of all my qualities, psychic powers are not on the list.

Regardless, “If I am going to have a relationship with you” are words that cut my heart to the quick. Emotions are neither right nor wrong, they just are, and I’ve always treated them as such. But it isn’t always a two-way street that, certainly not with this son at this time.

It reminds me of young baby boomers stating that they needed to go find themselves, to which their greatest-generation parents scratched their heads and said, “Huh?” And that somehow made the young boomers angry.

On a walk last month, my son talked and I listened. When I was a child, I felt hot shame whenever I disappointed an adult I respected. It felt similar listening to my son’s complaints.

There is nothing, short of causing harm, that I won’t accept of my children, which I’ve made clear in word and action all their lives. Yet this child, in an effort to find his way, feels he must push away from me. I don’t know what I could’ve done differently, but my love for him remains steadfast.

There are many benefits in being the mother of a large family, including seeing children turn out so differently from one another that it’s impossible to credit or blame myself too much for who they become. But also, there are witnesses, people who have known each other all their lives.

“He’s being really selfish right now and you need to set boundaries with him,” my two other adult sons recently told me. And they reminded me, as they have throughout their brother’s life, that he’s not the angel I think he is.

“But he’s my child,” I told them, a relationship they cannot yet understand as they are not yet parents.

One summer years ago, I told my father, mother and stepmom about things that they did in my childhood that painfully echoed into my adulthood. My father and mother became angry and stopped talking to me, neither a surprise nor a disappointment. My stepmom wept as I spoke and apologized with a simple sincerity, making no excuses.

Her response, meaningful to me then, is an example for me now.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 7, 2021.

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Mark important moments in history with children

“History is not was, it is.” — William Faulkner

On a January day in 1973, a bulky television atop a 4-foot metal cart was wheeled into my second-grade classroom at Longfellow Elementary in Toledo. Former President Lyndon Johnson had died the day before at his ranch in Texas and we were shown a news program about his life.

I didn’t know anything about Johnson — he’d left office when I was 3 — but I did know about the current president, Richard Nixon. In the weeks leading to his reelection the previous fall, children in my white working-class neighborhood, myself included, chanted “Nixon, Nixon, he’s our man. Let’s throw McGovern in the frying pan!” as we walked to and from school twice daily (once for lunch).

No, the white working-class conversion from union Democrats to a GOP voting block didn’t begin with Donald Trump, nor did it begin with Ronald Reagan. The movement started in the ’60s as a response to civil rights legislation, yes, but also to a host of societal changes occurring in America and other developed countries (1968 is remembered in France as a year of protests, strikes and riots).

There are periods in history that are pivotal and can shape nations for decades. Johnson’s administration was responsible both for progress on civil rights and the escalation of a war the government knew we could not win. I’m sure much of the program on Johnson went over our 7-year-old heads that day. And, yet, nearly 50 years later, I remember watching it.

On Sept. 8, 2009, President Barack Obama gave a televised 15-minute speech to the nation’s K-12 students. My second son, Hugo, was in the seventh grade at Miller South where I assumed they’d make the students watch the highly publicized event. But they did not.

When I spoke with her the next day, the school principal told me they had a television on in the cafeteria, but that most students instead had gone out for recess. Well, yeah, they’re kids. It’s up to adults to guide children to watch and listen to important events.

Earlier that year, I kept all three of my boys home from school to watch Obama’s inauguration. It was an historic moment for our nation, which has treated Black Americans as lesser humans for four centuries, often violently so. Because I didn’t have a TV, my friend Dana, who worked that day, gave me the key to her house. Twelve years later, my sons remember the ceremony.

Not all historic events are appropriate for young children, and I was glad not to have a TV in the months after 9/11. But we shouldn’t underestimate what children can handle by the time they are 9 or 10. My 95-year-old friend Barbara Campbell recently told me that the day John F. Kennedy was shot her kids were outside playing ball. She called them in and had them watch the news coverage.

Long before November’s election, I was concerned about Trump’s reaction should he lose. Anyone seeking the highest office in the land must think well of themselves, but notable mental health experts have described this president as having something far worse than an over-inflated ego: malignant narcissism. And when thwarted, narcissists have one response, which is rage.

Former cyclist Lance Armstrong, who is also believed to have narcissistic personality disorder, won the Tour de France seven years in a row. At the time, it was often rumored that he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs, which he vociferously denied.

When Betsy Andreu, the wife of a former teammate, testified under oath that Armstrong had indeed used performance-enhancing drugs, he tried to destroy her with a costly lawsuit and a smear campaign in which he claimed she was an alcoholic prostitute.

Eventually, the world learned that Andreu was correct and Armstrong was the liar. He was stripped of his Tour de France titles.

So it was not surprising when, after November’s election results became clear, the current president began granting pardons to war criminals and cronies, signing executive orders to frustrate the incoming administration’s ability to address the panoply of once-in-a-century crises facing our nation and, just for an added measure of cruelty, rushing through federal executions.

But I hadn’t imagined Trump giving a 70-minute incendiary speech calling on his supporters to attack our Capitol in an armed insurrection that endangered the lives of those inside, including the nation’s congressional members who were there to certify the presidential election results.

After NPR first reported rioters breaking through the barricades surrounding the Capitol and then into the building itself, I began streaming CNN on my laptop. My 10-year-old son, Leif, and I watched in horror as the house of our democracy was desecrated. According to reports, rather than being alarmed by the violence he had incited, the president watched it on television, pleased his supporters had taken him seriously.

Only hours later, and after President-elect Joe Biden and pleaded on national television for him to do so, did the man who had unleashed the mob appear on TV with the mixed messages of “Go home” and “We love you.” Trump did not condemn their behavior nor concede the election.

As I write this, there is one day left in which the 45th president can wreak havoc on our already suffering country. While the road ahead for our nation and the world will continue to be difficult, after the inauguration of Biden and Kamala Harris I will breathe and sleep a little easier.

You can be sure that Leif watched the televised ceremony with his father and me. And in 50 years, I hope he remembers doing so.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 23, 2021.

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Where, oh where, had my little dog gone?

The Thursday before Thanksgiving, I took my three dogs for their morning walk and then to my house on Akron’s near west side, where I worked. At 4 o’clock, I told the dogs we were heading home, but the eldest one, Lily, didn’t join us at the door.

Lyra walking Lily in 2018

I checked the house to see if she was stuck behind a closed door or on a landing, afraid to descend a flight of stairs. But she was nowhere to be found. My best guess is that she didn’t come inside with the rest of us earlier that day.

Lily, whom I adopted more than 10 years ago from a breeder, is different from all the other shelties I’ve owned over 35 years. A bi-black, or black and white, she’s perfect in size and structure because she was bred to be a show dog.

However, Lily has too much white in her coat for American Kennel Club standards and, thus, was rejected from her would-be career.

Typically, shelties are unbelievably easy to train, particularly if an older dog is in the home. But Lily, who was over 3 months old when I adopted her, first stepped outdoors on the day I picked her up. She took so long to house train a friend began calling her “Betsy Wetsy.”

Eventually she learned to go outside and became the dear companion to our other sheltie, Hoover, who was 9 when we brought Lily home. As his faculties diminished over the next six years, Hoover increasingly relied on Lily. After he lost his hearing, she’d let him know when I was calling them inside or for dinner.

The relationship was good for both dogs as Hoover’s mildest of manners never intimidated Lily, who is rather anxious. I suspect she spent most of her early life isolated in a crate because playful dogs and people who approach her directly both make her nervous.

And yet, she desires affection. Like a butterfly, Lily approaches only when someone quietly minds their own business. She likes to sleep by my partner Max’s feet when he’s in his office and sidles up to me when I’m working at the dining room table. She doesn’t come to my office because it’s on the second floor and Lily’s no fan of stairs.

Any other dog I’ve owned would have gone to the door and barked if I’d accidentally left them outside. But instead, fretful Lily went on a walkabout.

We searched the neighborhood and I texted the neighbors for whom I have phone numbers, which they forwarded on to other neighbors. I also posted on multiple social media sites, including the Facebook page, “Akron Summit County Lost and Found Pets.”

On Friday, a neighbor spied Lily in the driveway of another neighbor who puts food out for feral cats. Lily presumably stopped by for a bite, but when we arrived, she was gone.

We again walked the neighborhood, with no luck.

Meanwhile, several friends also searched for her on their own. Joy, who drove around with fried chicken to lure Lily into her car, asked anyone she saw if they’d seen a black-and-white dog. A few streets from my house people told her Lily had been seen heading toward Krispy Kreme.

On Saturday, Maureen Foley and her husband, Steve, who regularly help find the lost pets listed on “Akron Summit County Lost and Found Pets,” offered to help us. They set up a feeding station with a motion-activated camera near the Krispy Kreme on Saturday evening, but only cats visited.

Then, at 3 in the morning on Sunday, a man called and said he was “100% certain” he’d seen our dog. She’d been on West Market Street near St. Vincent’s church when he followed her down Walnut Street and the grand Glendale Steps into the adjacent cemetery, where he lost her.

Like Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston or Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, Akron’s

Glendale Cemetery, with its Civil War Chapel, avenue of distinctive mausoleums and newly restored bell tower, is an iconic 19th century memorial park that invites visitation, which at its inception was a departure from church graveyards.

Our family enjoys strolling the hilly grounds where the names on many gravestones match those of area streets, buildings and schools. In the predawn hours that Sunday, Max and I walked every section of Glendale, streetlight peacefully reflecting on polished granite obelisks and orbs the size of my exercise ball.

But Lily was not there. Sunday evening a freezing rain poured and I prayed our dog had found shelter.

On Monday, I spent $40 to laminate several missing-dog posters. That afternoon, Leif and Lyra, my two youngest children, were helping me staple them to telephone poles when my phone rang.

“I think we have your missing dog,” said a man. Tim Hite’s wife, Meg, found Lily crossing

Front Street in Cuyahoga Falls. In just one day, our little 10-year-old dog had walked roughly 13 busy miles.

The Hites posted a photo of Lily on Facebook and within minutes someone shared with them my Facebook post about our missing girl. In less than an hour after they’d found her, Lily was in our van, headed home. Fortunately, other than bleeding paws, she was perfectly fine.

That day the internet, assisted by our community, was a tool for goodness.

While I wish she’d never been lost, curiously, Lily’s solo journey seems to have affected her personality for the better. She’s been more animated and less anxious since her return. If only she could tell us about her four-day adventure.

There are many who helped in our search for Lily, prayers included. We thank you all from the bottom of our dog-loving hearts.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 10, 2021.

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Seeking a holiday refresh after a year when nothing was usual

Viking duo Leif and Lyra on October 31, 2020

I recently read that after nearly a year of pandemic life, many are finding a renewed sense of holiday spirit this year.

I am not one of them. Perhaps it’s because for the past 10 months home has also become office and school. It’s hard enough keeping everyone’s work stations in multiple rooms organized without adding seasonal stuff.

This fall whenever I pulled into our driveway, I thought, we really must get our Halloween decorations out. But we never did. Had our 10-year-old son, Leif, asked us to, I imagine we would have, but he didn’t.

On Halloween, we put our life-size plastic skeleton named X-ray on the porch and took two little Vikings trick-or-treating. And that, apparently, was sufficient.

Thanksgiving, unlike other years, was a small affair with no travel and far less cooking. It felt little different than Sunday dinner any week of the year.

And then the year-end biggies: Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Let’s dispatch with New Year’s Eve first. With no Pride Ball at the Akron Civic, we’re staying home. Whether we remain awake to toss out this doozy of a year or pay it no mind and go to bed early hasn’t been decided.

As for Christmas, I spent little on presents. The big boys each received four pairs of Bombas socks and a WKSU T-shirt. Leif and Lyra get gifts from relatives, so their haul was on par with most years, which, frankly, is too much.

The truth is, I’ve never spent much on Christmas as I believe less really is more. But the last-minute urge to buy additional gifts, which I admittedly often fall prey to, never arose this month. I didn’t want to charge headlong into stores. Besides, 2020 provided an adamant reminder that what we most need is our health and hearth.

Which begs the question, how much of what parents do for any holiday is motivated not by what kids expect but what our consumer-driven economy has led us to believe is necessary for their happiness? Is the stress to provide a perfect holiday simply the byproduct of a successful con?

Last year I read “How to Change Your Mind,” Michael Pollan’s book about the history of and current medical research on psychedelic drugs. Pollen necessarily includes a lot of information about our brains. For instance, in the first years of a human’s life each moment is open to endless possibilities. But as we grow, our brains begin to recognize patterns and thinking becomes streamlined.

This is important for efficiency. If every step we took, every bite of food we ate, every person we encountered had to be met as though it were for the first time, every time, well, as a species we’d have long ago died out.

But the price for our high-speed large brains is that we gloss through many parts of our lives like automatons. Luckily, there are methods, including meditation, to get the brain re-attuned with the moment.

One of the easiest ways to think again like a young child is to travel — the more foreign a place the better. Presumptions seldom succeed when visiting a place for the first time. Food, money, systems of transportation and, depending upon where you go, sometimes language, must be negotiated anew.

Like other parents, the holidays became overly routine for me long ago. I recall ABJ columnist Robin Swoboda once describing her adult daughter nagging her to put up more holiday decorations. Robin’s reply was basically, “Meh, I picked up tinsel for months every year when you were kids, leave me alone.”

Unlike Robin, I baked a second batch of babies in my 40s and have felt obligated to remain in the business of holiday memory making for over 25 years.

But what if, like travel for the brain, the blur of holiday traditions could be refreshed?

Last year, otherwise known as the “before times,” I floated the idea of taking a cruise this Christmas. I’ve never been on one and very well might not enjoy several days on a ship — I never travel with tour groups, preferring adventure over predictability — but I was willing to find out.

Everyone, including Leif, was not just open, but enthusiastic about a Christmas cruise.

Instead, given COVID, we again stayed put this year and sadly canceled a more recent tradition —Christmas Eve dinner with our friends Brian and David, whose table settings and meals should be featured in Food and Wine.

With life as we once knew it halted for so long, this year has felt like a big reset button. Things that were taken for granted, even those we may not have enjoyed or that had become rote, have been missed. Others not so much.

Next year, after widespread vaccination hopefully puts an end to the global pandemic, what will you do differently than you did before?

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, December 27, 2020.

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Respect science on COVID-19 — masks are essential; remote learning is not

If ever there was a time when we needed to respect science, it is now.

Minimizing the destruction of COVID-19 can be done at local and even personal levels. But it requires people to accept a few basic facts, which is proving astonishingly difficult for far too many Americans.

Let’s start with the most obvious — masks. To see why masks work take a squirt bottle of water and spray it into the air. The droplets shoot forward and disperse, much the way saliva droplets do from a mouth.

Next, hold a mask in front of the bottle and spray again. The result is far fewer airborne droplets. COVID is spread by infected airborne droplets. Limit the droplets, limit the transmission. It’s that simple. And yet many people cannot seem to understand this.

Perhaps they don’t believe the virus is real or, if it is, it’s not that dangerous. A friend of mine who’s a hospital nurse told me last summer that anyone who misunderstands the seriousness of COVID should spend a day with him at work.

During World War II, Americans sacrificed greatly to defeat a common enemy. Food, gasoline and rubber were rationed. Citizens donated all they could to scrap and rubber drives. Victory gardens ensured enough food was available for the military. Women gave up nylon stockings and donated silk ones to be repurposed into things such as parachutes.

In comparison, wearing a mask is but a minor inconvenience in fighting our current common enemy. Yet in today’s crisis, too many people aren’t doing their part.

Another friend runs a preschool near Columbus. She told me that mask wearing to prevent the transmission of COVID this fall has had an additional benefit: far fewer cases of typical colds and flus.Get the Afternoon Update newsletter in your inbox.

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Which brings me to another act of science defiance: zero in-person instruction at Akron Public Schools. Science tests our assumptions to see if they hold up. While it may seem intuitive that 100% remote learning is the only safe way to educate our children this year, it’s not.

Last spring, schools nationwide understandably closed when this new virus invaded our nation. But we have since learned much. First of all, masks work. Secondly, we now understand the risk levels of different situations.

There is now a huge body of evidence indicating that schools aren’t super-spreader locations and younger children in particular, for whom remote-only learning is most detrimental, are far less likely than middle and high schoolers to bring COVID into the buildings from home.

While APS has remained remote-only, schools locally, nationally and internationally opened their buildings this fall, some with five-day full instruction, others in hybrid form. By following standard protocols and creating classroom bubbles, the risk of transmission turns out to be far lower than that of contact sports, indoor dining at restaurants or in gyms–all of which have been prioritized over education.

Locally, Copley and Norton’s school districts switched from remote- or hybrid-only after the first weeks of school, when it became evident that schools aren’t super spreader locations, to optional 5-day-a-week instruction. Neither have resulted in COVID catastrophes.

Meanwhile, the negative effects of not having in-person instruction are also well documented. Drop-out rates increase dramatically, which in turn leads to loss of income potential and even earlier death rates. For districts that have recalcitrantly remained remote only, they may well be responsible for a lost generation of students.

Last year our daughter Lyra, who has Down syndrome, repeated kindergarten. After testing in January, it was determined that she was finally first-grade ready. Then, in March, schools closed and Lyra regressed. We’ve worked all fall to get her caught up.

Her father and I pay a special education teacher to assist Lyra with her remote learning, something few families can afford. And while this has been helpful, it cannot replicate in-person instruction and Lyra remains where she was academically a year ago. Furthermore, she cannot derive the important benefits of speech, physical and occupational therapies through virtual instruction.

That’s why we were relieved when APS announced in late October that they would supplement remote-only learning with what they called “remote plus,” or in-person support. But the then district reversed course, as they have so often, cancelling the program before it began.

When they did, Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda stated that large districts such as Akron’s cannot safely bring all 20,000 students back into the buildings, that they can’t bring even half that into the buildings.

That formula is overly simplistic. First of all, remote plus would likely not have brought half the student population into the buildings. But even if it did, that doesn’t mean they all had to be there at the same time.

For those who think now is not the time to consider alternatives to remote-only education, that is exactly what New York City schools, the largest district in the nation, did last week. Preschool and elementary students now have the option of returning to the buildings, even while the city faces increased COVID cases.

Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show, often decries the lack of nuance in important considerations. All-or-nothing approaches all too often reign the day. This, coupled with people who are motivated by hubris or fear informed by unreliable sources, is not a recipe for getting out of this pandemic swiftly or with minimal losses.

Wear a mask. And let’s give our most vulnerable children the option of some form of in-person instruction.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 13, 2020.

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Pandemic pauses family traditions, not thanks

Thanksgiving 2018

Every August, as predictable as summer fruit ripening, my three eldest sons begin to announce, “I’m really looking forward to Thanksgiving.”

For more than 20 years, we’ve made the 450-mile journey to Charlevoix, Michigan, for the November holiday. My stepmother has lived in the same 950-square-foot house near Lake Michigan since 1972. She and her husband (not my father) are my big boys’ only grandparents.

After my first three boys grew adult-sized and I had two more children with their stepfather, Max, we found it necessary to caravan north in two vehicles. For five years, when my eldest son, Claude, studied at the University of Michigan, his brothers picked him up in Ann Arbor, and they’d have a mini-reunion in the car.

Though we always reconvene at Christmas, it is Thanksgiving that our family most enjoys. Free of gift-giving pressure, and not tied to a specific religion, it has a simple requirement: eat well and often while enjoying each other’s company — a comfortable perch for gratitude.

Last year, we did not go home for Thanksgiving, but in everyone’s mind, it didn’t count.

Hugo gave his senior recital at Eastman School of Music the Saturday before the holiday and we were all there, including Grandma. She flew to Rochester and then rode with us to Akron where she stayed for a few days. Same show, different station.

Now in 2020, we, like everyone, regularly make plans — whether to take trips, go to school or buy more toilet paper — only to find it necessary to adjust them.

The neighbor’s home in Charlevoix, where for many years we’ve stayed over the Thanksgiving weekend, is no longer available. Last summer when the kids and I were there, Barb, a good friend of 40 years, invited us to stay with her.

On a day with breezes blowing from the lake and boat horns regularly bellowing for the town’s draw bridge to open, Barb and I sat on her porch and planned the Thanksgiving our families would share this year. An artist of local note, Barb plotted out the tables and decor for the feast, which our family would happily provide.Get the Afternoon Update newsletter in your inbox.

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My second son, Hugo, who recently moved to Illinois with his girlfriend, bought a one-way plane ticket from Chicago to Dallas. Claude, who is in graduate school at Texas A&M, was to pick up Hugo at the airport and then they’d promptly begin driving home. On their way, they were to pick up their younger brother Jules in Columbus, where he’s a sophomore at Ohio State.

First to fall was Thanksgiving in Michigan. By the end of October, we all knew. The boys and I talked about it, Max and I talked about it and then, finally, my stepmom and I talked about it. With the pandemic spreading like a California wildfire, it would be irresponsible for us, coming from three states, to visit the grandparents.

Then, two weeks ago, Hugo called and told me he wasn’t going to fly to Dallas. Illinois may soon enact a travel ban, and he and Claudia, who was going to drive here to join us, didn’t want to risk getting stuck in Akron.

With several podcasts downloaded on his phone, Claude drove home over two days last weekend and will stay here until his classes resume in mid-January.

Finally, the Friday before Thanksgiving, Jules and I had the following text-message exchange:

“Hey, I’ll stay in Columbus over Thanksgiving.”

“Feels kinda like getting a text break up.”

“OMG, but I think we both know this is for the better.”

Yes, we do. I was the one who had alerted Jules when Franklin County (where OSU is located) was declared purple, the worst possible COVID rating in the state’s color-coded health advisory alert system.

“Jules could have called you,” Claude said, “He’s going through some weird bro phase.”

I chuckled. We all go through phases, and what Claude calls Jules’ “bro phase” is far preferable than others I can think of. But yeah, he could’ve called.

Several weeks ago, Max and I ordered a fresh-killed turkey large enough to feed 10 with ample leftovers. We picked it up from Fresh Fork Market on Wednesday, but instead of brining the bird whole as we usually do, we quartered it.

On Thanksgiving Day we served only the breasts, which had been brined in buttermilk and salt. We’ve used the rest of the bird in soups and casseroles, some of which we’ve frozen.

No, our favorite holiday was not the same this year with our family scattered hither and thither. But my feelings of gratitude are, in fact, significant. I’m grateful we are all healthy, that none of us ignored science over minor inconveniences.

And, I suspect, after this pandemic-induced break in our annual tradition, future Thanksgivings will be more savory than ever.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on 11/29/2020.

Uncategorized

COVID interrupts valued friendship

“I waited on Maureen O’Hara at the MGM commissary. She was an observant Catholic and didn’t eat meat on Fridays, so we’d save a plate of chicken and she’d come by after midnight.”

I’ve written before about Bascom, who became family through my relationship with Max, and my bi-weekly dates with this nonagenarian Southern gentleman.

Last February, as we were driving to Playhouse Square to see the Broadway Series production of “Anastasia,” we were chatting, as we often do, about old movies. Turner Classic Movies is the primary reason why I still pay for cable service.

I don’t recall how the feisty Irish star of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Quiet Man” and dozens of other films came up. I’m sure we’ve discussed her before, but Bascom not only neglected to mention serving her midnight meals, I’d had no idea he’d ever worked for MGM.

“Hold up,” I said while navigating through the five lanes of traffic on I-480 West. “When did you work for MGM?”

“I’ve told you that before, haven’t I?” he asked. Yeah, nope.

“When did you work for MGM?”

“Well, it was after I returned from the war. My friend Julia and I hitchhiked from Atlanta to Culver City, near Hollywood, where she had a friend with a trailer we all lived in.”

After the matinee showing of “Anastasia,” which Bascom loved, we went, as we always do after a show, out to dinner.

No sooner had we placed our cocktail order, than I began peppering him with questions, scribbling down his answers in a notebook, which I always carry in my purse.

After graduating from high school in an Atlanta suburb in 1939, Bascom enrolled in ROTC at Northern Georgia College, but studied journalism at Emory College because he wanted to be a writer.

He was drafted in 1943, in the middle of his final semester. Even though he didn’t finish, Emory understandably gave Bascom his diploma. After basic training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, the Army sent him to New York City, where he arrived on his 21st birthday.

Because large numbers of young men had been conscripted for World War II, colleges and universities were suffering from a lack of students. To help with their revenue losses, the military paid for soldiers to attend college while awaiting deployment. Bascom, who lived on Fleet Street in Brooklyn, took courses at Pratt University.

Nearly a year after he arrived in New York, Bascom deployed to Germany. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge where his best friend, Russell Mohler of Petaluma, California, was killed at his side. Bascom was wounded in the same attack and later awarded the Bronze Star. “Mohler had a wife and children,” Bascom told me. “I wrote his wife, and thought of visiting her, but never did.”

After 33 months in the European theater, Bascom returned to Georgia just before Christmas in 1946. And then, the following spring, he and his friend Julia, whose parents Bascom says were “beatnik types,” thumbed their way to Tinseltown.

As I drove him home after dinner that winter evening, I told Bascom I would have more questions for him on our next date. But we didn’t meet two weeks, or even two months, later. COVID landed on our shores and for six months I feared our evening in February might have been our last.

During our long conversations, Bascom closely listens to me. He then goes off and ruminates on what I’ve said and, at our next meeting, returns with probing questions. I find this an expression of love more meaningful than any tangible gift.

In August, just in time for his 98th birthday, Bascom and I resumed our dating schedule, dining on the patio of a local establishment where he’s well known and beloved.

He subscribes to, and reads, several publications—including the New York Times, The New Yorker, Time and more—and we often discuss articles we both particularly enjoyed. But Bascom doesn’t have a radio or television.

A few days after the election, I called and told him his home state, Georgia, was trending blue.

“Oh, that’s marvelous. That’s grand! I remember when Georgia always voted Democrat.”

“Yeah, but, Bascom,” I said, “those were different Democrats, those were Dixiecrats.”

“Well, sure, you’re right, but, oh, how we loved FDR! You know, he was often there, at Warm Springs. Did I tell you I saw him once when he drove by my father’s business on Peach Street in Atlanta?”

No, he hadn’t. And I’m left wondering what other events and people of the past century my dearest friend has witnessed and not yet shared with me.

Last weekend, when the weather was gloriously warm and dry, we spent hours talking at our favorite restaurant. “Bascom,” I told him before I left, “COVID cases are rising like crazy and it’ll soon be too cold to eat outdoors. We may need to stay apart again for a bit.” He agreed.

And so, yet again in this year like no other, I pray I’ve not seen the last of my friend, who is also like no other.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 15, 2020.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Vote as though our democracy depends on it


Last weekend, I waited 2½ hours to vote at the Summit County Board of Elections (BOE). I have, with few exceptions, voted early and in person since it has been an option in Ohio. Waiting until Election Day stresses me out. What if something comes up and I can’t make it to the polls?

Sure, I could have requested an absentee ballot, as two of my children did. But if my signature is questioned, I was concerned my vote will not get counted. No, thanks, I’ll wait in line.

In prior elections, I’ve voted early with no wait. This year, the BOE set up a 50-foot long canopy tent in their parking lot for voters to stand under while waiting to enter the building.

And wait they do. Three times earlier in the week, the line for in-person voting was too long for me to stay. Meanwhile, cars by the dozens stretched down Grant Street in both directions as voters waited to turn in their absentee ballots at the only drop box in the county.

This election finds historic numbers of people accepting inconvenience to ensure their votes get counted.

I have voted in all presidential, and most non-presidential elections, since 1984. With the exception of 2008, many people, especially younger ones, rarely vote. Oh, they’ll complain about politicians and their policies, but then dismiss voting as a means to direct government.

I suspect that was in part a reflection of a well-functioning government. Young people weren’t agitated enough to exercise their right to vote when things were working well enough.

Today, nobody seems to believe things are working well in America. Turn out for early voting across the country is at historic highs. But will every eligible citizen who wishes to vote have the opportunity? And if they do, will their votes be counted?

In the decades after the passage of significant civil and voting rights legislation in the 1960s, the Republican Party has made a concerted effort to suppress votes in Democratic strongholds. Recently, their tactics have become openly blatant.

In 1980, Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist and founding member of The Heritage Foundation, an influential right-wing think tank, said in a video-recorded speech, “I don’t want everybody to vote … As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

In 2019, the year after Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller died, his daughter released his external hard drives and thumb drives. Known in GOP circles as the Michelangelo of gerrymandering, the data on the drives outlined how for years Hofeller helped guarantee safe Republican districts. One only need look at Ohio’s district map with its several snake-shaped districts to see Hofeller’s impact on redistricting.

Hofeller also promoted the idea of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, stating it would reduce the count of Hispanics, a group that predominantly votes Democrat.

In 2000, thousands of Florida voters were misidentified as ex-felons and quietly purged from the voter rolls before the election. At the time, Florida was one of a handful of states that did not allow ex-felons to vote. After the NAACP sued, Florida officials conceded that 12,000 registered voters — who were predominantly black — had been wrongly purged. George W. Bush’s margin of victory in Florida that year was 537 votes.

Some in the GOP saw the Florida purge in 2000 as instructive.

Since then, many Republican-held states have passed voter-suppression laws and rules, including excessive voter ID laws, modern-day equivalents of Jim Crow laws for Native Americans, limits on early voting and reduced polling locations.

The GOP claims these tactics prevent voter fraud, but there is no evidence of such. In a study that reviewed all of the more than 1 billion ballots cast in the US between 2000 and 2014, only 31 instances of voter fraud were found, which is statistically nil.

Why do Republicans work so hard to suppress the votes in Democrat strongholds? The obvious answer is because they don’t want to lose. But the flip side of that is that they rightfully fear their platform no longer appeals to enough Americans for them to win in a majority of districts without gerrymandering and suppressing voters.

A healthy democracy needs two, or more, healthy political parties. America doesn’t have that right now. One positive outcome of a blue tsunami on Tuesday would be for the GOP to reflect on how many Republicans currently don’t recognize their own party.

And, no, the Democratic Party isn’t perfect. Both the Ohio Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee are insiders’ clubs that all too often make bone-headed decisions. Pour a cup of coffee, pull up a chair and I’ll talk all day about frustrations with the Dems’ leadership.

But the Democratic Party does not try to win elections by suppressing Republican votes.

America needs new and vigorous national legislation to expand voting to all eligible citizens while preventing any party from engaging in the chicanery of winning elections by suppressing votes.

In the meantime, vote as though the very existence of democracy in the United States depends upon it. Because, in fact, it does.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 1, 2020.

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Watching grown children set off on their lives is a poignant pleasure

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself…You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.”

—Kahlil Gibran from “The Prophet”

The first half of this year found our family reconvened in Akron for the better part of four months. We hadn’t all been together for that long since my eldest son, Claude, graduated from high school in 2012.

Yes, it was stressful as everything had suddenly changed due to COVID and we slowly realized that life as we had just lived it would not return anytime soon, if ever. But also, many nights we crowded around the dinner table, eating and playing raucous rounds of euchre.

A week after he returned from college, my second son, Hugo, adopted an English pointer-mixed puppy with liver-colored ears supple enough for a thumb-sucking baby to stroke. Ceaselessly friendly to dogs and humans alike, Rutabaga is a star wherever she trots.

For 90-plus mornings, Hugo and I took our pack, Ruti and my three dogs, for hourlong walks. While the dogs chased squirrels and each other, Hugo and I talked. Some topics were important, like relationships and politics, others were quotidian, such as recipes or the many shows we, along with the rest of the world, were streaming.

Then summer came.

In June, Hugo and his girlfriend, Claudia, took several weeks, and their pandemic puppy, on a camping trip to the Pacific Ocean and back. Everyone sorely missed Rutabaga.

That same month, my third son, Jules, my two littles, Leif and Lyra, and I moved into my stepparents’ camper, which they had set up in their driveway in northern Michigan. Jules, for the second summer in a row, worked at a shop in town during peak tourist season.

Leif and Lyra went to an outdoor day camp that followed COVID safety protocols. Each day they played with other children and spent two hours on Lake Michigan’s shores (Lyra was a platinum blonde by summer’s end). I blissfully worked without children around and, after I picked up the kiddos, cooked dinner for everyone.

Then, in early August, Claude left for graduate school at Texas A&M. A week after returning from Michigan, Jules moved to his first apartment. He’s living with friends in Columbus, where he’s a sophomore at Ohio State.

Once back from his road trip, Hugo began searching for work in his field, which, due to the pandemic, feels like a hunt for a miracle.

Claudia, who is in her final year of her master’s program at Tufts University, quickly decided that with all-remote classes, she might as well sublet her Boston apartment and stay with Hugo.

“Your son is your son until he takes a wife, your daughter’s your daughter the rest of your life.”

During the decade when I popped out a son roughly every three years, that aphorism stung me. I raised my children to be close to one another and, hopefully, to me.

Last month, Claudia’s parents, who are realtors in Rockford, Illinois, offered her and Hugo a house that they own, rent free. The two quickly decided to accept the generous offer.

And so, for the first time in nearly 27 years, none of my three big boys will live in the same town as me. Sure, Claude and Jules will be home on semester break from Thanksgiving until January, but none truly live here and I don’t know that any will again.

The job of parents is to raise self-sufficient, independent adults. My generation, the helicopter-parent generation, too often fails at this. Successful parenting includes supportively watching your children set off on their own paths, even if they end up far from home.

I counsel myself that it’s not the same as when I, as a young adult, wandered in a world before laptops or cellphones existed. Claude, now deep in the heart of Texas, easily calls me three times a week.

And I’ve long observed adult children who set off on young professional adventures in places far from their parents, often return when they begin having children of their own. (Please, oh, please!)

Life unfolds as it should. Children grow and become adults. They leave behind parents who can but bestow upon them their strongest blessings.

Recently, when I teared up thinking of this spring’s daily walks with Hugo, my partner, Max, pulled me into his arms and said, “Don’t worry, he’ll be back.”

Then he suggested, “Let’s go to one of the Halloween stores and buy Rutabaga a squirrel costume. The kids won’t be able to find her when they move and we can keep her.”

This was published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, October 18, 2020.

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Biobank dedicated to Down syndrome research a bright spot in 2020

Days after our daughter Lyra was born, my partner and I received her karyotype, or snapshot of her chromosomes. It showed she has a third 21st chromosome, which causes Down syndrome. We then spent the next few years rigorously studying the reality of a DS diagnosis — which can be fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking.

Along the way, we’ve met many parents who’ve changed the trajectory of their careers after having a child with DS, including Lito Ramirez. Ramirez was working for a biopharmaceutical strategic agency when his youngest child, Cal, was born with DS.

As he describes in a TED Talk, 18 months later, Ramirez created DownSyndrome Achieves (DSA) with the mission to establish and maintain the first Down syndrome biobank in America open to all researchers studying the comorbidities, or other common diagnoses, in people with DS.

What, you may ask, is a biobank and why is one needed?

Using rigorous procedures to ensure material integrity, biobanks collect, process and store human biological matter, such as blood, plasma, serum, tissue and more. They then give these specimens to medical researchers whose proposals meet the standards and requirements of that biobank.

Collecting human biomaterial is nothing new. There are records of ancient Greek physicians comparing diseased tissue from multiple bodies in order to develop both an understanding of how a disease worked as well as possible treatments.

But it was the explosion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s that propelled the development of modern biobanks. Opened in 1982, the AIDS Specimen Bank (ASB) at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF) was one of the first of its kind focusing on biomaterials for one disease. Its existence greatly expedited the development of treatments for HIV/AIDS.

Why? Because biobanks provide a critical step that saves researchers valuable time. Simply put, without having to first find and collect biomaterials, they can get to work faster.

Today, some biobanks are disease-oriented like the USFC ASB, including those for various forms of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis and even COVID-19.

There are other biobanks, however, that are population-oriented. Various countries, including Iceland, the United Kingdom and Sweden, have established biobanks to study the environmental and genetic causes of various illnesses. As Down syndrome is not a disease, it also falls into this category.

After years of preparation, this past January DSA Biobank opened for business and began accepting applications from researchers.

Many may think, well that’s great for people with DS, but it won’t impact my life. And there they’d be mistaken, because the comorbidities of DS are often diseases that affect the general population.

An example is Alzheimer’s disease (AD). One of the heartbreaking things we’ve learned is that by their 40s, 80-100% of people with DS will develop amyloid plaques in their brains, which is the underlying pathology of AD. The gene associated with amyloid plaques is located on the 21st chromosome, the same one of which people with DS have a third copy.

Like many parents of children with DS, we were crushed when we first learned this. However, this sad fact creates the possibility to make tremendous advances in AD research for all populations.

How so? Well, we can’t test preventative treatments on people in the general population because we do not know who among them will develop dementia. But we know people with DS will, making them a control group. Many people with DS are now participating in AD studies and any breakthroughs will be a win-win for all populations.

On a more positive note, people with DS rarely develop solid tumorous cancers. As researchers studying this at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago recently stated, their research on DS populations “carries strong potential for ultimately developing gene-targeted therapies to inhibit solid tumor growth in the general population.”

Soon after DSA Biobank opened, they received their first application for biospecimens. Dr. Dimitrios Karamichos at the University of North Texas Health Science Center is studying an eye disorder known as keratoconus, in which the cornea thins and bulges out. It can cause problems with vision and, in severe cases, require cornea transplants.

Like many comorbidities, keratoconus is far more common in people with Down syndrome. On average it affects 30-40% of people with DS, compared to just .00055 percent of the general population. As a part of their effort to expand research on Down syndrome, the National Institutes of Health just awarded Karamichos $275,000 for his work.

“I’d been looking for a biobank to work with for years,” said Karamichos, whose primary specimens will be tears as they are effected by cornea diseases. He was thrilled when he found DSA Biobank and its quality supply of research materials.

Karamichos hopes his two-year study will help explain the mechanisms of the disease, and make it possible to identify who is at risk and possibly prevent the disease pharmaceutically.

In a year with few bright spots, the 2020 opening of DSA Biobank is cause for celebration. The potential to improve the lives of people with DS — and many others — has never been as promising as it is today.

This column first appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, October 4, 2020.

Uncategorized

Learning new ways of teaching during COVID-19

“What did the Zen master say to the guy at the hot dog cart?” I texted to one of my students.

“Mmm, I feel like it has something to do with wholeness. But I got nothin’,” she replied.

“Make me one with everything!”

I seldom text my students and when I do, it’s usually about assignments. But currently I text this student every day because the only people she knows in Akron are those in her graduate program, which she started a month ago.

And because she tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

I do not give 2020 agency. The year, which has been unlike any other in anyone’s lifetime, did not create the pandemic, protests, political unrest and raging wildfires. Thus, there’s no reason to believe that life will return to normal on Jan. 1, 2021.https://db9ccd6b52e9d99abd691d05bcf1a162.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

And, frankly, I’m no longer sure what normal is or will be. But the beginning of the school year has caused me for the first time this year to feel a keen nostalgia for the way things were before the month of March.

My 10-year-old son, Leif, has synchronous school days on the computer with his teacher and classmates. We are a low-screen household and normally I don’t let my kids on computers until they are in middle school.https://db9ccd6b52e9d99abd691d05bcf1a162.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Now Leif spends six hours a day looking at a computer. Live Zoom classes are far better than the recorded lessons he had last spring. Still, at the end of the school day, he tells us his eyes hurt.

Our 8-year-old daughter, Lyra, is doing better attending her online classes, but only because we are paying a certified interventionist to come to our house and help her.

And then there are my students at the University of Akron. I miss them. Oh, sure, I’m teaching this semester, but it’s not the same online.

I am a true extrovert. Being with people energizes me. Teaching classes of 20 freshmen not just about writing, but about music, history and culture is demanding (if done well), but also extremely rewarding.

It’s easy to shock freshmen. It’s also delightfully easy to make them laugh.

Research shows that students who sit in the T-zone of a classroom—the first seats of each row and the middle row—learn more. When I’m in the classroom, there is no T-zone because I never sit at my desk. I walk up and down the aisles, occasionally sitting on the desk tops at the sides and back of the classroom, looking every student in the eyes each day.

Now most of my students’ faces appear in poorly pixelated two-inch squares on my computer screen. I don’t know if I’d recognize them if I saw them in person.

I agreed to teach my freshman courses by dual delivery this semester. That means that up to half of my students can attend in the classroom with me, while the rest attend online.

On the first day, I hooked up my laptop to the audio-visual portal so that my online students could be projected. It didn’t work. I later learned that my 7-year-old laptop’s HDMI jack, which connects the computer to the A-V portal, is dead.

Without the ability to project my computer screen to the in-person students, only I could see the online students. Imagine trying to teach six people spread at least six feet from each other in a classroom, while also connecting to another 14 on your computer screen. It’s tough.

But no worries, because my apparently senior-citizen laptop couldn’t handle that many students in one virtual meeting anyway. It quickly froze. Fortunately, the students could still hear me.

The second week of the semester, I moved my freshman class to a computer lab, but it was no panacea. It took the entire second week to get all the technology working properly there.

Each class of students has a different dynamic so, like many professors, I build time into my semester to stay unexpectedly longer on a topic when needed. Due to those myriad technical difficulties, I blew through most of my extra time right out of the gate.

As always, there are silver linings.

Attendance is far better this semester, though one student tried to fake attendance. They appeared for roll call and then flipped their laptop screen back so all I could see was a ceiling. I received no answer when I called on said student, who now knows I’ll count that as an absence.

Also, students are overwhelmingly turning in assignments on time. When I mentioned this to my son Claude, who is in his first year of graduate school, he said, “Yeah, that’s because we don’t have anything else to do, so give students a focused assignment with a deadline and we’re all over it.”

And perhaps most importantly, the students have all been patient and understanding, which is essential in getting through these times as best we can.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, September 20, 2020.

Civil Rights

Wrong Answer: Akron says yes to sports, no to in-person classes for students with disabilities

The Akron Beacon Journal’s front-page headline on Tuesday read, “Why are all these parents so happy? First day of school brings joy in Summit County.” Unfortunately, that was not the case in the county’s largest district, Akron Public Schools.

Initially, APS announced a blended program for the fall. Pre-school through third grade students would have been in the school buildings five days a week, with all other grades receiving a combination of in-person and (mostly) online instruction.

Older students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) were encouraged to attend in person more frequently than students without IEPs, while all students had the option of 100% online instruction.

That was the right model.

But then, in late July, the APS school board and administration reversed course and announced the first nine-week grading period of the school year would be entirely online for all students.

The best explanation I’ve been given is that with a large, urban district, many parents are essential workers. Fearing a second wave of COVID-19 would force schools to close only a few weeks into the first term, the board thought such a potential shift would make it difficult for these families to plan.

There are a few problems with this approach.

First of all, precisely because many APS parents are essential workers, many young students have no adults available to help them with online instruction when they need it. I’ve heard stories from teachers across the district of second and third grade students helping their younger siblings access their Chromebook lessons and also walking to school alone to pick up their free lunches.

Secondly, the regular flu season will kick in roughly the same time the second grading period begins, most likely making it harder to begin in-person instruction at that time.

This first grading period, before the regular flu arrives and while the weather remains mild enough for open windows and outdoor instruction, should have been used to help our most vulnerable students catch up.

Why? Because evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that remote-only learning is detrimental to students with special educational needs (see “Remote Learning Doesn’t Support Special Education Learners“).

That is why my daughter’s father and I have hired a tutor, currently at our own expense, to meet with 8-year-old Lyra, who has Down syndrome, and other students in an outdoor classroom in our yard five mornings a week.

Furthermore, many teachers have expressed a willingness to hold in-person instruction in the school buildings with the children who most need it, including some who have worked with Lyra.

But the school board and district administrators will not budge and have repeatedly denied the request for Lyra and other students with disabilities to be taught in the buildings.

Safety first!

Then, in a special meeting called last Tuesday, the school board reversed another prior decision. This time one that had cancelled all contact sports for the fall term. Now, all sport are allowed to proceed. Why? Because parents demanded it.

According to APS board member Derrick Hall, whom I both voted for and wrote to about the need for children with disabilities to receive in-person instruction this fall, the board changed course on sports because, “We had a very sort of loud and active parental component to this. There were multiple petitions that went around that had several thousand signatures,” Hall said.

He further elaborated, “I think that being a member of a community elected board, it’s important to sort of take [the] pulse and sort of notice when you have that kind of activism going on around an issue.”

Hmm. So somehow athletes at who are running, tackling, tagging, sliding to bases and yelling can remain safe in a global pandemic but kids with IEPs quietly receiving in-person instruction in mostly empty school buildings cannot?

I call foul.

The district’s policy openly flouts the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that in July a federal judge said has not in any way been watered down due to COVID. He specifically stated that students with IEPs requiring in-person instruction must receive in-person instruction, so long as it can be done safely.

While I question the safety of contact sports in our K-12 schools— even major league teams using all the protective measures money can buy have had COVID outbreaks — I don’t begrudge the parents who want their kids to play.

But educating our students, particularly those with disabilities, should always be the school district’s No. 1 priority. Instead, bending to loud pressure, the board has prioritized playing games over educating minds.

Let me be clear: There is no federal law that says sports must carry on, but there is one that says in-person instruction, when part of an IEP, must. Clearly, our most vulnerable students don’t all have parents who can mount a squeaky-oil campaign to force our school board into compliance with federal law.

But a small group of attorneys can.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, September 6, 2020.

Uncategorized

Launching into the first COVID fall semester

Panicky scenarios are the main fare of my brain’s nightly programming. As both a parent of elementary and college-aged students and a faculty member at the University of Akron, the screenwriter of my dreams has plenty of material with which to work.

My eldest son, Claude, is now at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service in College Station, Texas, where it is both literally and metaphorically scorching. Claude runs at 5 a.m. to beat the brutal south-Texas heat, while nearby Houston and Austin are COVID red zones.

My third son, Jules, developed chronic fatigue syndrome after a bout of mononucleosis two years ago. Blood work determined that both his sister, Lyra, and I also had the Epstein-Barr virus (the cause of mono) at the same time, but without symptoms.

For Jules, however, it triggered his chronic immunosuppression, which makes him more vulnerable to a deleterious case of COVID-19 should he contract it. And yet all summer, he giddily planned to move into his first apartment near Ohio State University, located in Franklin County, Ohio’s king of COVID-infested counties. It’s good that Jules likes his four roommates, because they are all taking most of their classes online.

Leif, a rising fifth grader, was set to have all-day, in-person classes. Then, on August 11, we learned he will be taught online yet again. One improvement is that, unlike in the spring, his class will have synchronous instruction.

But it is the lack of in-person instruction for first-grader Lyra that concerns me the most. We continue advocating for Lyra’s legal right, as a child with an individualized educational plan (IEP), to receive in-person instruction even when a school district primarily conducts remote learning, so long as it can be done safely. In a case decided last month by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the laws on this matter were unequivocally upheld.

While we believe we will find a workable solution with the Akron Public Schools without needing to petition the courts, we cannot continue to forestall Lyra’s instruction until we’ve collectively determined said solution.

Teaching pods may seem like a novel idea born of a novel virus. But they aren’t. Home-schoolers have used teaching pods for years with multiple families bringing their kids together so that different parents can teach subjects they have expertise in or together they hire professional instructors.

Recent articles describing teaching pods point out that they can exacerbate inequities inherent in America’s public schools. Parents of means can hire instructors, leaving children from poorer families behind. In working to help our daughter, we do not want to widen any educational gaps at her school.

Therefore, we are in the process of hiring a special interventionist who has worked with Lyra before and is eager to work with her and other students now. Together, we are reaching out to other Case Elementary families whose children on IEPs requiring in-person services are close in age to Lyra.

The risk of contracting COVID is not as great outdoors as it is indoors, particularly if other protocols, such as mask wearing and hand washing, are followed. Therefore, we have purchased a dining tent, the kind you might find at an outdoor wedding reception, and for the next several weeks hope to hold class in our yard.

As for teaching at UA, I worry about many of my students, particularly the at-risk freshman in my composition courses, for whom this year may be their one best opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives. If they lose this chance, will they ever have another?

Last spring, when classes suddenly went from in person to online, about one third of my students disappeared. I emailed them all, multiple times. Some apologized and said they’d start logging in for our virtual classes, but never did. Others never responded at all.

Who knows what the students who ghosted went home to? Did they have adequate internet service and a dedicated computer? Space to effectively study and write? Were they placed in charge of taking care of younger siblings, also home from school, while their parents worked essential jobs? Did they themselves become essential workers?

I remind myself that the anticipation of what next semester will bring causes me more anxiety than will the reality, once it shakes out. Whatever scenario we find ourselves in, when it arrives we can accordingly address the actual issues at hand.

That is, unless an actual issue becomes many of us contracting COVID-19 (I agreed, perhaps foolishly, to teach in person). That many members of the UA community may become ill, as has happened at many universities around the country where classes have already started, is the one potentiality I dread the most.

Please wish all students, faculty and staff the best of luck for this school year. We need it.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 23, 2020.