Farewell, Mr. Tressler

This past January, my longtime friend Jen, who is my regular traveling companion and has made several appearances in these columns, called to tell me her father would soon die.

Several years ago, Mr. Tressler was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s. And, yet, he seemed himself when Jen and I talked to him on the phone in May 2021 while we toured Iceland and again later that year when we went to Peru.

In January 2022, Jen, who lives in Philadelphia, spent two weeks with her parents’ at their home in Painesville, where they’ve lived since 1980. She, her dad and her eldest daughter came to Akron to shop at their favorite thrift store, Village Discount Outlet on Waterloo, and visit me.

Over lunch at my home, Mr. Tressler recounted various times over three decades that he and I had visited, both with and without Jen. I had forgotten several of these accounts until he shared them. That I was in his long-term memories when he was no longer able to write his own name was an honor unlike any other.

Jen’s job as a triage nurse for a medical practice at the University of Pennsylvania periodically allowed her to work remotely. Every month or two, she’d come to Ohio to spend a week helping her family take care of her dad while also spending increasingly precious time with him.

During one of her stays late last spring, I drove my youngest two kids to Painesville where we spent the afternoon and dinner with Jen and her family.

Mr. Tressler seemed unchanged from January and, again, we talked of many things. While dishing up bowls of ice cream, he showed me his significant collection of ice cream scoops. Upon learning I had none, he gave me one.

Two months later, Mr. Tressler’s Alzheimer’s specialists told the family he was beginning to decompensate and would soon need full-time care. Jen and I were shocked, but like Delphi oracles, the specialists were tragically correct.

When Jen called this past January, I asked if her mother would be OK if I visited Mr. Tressler at Kemper House, where he was living. Some families prefer their loved one with Alzheimer’s to be remembered as they were without the disease. And, too, some people with Alzheimer’s are agitated by visits.

Mrs. Tressler told Jen she welcomed my visit, but then, just two days later and before I could make the trip, Mr. Tressler died.

I first introduced readers to Jen when I wrote of the 14 months that she, her husband, Milan, and their four daughters circumnavigated the globe beginning in August 2015. This past fall, after their two eldest daughters had graduated from college and high school, the family again left the country, this time to tour Central America and South America for several months.

They were in Patagonia, at the southernmost tip of South America, when Mr. Tressler died. Returning in time for the funeral proved overly complicated and costly. On my drive to the funeral, Jen called and asked if I could do something neither of us would have thought of before the pandemic: Zoom her into her dad’s funeral.

Jen’s mother, siblings and their spouses sat in the first row of pews at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church in Concord. I sat behind them in the second row, holding my phone up so Jen could see and hear their parish priest perform the funeral rites.

Before he developed Alzheimer’s, Mr. Tressler could be described as gruff. He grew up in a working-class Ukrainian community in Reading, Pennsylvania, and married his sweetheart soon after they finished high school. He worked hard every day of his life and didn’t suffer nonsense. But he could also assess a person’s character with mystical accuracy. And if he found you measured up, you could forever count on him.

After Mr. Tressler’s. death, Jen and her siblings learned of their father’s unadvertised history of generosity. The people he helped and how he helped them revealed a man who understood firsthand what it meant to have little and that being poor is not a character flaw.

The priest shared many stories of Mr. Tressler’s quiet largesse, including the time he arranged and paid for the dental work for the city worker who collected the family’s trash each week.

Far too many people past the age of 30 have experienced the vicissitudes of a friend or family member losing their memories, personalities and lives to Alzheimer’s disease.

But, as I have shared in previous columns, current Alzheimer’s research is promising. Studies around the world, including those focused on people with Down syndrome, look to yield preventative and corrective treatments in the coming years. That is something everyone can welcome.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, May 7, 2023.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Akron’s stagnant status quo has got to go

Coaches do it. CEOs do it. Teachers do it. Parents do it. And, ideally, elected officials do it. They routinely ask: What worked? What would work better? What failed, and why?

Sometimes the limitations of an approach are revealed when implemented, particularly in situations that are uncommon. An unwillingness to consider that a different response may have yielded better results all but guarantees that past failures will be repeated.

It’s hard to find Akronites who think our current mayor and his administration responded perfectly to last summer’s killing of Jayland Walker by eight Akron police officers.

And yet five days before a grand jury chose not to indict Walker’s killers, mayoral candidate Marco Sommerville claimed the current mayor’s administration, in which he serves as deputy mayor for intergovernmental relations, “handled [the Jayland Walker killing] the best way we could have handled it.” He spoke as if it was all in the past, as if the horror and outrage over Walker’s killing had magically dissipated.

After the grand jury decision, Sommerville issued a call for change that was too little too late. “I do know that community safety and police reform go together, and Akron needs both,” he said. “We need our law enforcement members and our community members to commit to lasting change.”

Wounds left to fester do not heal. Even before the grand jury announced last Monday that they would not indict any of the eight officers who shot Walker, freshly boarded windows downtown signaled the tension that remains 10 months after Walker was shot 46 times.

Peaceful protests understandably resulted in the days after the grand jury’s decision. At a march last Wednesday, reporters filmed police pepper spraying the crowds while also deploying chemical canisters.

Because too many Akron leaders like Sommerville think everything was handled just fine last summer, nothing was learned and here we are again.

In polling, Akronites claim to want new leaders with fresh ideas who will move the city forward. Unfortunately, the May 2 primary likely will be the de facto general election for who becomes Akron’s next mayor as there are no Republican candidates.

Akron mayor’s race:Akron mayoral hopefuls answer citizen questions in latest debate

Is Akron truly ready to pivot to a new direction and away from the stagnant status quo?

Consider the fraught White Pond Drive development. Issues include the viability of the land for housing given the soil’s toxicity and the destruction of wetlands and trees that the city itself identified as essential to managing Akron’s stormwater, pollution and summer heat.

There also are concerns about pursuing high-priced housing on the edge of town when so many neighborhoods in the inner city are filled with vacant lots.

But more concerning was Mayor Dan Horrigan’s peevishness when citizens learned of the secretly planned development and quickly organized against it. Horrigan’s open disdain for these citizens, and the council members who opposed the development, revealed an administration whose members flout accountability to the people they have sworn to serve.

Shortly after the trees on the future development site were cut down, the Beacon Journal informed readers about Section 56, a provision that has been in Akron’s budgets for 57 years. It has effectively given mayors a legal way to work around the checks and balances outlined in the city’s charter, which requires expenditures of $50,000 or more to be approved by City Council.

Learning about Section 56 was an “Ah-ha” moment. With Section 56, the option for a mayor to legally ignore the charter, essentially the constitution of our city, has been baked into every budget for six decades.

As a result, consultants have been paid huge sums to do work that city employees are also paid to do. Contracts are awarded without public bidding. And in the past two years alone, Mayor Horrigan has awarded contracts worth more than $121 million without city council oversight.

That is not good governance, but last month enough members of City Council voted to approve the current budget that contains, yet again, Section 56 with no modifications. Two who voted “yes” were council-at-large members Jeff Fusco and Ginger Baylor. Both are running for re-election and have latched their campaigns onto Sommerville’s.

Last fall, Fusco proposed a City Council resolution opposing citizen-backed police reform. It was directly aimed at thwarting Issue 10, a ballot initiative to create a citizen-led police review board whose members are chosen by City Council. City Council never voted on Fusco’s proposed resolution and in November’s election Issue 10 passed with 62% of the vote.

When City Council voted to seat the members of the police review board earlier this year, Fusco was chief among those opposing Imokhai Okolo, a 27-year-old Black attorney, as one of the board’s nine members. Young Black men are disproportionately the victims of police brutality in this country, making their inclusion on the review board not just important, but essential.

Fusco said he opposed Okolo, who was also opposed by the FOP, because last summer, in the wake of Walker’s killing, the young attorney had referred to police officers who aren’t held accountable for their violence as “pigs” on his Facebook page. Baylor switched her vote from supporting Okolo in early rounds to abstaining in the final round. She and Fusco now have campaign signs listing both their names and Sommerville’s.

Fellow Akronites, reflect on those who are currently in office. Many are honorable servants. But far too many others are comfortable conducting the city’s business in ways that may work for them, but clearly do not work for all the people of Akron. We can move our city forward only by voting for officials who support good governance that includes transparency and sorely needed checks and balances.

New faces with fresh ideas running for mayor and City Council in the May 2 primary can be found at the League of Women Voters voting guide.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 23, 2023.


Malik, Mosley and Greer offer best hopes for Akron’s next mayor

In the recent Akron mayoral debates, Marco Sommerville‘s performance has underscored my position, outlined in my March 5 column, that he should not be Akron’s next mayor. Luckily, these debates have also shown voters they have a strong slate of candidates to consider. 

At the first debate, Sommerville was hubristically ill prepared, as if the debates are a pretense he must endure before becoming Akron’s 63rd mayor. He also churlishly mocked another candidate by raising his hand and making it “talk” like a sock puppet when the other candidate spoke.

At a subsequent debate, in which the questions were provided in advance, Sommerville read prepared answers. For rebuttals to other candidates’ comments, his six opponents (all seated at the same table) watched in astonishment as Sommerville received text messages on his cellphone, which he quickly read before responding.

Adding important voices to the debates are candidates Keith Mills, a high school teacher, and Joshua Schaffer, a cellphone store manager. But neither have the experience to run a city with $772 million annual operating budget and roughly 2,000 full-time employees.

Interestingly, Schaffer routinely doles out pointed criticism of the candidates who’ve worked in local government, with the glaring exception of Tara Mosley and Jeff Wilhite.

Wilhite, a Summit County Council representative, has a command of the issues, an engaged demeanor and, frankly, the dignity that Sommerville lacks. He might have been a serious contender in previous elections, but after decades of white, middle-aged men being mayor, Akron voters are demanding change and his chances of winning seem a long shot. 

Malik had the admirable chutzpah to announce his candidacy not only first, but before the current mayor, Dan Horrigan, announced he would not seek re-election. A 2009 graduate of Firestone High School, Malik has an impressive resume, work ethic and detailed plans for Akron’s future. 

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 2016, Malik worked with every department and at every level of Akron’s government for two full years as an assistant director in the city’s law department. He’s now in his fourth year as a city council representative. Concerns about his lack of experience are specious.

Two months after Malik announced his candidacy, Ward 5 council representative Tara Mosley threw her hat in the ring. Ward 5 is a long, skinny ward that runs through the heart of the city and encompasses some of Akron’s most diverse and lowest income neighborhoods. 

For 10 years, Mosley has exhibited calm and effective leadership while addressing difficult problems not faced in every ward. The past year has proven that Akron can no longer avoid addressing systemic issues of race and policing and Mosley’s time representing Ward 5 gives her a clear-eyed perspective on what needs to happen.

And then there is Mark Greer, who was until recently the Great Streets administrator and Small Business Program manager for the city of Akron. He filed his paperwork to run for mayor just before the deadline. 

Greer was very hands-on in his roles at the city, and many small business owners are on record as enthusiastically appreciating his leadership. While his late entrance in the race meant an uphill battle for him to break through the crowded field, his performance in the debates shows he can win that battle.

Like Malik and Mosley, Greer has a deep knowledge of the city’s issues and promise, and well thought-out plans on how to address the former and maximize the latter.

Greer also brings an element of gravitas to the race, which was prominently displayed after Sommerville made a tone-deaf statement at the social justice debate at Garfield Community Learning Center just a mile from where Jayland Walker was shot and killed by police last summer.

That night, Sommerville described — as he has in every debate — technology that allows police to shoot a tracking dart onto cars that flee. Police can track that vehicle without a chase and then, as Sommerville put it, “move in for the kill.” His comment surprised the audience, and yet Sommerville didn’t acknowledge the horror of his own words until asked about it after the debate.

When Greer next spoke in that debate, he stated, “First of all on behalf of anyone who has experienced violence or trauma at the hands of law enforcement, when I heard one of my colleagues say ‘move in for the kill,’ I apologize,” he said. “That is not the language that is going to move this community forward.” 

Greer’s response to Sommerville’s painfully gross language — he was the only candidate to do so that night —showed another side of leadership our community desperately needs: someone who facilitates healing.

Akron, we have a group of strong mayoral candidates who are forward thinking. I emphatically encourage everyone to watch the debates on April 5 and April 12 hosted by The Akron Press Club, Ideastream Public Media, Akron Beacon Journal and the Ohio Debate Commission. These will be the most rigorous of the election cycle.

How the candidates perform is not a one-to-one ratio of anyone’s ability to run our city, but it’s as good a test as there is before May 2.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 2, 2023.


Model teacher leaves lasting impact on children’s lives

Wise women have guided me through some of the most difficult journeys of my life. My Ohio State undergraduate mentor and thesis adviser, Susan Huntington, who remains a dear and esteemed friend, is one. Another is Barbara Roman, the attorney who represented me through a more than three-year-long contentious divorce.

But there is a special place in my soul for the woman who immeasurably helped two of my sons.

We lived in central Pennsylvania when my first son, Claude, was old enough to go to school. I enrolled him in the nearby Friends school, which taught the peaceful resolution of conflict alongside reading and math.

The teachers and facility were engaging and warm. There were chicks hatched in classrooms, field trips to farms and a full-time assistant in each kindergarten classroom. And yet my boy didn’t like school. He wasn’t catching on and he was smart enough to know it.

Claude’s peers took to reading the way my second son did three years later — like a switch that flipped. Claude’s teachers told me not to worry. Boys develop slower than girls, they said. He’s bright, they said. He’ll get it in his own time, they said.

But he didn’t. Something wasn’t right. The same boy who could tell me everything about the habitat, habits and life cycle of beavers could not read a flashcard word just seconds after I’d told him the word.

When we moved to Cleveland in January of his kindergarten year, I did not enroll Claude in a school because of his anxiety. Two months later, I filled out an application for him to attend Ruffing Montessori School. After the required evaluation of prospective students by teachers, they rejected Claude because he couldn’t read. Maria Montessori grimaced in her grave.

Claude began first grade at Urban Community Catholic School, which was close to our home and recommended by friends. Once again, he was miserable.

I tried several schools — public, parochial and private. At every school, I asked the educators and administrators, “Why can’t Claude decipher letters and numbers?” They knew, but did not answer truthfully. Private and parochial schools can exclude children who need more help. Public schools saw him as bright and not a behavior problem and, therefore, ignored my concerns.

We ended up at Spring Garden Waldorf School in Copley. I drove my children from downtown Cleveland every school day for over two years before finally moving to Akron.

Claude’s stress evaporated at the Waldorf school, but by the end of second grade, he could barely read. A mother is most concerned about her child with the greatest need and I regularly told myself to focus on my other two children.

The following summer, while on vacation at a Buddhist family camp we’d attended for several years, I met a woman who was a pediatric occupational therapist.

“My son holds his pencil like a violin bow,” I told her.

“You need to get him tested immediately,” she replied, which was something I didn’t know I could do. “Poor pencil grip is a red flag for learning disabilities. And don’t be afraid of diagnoses. Remember, with every diagnosis comes funding for supports.”

Claude was tested the fall of his third grade year and diagnosed as severely dyslexic. I called the local chapter of the American Dyslexic Association and asked for a tutor referral.

“The best person is Pam Kanfer. I’d send my own child to her in a heartbeat,” the woman I spoke with said.

Pam was a teacher at the Lippman Day School and I imagined her country address belonged to a quaint farmhouse. But when we arrived, there was a gate with an intercom pad to request entry. Beyond it was a lengthy driveway that meandered past a pond to a modern mansion.

At the time, Pam tutored students in a home office she shared with her husband, Joe. Many of the books on Joe’s shelves were about Judaism. For my undergraduate degree in religious studies, I was required to study a major Eastern and Western religion. I chose Buddhism and Judaism.

“Is your husband a professor of Jewish studies?” I asked.

“No, Judaism is his avocation. He’s the CEO of GOJO.” My face revealed my ignorance (I’d just moved to Akron), so she told me, “We make Purell hand soaps.”

Within three months of working with Pam, Claude went from not being able to spell his name correctly to devouring early reader chapter books. In 2016, he graduated cum laude with a degree in English literature from the University of Michigan. Last year, he received his master’s in public policy from Texas A&M and today he is a congressional liaison for the EPA in Washington, D,C.

By the time my third child, Jules, was in kindergarten, I recognized that he, too, was dyslexic. His father, with whom I was in the midst of that long divorce, disagreed. I took Jules to Akron Children’s Hospital for testing. They confirmed what I knew. And yet his father refused to help.

Pam reduced her rate for me and, like Claude before him, saw Jules for several years.

In all, I went to the Kanfer home multiple times a week for the better part of 10 years. I watched her children grow up, get married and have children. Joe and I talked about Judaism, shared books and once he asked me which of a few mock-up hand-sanitizer bottles I preferred.

I sat in their kitchen on Pam’s 60th birthday while Jules was in session. The next day, I gave birth to my fourth son. Around that same time, Pam asked me to write a recommendation letter for her as part of an application to a graduate program in reading remediation. The teacher kept learning.

A woman who worked in the Kanfer home, and with whom I often chatted, was impressed that Pam never reacted in anger. Pam was firm, but not dour. She believed in people and in my mind embodied the Buddhist concept of maitri, or loving kindness.

This past January, just a few weeks shy of her 73rd birthday, Pam left this life after a long battle with cancer.

A saying that is (mis)attributed to several people goes something like: Of all the things you can do with your life, none is more important than helping a child.

Were we all to model ourselves after Pam Lewis Kanfer, nirvana might be obtainable.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 19, 2023.


Why Marco Sommerville should not be Akron’s next mayor

My eldest son was a freshman at Akron Early College High School the same year I provided educational outreach at a similar high school in the region. While both schools had the same model — high schools on college campuses whose students take some classes at the host university — the difference between the two schools’ faculties was striking.

Most evenings my son, Claude, regaled me with stories about his teachers. Doc Hensley, a former nun and Army officer who had her PhD in math, replaced Claude’s fear of advanced math with a joy for how numbers do not lie. Larry O’Neil taught world history so energetically and passionately that Claude later wrote a college application essay about him.

At the school where I worked, however, far too many teachers lacked energy or enthusiasm. One teacher, whose students I worked with for several months, never got up from her desk in my presence except to head to the faculty lounge where I’d overhear her complain about the students.

In a discussion with the then-principal of Akron Early College I learned that, unlike the school where I worked, Akron’s school refused to hire teachers based on seniority. This didn’t mean some of the faculty didn’t have seniority — Doc Hensley retired not long after Claude had her. But they were all chosen strictly on their qualifications.

Marco Sommerville has entered the upcoming Akron mayoral race as the hand-picked successor of current mayor, Dan Horrigan and is endorsed by former mayor Don Plusquellic. Plusquellic also tapped Horrigan when he first ran.

Sommerville’s more than 35 years in local politics is touted by his supporters as a reason, if not the reason, for him to be the next mayor. Yes, Sommerville understands how Akron’s government currently works, but few Akronites are pleased with how it currently works.

In the results of a poll released last week and published in this newspaper, “Akron residents resoundingly said they want a leader with high ethical standards, fresh ideas and a clear vision for the city, by margins of 71% or better.” Fewer than half of the respondents prioritized prior city experience in a new mayor, underscoring the desire for change.

According to a political scientist at the University of Akron who reviewed the poll’s numbers, the emphasis on reform in Akron politics is stronger than the emphasis on economic growth. Which makes sense — if our current government officials are inept, ineffectual or worse, how can they successfully plan for and enact sustainable economic growth?

By the numbers:What Akron wants in a mayor and what the next mayor should do

Yet if Sommerville is Akron’s next mayor that’s just what we’ll get — we’ll get four more years of stagnant leadership.

In remarks at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event this year at the Akron-Summit County Main Library, Sommerville pointed out a problem in our community: approximately 10% of Akron’s police force and fire department are Black.

Good governance would have the percentage of Akron’s Black police officers and firefighters closer to 30%, which is our percentage of Black residents. Sommerville’s solution? The empty aphorism, “We have much work to do.”

Why, in 35 years in local government, including several years with his hands on the levers in high-level positions, hasn’t Sommerville developed and deployed a comprehensive plan to rectify the lack of Black representation on our police force and in our fire department?

Perhaps he was just too busy.

Sommerville was the city council representative for the ward I live in when I moved here in 2003. On a mild afternoon a couple of years later, my adolescent sons called to tell me that I could not come home because the police had barricaded the street on our block. Using bullhorns, they told residents to stay in their homes.

Just five houses down from our home, a young man who appeared high on drugs waved a handgun out of a second-floor window for the better part of half an hour. Because our street curves, the man had a clear shot at our front yard.

I have witnessed excellent police work in my neighborhood many times in the past two decades, but none better than that day. The Akron police controlled the situation, successfully protected residents and ultimately accessed the room the man was in and then tased, cuffed and arrested him.

In the days that followed, I repeatedly called my council representative, Marco Sommerville, and left multiple messages at his council office and at his business office. I never, ever heard back from him. Nor did any of my neighbors.

In 2022, several events highlighted leadership problems in Akron’s city government, police department and schools. But calls for Sommerville to return us to the halcyon days of Mayor Plusquellic are like Russians waxing nostalgic for their former Soviet dictators when the often-embarrassing Boris Yeltsin was their democratically elected president.

Akron’s Democratic city government reminds me of Ohio’s Republican state government. Both have been ruled by one party, and many of the same faces, for decades. As a result, officials who do not fear losing their seats pay little mind to the needs of the communities they purport to serve.

Holly Christensen:Wanted: Real leaders in Akron

Under a Sommerville mayorship our city’s potent promise might as well be placed in a lead vault that is then coated in rubber and buried in the deepest part of Summit Lake.

Like some of the high school teachers I witnessed counting down their days to retirement, there’s plenty of reason to believe Marco Sommerville is running for mayor because he believes after 35-plus years in Akron government, his ascension is his reward.

Whether Akron’s voters truly want new leaders with fresh ideas or just more of the same will be determined on May 2.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 5, 2023.


Wanted: Real leaders in Akron

Both generational Akronites and those recently transplanted here often tout our city’s advantages: great parks, a phenomenal housing stock that’s affordable, arts and culture institution and venues, and a sizable university with many highly rated programs. The weather is neither too hot, nor too cold. And the people are friendly.

Other mid-sized cities located outside the sunbelt have become desirable post-industrial places, hotspots even. Consider Overlook Park, Kansas; Fort Collins, Colorado; Boise, Idaho; Omaha, Nebraska; Madison, Wisconsin and more. But few in this list have the combined geography, climate and arts, educational and cultural institutions Akron enjoys.

Unlike those cities, however, Akron is like a promising runner stuck at the starting block. Without invested, visionary leaders, the city’s potential remains unharnessed and less able to attract people and businesses that would make our community thrive. 

Part of the problem is the three-decades-long stranglehold one man had on the top leadership position. Don Plusquellic was so secure in his position as mayor of Akron that when he abruptly announced his retirement in 2015, few, if any, leaders had been cultivated to fill his shoes. 

Similarly, Akron’s city council has far too many representatives who have been there for far too long and become ossified to change. Motivated primarily to protect their positions rather than develop a bold, long-term vision of the city, council as a whole does not have what Akron needs.

How long have Akron’s elected officials touted the decommissioning of the Innerbelt to make way for vibrant development along the city’s western flank? A quarter of a century. And yet the road to nowhere remains. It is a concrete barrier between downtown and the neighborhoods brimming with possibilities on the other side.

Yes, some interesting work is happening downtown, particularly on Main Street. But it started before the COVID pandemic and has progressed at a snail’s pace, forcing businesses to close and increasing vacancy rates — stifling, rather than invigorating, downtown. Just who exactly benefits from this never-ending project?

Meanwhile over at Akron Public Schools, where I tutor elementary students, we have a school board with too many members who do not spend real time in the buildings and an administration that, until a teachers strike became imminent, seemed deaf to the concerns of faculty, staff, students and parents. 

Three of my children have graduated from Akron Public Schools and I have two more whom I hope will. But I am far from alone in stating I won’t keep my kids in the district if substantive improvements do not happen in our schools beginning now.

A strong public school system is an essential component of a thriving city. Without it, middle-class families leave for better school districts. Without middle-class families, cities become donuts with big holes. Neighborhoods decline, tax revenues decline, the quality of city parks decline, businesses relocate.

A quality workforce is one of the top things businesses look for when considering locating in a community and one of the surest ways to grow a solid workforce is through education.

Before becoming Akron’s chief of police in August of 2021, Steve Mylett‘s last job was chief of police for Bellevue, Washington, a well-to-do, mid-sized city in the same county as Seattle. Bellevue has a median income near $115,000 and its population is 63% white and 2% Black. 

Less than a year into his job, it was clear that Mylett’s previous experience and acumen did not prepare him to run a police department in a city with far fewer resources and far greater diversity than the one he’d left. 

It is impossible to avoid a comparison between the Memphis police chief’s response to the recent police killing of an unarmed Black man there with Mylett’s response to the police killing of Jayland Walker here seven months ago.

Within days after an unarmed man in Memphis was beaten to death by police after a traffic stop, the names of five of the officers involved were made public. In a few short weeks, those five officers were fired from the department and prosecutors filed murder charges.

Meanwhile, more than seven months after eight police officers shot Walker 46 times, also an unarmed Black man stopped initially for a traffic violation, we still do not know the names of those officers. The officers not only were not fired, they were returned to administrative duties little more than four months after the killing.

Lawsuit filed:Beacon Journal asks Ohio Supreme Court to order release of Akron police records

Akron’s police department owes Akron’s citizens transparency, not obfuscation; accountability, not entrenchment. Without transparency and accountability, neither of which anyone expects from Mylett, our community has a festering wound that will not heal.

Akron has so much promise, but a fish rots from the head down. Our city will not sprint from the starting block and head toward a better future unless we, its citizens, sweep out ineffectual leaders and support the election (or hiring) of people with innovative thinking, energy and a commitment to all of Akron’s citizens.

The primary for the mayor’s race is May 2 and incumbent Dan Horrigan is not running. As many believe the Democratic winner will be our de facto next mayor, it’s important not to forgot this spring’s election. 

Akron primary May 2:These eight people want to be the next mayor of Akron

This fall, three school board members will be up for re-election. Look closely at their actual involvement in our city’s schools and decide at the polls if they should keep their positions.

Fall is also when Akron’s citizens choose their city council representatives. As three incumbents are vacating their seats, we will certainly have three new representatives. Hopefully there will be more than those three. Several new voices, many from younger generations, are clambering to replace current incumbents. Listen to what they have to say.

Rise up, Akron. We, her citizens, are her lifeblood. It’s time to clear out the rot and race toward the future we know is possible.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 12, 2023.


New puppy is a fluffy bundle of joy and mischief

For 40 years I have lived with German shepherds and Shetland sheepdogs, unfussy working breeds. Usually I’ve had one of each, the protective temperament of the German shepherds complemented by the gladly obedient Shelties.  

I train my dogs to be well behaved, not to do tricks. They follow me wherever I go, inside and out, and ride in the car with me most days, weather permitting. My current Sheltie, the fourth I’ve owned, often keeps my feet warm when I write. 

Perhaps I’m a bit boring having the same type of dogs for four decades, but the intelligence and steady personalities of German shepherds and Shelties suit me and my practical nature. 

Recently I discovered that old dog owners can learn new things.  

In mid-December, someone gave me a delightful present: a 12-week-old Yorkipoo. Half Yorkshire terrier and half miniature poodle, this 5-pound creature has captured the  adoration of my family like Harry Styles in a stadium full of Gen Zers. 

The names we’ve considered for our new boy include Steve, Roger, Frankie, Elroy, Odin. Someone suggested Hannibal and was promptly voted off the naming committee.  

I’ve taken to calling him Henry, which in French sounds a bit like “ornery,” an apt description for most puppies. Meanwhile, my 12-year-old son, Leif, insists upon calling him Ozzie. 

When waiting for him to do his business in the January cold, I summon my best Eliza Doolittle and call out, ” ‘enry ‘iggins, go pee already!” Leif, on the other hand, hollers “Ozzieozzieozzie” when he wants the puppy to come. My 10-year-old daughter goes with the flow, calling him Henry when she’s near me and Ozzie around her brother. 

It seems people have strong opinions about the names Henry and Ozzie. My neighbors say Ozzie will not do as it reminds them of Ozzy Osbourne. The groomer (who, after 23 years, has known all but my first two dogs) thinks Ozzie is an adorable name, which is what she writes on his appointment card. 

After weeks of the Henry-Ozzie debate, we’ve decided he can have two names. Most pets have endearing nicknames and still manage to come when called. 

Angus, my 6-year-old Sheltie, mostly ignores the puppy. That is, until I throw a toy. Angus races to the toy and makes it abundantly clear that only he may pick it up. Once he does, Henry barks at Angus, who soon drops the toy. Henry then grabs it and returns to me for another round of fun. 

Unlike Angus, my German shepherd, Otto, is as smitten with the wee canine as we are. During more than one virtual meeting I’ve had to explain that the loud moans of pain are those of my 90-pound dog being tormented by a puppy so small that Otto could eat him in two bites but chooses not to.  

On our daily 2-mile walks, Otto glides with long-legged strides that make his speed look effortless. Right behind him, Henry’s short legs pump up and down like mini pistons as he cartoonishly tries to keep up. 

Little Henry finds a big friend in Otto.
Little Henry finds a big friend in Otto.

My eldest son, Claude, was home and worked remotely for two weeks over the holidays. Even more practical than me, we often refer to him as the family monk. So I was shocked (and delighted) when I found him regularly putting Henry on his chest under his sweater where the puppy would sleep while Claude sat in on conference calls and meetings. 

Just before Christmas, Claude and I found $5 dog sweaters at Aldi’s. Later that night, he brought Henry to me all decked out in a sweater with “Fa-la-la-la-la” written on the back. 

“I don’t know what’s going on,” said Claude, “but I want to buy this puppy more outfits and dress him up.” 

We soon did just that.  

I’ve always thought of my Shelties as having big-dog personalities in smaller-sized bodies. I had no idea a far smaller dog could also come equipped with outsized personality and intelligence. 

At Henry’s first appointment, my longtime vet and friend Julie Brown-Herold was not surprised by our latest addition to the family. Instead of asking why I decided to adopt my first smidge of a dog, she told me how wonderful all these poodle mixes are.  

“When our golden retriever died,” she said, “I didn’t want another big dog. Our kids are grown, we’re getting older, so we got a little poodle mix, too.” 

Up until a month ago, I would never have dreamed of clearing out a dresser drawer for dog clothing. But that’s just what I did earlier this week. I also didn’t foresee buying a sling to carry my puppy around like I used to carry my human babies.  

While my dogs now come in large, medium and extra small, each holds an equal portion of our hearts. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 22, 2023.


Akron Public Schools needs to enforce real solutions to behavior issues

When I was in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades, teachers often pulled me into the hallway, had me bend over and put my hands on my knees. They then whacked me (as students called it) with a one-by-four wooden paddle that looked like a short cricket bat. Some paddles had Swiss-cheese-like holes to increase pain.

Apparently policies and procedures on giving or receiving whacks were left solely to the discretion of teachers. My parents were never told by the school, nor certainly by me, that I’d been whacked.

What militaristic school did I attend? Milton-Union Public Schools, a rural district 20 miles northwest of Dayton. As for my offenses, which I repeated year after year? Whispering with and passing notes to friends.

Ohio rightly outlawed corporal punishment in public schools in 2009. Being beaten by teachers did not make me a better student, it made me a sneakier one who distrusted most teachers. Only appropriate consequences are effective. That is, when they are enforced.

Teaching has always been hard work, requiring not just a set of skills, but an intensity of mental focus and compassion for students. Think back on your favorite teachers. I’ll wager they cared deeply for their pupils as well as the subjects they taught.

My high school civics teacher, who was also the wrestling coach, worked construction before getting his teaching degree. He thought teaching would be a breeze compared to physical labor. After his first full day in the classroom, he was more exhausted than he’d ever been in his life.

At the same time, misbehaving students have been around as long as there have been schools. One hundred years ago, the little kids in the Our Gang short films were regularly making mayhem in classrooms. Later, movies such as “Blackboard Jungle” (1955) and “To Sir with Love” (1967) resonated because the troubled students and exasperated teachers depicted were familiar to many communities.

At the time of this writing, Akron Public School teachers are set to strike on Monday, Jan. 9.

Today’s teachers continue to work hard — harder than you can imagine if you’ve not recently spent time in a school building. I have observed this firsthand in the classrooms of my children and while working as a substitute teacher and tutor this fall in both high school and elementary buildings in Akron Public Schools.

A vote and survey by teachers union members indicated their biggest issues were school safety and student discipline. One particular issue is how “assault” is defined in the union contract.

The administration wanted to replace “contact” with “injury” in the teacher contract language as a way to determine physical assault. 

The research is clear: The policies and programs that reduce behavior problems in public schools only work when school administrations fully support their implementation and continuation.

‘Increasingly not safe’:Akron schools’ staff members say student misbehavior on the rise

Consider cellphones. In response to teacher complaints about students on their phones, the district has told the media that it has a “power down” policy during classroom instruction.

So how does the district’s administration support teachers when students refuse to power down their phones? They don’t.

I was told by several high school teachers that there is nothing to be done about cellphones because the students’ parents call and complain if the phones are taken away. Students scrolled through social media, listened to music with one ear bud and texted while I tried, emphasis on tried, to teach.

I have yet to meet the person busy on a cellphone who can fully comprehend what someone standing next to them is saying.

Without consequences, APS’s cellphone “power down” policy is meaningless.

In 2019, Ohio passed a law that allows any board of education to decide whether to permit students to have cellphones in class.

At the start of this school year, Dayton Public Schools, a city district with demographics similar to Akron’s, required high school students to “put their phones, headphones and watches in a pouch that locks down the phone. The student can keep their devices with them if they are in the pouch. At the end of the school day, kids can release their phones.”

This pouch technology, from a company called Yondr, has been in use in Dayton’s middle schools for several years. According to Lee McClory, the Dayton Daily News’s education reporter, parents, who were informed they had other ways to contact their kids, have not complained about this successful policy.

The Dayton Public Schools administration and school board listened to their faculty and staff and sought a solution that supports teachers and benefits instruction. With this kind of engagement, solving the problem of cellphones in the classrooms turned out to be, as I say to my students, easy-peasy.

Which begs the question, why is the APS administration and school board deflecting the reality of what goes on in its classrooms, even trying to water down the definition of assault, instead of seeking successful solutions? They don’t even have to look far, but they do need to look.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 8, 2023.


Revisiting 2022’s columns

In my final column of 2021, I speculated that COVID, climate change and the continued existence of democracy were issues the world would grapple with in 2022.

While COVID has become more manageable, minimized exposure to seasonal illnesses over the past two years has made our immune systems easier targets. Flu viruses and RSV are filling hospitals this year much like COVID did the past two.

Still, we’ve come a long way. Last December, the Omicron variant was making its U.S. debut, shutting down many public places and forcing vulnerable populations to shelter at home yet again.

Baby steps continue worldwide in the effort to address climate change and protect democracy. For now, the environment and essential democratic institutions, such as free and fair elections, remain vulnerable.

Here are updates on other topics I wrote about this year:

Book Banning

Book banning continues to grow, which does little to nothing to prevent students from finding said books. What it does, as it always has, is put a spotlight on certain books, causing sales of those books to explode. I purchased several of the most banned books this year, both for myself and others. It felt great.

However, the majority of books parents have had banned from schools are about LGBTQ people and people of color. Banning these books tells children who are not white and/or heterosexual that their stories do not belong in our libraries and, by extension, our communities. Which is a cruel way to also tell these children that they themselves do not belong in our communities.

Putin’s War

Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is a horrific example of power consolidated in a supreme leader. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of Ukraine being forced into the Soviet Union. The world was not paying attention then. This time it is.

The spirit, tenacity and humanity of the Ukrainian people, so exemplified in my friend Allah, whom I wrote about soon after the war began, has done much to garner international support for this country fighting an unprovoked and illegal attack on its sovereignty.

But even with support, tens of thousands of Ukrainians and at least 100,000 Russians have died for one man’s delusions. Furthermore, cities and infrastructure that Ukrainian civilians rely upon for their existence continue to be targeted by Putin.

I pray that this time next year the story of Ukraine will be of its great postwar rebuilding.

Inclusion over ableism

I wrote multiple pieces on equal access and, therefore, equal rights for the disabled. My journey with my daughter, Lyra, a 10-year-old who has Down syndrome, has taught me much. In my lifetime, disability rights have progressed tremendously, yet much work remains.

Lyra’s father sold his house in Akron this fall and bought a new one in Copley so we can have another educational option. At the same time, Lyra was placed for the first time in SAIL (Students Achieving Independent Learning), a newer program at Akron Public Schools for some intellectually disabled students.

Lyra has been so successful in SAIL, we cannot imagine her attending school elsewhere. This is an important reminder that quality public schools are an anchor in keeping people of all socioeconomic levels from leaving cities when they have children.

Justice for all

Akron’s racial disparities and relations were on international display in 2022. As protests were occurring over the police shooting death of Jayland Walker, I wrote about three young Black men spending what ended up being two months in jail.

The three were playing basketball on June 2 in a fenced-in court that has only one usable entrance. They were attacked by four Firestone students with water pellet guns designed to look and sound like automatic rifles. A fight broke out. One of the Firestone four fell back, hit his head and died from a broken occipital bone.

After hearing the account of that night’s events from the Firestone students who’d initiated the attack, the police chief and mayor promoted a misleading narrative. When more information came to light, the three in jail had their bail amounts dramatically reduced and were quickly released.

In October, Donovan Jones, one of the three basketball players, pleaded no contest and was convicted of a first-degree misdemeanor. A trial for the other two will likely occur in February.

Why does Jones have a criminal record for defending himself when the three remaining Firestone students have not been charged for attacking Jones?

Access to museums

After I wrote about Museums for All, a program that facilitates modest fee admissions to museums for families who receive food stamps, I heard from one of my favorite librarians at Akron-Summit County Public Library.

Barb White was the head librarian at the Highland Square branch when my big boys were growing up. Today she’s a deputy director of our fabulous library system. She wrote to tell me that people who do not qualify for food stamps but still cannot afford museum fees can visit area cultural institutions without breaking the bank:

The “Akron-Summit County Library circulates museum passes as part of its Library of Things, and we anticipate increasing the number and variety of museum passes as [our] budget allows. Here’s the link to our Library of Things: https://www.akronlibrary.org/books-more/library-of-things The Museum passes can be found under ‘Recreational.’ ”

As there is a wait for the library passes, it requires planning a visit in advance.


I try to respond to all letters from readers (except those from trolls, naturally). I usually do so right away, but sometimes it takes a few days or weeks.

I was alarmed, therefore, when I accidentally discovered this fall that Gmail was sending many emails from readers to my spam folder. I presume this has been the case for the entire six-plus years I’ve been writing for the Beacon.

I now check my spam folder regularly, but if you never heard back from me and wondered why, that is probably the reason (unless, of course, you’re a troll).

Also note, if you write me an old-fashioned letter with pen and paper and send it to the Beacon’s offices, it will take several days to a few weeks to get to me, but it will get to me.

Thank you, readers. May 2023 bring peace and wisdom to us all.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 25, 2022.

Lyra's Latests · Uncategorized

Alzheimer’s research in people with Down syndrome benefits all

The first year of my daughter’s life felt like graduate school on all things Down syndrome (DS). Shortly before her first birthday, I attended the Down Syndrome Congress annual convention where I learned about many interventions and supports that would maximize her potential to live a full — and possibly independent — life. 

Holly Christensen:SAIL program a great success in Akron Public Schools

At that 2013 convention, I knew several other mothers. We had met on a Down Syndrome Diagnosis Network’s closed Facebook group for mothers. The groups are organized by the ages of their children with DS. Many of us were meeting each other, as well as many of our babies, in person for the first time. 

Information, while powerful, can also be intimidating. With a panicked look on her face, a mother approached me in a hallway and told me she’d just learned that our children would inevitably develop dementia in their 50s.  

In one moment, everything I’d envisioned for my daughter’s life suddenly felt like a large steamship moving out to sea, getting smaller and smaller. 

The life expectancy of a baby born with Down syndrome in the 1980s was 25. Today it is 61 and continues to climb. As the number of people with Down syndrome living into old age increased, it became evident that 80% to 90% of those older than 50 exhibited signs of dementia. 

In the same four decades, research on Alzheimer’s has increased substantially, including in the DS population. We now know that by their 40s the brains of people with DS will have acquired the pathologies, or physical changes, for Alzheimer’s (such as amyloid plaques) with most becoming symptomatic in their 50s. 

I recently interviewed Dr. Elizabeth Head, a neuropathology core co-investigator at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at University of California Irvine. While she collaborates with researchers studying Alzheimer’s in the general population, her research is focused specifically on the Down syndrome population. 

This win-win approach, in which anything learned about Alzheimer’s by either research team benefits everyone, is encouraging. But what about treatments unique to people with DS? Will today’s research yield treatments and therapies that will minimize my daughter’s likelihood of developing dementia? 

Dr. Head’s answer is a cautiously optimistic yes. Her team and others are conducting longitudinal studies, in which volunteers with Down syndrome participate for many years, discovering relevant data that are the building blocks for future treatments.  

Using biomaterial from the DownSyndrome Achieves biobank at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the many scientists in Dr. Head’s team look for biomarkers to identify who is on the trajectory to developing dementia and — just as important — who is not. Only the DSA biobank is open to all qualified researchers and not specific to one institution. 

Dr. Head’s observational studies, as well as others occurring around the world, suggest that 10% to 15% of people with DS are resistant to dementia even when the brain pathologies associated with dementia are present. 

“Knowing which brain proteins may be involved, we can then perhaps develop interventions and some of those interventions will be more effective based upon the age of the person,” Dr. Head said. “What works for someone in their 40s might not work well for someone in their 30s.” 

In recent years, scientists have determined that the brain remains plastic throughout our lives, including in old age. This means that there isn’t an age for which potential interventions for improved cognition should no longer be studied. 

Perhaps the best news from Dr. Head is that just because a family didn’t begin interventions for their loved one with DS as a baby or small child does not mean that person is on a trajectory for something bad later.  

Many studies looking at treatments for Alzheimer’s in people with DS are occurring now, with more in the works. There is great promise that in the coming decades a diagnosis of DS will no longer mean that dementia is nearly inevitable.  

There is also a growing body of research that, as with the general population, lifestyle choices can minimize the likelihood of a person with DS developing dementia. These lifestyle choices, which can be implemented today, include a nutritious diet, exercise, rich social interactions and continuous learning.  

Dr. Head encourages families to include simple exercises like walking daily, eating nutrient-rich foods and having adults with DS continue to learn new skills. She suggests taking classes, such as cooking (another way to increase healthy meal options) or learning to play an instrument. 

“Nothing should be held back from people with Down syndrome,” Dr. Head said.  

The donation of biomaterial of people with Down syndrome, such as blood, is modestly painful but significantly impacts the work of Dr. Head and her team as well as other DS researchers around the world. I strongly encourage people with DS to donate biomaterial for this and other research.  

Families know how hard their loved ones with Down syndrome work from the first day of life. Their levels of cognition and independence have the potential to be maintained throughout life by supporting the important and exciting research occurring today. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, December 11, 2022.


Akron’s lame-duck mayor is deaf to residents’ concerns

Akron has a lame-duck mayor assuming carte blanche to proceed with a development along White Pond Drive. This proposed development doesn’t pass the sniff test.

The proposed development by Triton Property Ventures would create nearly 250 units of housing, a mix of townhomes, apartments and houses, along with retail spaces that have been likened to Hudson’s First & Main shopping development.

Why that development? Why that location?

White Pond:Development plan drives wedge between residents, Akron city officials

There’s plenty of shopping, including a Whole Foods, Acme and several restaurants just a few blocks from the proposed site. The proposed development is also on a section of White Pond Drive that is the primary thoroughfare for West Akronites to get to Interstate 77. Yet a traffic study for the development has yet to be conducted.

According to nearby residents, the area is a wetlands with several endangered species.

Under James Hardy, the Horrigan administration’s former director of integrated economic development, Akron produced a State of the Canopy report in 2020.

The report identified the trees on the White Pond acres as essential to managing Akron’s stormwater, pollution and summer heat. Most, if not all, of the trees would be cleared away if the project is approved.

Meanwhile, for the better part of a quarter century, city leaders have said that the Innerbelt freeway will soon be decommissioned, opening up land ripe for mixed-use development like what Triton proposes for the White Pond green space.

Would it not make more sense to create a housing and shopping development on the land taken from predominantly Black residents by eminent domain half a century ago? Where a meaningless road cuts off downtown from the west side, development akin to Columbus’ Short North District could fill its place.

Furthermore, like many Rust Belt cities, Akron remains full of vacant lots and abandoned houses more than a decade after the Great Recession started with a housing bubble that blew up. Why not direct developers to fill these lots with affordable housing, which would also stabilize neighborhoods?

All of this certainly deserves a communitywide conversation, which makes the mayor’s resistance to doing so alarming. He has publicly suggested that the citizens opposed to the White Pond development are outsiders, which is outlandish and ironic given that the developers are themselves not local.

Dan Horrigan has refused to be interviewed by the press on the White Pond development, instead directing reporters to a letter his administration wrote to be sent to residents near the development.

This begs the question: If there’s nothing to hide, why is he not talking? The mayor’s obfuscation and dismissive attitude toward citizens’ concerns gives the impression he has something to hide, whether or not that’s the case.

City Council members Shammas Malik, who would like to replace Horrigan as mayor in 2024, and Russ Neal, who represents the ward where the development would occur, are both on record calling for the development process to slow down so the city can engage in discussions with citizens over their concerns.

How did Akron end up with a leader who ignores its citizens?

Horrigan replaced former Mayor Don Plusquellic, who’d held the position for nearly 30 years, in 2016 after winning a campaign in which few viable candidates ran. Horrigan had been the Summit County clerk of courts since 2007, an important administrative job ensuring the proper processing of the county courts’ paperwork. Before that he was Ward 1 City Council representative for seven years.

At first, Horrigan’s lack of experience seemed unimportant. Akronites were relieved for the end of Plusquellic’s arrogant attitude and self-created dramas. And Horrigan further allayed any concerns by filling his new administration with people with notable skills, ideas and energy.

However, after Horrigan’s re-election in 2019, the wheels soon came off his administration’s bus. The most impressive and effective members of his administration left one by one. This brain drain exposed Horrigan’s limited abilities in matters small and consequential.

Last summer, Akron became infamous in international news. Police Chief Steve Mylett’s and Mayor Horrigan’s responses to the deadly fight near the I Promise School and the police shooting of Jayland Walker too often were uninformed and dismissive, which only escalated citywide tensions.

By summer’s end, many saw Horrigan as unqualified to meet Akron’s needs. Thus, it came as little surprise when, on Oct. 4, Horrigan announced he would not seek reelection in 2023.

While Horrigan’s announcement caused many Akronites to sigh with relief, having an already weak mayor become a lame duck for the next 15 months is problematic. The passion Horrigan expressed for Akron when he first ran, and which seemed genuine, is no longer present.

A week after Horrigan announced he’d not seek reelection, Mylett reinstated the eight police officers who shot Walker to administrative duties, citing a staffing shortage.

In a city that just lived through a summer of protests, curfews and deep discord, the ensuing feud between the police department and leaders in the Black community has been public and contentious. Rather than intervening, Horrigan’s silence has been deafening.

Somehow Akron unwittingly replaced an arrogant, drama-creating mayor with a negligent mayor. Our city deserves better. Akron needs a competent, committed leader willing to address not only its problems but its potential with intelligence and passion. Instead, we have a placeholder mayor who refuses to engage with the citizens he was elected to serve.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, November 27, 2022.

Lyra's Latests · Uncategorized

SAIL program a great success in Akron Public Schools

SAIL students attend a general education classroom, as well as specials (gym, art, music) with neurotypical peers, and return to their SAIL classroom with its dedicated intervention specialist for additional instruction. Some students require an aid, others do not. The time spent in the general education classrooms provides positive language and behavior modeling, along with academic instruction. 

In the decades after World War II, families in America and other countries whose newborns had Down syndrome were told it was in everyone’s best interests that the child be placed in an institution immediately, usually never to be seen by the family again. 

Warehoused, neglected and often abused, frequently for the duration of their lives, these people did not develop to their full potential, but not because they had Down syndrome. Institutionalization was a self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations. 

That study was one of the early steps in rethinking what it means to have Down syndrome and reconsidering the wholesale institutionalization of this population. 

(Now is a good time to grab a paper and pencil to write down some of the many educational acronyms I’m about to spell out. Ready? OK.) 

In 1975, Congress passed what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), requiring public schools to no longer restrict children with intellectual and/or physical disabilities from attending. 

 IDEA also requires public schools to provide a “free, appropriate public education” (FAPE) that includes five provisions: appropriate evaluation, individualized education plan (IEP), least restrictive environment, parental participation and procedural safeguards. 

In the decades since, as children with intellectual disabilities now mostly remain with their birth families (or are adopted by other families), and early interventions in speech, physical and occupational therapies have become commonplace, previous assumptions of what a Down syndrome diagnosis means have been decimated. 

And yet, as a mother of a child with Down syndrome, I am not always confident that I am providing my daughter, Lyra, with the education she needs. In hindsight, her first three years of life — when I was panicked about her correctly learning how to walk, talk and use her hands — seem like a cakewalk. 

Shortly after her third birthday, Lyra became a preschooler at Akron Public Schools’ Early Learning Program, which enrolls kids with and without disabilities. For three years, Lyra was in a classroom with fewer than 10 students staffed by several adults, and received regular therapies along with academic instruction. 

Holly Christensen's daughter Lyra holds up affirmations that she chose herself.
Lyra holds a list of affirmations she chose for herself. Photo courtesy of Caroline Kajder

 At age 6, Lyra began kindergarten in a general education classroom at Case Elementary. Her IEP called for her to work with an intervention specialist (what we used to call a special ed teacher). That educational structure is called “cross category,” or “cross-cat” for short, as the children are instructed in general education and special education settings. 

Then, in 1964, a longitudinal study compared a group of infants with Down syndrome who were institutionalized to a group who were raised at home. Eight years later, findings showed that the children who were raised at home functioned at higher levels of “mental, motor, and social development on nearly all outcome measures at 2, 5, 6, and 8 years of age.”  

Sometimes Lyra’s intervention specialist would “push in” and provide supplementary instruction to Lyra in the classroom. Other times Lyra would get “pulled out” and taken to her intervention specialist’s room for lessons. 

Still, kindergarten in a classroom with one teacher and more than 20 students, many of whom had never attended preschool, was challenging. Lyra repeated kindergarten the next year and for the first time an aide was assigned to help her stay on task. 

That seemed to be just what Lyra needed. The results of standardized tests conducted just after winter break of her second kindergarten year indicated Lyra was on track for the first grade the next fall. 

Two months later, COVID hit and Akron Public Schools, like many urban school districts, went 100% remote for 12 months. 

 Last month, testing of K-12 students revealed that children nationwide regressed in math and reading during the pandemic. This is regardless of whether a child was in states like Texas or Florida, where public schools were mandated to reopen early in the pandemic, or in states like Ohio where the districts were allowed to remain closed for a year or more if they so chose. 

That said, children on IEPs lost more ground than their friends without an IEP.  Trying to have my then 8-year-old with an intellectual disability learn via a computer screen was absolute folly. 

 Lyra’s academic work ethic also regressed, which became readily apparent when Akron reopens its school buildings in March 2021. 

Thus, at the recommendation of her school team, we agreed to have Lyra attend second grade in a multiple disability (MD) classroom (formerly called special-ed classrooms). MD classrooms do not follow the same Ohio curriculum as the general education classrooms and the longer a child is in an MD classroom, the more difficult it becomes for her to switch back. 

Lyra’s experience was mixed. She relearned academics, and how to work in class and follow a structured day. But she was also one of the highest performers in a class where she was one of the youngest students. That is not a good thing. I felt as though I had failed my daughter. 

 Last spring, I asked Lyra’s IEP team about Akron Public Schools’ new SAIL program, which stands for Students Adapted Individualized Learning, and if she met the criteria for placement. SAIL students must be able to work in a general education classroom without being disruptive, which Lyra is. 

Developed by Tammy Brady, the district’s special education director, SAIL is designed for the few students whose abilities fall betwixt and between MD classroom and cross-cat placements. 

 Currently, APS has five elementary and three middle school buildings with SAIL, serving children from across the district. Each elementary building has two SAIL classrooms divided by grades: one for kindergarten through second grade, the other for third through fifth grade. Each class can have a maximum of 10 students. 

Lyra does math with seeds she scooped from a pumpkin in her SAIL class.
Lyra working on a math lesson in her SAIL class using seeds she scooped from a pumpkin. Courtesy of Caroline Kajder

 This fall, Lyra was placed in a third- through fifth-grade SAIL classroom at Resnik. At the end of each school day, her SAIL teacher sends an email telling us about Lyra’s day. For the first month, I teared up every time I read these daily reports. 

Her teacher regularly comments on how hard Lyra is working, how well she is doing in math (she’s working with numbers in the thousands) and reading (she nails the third grade vocabulary). We also hear how well she’s interacting with other students in her general education and SAIL classrooms. 

With the addition of SAIL classrooms, APS is more fully in line with the federal requirements of IDEA. Though a program still in its infancy, SAIL is showing great promise and is something the district can be proud of having developed. 

As a society, we’ve come a long way since the days of my childhood, when I never saw people with intellectual or physical disabilities in the public schools I attended. By simply keeping beloved family members with intellectual disabilities at home and providing them with an appropriate education, today many of these people grow up to have full, and often independent, lives. As it should be. 


Finding common ground requires interaction

“Holly, we love you. You’re a smart lib.” I laughed when a Toledo midwife told me this on a recent Zoom meeting with several other Ohio midwives, who nodded their heads in agreement.

Being a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, is not the same as ticking off a preset list of requirements. Or, as I often tell my college students, never trust anyone who tells you anything is a simple, binary issue. People are complex, issues are complex and, as a result, so is history.

Holly Christensen:Protecting community midwifery for all Ohioans

In his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” author Robert Putnam claimed “our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.” As an example he pointed out that while more Americans were bowling than before, fewer were doing so in leagues.

It is important to seek out situations that are not just echo chambers of already held beliefs. In a recent New Yorker article, “Can Pickleball Save America?” the increasingly popular sport is described as “transcending socioeconomic lines” and “bringing Americans out to meet other Americans in ways they normally wouldn’t.”

The pickleball players I know are evangelically enamored with the game. Similar to tennis and pingpong, pickleball was designed for adults and kids to play together. Baked into the rules is being friendly, while size and strength matter little. Recently a tiny grandma in Pittsburgh made news when she won a pickleball doubles match. Her partner and the other two players were all Pittsburgh Steelers.

To say I’m not athletic is an understatement, so, for now, pickleball is off the table. But I am a Democrat with a strong commitment to social justice. I also have Libertarian leanings.

According to the Libertarian Party’s website, “Libertarians strongly oppose any government interference in your personal, family, and business decisions. Essentially, we believe all Americans should be free to live their lives and pursue their interests as they see fit as long as they do no harm to another.”

Holly Christensen:Museums for all should not be a secret

Like other so-called alternative choices, such as chiropractic care (love it), locally raised food (love it) and home schooling (not for me), home birth appeals to those on the far right, the far left and many along the spectrum of the two.

In the mid-’90s, I worked on protecting the legal status of Ohio’s community midwives for over two years, becoming friends with legislators, midwives and home birth mothers, many of whom were very conservative.

Holly’s sons Jules and Hugo hold their new brother, Leif, moments after watching his birth in 2010.

Many Democratic legislators were resistant to the continued practice of unregulated community midwifery in Ohio. They then feared a two-tiered system of health care delivery based upon the historical lack of access for poor pregnant women to birth in hospitals prior to the enactment of Medicaid in 1965.

Today, in what first looks like an about-face, some Ohio Democrats hope to expand midwifery care to address the unacceptable maternal and infant mortality and morbidity rates of Black mothers and babies. But they would have done so by regulating community midwifery out of existence by criminalizing non-licensed midwives. Their bill, House Bill 402, was introduced in September 2021, then quickly fizzled.

Republican state legislators remain largely uninterested in regulating community midwives. So it was surprising that in one of his final pieces of legislation before he retires, Republican state Rep. Kyle Koehler of Springfield sponsored a bill similar to HB 402.

I’ve participated in virtual meetings with Rep. Koehler and he sincerely hopes his legislation will help address the plight of Black mothers and babies in Ohio. I don’t think it will, but I respect him and believe his efforts arose from earnest concern.

Meanwhile, the very real problem of Black maternal and infant mortality and morbidity needs real solutions and HB 496 is not it.

Working closely with Ohio’s state legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, has taught me not to make broad, iron-clad assumptions about people in either party. At the same time, working with other citizens on community midwifery has taught me that the common ground shared by all Americans is not as small as what cable-TV talking heads would have you believe.

Once the midwifery legislation is settled, perhaps I’ll reconsider joining a pickleball league and get to know people who are diverse in multiple measures over a game known for how fun it is. I know a few retirees who’d love to teach me (and you and everyone) how to play.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, October 16, 2022.


Protecting community midwifery for all Ohioans

Community midwife Pam Kolanz with Brittany Kash and Kash’s two children and newborn, Theodore, the day of the baby’s planned home birth in North Olmstead. Photo courtesy of Julie Ann Johnson

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” However, prior to both death or taxes, one must first be born. And throughout human history birthing women have been attended by midwives. Today, this remains true in most countries except for the United States where the majority of women are attended by obstetricians. 

That said, a wide array of midwives do exist in the US. Nurse midwives practice mostly in hospitals and birthing centers under the oversight of doctors.  

But an array of non-nurse midwives, also known as lay, direct-entry or community midwives, practice under laws that vary from state to state. These midwives specialize in the care of mothers and newborns, with the understanding that much of what a nursing degree entails is not relevant to their practices. 

Holly Christensen:Museums for all should not be a secret

Because I had a mother who birthed my two younger sisters at home, I was familiar with midwifery when I became pregnant with my first child in 1993. The same two midwives attended the home births of my first two sons in Columbus while my last three were attended by the same midwife in Northeast Ohio. 

In 1996, while I was pregnant with my second son, community midwifery in Ohio was suddenly jeopardized. In an advanced-practice nursing bill, the State Medical Board tried to have the State Nursing Board take on the oversight of community midwives. 

The State Medical Board mislead the nursing bill’s sponsors when telling them that community midwifery remained only in Ohio’s Amish communities. An early draft of the nursing bill would have made community midwifery, outside of a religious community, a felony for the midwife and a misdemeanor for the birthing mother.  

The bill’s language was so aggressive most community midwives were afraid to speak out for fear their names would be collected and they’d be charged with a crime should the bill pass. Instead, home-birth mothers became the face of community midwifery at the Ohio Legislature.  

As the founding director of Ohio Friends of Midwives, I informed the sponsors of the nursing bill that the Amish are not unique when it comes to home births with midwives. Furthermore, the majority of midwives attending Amish mothers are not Amish themselves. 

The criminalizing language was stripped from the nursing bill and a legislative study council, of which I was a member, was created to help state legislators better understand how community midwives practice in the state and what, if any, regulations should be considered. 

Holly Christensen:Investment of time with oldest friends pays huge dividends

The study council met monthly for 12 months, heard testimony from some in the medical community opposed to community midwives and testimony in support of community midwives from sociologists and nationally recognized community midwives, including Ina May Gaskin, who for many years taught several birthing techniques to obstetrical students.  

But it was the testimony from families who had birthed children with community midwives that perhaps had the most impact on the study council. 

At the July meeting supporters filled a large hearing room and the hallways at the Statehouse. The turnout was higher than at any previous public testimony event for any other issue in the state’s history. A second session of testimony was scheduled and equally well attended. 

In the end, the Direct-Entry Midwifery Study Council decided to leave community midwifery legal and unregulated in Ohio. The Ohio Department of Health created a registration process for community midwives to sign verifications of pregnancy and live births, including birth certificates, and the ODH supplies newborn screening tests to community midwives. 

Also, under the Ohio Administrative Code, community midwives are allowed to practice at exempt birthing centers, of which there are currently six operating throughout the state. 

In the 25 years since the study council submitted its final report, Ohio’s community midwives have continued to attend women throughout the state, serving families from all backgrounds, educations and incomes, in rural, urban and suburban communities. 

And they’ve done so with remarkable outcomes.  

One reason for this is that mothers with high-risk pregnancies, the definition of which is debatable, are referred out to obstetricians. But secondly, the Midwifery Model of Care, which provides a wholistic approach with pregnant women, consistently results in better outcomes.  

While doctors and hospitals have an important role in maternity care, the current system in America needs improvement. The statistics for infant and maternal mortality and morbidity in the U.S. are unacceptably grim. In 2018, the U.S. ranked 32nd among developed countries for infant mortality, while preventable maternal deaths rose nearly 200% from 1993 to 2014.  

When the statistics for Black mothers and babies are removed from the U.S. data, however, the numbers noticeably improve, revealing a complex problem that was the subject of an entire issue of The New York Times Magazine in 2018. 

Holly Christensen:Color my world, or at least my home

Here in Ohio two recent bills propose to radically change the way community midwifery is practiced in the state. Sponsors of both bills claim their legislation will address the unacceptable outcomes of Black mothers and infants by expanding midwifery care.  

Of the two bills, House Bill 496 seems to have the most traction. As written it requires the licensure of community midwives with the goal of providing care in birthing centers, and possibly hospitals, where Medicaid is accepted. But it would also criminalize the practices of all non-licensed community midwives. 

On June 9 of this year, while listening to the local NPR program “The Sound of Ideas,” I was stunned to hear two supporters of HB 496 claim that Ohio doesn’t have what they called “granny midwives” (a condescendingly quaint and grossly inaccurate term). I called the show and informed the host that Ohio has, in fact, more than 100 community midwives practicing everywhere in the state. 

In response to my call, one of the guests, who had just claimed community midwives don’t exist in Ohio, stated that these very real midwives can’t bill insurance, so Ohioans pay for them entirely out of pocket. This is also not true. I’ve given birth to five children at home in Ohio and all were covered by whatever private medical insurance I had at the time, including my last birth in 2012.  

If the practices of community midwives, who are currently legally recognized in the state of Ohio, become criminalized, many women in Ohio will continue to birth at home, particularly in Plain communities, but without the benefit of a midwife. As a result, maternal and infant mortality and morbidity will increase.  

One way to bring the Midwifery Model of Care to mothers on Medicaid without criminalizing community midwifery is to enlist the assistance of what are known as doulas. As pointed out in the New York Times Magazine issue on this topic, when doulas, who provide preventative and supportive care to mothers, work alongside obstetricians, outcomes improve.  

But the simplest solution would be to make licensure optional for Ohio’s community midwives as other states, such as Minnesota, have done.  

There is no reason for Ohio’s legislature to endanger one population in an effort to help another population. For as long as Ohio has been a state, community midwives have been attending birthing women with great success. Their practices present no problems that need solved by criminalizing their profession. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, October 2, 2022.


Museums for All should not be a secret

When I moved to Cleveland in 2000, I was three months pregnant and my first two sons were just 6 and 3. Living in the city with children was phenomenal. Edgewater Beach was within walking distance from our home, the downtown library was our branch and my boys regularly roared around the Great Lakes Science Center, especially in winter months. 

We also spent many summer afternoons at the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s Hershey Children’s Garden. Created in 1999, the children’s garden was the first of its kind in Ohio and an impressive addition to the more traditional botanical garden, which was free to the public, mostly outdoors and closed in the winter.

 Magical is a clichéd modifier, but when young children are allowed to engage with the elements — digging in sand, filling containers from an old-fashioned pump so as to water plants or each other, sitting on a floating section of a bridge on a pond filled with frogs — most are actively delighted. 

On a blanket spread on a grassy hillock, I’d unpack sandwiches, fruit and water. While my baby sometimes napped, his brothers climbed the treehouse or tried to catch frogs alongside children from a wide variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds. 

 Then, in 2003, the Cleveland Botanical Garden began a major expansion. An underground garage was added along with two massive interior biomes, one featuring desert plants, the other rain forest flora. 

 As a result, the gardens are now open all year, but they are no longer free. Admission is $16 for anyone 13 or older and $12 for children ages 3 to 12. An annual membership for a family of four is $100. And because it now has a cafe indoors, picnicking is no longer allowed in the children’s garden. 

For all that was gained, the loss of access to the botanical gardens for many people, especially children, was crushing. 

Ample research highlights the benefits of educational institutions such as museums, libraries and historical sites for children. Achievement in reading, math and science are higher in children who visit them by the time they are in kindergarten. These children also have, according to a 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, “a greater appreciation of art, higher tolerance, and stronger critical thinking skills.” 

 But research also shows that children in more affluent families are far more likely to visit these institutions. And the greater income inequality is in any given state directly correlates with a greater disparity in attendance. 

In many columns on holiday gift giving, I have encouraged the gift of museum memberships to young families because I know firsthand how spending time at such institutions imbued the lives of my now-adult sons. They regularly tell me so and, yes, also rue the changes at the Hershey Children’s Garden

But not all families have relatives who can afford to purchase a gift membership. In a perfect world, we as a society would support these institutions and make them free to all. Everyone benefits when children have experiences that engage their imaginations and intellects. 

 This is why I was pleased to discover a discount program when I recently took my youngest two children to the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in Dayton. At the entrance counter, an employee listed the various ticket discounts since we are not members. 

The list was mostly predictable — military members, AAA members and the like. She then asked if we received any food assistance, telling me that with a valid SNAP card (food stamps) up to four members of a household can gain admission for just $2 a person. 

Boonshoft is a member of Museums for All, an initiative of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. According to their webpage, museums4all.org, “Museums for All invites low-income visitors to feel welcome at cultural institutions.” 

Created in 2014-2015, Museums for All includes over 900 institutions in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands, all offering reduced admissions ranging from free to $3 for up to four household members. 

The program is only effective, however, if those who need it know it exists. I encourage school districts to make families aware of Museums for All and identify which area institutions are participating members. 

Over 60 Ohio institutions are participating members. Here in Akron these include the Akron ZooStan Hywet Hall & GardensHower House, Hale Farm & VillageAkron Art Museum and Akron Children’s Museum

And just up the road, the Cleveland Botanical Garden is also a member of Museums for All and, therefore, once again an inclusive institution where cost does not prevent any child from delighting in play at the Hershey Children’s Garden.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, September 18, 2022.


Transitions of eldest friends

Lying on the back seat of my mother’s car as she drove to Rike’s department store in downtown Dayton, I mused over my impending birthday. I was about to turn a double-digit age for the first time. I also considered the marathon few complete between 10 and a triple-digit age. 

This past May, I wrote about two friends in their late 90s: Barbara Campbell and Bascom Biggers. Barbara began sending me handwritten letters in 2017, a few months after I began writing this column. For three years, our relationship was strictly epistolary. Then, when she moved to New Hampshire in 2020 to be near family, we began talking regularly on the phone. 

Barbara turned 97 this past March. In June, I sent her a card with a clipping from this paper, a satirical op-ed in which the writer wondered what version of the Bible that Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene reads, because her copy is clearly different than his. 

Over the years, Barbara has sent me many clippings from newspapers and magazines, most of them humorous. Sadly, she never received my last letter. After a brief illness, Barbara died on June 25. I’d never seen a photo of her until I received her obituary. She looks as infectiously delightful as she always was in her letters and our phone conversations.  

Barbara chose happiness over sadness, gratitude over bitterness. She lost her first husband and one of their sons within a matter of months. The year before she moved, she was struck by a car while walking from her own car in the parking lot of her apartment building, which left her with lingering pain.  

Rather than complain, Barbara spoke graciously about the people in her life and all she enjoyed. Her avocation was to make people laugh; even in her final days she was telling jokes during dinners at her assisted living community. When we discussed challenges, such as COVID and other unpleasant news, she always ended by saying, “It’s in God’s hands.” 

If there is a heaven, Barbara is there giggling with those whom she’s reunited. I miss her voice, her abundant encouragement and joyful commentary. Every conversation with Barbara was like receiving a bright bouquet of homegrown flowers. 

Bascom Biggers III takes a portrait with Holly Christensen on his 100th birthday.
Bascom Biggers III with Holly on his 100th birthday

I have met centenarians, but never have I had a dear friend turn 100. That is, until last weekend. I’ve written several columns about Bascom, with whom I became friends when he was but a spry 86. 

Except when I’m in Michigan during the summer or, in recent years, when COVID rates spike in the region, I see Bascom every other week. I arrive at his home mid-afternoon and often stay until 10. 

We talk nonstop about everything from politics to pets. And, like many a senior, Bascom reminisces about what Proust called les temps perdus. His mother, Rose, born in 1901, was intelligent and capable. She led a stifled life as a stay-at-home wife and mother.  

Bascom adored Rose and by the time he was an adolescent, he was perhaps her best confidant. Knowing him, it’s easy to imagine Bascom tried to make his mother happy when her circumstances, proscribed by the times and her station, left her bored and unsatisfied. 

His father, Buck, was tenderhearted, which Bascom didn’t realize until he was a young man. Buck had steely gray eyes that could stop a child in his tracks. But when Bascom was fighting in the European theater in World War II, his father’s letters referred to Bascom as “my darling boy” and, clearly concerned he may never see his son again, expressed just how much he loved him. 

Perhaps it’s simply the function of age, but I wonder if his relationships with his parents are what made Bascom such a ruminator. He reads widely, maintains a core circle of friends and is more engaged with life than many who are decades younger. However, his ruminating often extends into overthinking, which in turn impedes his happiness. 

Last Saturday, on his 100th birthday, Bascom and I sat on his living room couch where the largest wall of the room is almost entirely glass, minimizing the separation of the indoors from the surrounding forest where his home is situated.  

After an hour, we left to have dinner with his friend Laura and her husband, Michael. (Laura does all the things, which are many, that allow Bascom to stay in his home.) Or so Bascom thought. In reality, several friends were waiting at the restaurant and we pulled off a surprise party that I was not confident the guest of honor would enjoy. 

He loved it. At times the noise made it hard for Bascom to hear, but he told the group it didn’t matter, their love was as clear as could be. Then, when we returned home, he promptly began worrying if it was OK if people loved him more than he loved them. 

In my birthday card to Bascom I wrote, “I wish I could help you fret less and laugh more.” I also included Mary Oliver’s poem “A Summer Day,” which ends, “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?”  

It is a question worth asking every year, even for those lucky enough to reach triple-digit ages. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 21, 2022.

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.


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 area journalists did not ask the obvious questions and simply reported the false narrative as though it was fact.

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.


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.


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.


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.



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.” 


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.


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, 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.


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.  


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.