Category Archives: Uncategorized

Vote as though our democracy depends on it


Last weekend, I waited 2½ hours to vote at the Summit County Board of Elections (BOE). I have, with few exceptions, voted early and in person since it has been an option in Ohio. Waiting until Election Day stresses me out. What if something comes up and I can’t make it to the polls?

Sure, I could have requested an absentee ballot, as two of my children did. But if my signature is questioned, I was concerned my vote will not get counted. No, thanks, I’ll wait in line.

In prior elections, I’ve voted early with no wait. This year, the BOE set up a 50-foot long canopy tent in their parking lot for voters to stand under while waiting to enter the building.

And wait they do. Three times earlier in the week, the line for in-person voting was too long for me to stay. Meanwhile, cars by the dozens stretched down Grant Street in both directions as voters waited to turn in their absentee ballots at the only drop box in the county.

This election finds historic numbers of people accepting inconvenience to ensure their votes get counted.

I have voted in all presidential, and most non-presidential elections, since 1984. With the exception of 2008, many people, especially younger ones, rarely vote. Oh, they’ll complain about politicians and their policies, but then dismiss voting as a means to direct government.

I suspect that was in part a reflection of a well-functioning government. Young people weren’t agitated enough to exercise their right to vote when things were working well enough.

Today, nobody seems to believe things are working well in America. Turn out for early voting across the country is at historic highs. But will every eligible citizen who wishes to vote have the opportunity? And if they do, will their votes be counted?

In the decades after the passage of significant civil and voting rights legislation in the 1960s, the Republican Party has made a concerted effort to suppress votes in Democratic strongholds. Recently, their tactics have become openly blatant.

In 1980, Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist and founding member of The Heritage Foundation, an influential right-wing think tank, said in a video-recorded speech, “I don’t want everybody to vote … As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

In 2019, the year after Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller died, his daughter released his external hard drives and thumb drives. Known in GOP circles as the Michelangelo of gerrymandering, the data on the drives outlined how for years Hofeller helped guarantee safe Republican districts. One only need look at Ohio’s district map with its several snake-shaped districts to see Hofeller’s impact on redistricting.

Hofeller also promoted the idea of adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, stating it would reduce the count of Hispanics, a group that predominantly votes Democrat.

In 2000, thousands of Florida voters were misidentified as ex-felons and quietly purged from the voter rolls before the election. At the time, Florida was one of a handful of states that did not allow ex-felons to vote. After the NAACP sued, Florida officials conceded that 12,000 registered voters — who were predominantly black — had been wrongly purged. George W. Bush’s margin of victory in Florida that year was 537 votes.

Some in the GOP saw the Florida purge in 2000 as instructive.

Since then, many Republican-held states have passed voter-suppression laws and rules, including excessive voter ID laws, modern-day equivalents of Jim Crow laws for Native Americans, limits on early voting and reduced polling locations.

The GOP claims these tactics prevent voter fraud, but there is no evidence of such. In a study that reviewed all of the more than 1 billion ballots cast in the US between 2000 and 2014, only 31 instances of voter fraud were found, which is statistically nil.

Why do Republicans work so hard to suppress the votes in Democrat strongholds? The obvious answer is because they don’t want to lose. But the flip side of that is that they rightfully fear their platform no longer appeals to enough Americans for them to win in a majority of districts without gerrymandering and suppressing voters.

A healthy democracy needs two, or more, healthy political parties. America doesn’t have that right now. One positive outcome of a blue tsunami on Tuesday would be for the GOP to reflect on how many Republicans currently don’t recognize their own party.

And, no, the Democratic Party isn’t perfect. Both the Ohio Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee are insiders’ clubs that all too often make bone-headed decisions. Pour a cup of coffee, pull up a chair and I’ll talk all day about frustrations with the Dems’ leadership.

But the Democratic Party does not try to win elections by suppressing Republican votes.

America needs new and vigorous national legislation to expand voting to all eligible citizens while preventing any party from engaging in the chicanery of winning elections by suppressing votes.

In the meantime, vote as though the very existence of democracy in the United States depends upon it. Because, in fact, it does.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 1, 2020.

Watching grown children set off on their lives is a poignant pleasure

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself…You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.”

—Kahlil Gibran from “The Prophet”

The first half of this year found our family reconvened in Akron for the better part of four months. We hadn’t all been together for that long since my eldest son, Claude, graduated from high school in 2012.

Yes, it was stressful as everything had suddenly changed due to COVID and we slowly realized that life as we had just lived it would not return anytime soon, if ever. But also, many nights we crowded around the dinner table, eating and playing raucous rounds of euchre.

A week after he returned from college, my second son, Hugo, adopted an English pointer-mixed puppy with liver-colored ears supple enough for a thumb-sucking baby to stroke. Ceaselessly friendly to dogs and humans alike, Rutabaga is a star wherever she trots.

For 90-plus mornings, Hugo and I took our pack, Ruti and my three dogs, for hourlong walks. While the dogs chased squirrels and each other, Hugo and I talked. Some topics were important, like relationships and politics, others were quotidian, such as recipes or the many shows we, along with the rest of the world, were streaming.

Then summer came.

In June, Hugo and his girlfriend, Claudia, took several weeks, and their pandemic puppy, on a camping trip to the Pacific Ocean and back. Everyone sorely missed Rutabaga.

That same month, my third son, Jules, my two littles, Leif and Lyra, and I moved into my stepparents’ camper, which they had set up in their driveway in northern Michigan. Jules, for the second summer in a row, worked at a shop in town during peak tourist season.

Leif and Lyra went to an outdoor day camp that followed COVID safety protocols. Each day they played with other children and spent two hours on Lake Michigan’s shores (Lyra was a platinum blonde by summer’s end). I blissfully worked without children around and, after I picked up the kiddos, cooked dinner for everyone.

Then, in early August, Claude left for graduate school at Texas A&M. A week after returning from Michigan, Jules moved to his first apartment. He’s living with friends in Columbus, where he’s a sophomore at Ohio State.

Once back from his road trip, Hugo began searching for work in his field, which, due to the pandemic, feels like a hunt for a miracle.

Claudia, who is in her final year of her master’s program at Tufts University, quickly decided that with all-remote classes, she might as well sublet her Boston apartment and stay with Hugo.

“Your son is your son until he takes a wife, your daughter’s your daughter the rest of your life.”

During the decade when I popped out a son roughly every three years, that aphorism stung me. I raised my children to be close to one another and, hopefully, to me.

Last month, Claudia’s parents, who are realtors in Rockford, Illinois, offered her and Hugo a house that they own, rent free. The two quickly decided to accept the generous offer.

And so, for the first time in nearly 27 years, none of my three big boys will live in the same town as me. Sure, Claude and Jules will be home on semester break from Thanksgiving until January, but none truly live here and I don’t know that any will again.

The job of parents is to raise self-sufficient, independent adults. My generation, the helicopter-parent generation, too often fails at this. Successful parenting includes supportively watching your children set off on their own paths, even if they end up far from home.

I counsel myself that it’s not the same as when I, as a young adult, wandered in a world before laptops or cellphones existed. Claude, now deep in the heart of Texas, easily calls me three times a week.

And I’ve long observed adult children who set off on young professional adventures in places far from their parents, often return when they begin having children of their own. (Please, oh, please!)

Life unfolds as it should. Children grow and become adults. They leave behind parents who can but bestow upon them their strongest blessings.

Recently, when I teared up thinking of this spring’s daily walks with Hugo, my partner, Max, pulled me into his arms and said, “Don’t worry, he’ll be back.”

Then he suggested, “Let’s go to one of the Halloween stores and buy Rutabaga a squirrel costume. The kids won’t be able to find her when they move and we can keep her.”

This was published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, October 18, 2020.

Biobank dedicated to Down syndrome research a bright spot in 2020

Days after our daughter Lyra was born, my partner and I received her karyotype, or snapshot of her chromosomes. It showed she has a third 21st chromosome, which causes Down syndrome. We then spent the next few years rigorously studying the reality of a DS diagnosis — which can be fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking.

Along the way, we’ve met many parents who’ve changed the trajectory of their careers after having a child with DS, including Lito Ramirez. Ramirez was working for a biopharmaceutical strategic agency when his youngest child, Cal, was born with DS.

As he describes in a TED Talk, 18 months later, Ramirez created DownSyndrome Achieves (DSA) with the mission to establish and maintain the first Down syndrome biobank in America open to all researchers studying the comorbidities, or other common diagnoses, in people with DS.

What, you may ask, is a biobank and why is one needed?

Using rigorous procedures to ensure material integrity, biobanks collect, process and store human biological matter, such as blood, plasma, serum, tissue and more. They then give these specimens to medical researchers whose proposals meet the standards and requirements of that biobank.

Collecting human biomaterial is nothing new. There are records of ancient Greek physicians comparing diseased tissue from multiple bodies in order to develop both an understanding of how a disease worked as well as possible treatments.

But it was the explosion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s that propelled the development of modern biobanks. Opened in 1982, the AIDS Specimen Bank (ASB) at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF) was one of the first of its kind focusing on biomaterials for one disease. Its existence greatly expedited the development of treatments for HIV/AIDS.

Why? Because biobanks provide a critical step that saves researchers valuable time. Simply put, without having to first find and collect biomaterials, they can get to work faster.

Today, some biobanks are disease-oriented like the USFC ASB, including those for various forms of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis and even COVID-19.

There are other biobanks, however, that are population-oriented. Various countries, including Iceland, the United Kingdom and Sweden, have established biobanks to study the environmental and genetic causes of various illnesses. As Down syndrome is not a disease, it also falls into this category.

After years of preparation, this past January DSA Biobank opened for business and began accepting applications from researchers.

Many may think, well that’s great for people with DS, but it won’t impact my life. And there they’d be mistaken, because the comorbidities of DS are often diseases that affect the general population.

An example is Alzheimer’s disease (AD). One of the heartbreaking things we’ve learned is that by their 40s, 80-100% of people with DS will develop amyloid plaques in their brains, which is the underlying pathology of AD. The gene associated with amyloid plaques is located on the 21st chromosome, the same one of which people with DS have a third copy.

Like many parents of children with DS, we were crushed when we first learned this. However, this sad fact creates the possibility to make tremendous advances in AD research for all populations.

How so? Well, we can’t test preventative treatments on people in the general population because we do not know who among them will develop dementia. But we know people with DS will, making them a control group. Many people with DS are now participating in AD studies and any breakthroughs will be a win-win for all populations.

On a more positive note, people with DS rarely develop solid tumorous cancers. As researchers studying this at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago recently stated, their research on DS populations “carries strong potential for ultimately developing gene-targeted therapies to inhibit solid tumor growth in the general population.”

This column first appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, October 4, 2020.

Learning new ways of teaching during COVID-19

“What did the Zen master say to the guy at the hot dog cart?” I texted to one of my students.

“Mmm, I feel like it has something to do with wholeness. But I got nothin’,” she replied.

“Make me one with everything!”

I seldom text my students and when I do, it’s usually about assignments. But currently I text this student every day because the only people she knows in Akron are those in her graduate program, which she started a month ago.

And because she tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

I do not give 2020 agency. The year, which has been unlike any other in anyone’s lifetime, did not create the pandemic, protests, political unrest and raging wildfires. Thus, there’s no reason to believe that life will return to normal on Jan. 1, 2021.https://db9ccd6b52e9d99abd691d05bcf1a162.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

And, frankly, I’m no longer sure what normal is or will be. But the beginning of the school year has caused me for the first time this year to feel a keen nostalgia for the way things were before the month of March.

My 10-year-old son, Leif, has synchronous school days on the computer with his teacher and classmates. We are a low-screen household and normally I don’t let my kids on computers until they are in middle school.https://db9ccd6b52e9d99abd691d05bcf1a162.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Now Leif spends six hours a day looking at a computer. Live Zoom classes are far better than the recorded lessons he had last spring. Still, at the end of the school day, he tells us his eyes hurt.

Our 8-year-old daughter, Lyra, is doing better attending her online classes, but only because we are paying a certified interventionist to come to our house and help her.

And then there are my students at the University of Akron. I miss them. Oh, sure, I’m teaching this semester, but it’s not the same online.

I am a true extrovert. Being with people energizes me. Teaching classes of 20 freshmen not just about writing, but about music, history and culture is demanding (if done well), but also extremely rewarding.

It’s easy to shock freshmen. It’s also delightfully easy to make them laugh.

Research shows that students who sit in the T-zone of a classroom—the first seats of each row and the middle row—learn more. When I’m in the classroom, there is no T-zone because I never sit at my desk. I walk up and down the aisles, occasionally sitting on the desk tops at the sides and back of the classroom, looking every student in the eyes each day.

Now most of my students’ faces appear in poorly pixelated two-inch squares on my computer screen. I don’t know if I’d recognize them if I saw them in person.

I agreed to teach my freshman courses by dual delivery this semester. That means that up to half of my students can attend in the classroom with me, while the rest attend online.

On the first day, I hooked up my laptop to the audio-visual portal so that my online students could be projected. It didn’t work. I later learned that my 7-year-old laptop’s HDMI jack, which connects the computer to the A-V portal, is dead.

Without the ability to project my computer screen to the in-person students, only I could see the online students. Imagine trying to teach six people spread at least six feet from each other in a classroom, while also connecting to another 14 on your computer screen. It’s tough.

But no worries, because my apparently senior-citizen laptop couldn’t handle that many students in one virtual meeting anyway. It quickly froze. Fortunately, the students could still hear me.

The second week of the semester, I moved my freshman class to a computer lab, but it was no panacea. It took the entire second week to get all the technology working properly there.

Each class of students has a different dynamic so, like many professors, I build time into my semester to stay unexpectedly longer on a topic when needed. Due to those myriad technical difficulties, I blew through most of my extra time right out of the gate.

As always, there are silver linings.

Attendance is far better this semester, though one student tried to fake attendance. They appeared for roll call and then flipped their laptop screen back so all I could see was a ceiling. I received no answer when I called on said student, who now knows I’ll count that as an absence.

Also, students are overwhelmingly turning in assignments on time. When I mentioned this to my son Claude, who is in his first year of graduate school, he said, “Yeah, that’s because we don’t have anything else to do, so give students a focused assignment with a deadline and we’re all over it.”

And perhaps most importantly, the students have all been patient and understanding, which is essential in getting through these times as best we can.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, September 20, 2020.

Launching into the first COVID fall semester

Panicky scenarios are the main fare of my brain’s nightly programming. As both a parent of elementary and college-aged students and a faculty member at the University of Akron, the screenwriter of my dreams has plenty of material with which to work.

My eldest son, Claude, is now at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service in College Station, Texas, where it is both literally and metaphorically scorching. Claude runs at 5 a.m. to beat the brutal south-Texas heat, while nearby Houston and Austin are COVID red zones.

My third son, Jules, developed chronic fatigue syndrome after a bout of mononucleosis two years ago. Blood work determined that both his sister, Lyra, and I also had the Epstein-Barr virus (the cause of mono) at the same time, but without symptoms.

For Jules, however, it triggered his chronic immunosuppression, which makes him more vulnerable to a deleterious case of COVID-19 should he contract it. And yet all summer, he giddily planned to move into his first apartment near Ohio State University, located in Franklin County, Ohio’s king of COVID-infested counties. It’s good that Jules likes his four roommates, because they are all taking most of their classes online.

Leif, a rising fifth grader, was set to have all-day, in-person classes. Then, on August 11, we learned he will be taught online yet again. One improvement is that, unlike in the spring, his class will have synchronous instruction.

But it is the lack of in-person instruction for first-grader Lyra that concerns me the most. We continue advocating for Lyra’s legal right, as a child with an individualized educational plan (IEP), to receive in-person instruction even when a school district primarily conducts remote learning, so long as it can be done safely. In a case decided last month by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the laws on this matter were unequivocally upheld.

While we believe we will find a workable solution with the Akron Public Schools without needing to petition the courts, we cannot continue to forestall Lyra’s instruction until we’ve collectively determined said solution.

Teaching pods may seem like a novel idea born of a novel virus. But they aren’t. Home-schoolers have used teaching pods for years with multiple families bringing their kids together so that different parents can teach subjects they have expertise in or together they hire professional instructors.

Recent articles describing teaching pods point out that they can exacerbate inequities inherent in America’s public schools. Parents of means can hire instructors, leaving children from poorer families behind. In working to help our daughter, we do not want to widen any educational gaps at her school.

Therefore, we are in the process of hiring a special interventionist who has worked with Lyra before and is eager to work with her and other students now. Together, we are reaching out to other Case Elementary families whose children on IEPs requiring in-person services are close in age to Lyra.

The risk of contracting COVID is not as great outdoors as it is indoors, particularly if other protocols, such as mask wearing and hand washing, are followed. Therefore, we have purchased a dining tent, the kind you might find at an outdoor wedding reception, and for the next several weeks hope to hold class in our yard.

As for teaching at UA, I worry about many of my students, particularly the at-risk freshman in my composition courses, for whom this year may be their one best opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives. If they lose this chance, will they ever have another?

Last spring, when classes suddenly went from in person to online, about one third of my students disappeared. I emailed them all, multiple times. Some apologized and said they’d start logging in for our virtual classes, but never did. Others never responded at all.

Who knows what the students who ghosted went home to? Did they have adequate internet service and a dedicated computer? Space to effectively study and write? Were they placed in charge of taking care of younger siblings, also home from school, while their parents worked essential jobs? Did they themselves become essential workers?

I remind myself that the anticipation of what next semester will bring causes me more anxiety than will the reality, once it shakes out. Whatever scenario we find ourselves in, when it arrives we can accordingly address the actual issues at hand.

That is, unless an actual issue becomes many of us contracting COVID-19 (I agreed, perhaps foolishly, to teach in person). That many members of the UA community may become ill, as has happened at many universities around the country where classes have already started, is the one potentiality I dread the most.

Please wish all students, faculty and staff the best of luck for this school year. We need it.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 23, 2020.

Novel solutions needed to educate all kids during COVID-19 pandemic

When COVID-19 rates began soaring earlier this summer, my gut told me Akron Public Schools would not return to in-person classes this fall.

The sudden shift to online learning this past spring caused many students to fall behind. I figured at the time that schools would do catch-up instruction in the fall, which is to say, I didn’t worry.

I’m still not concerned about our 10-year-old son, Leif. For nearly three months, he worked on lessons, created weekly by his teacher, with little supervision. No, he didn’t complete all his work, but we determined a pick-your-battles strategy on what to prioritize.

It’s hard, however, not to feel like we’ve failed our 8-year-old daughter, Lyra, who has Down syndrome. As with many kids with intellectual disabilities, we cannot set up Lyra’s lessons and leave her to complete them on her own. One of us has to sit with her the entire time.

I am reluctantly in charge of the homeschooling. In 2019, my partner Max and I worked about the same amount of hours, but he made 17 times more money than I did. Even though he’s better at it, my pennies to his dollars make it fiscally unfeasible for Max to be the one driving the schooling bus.

Here’s the honest truth: homeschooling young children bores me beyond belief. This is no epiphany. For years, I substitute taught all grades. Far and away, I preferred teaching middle schoolers and up rather than younger children.

Furthermore, I am not trained to teach a child with intellectual disabilities. Simple math is not simple for Lyra, and I am deeply grateful for the incredibly knowledgable, dedicated and patient team who, along with her classroom teachers, have worked with her at Case Elementary.

Parents nationwide are likewise anxious at having another semester of at-home instruction. Weekly parenting newsletters from a variety of national publications, including The Atlantic and The New York Times, are currently filled with articles on schooling this fall.

That Leif is not getting the same instruction as he did pre-COVID-19 does not keep me up at night. He’ll learn most of the curriculum while growing in other ways, too. He now helps out more around the house than before, cultivating a larger sense of responsibility. And he’s had time to burrow deep on many things scientific (all which he explains to me in excruciating detail).

I do not, however, feel as sanguine about Lyra not returning to school.

All her life, I have watched my fifth child work assiduously to master things I barely registered my other children acquiring. Lyra was a wee baby when she began speech, physical and occupational therapies. She first sat up on her own on June 29, 2013, just six weeks shy of her first birthday. I have only a general idea of when my four boys first did.

Similarly, the mastery of academic subjects for children with intellectual disabilities often requires far more work on the part of the child than for their neurotypical peers. In his book “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” author Andrew Solomon argues for the recognition of a common trait in people with Down syndrome: They are troopers. They persist where many of us would give up.

And so to lose even a portion of what Lyra has accomplished in her two years at Case Elementary feels devastating to me, like a face slap to all she’s worked to accomplish.

Other parents clearly feel the same. Last month, a judge in New York state decided that a child with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that required in-person services must still receive in-person services, so long as it can be done safely, even if the school district has chosen not to hold in-person classes.

When the Akron Public Schools’ school board first announced they were strongly considering having the school year begin online only, I reached out to Lyra’s interventionist (and my hero). I asked if she’d feel comfortable teaching students with intellectual disabilities in person, if only for a day or two a week. “Without a building full of students, I’d be willing to consider that,” she told me.

I immediately wrote to several school board members and asked them to please discuss the option of in-person instruction for students with intellectual disabilities. They said they would, but ultimately decided to keep the buildings closed to all students.

Safety is, of course, our ultimate concern and the nation’s Department of Education has been woefully negligent in providing substantive guidance during this pandemic. States and school boards are on their own to determine how to best proceed.

But a 100 percent return of students to in-person instruction or a 100 percent continuation of students receiving online instruction are not the only options. With problems we’ve never before experienced, this moment requires innovative problem solving.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on August 9, 2020.

Unemployment shuffle during pandemic is lesson in patience

Shortly after the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed at the end of March, my two eldest sons and I applied for unemployment, which, under current conditions, proved an exercise in tenacity.

My son Claude was an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) this past year at the Summit Food Coalition. As his stipend was only $950 a month, he also worked part time as a server at Macaroni Grill. That job abruptly ended when all restaurants in Ohio were ordered to close March 15.

Typically, Claude’s earnings at Macaroni Grill would not have been high enough for him to collect unemployment, but that’s an important part of the CARES Act — many job situations that formerly would not qualify for unemployment benefits temporarily do.

After Claude and I applied, the state announced we had to wait for a special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) website to launch. When it did, six weeks after the CARES Act passed, Claude’s claim was denied and he was the first among us to call, wait on hold for an hour or more and then talk at length with a caseworker at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS).

Full stop: Among the three of us, we’ve now spoken with dozens of caseworkers at ODJFS. All have been incredibly helpful and friendly. Every. Single. One.

I’ve written before about being kind to workers in stores. The same rule applies to people trying to help you over the phone: Be nice.

Caseworkers are not to blame for the multitudinous problems getting unemployment claims properly processed. The system was designed to be difficult. After the Great Recession, Ohio’s unemployment system, like those in many other states, was intentionally reconstructed to treat every application as potentially fraudulent.

Then, when COVID-19 shut down most of the economy, Ohio’s unemployment system needed to pivot 180 degrees and treat every application as legitimate. At the same time, the system was receiving more applications each week than had been submitted in the previous several years.

Even at the best of times, government bureaucracy is not expeditious. Therefore, it’s amazing how many Ohio unemployment claims have been properly processed in the past three months.

Claude eventually had to close his original claim and reopen a new one. The week after he did, he received unemployment payments for all the weeks he’d been laid off.

Hugo had four jobs in Rochester, New York. Three at performance venues for the Eastman School of Music, where he was in his last year of college, and a music-outreach internship with Rochester Public Schools. When all four stopped on the same day in mid-March, Hugo moved back to Akron.

As Ohio is his permanent residence, Hugo filed his application for unemployment here. When it was denied, ODJFS was by then so swamped he could never reach a caseworker when he called. The automated recording would tell him, “Please try again later,” before disconnecting.

After three weeks of not getting through to ODJFS, Hugo decided to apply with the state of New York. Baddah-boom, baddah-bing, the following week he had his unemployment, including all retroactive payments.

Then there’s me. More than half my annual income is earned proofreading transcripts (about 2,000 pages a month) for court reporters. As with much of the economy, depositions and hearings also stopped suddenly March 15.

Like my boys, my unemployment application was initially declined. The system tried to process my claim against the University of Akron, where I was teaching part-time until the end of May.

I called ODJFS every week for two and a half months. When lucky, I was on hold for over an hour and then spoke with a caseworker. (The ODJFS hold music now fills my nightly dreams like a soundtrack.) More often, however, I was disconnected due to high call volume.

I’m still talking with my friends at ODJFS as I’ve not yet received my full retroactive payments, even after sending an email to backdatecovid@jfs.ohio.gov (if you haven’t gotten your retroactive money, send an explanation of your situation to that address). It seems my part-time UA employment is still confusing the system.

The second caseworker I spoke to in early April apologetically asked to pause for a moment so she could collect herself. She was crying. Not because of how I spoke to her, but because her job had become so stressful. Sitting at home without co-workers or managers to help answer questions, she worked diligently to try to find the correct answers for unprecedented issues.

I recently read that one reason we’ve not seen a larger spike in cases of depression during the pandemic is because there is added strength in knowing we are all going through this simultaneously.

As we struggle in these volatile times, patience, perseverance and especially kindness are what we all need. Both with others and ourselves.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, July 26, 2020.

Uncertainty is post-lockdown certainty

For 12 weeks this spring, our family of seven sheltered together in two houses. I don’t know where else but Akron could I have purchased a house on land contract with a mortgage of less than $600 a month, which I did in 2014.

In 2015, my partner, Max, started his solo law practice on the ground floor of the home, which we call “Cressler House” after the artist who’d lived there for 60-plus years. The living room became Max’s conference room, the dining room his office.

We also made our first two sons, Claude and Hugo, start staying at this house whenever they were home from college. And after he graduated from the University of Michigan in 2016, Claude moved into Cressler House and began paying rent.

During the lockdown, the seven of us flowed between Cressler House and the “main house,” where Max and I have lived for nearly 10 years. Many weekday mornings our two young children, Leif and Lyra, accompanied Max to his office to do school work.

At the same time each morning, I’d swing by for Hugo and his pandemic puppy. Hugo rescued Rutabaga in the middle of March when she was just 8 weeks old and, along with my three dogs, we’d all walk for an hour or more at the BARC dog park.

During these roughly 90 walks, Hugo and I had long talks. Granted, most of our conversations were about dog training. Hugo’s a natural and Ruti quickly learned several commands. She’s incredibly smart (maybe the smartest dog I’ve known), friendly and stinkin’ cute.

Jules, who just finished his freshman year at Ohio State University, stayed at the main house where he has a sweet suite over the attached garage. But multiple times a week, the three big boys had “bro night” and all stayed at Cressler House, made dinner together, watched movies or played games. Leif, who’s 10, joined them once a week.

My three oldest boys had not spent more than two weeks together at a time since Claude graduated from high school in 2012 and went to northern Michigan for a full-time summer job before his freshman year at UM. Since then, they’ve all had turns going away for college and summer jobs in other states.

A Rabbi once said, “If children don’t share a room, how will they be able to do so when they get married?” While I suppose married couples generally figure that out, I believe sharing a room can make children grow closer. I even put then-18-month-old Leif’s crib into Jules’ bedroom when we moved to the main house.

I did this and other things, because I wanted my children to remain companions as adults. And it worked. They have each other’s backs, but don’t hesitate to get into each other’s faces. They know and understand one another like few people ever do. It’s an enviable relationship.

During three months of lockdown, these brothers built gardens, recorded music, made home improvements and just hung out together, cementing their relationship even further.

Then the doorway to the next phase opened, and we all walked through, calculating, as I’m sure most have, which risks to take. We all wear masks in public, socially distance and wash and sanitize our hands like surgeons. But there are other, grayer areas, of risk.

Claudia Holen, Hugo Christensen and Rutabaga with Grand Teton Mountain in the background.Co

Hugo and his girlfriend, Claudia, had again been hired to work at Tanglewood Music Center, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That, of course, was canceled, and instead they received unemployment.

Last month, they packed Claudia’s car with camping gear and Rutabaga (and the dog’s rather ridiculous amount of possessions) and left on a cross-country road trip. They arrived at the Pacific Ocean on June 29, just when COVID-19 cases began re-spiking.

Meanwhile, my three younger children and I spent the last three weeks with family in northern Michigan. All adults tested negative for COVID-19 before we joined the grandparents in their tiny home near Lake Michigan.

Lyra playing on Lake Michigan Beach in Charlevoix, MI

Not since the ’80s, when I worked there during my summer breaks from OSU (which Jules is doing this summer) have I stayed so long with my family in Michigan. When life fully resumes, I want to keep summers more flexible and less booked than I have for three decades.

Before Jules returns to Akron later this summer, Claude will have left for graduate school. Claude’s first choice, OSU, lost assistantships due to a hiring freeze related to COVID-19. Meanwhile, Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service gave him a sweetheart package, so west he’ll go, wagons ho! To College Station, Texas — a small town surrounded by hot spot cities.

Uncertainty is the new normal. I’m concerned that a month after schools resume in the fall, lockdowns will again be necessary to control this pandemic. It’s possible Claude and Jules will shelter in their college apartments.

But if they return to Akron, we know we’ll be OK because we are incredibly lucky. Lucky to have space and lucky to have each other.

Please stay safe.

This was first published in Akron Beacon Journal on July 12, 2020.

Let’s talk about racism in America

Public art protest installation by Jules Christensen listing the last 100 victims killed by police in America.

Can I fully understand the African-American experience? No, because as a white woman, I have not lived the African-American experience. Does that mean I should not speak about the African-American experience? No. For as Dr. King said, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Each semester, my University of Akron students study a unit on institutional racism in America. Last year, I used both the comprehensive articles in the New York Times’s 1619 Project and the documentary “College Behind Bars.”

America’s first enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619. And our racist history, which began even earlier with the treatment of indigenous people, did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. Our systems of education, health care, housing, banking and more are all intentionally designed to discriminate against people of color.

And our judicial system, from the violent policing in current headlines, to biased prosecutors with too much power, to unequal sentencing are all a direct carryover of our slave-economy past.

More than half my students are black, and I don’t need to tell them institutional racism is alive and well in America. They experience it every day of their lives.

But like the children of immigrants, who often understand their parents’ native language but cannot speak it fluently, my black students benefit from a close examination of America’s racist history and the response of black communities.

For my white students, studying the history of institutional racism and its connection to slavery opens their eyes to a fundamental portion of American history that they were never adequately taught, if at all.

While the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, it contained a caveat quickly found useful by many Southern, and some Northern, states wishing to ensure white supremacy:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Almost immediately Black Codes replaced the previous slave codes, which had regulated the lives of enslaved and freed black Americans until emancipation. Black Codes were laws that applied only to black citizens.

Vagrancy, in the Black Codes, meant a number of things from unemployment to loitering and could land a black person in jail. Black prisoners were then rented out as laborers, often to their former masters.

When later Constitutional amendments outlawed Black Codes, they were replaced by Jim Crow laws under which, among other things, 3,462 black Americans (that we know of) were lynched between 1882 and 1968.

I once read Martin Luther King Jr. Day mostly belongs to black Americans, because it was Dr. King’s Civil Rights Movement that ended white Americans’ widespread terrorism of black people. And not just in the South, for at its peak in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had more members in Indiana than any other state.

One hundred years after the Thirteenth Amendment became law, the passage of Civil Rights legislation, actualized by centuries of advocacy by people of all colors, brought the Declaration of Independence closer than ever to its promise:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

But in short order, a previous system of suppression was once again replaced by a new one: mass incarceration. Due to policies targeting black Americans, evocative of the Black Codes, the number of people in our prisons has grown from 200,000 in 1970 to 2.2 million today.

And yet, many whites do not believe white privilege exists.

For five years of my childhood, I lived in a rural community in Ohio that was overwhelmingly pro-union and Democrat. Today, the classmates who’ve remained in Miami County, which is 96 percent white, are overwhelming Trump Republicans.

Good people who love their families and community, they believe COVID-19 is a Democratic hoax and that Black Lives Matter is not only unnecessary, but also responsible for the looting at protests — which they believe to be far worse than any factual reporting indicates.

As frustrating as it can be, particularly since they refuse to read anything that might contradict their positions, I continue to interact with these people, whom I’ve known for 45 years.

Civil discourse has transformative power for all involved, and a key part of that is listening. Perhaps there’s never been enough listening and civil interaction in the world, but today it seems rarer than ever.

And it’s not just white conservatives who deny racism exists. A 2007 study revealed that 75 percent of white parents never, or rarely, talk about race with their children, thinking that not doing so will make their children “color-blind.” Research indicates nothing could be further from the truth.

In their article, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race,” authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman state that “children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue — but we tell kids that ‘pink’ is for girls and ‘blue’ is for boys. ‘White’ and ‘black’ are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.”

When discussing the differences among white, black and brown people — which are zero in terms of potential — it’s essential to tell children how our systems continue to benefit white people, especially white men, over all others.

In responding to research questionnaires, a majority of white, male college undergraduates state that bigotry is no longer a problem in the United States. That wildly incorrect perception is derived from the fact that white males very rarely experience discrimination.

My first three sons graduated from Firestone, one of the best high schools in the region. Firestone provides not only excellent academics, but its School of the Arts also is so robust that many students from rich suburban districts apply for open enrollment.

My boys regularly state that what they value most, however, is that Firestone serves a diverse student population. Groups of people are only perceived as “other” until you spend time with them. This is true whether the difference is race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or ability (both physical and intellectual).

For as far as we’ve come toward creating an equal society in America, we still have much work to do to. Two hundred and thirty-three years after it was written, the words of our Constitution unfortunately remain aspirational and not actual.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 14, 2020.

Reopening with caution and gratitude

 

“How ya’ holding up?” is a question I suspect you’re asked as often as I am these days.

“Grateful,” I always reply.

Grateful first and foremost because my family has remained healthy even though there are seven of us and every excursion each of us makes potentially exposes all of us to COVID-19.

Grateful I have a large, safe yard for my young children to play in and that the two of them have each other to play with.

Grateful because while I’ve lost more than half my income as an independent contractor, haven’t received any federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance because Ohio’s software for processing 1099 employees has a yet unresolved “glitch” and my savings will only last one more month, I am not at risk of losing my home nor running out of food.

Grateful my son Hugo is also not at risk of being homeless because he has my partner, Max, and me as a safety net. Hugo did not receive the economic stimulus money because, as a college student last year, I declared him on my taxes. Until July, he must pay rent for an apartment he no longer lives in while three of his four jobs stopped on a dime in early March.

And I’m grateful to get my hair and nails done, luxuries for which I decide what level of risk I’m willing to accept. Most of the people providing these and other services, both essential and frivolous, are not in a position to avoid the risks of their jobs by staying home.

Income inequality has grown dramatically in the United States and elsewhere since the 1970s. Now COVID-19 has spotlighted what anyone who’s worked retail knows: store clerks and cashiers are essential workers, often poorly paid. Today, the risk of contracting coronavirus is greater for them than so-called professional workers because of their significant exposure to us, the public.

I happily follow any requirements businesses ask of me, from wearing a mask and having my temperature taken to sitting in my car with a head resembling a lion fish with tin-foil fins. The foil holds a bleach mixture to highlight my hair, which isn’t going gray, but weirdly dark brown.

A few years back, I admired a colleague’s nails and soon began my own bi-monthly visits to the same nail technician. My nails have always been as strong as shrimp peelings. Thus, I kept them short and unvarnished for decades. Now in my 50s, I love having blinged-out, mid-length acrylics.

However, during the two months nail salons were closed, it was the people I missed most. Nail salons function socially like urban barber shops — while nails are buffed, reinforced and lacqured, customers talk not just to their technician, but with everyone in the salon, often lingering after their manicures are finished.

My salon, Crystal Nails, is owned and operated by Tiffany Dao and her husband. We’ve watched each other’s children grow as my little ones sometimes join me, and Tiffany’s regularly stop by the salon. Sitting with our heads close together (now separated by a plexiglass barrier) we talk about everything from childrearing to insurance policies.

Last week, we talked about government assistance for small businesses.

The Daos were eager to reopen, but like so many businesses, their ability to generate revenue is now significantly limited due to required and necessary precautions. Before COVID-19, the bulk of their business was walk-in customers. Now it’s by appointment-only so as to limit the number of people in the salon at any one time.

In order to survive, a business like theirs need the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) monies the federal government created for small businesses. That ginormous and flush corporations such as the L.A. Lakers, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Braemer Hotels and Resorts and others (including at least one on the Fortune-500 list) applied for and received PPP money is just another sign of the inequality of our times.

The pandemic is exposing what many always knew was there: deep disparities in America. People from poor communities of all colors often work essential jobs in stores, typically at or near minimum wage. This now raises their risk of contracting COVID-19 while alternative income options are few, if not nonexistent.

I am aware of my privilege as a middle-class, educated white person and for this I am the opposite of grateful. Our country was intentionally developed to generously benefit people like me over people of color. Anyone who denies white privilege has not read much history nor closely knows many people of color.

Perhaps the attention currently given to service-sector employees who make our country run and small businesses that enrich our communities in all ways will translate to better pay, working conditions and support as we slowly transition out of this pandemic.

In the meantime, thank each person whose job it is to wait on you in any fashion.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 31, 2020.

Parenting is not an out-of-sight-out-of-mind commitment

Hugo surrounded by his proud family after his senior recital at Eastman School of Music in Nov. 2019

Months ago, everyone in our family cleared their calendars to travel to Rochester, New York, this weekend for my son Hugo’s graduation. Instead, last Friday we gathered around a computer here in Akron for a virtual graduation. It didn’t have the pomp and circumstance of a hall with caps and gowns, but we made it festive.

Hugo went to middle school at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts. After picking him up one spring afternoon, I called his father to tell him about a college financial aid talk at Firestone High School, where our eldest son, Claude, was a junior.

“My child support payments are my contribution to the boys’ college funds,” he told me. And, in this, he has remained true to his word.

I helped Claude and Hugo apply to and visit colleges. With Claude, I took him only to schools where he’d been accepted. I don’t have the time nor money to travel the country looking at campuses my kids may never attend.

But as a vocal performance major, Hugo had to audition. And so, the winter of his senior year, we traveled many miles together. His first audition was in January at his “reach school,” Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Following semi-truck tire tracks in deep and swirling snow, I white-knuckle drove us there without stopping.

The next day, I listened to Hugo’s audition from a doorway just off stage. I thought he sang brilliantly, but what do I know? By day’s end, both of us felt Eastman was where Hugo belonged, but doubted he’d get in. He’s talented, but it’s Eastman.

Months later, on an April afternoon, Hugo walked into my office while talking on the phone. As soon as he hung up, he shouted, “I got into Eastman!” I ran to him and we spun each other in circles.

“What did they say about financial aid?” I asked when we stopped to catch our breath.

We learned the financial aid package from Eastman would leave him with $80k in debt upon graduation. However, if he obtained a dual degree from the affiliated University of Rochester, he’d end up with only $20k in loans and two bachelor’s degrees.

Even though it would take a fifth year of college, it was a no-brainer.

That August, Max and I helped Hugo move into his dorm and were with him when he met his vocal instructor for the first time. Walking through the facility that has hosted musicians from George Gershwin to Renee Fleming, I felt a wave of sadness. Hugo’s father wasn’t there.

My ex-husband last saw our three sons in the crowded halls of the old Firestone after Hugo’s high school graduation in 2015. I last saw him at a child support hearing the February of Hugo’s sophomore year of college. He asked me what Hugo was studying.

A woman I once worked with told me that when her father divorced her mother, it was as though he’d divorced the entire family. I often hear similar stories. But when we started our beautiful family, I would never have imagined my then-husband would one day abandon any pretense of a relationship with our children.

As bad as our marriage was (I have recurring nightmares that we are still together), it’s his post-divorce relationship with our boys that taught me he never was the man I had believed him to be, the man I wish he was and, quite possibly, the man he wishes he were.

Last November, Hugo gave his senior recital. Along with my partner, Max, and me, all four of Hugo’s siblings and his grandma attended. Several friends and family members across the country also watched Eastman’s live stream of Hugo’s resonant baritone singing opera in multiple languages. But not his father.

When I graduated from Ohio State University in December 1992, friends, including my ex-husband whom I’d just started dating, were in attendance, but none of my family. Some for good reasons, others because for them it was irrelevant.

Then-President Gordon Gee mentioned my thesis in his commencement address. Afterward, grads spilled into the crowded hallways outside the arena space. A tall black man in a camel-hair overcoat grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously.

“Did you graduate today?” he asked me. “Congratulations! So did my daughter!”

The generous beauty of that father with pride to spare touches me to this day.

A week after COVID-19 closed down Ohio, the boys’ father called me for the first time in ages. He asked if everyone was home, and I said they were. “By the way, where did Jules decide to go to college?” I told him and then he said, “Well, give our boys my love and tell them I’ll call them soon.” He didn’t.

Like so many things, the joy of parenting is the journey through tantrums and teen angst along with laughter around the table, piles of people cuddling in bed and, yes, the milestones of each achievement. For those who show up for it all, the reward is the richest.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 17, 2020.

Struggling to cope in the second month of quarantine

On an August day many years ago, I went to Cleveland-Hopkins Airport with my baby on my hip and my first two boys dressed as Batman and Spider-Man.

We walked to a gate inside the terminal where we watched a plane from Arizona land and taxi to the gate. Minutes later my grandmother walked through the door and we enthusiastically greeted her.

Four weeks later, we took Grandma to a different gate at Cleveland-Hopkins, said tearful goodbyes, then stayed at the gate to watch her plane take off.

I keenly remember that visit because it was the last time my grandma came to Ohio. I also remember it because just days later two planes flew into the World Trade Center towers, irrevocably changing many aspects of life as we knew it.

How quaint it now seems to watch planes take off and land from inside airport terminals when you have no ticket to fly.

During one of her recent press conferences with Gov. Mike DeWine, Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton described how nobody comes to understand the impact and length of the current pandemic overnight. Like all new realities, it takes time to process.

That first week the kids were out of school, I understood why all institutions of learning were closed — too many people in close proximity. But it never occurred to me that all non-essential businesses, including hair salons, would also close and I postponed taking my 7-year-old daughter, Lyra, for a much-needed trim.

Lyra’s long, blonde hair is stunning when clean and brushed out, which is no easy feat as her scalp is very tender. And the longer her hair, the more easily it tangles.

Lately, no matter how gently I comb, nor how much detangler I use, Lyra screams, cries and quivers when I do her hair. Max and I joke that if the neighbors hear Lyra getting her hair brushed, they’ll call children’s services.

Traumatizing Lyra with brush and comb also traumatizes me. Exasperated, perhaps as much by six weeks of quarantine as Lyra’s struggle, last weekend I did what would be the unthinkable in normal times.

I went to remove Lyra’s ponytail holder so she could take a bath. I’d barely tugged when she began screaming and yelling: “I don’t want it, I won’t have it! No hair, no hair!” I went to the kitchen, grabbed a pair of utility scissors, returned to the bathroom and lopped off Lyra’s entire ponytail.

She went from looking like actress Veronica Lake to resembling a Dickensian street waif.

The next day, I trimmed Lyra’s hair here and there and she has something like the shag haircut I had at her age in the early 1970s. A comb easily glides through what’s left, a relief for us both, for who knows when she’ll be able to have it fixed by a professional?

We don’t take 10-year-old Leif or Lyra anywhere except Max’s (solo) office and the metro parks on uncrowded weekdays. I cringe when I see children in grocery stores, but I also know some people have no choice but to take their children with them.

We never watch TV news, but do listen to our local NPR station, WKSU, most days. I turn it off whenever stories air on COVID-19 rates of infection and death tolls. Yet Leif, who understands what is happening in ways that Lyra can’t, is exhibiting signs of strain.

A month into shelter-at-home, Leif got up from the desk where he was doing school work, came to me and wrapped his arms around my waist. With his face buried between my arm and my side, I suddenly realized he was sobbing.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t want you to die of COVID. I love you, Mama.” I assured him I was not likely to die of COVID, even if I caught it, while silently wondering if what I said was true.

“Are you afraid of catching COVID-19?” I asked Max when we were grocery shopping a few days later. When he told me he was, I asked if his life insurance policy was paid up and we laughed.

Gallows-humor memes and cartoons are cropping up like ants in my kitchen on the first warm days of spring. A recent New York Times article explained why: humor helps us cope. People in Nazi concentration camps, soldiers in WWI and those who endured the bubonic plague all indulged in dark humor.

Later that day when Max asked me the same question, we discovered our greatest fear is one and the same: What if Lyra, who has Down syndrome and therefore may be less resilient, contracted COVID-19? Just typing those words makes my eyes well up.

What will our new reality look like when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available and this exhausting pandemic ends? Nobody knows.

I hold out hope that having gone through this together — not just as families, communities, states or countries, but as an entire planet of people — we may come out on the other side better able and willing to work together on other issues facing all of humanity.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 3, 2020.

Education a giant step toward freedom

Since classes at the University of Akron resumed on March 30, I teach the same class twice daily to accommodate my students’ schedules because some are essential workers while others have returned to homes in other time zones.

In a physical classroom, I seldom sit down. I walk between desks asking questions of students in an effort to spark discussion and as many “Ah-ha!” moments as possible.

Now, sitting at my desk in my home office, my students’ faces appear in little boxes on my laptop screen. Rather than robust discussions, we practically have to use Robert’s Rules of Order to hear one another.

In-person classes were abruptly and necessarily halted due to COVID-19. We lost two weeks of instruction while everyone scrambled to move to online instruction. I worry whether I can sufficiently prepare my students for next semester’s required composition course in rhetoric.

While we were off, I assigned the new documentary by filmmaker Lynn Novick, “College Behind Bars.” During our first week back, we discussed each of the four, hour-long episodes.

Bard College, through it’s Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), offers coursework in several New York state prisons where incarcerated individuals can earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. The program is overwhelmingly funded by private donations, which is pound foolish of our government.

For every dollar spent on college in prison, taxpayers save five dollars through dramatically reduced recidivism rates. Furthermore, receiving an education has the added advantage of giving a person, once released from prison, a far better chance of becoming an employed — and therefore tax-paying — citizen.

Dyjuan Tatro, 31, has served 11 years for violent gang and drug crimes. He is a math major with a 3.72 GPA and was part of the team of inmates who beat Harvard in a debate.

In the fourth episode of the series, Dyjuan Tatro, one of Bard’s incarcerated students says: “For the first time in my life, education is something I’ve totally dedicated myself to. How do I communicate the impact education is having on me? This is changing fundamentally the way I think, believe and [the way I] interact with people.”

Tatro finished his B.A. in mathematics after he was released in 2017. After working for an elected official and a technology firm, he’s now back at BPI as their government affairs and advancement officer, procuring funding to expand the program.

That’s a compelling message for students like mine, who are also reaching for the benefits of an education in difficult, if not as extreme as prison, circumstances. I contacted Tatro, and on April 8 he gave a compelling online lecture to my students.

In 1970, the United States had a prison population of roughly 196,000. Today, the U.S. has the dubious distinction of having more people imprisoned than any other country: 2.1 million incarcerated individuals, with another 4.5 million people on probation or parole.

Tatro pointed out that the increased number of people in prison does not correlate to a commensurate increase in the rate of crime. It is instead due to bad policies, most famously perhaps the 1994 Clinton Crime Bill, which created the “three strikes” rule in which people thrice convicted of even small, non-violent offenses were sentenced to prison for decades or, all too often, life.

That same bill also eliminated federal funding for college coursework in prisons, effectively ending most efforts to rehabilitate the swelling number of incarcerated people in America.

As our prison population mushroomed, so did the monetization of incarceration. Prisons, Tatro pointed out, are now considered economic stimulus vehicles for one group of poor people, often poor farming communities, to oversee the imprisonment of another group of poor people, often urban people of color.

My students wanted to know if Tatro saw his time in prison as a blessing in disguise, a question he’s often asked.

His answer could not have been more clear:

″Prison isn’t good for anyone and it’s not a blessing in any way. But Bard College was a blessing and it changed the trajectory of my life. Unfortunately, we live in a country that doesn’t provide all its citizens equal access to education.”

In one of the last public events I attended before gatherings were suspended by COVID-19, I ran into the president of the University of Akron, Dr. Gary Miller. I introduced myself and asked if he’d read the open letter I wrote to him in this column last November. In it, I encouraged him to do more to support our first-generation and at-risk students.

“We’re doing a lot more than you know,” was his answer. Hmmm, I thought, if that’s so, the university is doing a great job keeping those things secret.

Gosh, if I knew about these mysterious things, I would no longer ask students to sit with me in the library while doing their schoolwork in order to build effective study habits, or walk them to the health center, the counseling center and the writing lab.

What I said was, “I’m on the ground, in the classroom working with these students.”

“Oh, well, we have a lot of plans we just need to put them into place,” replied Miller before making a quick exit. Miller’s second comment is the opposite of “We are doing more than you know.”

Not only defensive, Miller’s answer was politically tone deaf. How hard would it have been to have instead said, “We share your concerns?” My open letter to Miller was full of encouragement for his tenure, though critical of the university’s board of trustees, a perspective commonly held by everyone who cares about UA’s students.

Esi Edugyan, author of the 2018 award-winning novel, “Washington Black,” said in an interview that while we think of slavery as the bondage of bodies, it also enslaved minds. How many brilliant enslaved men and women were never able to fulfill their potential to become scientists, writers, leaders? Their loss is everyone’s loss.

The University of Akron is an urban college with many first-generation college students and an abysmal graduation rate. My at-risk students are mostly intelligent, engaged young adults whose lives are full of competing responsibilities. We have a duty to support their education as it can have the same tremendous impact on their lives that Bard College had on Dyjuan Tatro.

This column first appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 26, 2020.

Finding silver linings while sheltering at home

Once upon a time, a woman complained to her rabbi that her mother-in-law, who had recently moved in with the woman’s family, was driving her crazy. “She tells me my food is inedible, I don’t clean right, that my kids are lazy brats. What can I do?” The rabbi paused before telling the woman to move her chickens into the house.

The next week, the woman told the rabbi things were worse. Her mother-in-law was still as mean as a snake and she now had to work harder than ever to keep the house clean with the chickens inside. The rabbi listened before telling the woman to also bring in her goat and the week after that, her cow.

Finally, a month after she’d first confided to the rabbi, he told the woman to move all the animals out the house. A week later, the rabbi asked the woman how she was doing. “Oh, my goodness, my life has never been better since the animals went back to the barn!”

Shelter-in-place laws have upended our lives. And while I don’t want to minimize the reality that some of us will lose loved ones to COVID-19, I try to look for the few lotuses growing in the middle of this muck.

I’ve read several articles on successfully coping through this time and have incorporated some of these ideas along with my own as we map out the new structure of our days. If there’s one take away, it’s this: Be gentle with yourself.

Homeschooling

I respect parents who commit to high-quality home education, but it’s never interested me. I want my children to go away for six-to-eight hours every weekday, which is now indefinitely impossible. Luckily, our heroes—the kids’ teachers—quickly generated at-home lessons.

Will students have the same rigorous education as if school had remained open? No. But will they learn other important things? Undoubtedly. And come May, I hope to build a chicken coop and purchase six bantam chicks. Boom! Spring homeschooling, check.

Food

Now is not the time to diet. No COVID-19 14-day weight loss programs, people. The stress we are all feeling is comparable to deep grief. Eating comfort foods has been shown to improve mood in uncertain times.

Potatoes are my most beloved comfort food—baked, mashed, roasted, fried. The first several days of shelter in place, I was nauseous by 2:30 each day. Once I limited my intake of daily news, my stomach improved, but until I did, salt-and-vinegar potato chips helped calm my roiling stomach.

Do your kids want frozen pizza every day? Or is pizza all you can manage to cook? Nobody will suffer long-term health consequences from eating pizza for a month. Most kids have a favorite fruit and veggie—for Lyra it’s broccoli and grapes, for Leif, it’s cucumbers and kiwis. With little preparation, daily servings of these favorites helps balance out the frozen pizzas.

Sleep

Everyone seems to need more sleep right now. Even my three adult sons are wiped out by 8 p.m. Again, it’s the ongoing undercurrent of stress that wears us down not just emotionally, but physically. Go ahead and sleep nine or 10 hours a night, it’s downtime we need and good for the immune system.

Hugo and Rutabaga

Adopt a dog or cat

There really isn’t a better time to adopt a pet. You’re stuck at home and lonely. You have more time than ever to train your new pet. And, especially if you adopt a dog, they will add needed structure to your day.

Most area animal rescue organizations remain open by appointment. You can preview animals online and then set up a time to meet them. My son Hugo adopted my first “granddogter” last weekend. He and Rutabaga, the cutest thing, now join my dogs and me on our daily walks.

Exercise

Ohio Department of Health director, Dr. Amy Acton (a.k.a. Wonder Woman) recommends walking outdoors while social distancing. Walking outdoors is always great for both mind and body, which we need now more than ever.

Walking with some dog buddies and their humans

On my daily walks at the Akron dog park off Memorial Parkway, I see many of the same people, but do not know their names. Instead I know them as the mom or dad of Karma, Bailey, Tony, Rosie, Tanner, Quinn, Snoopy, Reecey, Felix, Sabine, Freya, Buddy, Rocky, Pepper, Maura and Shadow, to name a few.

It’s been a lifeline to walk (six feet apart) with people I’ve come to know. We chitchat as our dogs romp, thereby filling, if just a little, the socializing void. Frequently, Leif and Lyra come too, with their bikes, which they ride up and down the trail with the dogs chasing after them.

Read

Take advantage of this break from our normally busy lives and read books. I am sending friends and family Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, written by Eliese Goldbach who worked for three years in the Cleveland steel mills. In her nonfiction bildungsroman, Goldbach unflinchingly recounts episodes in her life that formed her into the woman she’s become.

Though she’s young enough to be my daughter, Goldbach and I studied for our MFAs in creative writing together more than a decade ago. From the first time I read one of her pieces, her talent floored me. With crisp prose, she pulls readers into the complexity of the mills and her life, while highlighting the resilience of Northeast Ohio’s working class citizens.

Stay calm, stay healthy and most importantly, be kind to yourself and others. When we are finally released from sheltering at home, may we, like the woman after her farm animals returned to the barn, find renewed appreciation for the many things we so recently took for granted.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 6, 2020.

Coming to terms with a new reality

Most women don’t look pregnant when they discover a plus sign on a pregnancy test and, for those who don’t instantly get morning sickness, they don’t feel pregnant either. Each knows she is, but it’s surreal. And then, maybe 10 to 12 weeks into gestation, it becomes very real.

And so it’s been with the coronavirus pandemic.

In January of this year, the first coronavirus death was reported in China where healthcare workers who hit the alarm bells early on were not just ignored, they were often silenced and punished for doing so. Had the Chinese government heeded those first warnings, perhaps the virus would not have developed into a pandemic.

As I write this, my second son, Hugo, is driving my minivan back to Rochester, New York to collect his belongings. We had discussed heading there this weekend, but as the pace of confirmed cases of coronavirus has increased exponentially, Hugo pointed out that there might soon be an all-out lockdown, à la Italy and Spain.

While I’m passionate about many things from parenting to politics, I rarely get worked up over what I cannot control. For one thing, it’s hard to be effective when consumed with fear or anger. If faced with an emergency, I’m your gal. I don’t freak out at the site of blood, bones or crushed cars. Instead, I calmly assess what needs to be done.

However, like many, I was slow to recognize the coronavirus’ potential to become the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic epidemiologists have been predicting for years. Complacency was the lesson of recent epidemics. Consider the outbreak of Ebola in 2014 — it stayed mostly in Africa and when it did arrive in the US, only a few people who’d had first-hand contact with carriers contracted it.

The coronavirus did not stay put in China. And it quickly became a community-spread virus, meaning many people who caught it had no direct connection to someone who’d recently traveled to any of the virus’ hotspots.

The second week of March, my sons Hugo and Jules were home from their respective colleges for spring break. I felt bad because I was scheduled to conference all week, six to eight hours a day, with my University of Akron students.

And then everything shifted late on Tuesday. Like many universities, by day’s end all three of our universities had suspended face-to-face instruction.

From there it cascaded. On Thursday, Ohio Gov. DeWine announced that all public and private K-12 schools would be closed for the next three weeks, if not longer. At the same time that I was losing the ability to meet with my students, my house became infested with my own children.

This past week, things got real, as they say. Restaurants, bars, museums, libraries, community centers and more were closed for the foreseeable future.

All of Hugo and Jules’s college jobs were suspended and Jules, along with all Ohio State University students, was ordered to move out of his dorm. Hugo has an apartment and, for now, no way to earn money for rent. Our fingers are crossed for a resident-hall refugee to sublet.

Where Italy and Spain are now, the US will likely be in a couple of weeks. I’m grateful that Gov. DeWine has shown true leadership by making sweeping declarations based upon the advice of scientific experts. While inconvenient, the extensive closures of public facilities will save lives and hopefully prevent things from becoming as severe as they are in Italy and Spain.

My 10-year-old son, Leif, recently told me he was afraid of the coronavirus. Of course he is. Usually I gauge what I tell young children by first asking them what they think, such as when they ask, “Where do babies come from?”

But I didn’t do that this time. Instead, I gave Leif the facts he needs to know for now. I explained the closures and social distancing were important so everyone doesn’t get sick at the same time, which would overwhelm our hospitals.

I also said that children like him are less likely to contract coronavirus (close to 1% of confirmed cases according to recent statistics in “U.S. News and World Report”) and have fewer complications if they do. Thank heavens.

At first, life felt like we were on summer break, when I try to work in my home office and constantly tell my noisy kids to go outside. But it’s a lot harder. We can’t reward ourselves at the end of the day by going to a favorite restaurant or promising a museum visit in the days ahead. And there are no camps to send kids to.

But we will adjust. A new normal will temporarily take hold.

When expecting my first child, I took an adaptive swim class at Ohio State, where I was in graduate school. A man with multiple sclerosis and I had individualized instruction based upon our conditions.

On my way to the showers after class, I’d pass a floor-to-ceiling mirror that was as wide as it was tall. Like bread dough rising in a bowl, I watched my belly grow from week to week. When the class ended less than a month before Claude was born, my reflection alarmed me. I thought, “That watermelon will soon come out of me!”

And he did. Not without some pain and hard work, but in the end we were all fine and my world expanded immeasurably.

The next several weeks things are going to get harder before they get easier. Please work diligently to keep each other safe. We truly are all in this together. And when we no longer need to practice social distancing, our worlds will feel like they, too, have expanded immeasurably.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, March 22, 2020.

Parks need levy to maintain priceless jewel

America is bejeweled with spectacular national parks and monuments, several of which we visited. At sunset the day before we hiked the Natural Entrance Trail, a 1.25-mile path wending among glittering stalactites to the bottom of the Carlsbad Caverns, we watched the resident bat colony pour out of its mouth.

We camped at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim where, because of the high altitude, the August nights were cold. The jutting splendor of Yosemite, also called “God’s Fingerprint” because it is surrounded by flat farmland, left us slack-jawed. And, like many, we found Mount Rushmore underwhelming.

But something else also struck us: In many of the cities and towns where we stayed there was a noticeable lack of local parks with trails. Take San Antonio, Texas, for example. It’s a friendly city with a rich history, but after touring the Alamo and strolling the nearby River Walk, the main recreational activity seems to be shopping.

In Denver, where both Max and I have family, the Rocky Mountains provide a majestic backdrop. And while the mountains may be a hiker’s and skier’s paradise, Denver residents have to schlep to get to there. You can’t just wake up, grab a cup of joe and decide to hit the trails.

The boys and I returned to Akron newly aware of the unusualness of a treasure we’d taken for granted — Summit County Metro Parks. With 16 parks covering 14,000 acres in Summit County, I enjoy the Metro Parks nearly every day without having to make a plan or pack my car in advance.

My eldest son, Claude, runs from his home to the towpath six days a week. When he was in college in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Claude bemoaned running on sidewalks. I joke that he returned to Akron after graduating not because we, his family are here, but because he loves running on the Metro Park trails more than anywhere else.

Overemphasizing the role Summit Metro Parks play in making Summit County a great place to live is impossible. Who among us hasn’t driven out-of-town guests to one or more of our favorite parks?

My dentist took friends visiting from New England on hikes in our parks. The guest family also went to Disney World and Europe that same summer. And yet, when asked what their favorite trip was, their kids all said visiting Akron.

And now our Metro Parks need us. On the March 17 ballot is the first funding increase the Metro Parks have asked of Summit County voters since 2004. In those 14 years, the park district has added five parks, 5,000 acres and increased trails by 25%. And this is a good thing.

The extended park system we enjoy in Summit County affects both the quality and the longevity of life for residents. According to a recent article in Medical News Today, “Multiple studies have shown that these [green] spaces reduce stress and boost mental and physical health.”

Parks keep cities cooler, reduce carbon in the environment and improve the overall air quality. They also provide habitat for wildlife, something that is essential to protect populations of native species from plummeting.

I expect the levy to pass with overwhelming support, but became concerned when I read a recent letter to the editor from a resident who stated he and his wife regularly hike in the Metro Parks but will not vote for the levy. They feel the $4 million the district spent to acquire the former Valley View Golf Club in 2016 was misspent.

Imagine working at length on a jigsaw puzzle only to discover a middle piece missing. Because it was surrounded by Cascade Valley, Gorge and Sand Run Metro Parks, the golf course was that missing piece. Adding it filled a hole, creating what is now a wildlife corridor.

I walk my dogs most days on the section of the Towpath Trail across the Cuyahoga River from the former golf course. Swales of six-foot tall native grasses, providing habitat for many bird and small mammal species, have already taken over the once-manicured greens.

Like an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, I watch herds of deer bound away from the riverbank. And when they come to a stop, they disappear into the landscape, perfectly camouflaged by the tall, tawny grasses.

Last November, on my birthday, I first observed a bald eagle perched on a tree across the river, eyeing the flowing water for signs of fish. Sighting our nation’s bird on a daily walk was unimaginable most of my life. A better gift I could not have asked for. I’ve since seen what I assume is the same bird four more times.

Without the levy, the park district will exceed its budget by 2025, thereby requiring cuts in staffing, maintenance and programming.

Homeowners currently pay $3.47 per month per $100,000 home valuation. Passage of the levy would add $1.58 per month. With the levy’s success, our community can maintain a resource that is unimaginable in many urban counties. It’s worth every penny.

FYI …

What: Summit County Board of Elections

Where: 500 Grant St., Akron

Early voting hours this week and next: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. next Sunday, March 15 and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, March 16.

Election day: Tuesday, March 17

Handwritten letters more meaningful than emails

When our son Leif turned 10 earlier this month, we hosted a birthday party. After he and his friends played laser tag and ate cake, Leif opened a pile of presents. I sat nearby writing down who gave him what. By the time he’d finished, four of his friends had asked me why I was making a list.

“So he’ll remember who gave him what when he writes his thank-yous,” I told them.

In my office closet, two bankers boxes contain important letters I’ve received throughout my life. But it’s in a desk drawer where I store the letters I value most: those from my grandma, most written in the decade before I graduated high school. Due to a hand tremor she’d had since her 20s, Grandma typed her letters before adding her quavering signature.

The difference between my childhood and my children’s seems less like a generational change than an epochal one. Nobody I knew had home computers. And, until I was in high school, there were no VCRs and few homes had cable TV. You saw movies and shows when they aired and were out of luck if you missed something.

Also, there were no cellphones and most homes had only one or two landlines — big phones with rotary dials attached to walls. Long distance calls, generally those made to any phone number with a different area code than your own, were prohibitively expensive. And so, we wrote letters.

Layers of emotion imbued the writing, anticipating and receiving letters. How can younger generations — who’ve grown up continuously connected through devices — comprehend the giddy feeling that accompanied the arrival of a long and eagerly awaited missive?

I value the ease with which we can now stay in touch and share images, even videos, with friends and family online. But something is lost when every thought, cute moment or (God help us) pithy meme can be instantly transmitted.

Handwritten letters, on the other hand, are composed. Corrections cannot be vaporized with a backspace button. Before ink appears upon paper, thoughts require reflection, like a wort that, once heated, separates alcohol from water to distill into a fine Scotch.

In prior columns, I introduced readers to my friend Jen Marvelous, who circumnavigated the globe with her husband and four daughters in 2016. We first became friends our senior year at Ohio State University.

After graduation in 1992, Jen moved to the Land Institute in Kansas and sent me letters filled with descriptions of heirloom prairie plants and her co-workers. While she was there, I sent her word that I was trying to conceive my first child.

After Kansas, Jen joined the Peace Corps. Soon her letters told me about the beauty and struggles of living in a remote mountain village in Honduras where she taught sustainable agricultural practices to farmers.

But, as with all my former correspondents, eventually our communication moved to email and, later, text messages. Then, three years ago, an envelope arrived. I knew the handwriting immediately, though I’d not seen it in 15 years — a letter from Jen.

She told me how much our long friendship meant to her, what I meant to her. She and another friend had parted ways and she never wanted that to happen to us. Holding her letter in my hands as I read it, I was touched in a way no email could have moved me.

Even though I immediately responded with a letter of my own, it was a week after Jen mailed her letter to me that she received my response. She was so relieved when it finally arrived, telling her how I equally value our relationship.

One of my readers, a woman in her 90s named Barbara, became my first pen pal of this century. For three years, she has regularly written me the most encouraging letters about my columns. Over time, she and I have shared much with one another.

Barbara often encloses clippings of stories from magazines with notes in her delicate handwriting along the margins. I sent her a photo of Max and me with our own nonagenerian, Uncle Bascom, whom I regularly write about in my letters.

In January, Barbara wrote that she was moving from Akron to New Hampshire to be near her son and daughter-in-law. Sadly, we were unable to meet before she moved. On Valentine’s Day, I received a letter from Barbara. She’s settling in at her new apartment and ready to resume our correspondence. I couldn’t be more delighted.

Holding my long-departed grandma’s letters, which her hands touched as she filled them with thoughts about many things, including me, are the closest I can now get to being with her.

This is why from time to time, say an important birthday or a graduation, I write long letters to my children. I tell them what a joy it has been watching them go from chubby peanuts to tall, talented men. “Make sure you keep this letter,” I tell them, “You’ll want it after I’m dead.” They roll their eyes and laugh before hugging me.

But they get it. And they, too, have begun reciprocating. Not every birthday, Christmas or Mother’s Day, but here and there, they write me tender letters. After I’ve savored them with multiple readings, I place my sons’ letters in the same desk drawer as Grandma’s.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on February 23, 2020.

Beyond budgeting: Teach kids to save and donate

Teaching children how to live within a budget is essential. And it is the necessary first step in teaching them, perhaps just as importantly, how to save and donate money.

In my last column, I described some of the ways I teach my kids how to manage money: I give them an allowance and require them to purchase any incidental or impulse items they want. When they are in middle school, I show my kids my bank account statements so they can see how money comes in and goes out, and how that guides my spending.

Finally, I set up each with a checking account and debit card to complement their long-standing savings account at age 16. Having to use their own money gives children the opportunity to learn how to manage finances while the stakes are still low.

Each of my children has, usually in the first year of receiving an allowance, spent their money foolishly at least once. Within days, if not hours, after the purchase, they experience their first case of buyer’s remorse. It’s an invaluable lesson.

Sometimes my boys found themselves without their wallets when wanting to make a purchase. On such occasions, I fronted the money with the understanding that they must pay me back when we return home. This worked well with two of my older boys and does today with Leif, who just turned 10.

But repeatedly, my most impulsive child, Hugo, became angry when I attempted to collect his loan. This raises an important point about parenting: It is not unfair to have different rules for different children. The Bank of Mom quickly rejected all loan applications from Hugo for the better part of 10 years. Thereafter, he became a model borrower.

Another concept I’ve loosely taught my children is the “three 10s,” that is, put 10% of your income into retirement accounts, 10% into savings accounts and give 10% to charities.

I say loosely because few 10-year-olds are interested in retirement savings. But remember, information is power. Nobody can do something they don’t know about. Talking with children about retirement savings long before they need it makes the subject less abstract and, hopefully, lays the foundation for them to begin saving that 10% as adults.

Claude and Jules have both worked for employers that automatically deducted and directed a portion of their income into retirement accounts. Hugo, who will graduate from college this spring, opened a Roth IRA last year. His contributions to his IRA are very small, but he makes one each month.

All my children receive their first savings accounts soon after birth. Thereafter, I deposit all birthday and holiday money they receive into these accounts. By the time they begin earning allowance, each child already has a few hundred dollars in the bank.

After Jules lost his wallet containing more than $50 when he was 8, I stopped paying the boys’ allowances in cash. Instead, I transferred the money online from my checking account to their savings accounts. While protecting the boys from carrying too much money, this also made it simple for me to verify how much I owed them. For it’s easy to forget to pay allowance and hard to remember the last time you did.

I give slightly more than 10% of my income each year to charities, most through recurring monthly donations taken from a dedicated credit card. Occasionally I make one-time gifts to other charities, particularly if asked by someone I know.

Charitable giving is best done as an act of self-determination. Forcing kids to donate their money can create resentment, which makes the lesson of giving backfire. At the end of most years, when the bounty of our lives is readily apparent, I share with my children radio programs or articles on philanthropy (which are easy to find in December).

I do, however, make my children donate their time. They never resist and I suspect it’s because we volunteer together and I don’t pose it as optional. “Today we are going to work at Crown Point farm,” I’ll say, or, “This Saturday, we are working on a project at the school.” Volunteering for something you care about can be fulfilling, with no downside to starting young.

Have the lessons you’ve tried to teach your children taken root in their behavior? It’s impossible to tell when they are with you. The answer lies in what kids do when away from their parents. Nothing makes me happier than having another adult tell me my young children were polite or helpful while in that person’s care.

As adults, my big boys continue to work for groups and causes on their own. Claude spent months organizing for the 2018 election and helps coach middle school distance runners. Jules has been canvassing for a candidate in Columbus where he’s attending Ohio State University. And then there’s Hugo. He has been a mega volunteer for multiple programs in college.

All the big boys are now headed into helping careers in public policy, nonprofit management, education and the environment. They’ve each told me that making a difference is not just important — for them it’s essential to finding career satisfaction. It’s not likely they’ll make as much money as their friends in finance or engineering, but they’ll make enough. More importantly, they’ll enjoy the riches of lives well spent.

Teach kids to be good money managers

Managing money is one of those topics some parents neglect to discuss with their children, abandoning them to figure it out for themselves, often with mixed results.

Like most of my Gen-X cohorts, neither of the households in which I was raised taught, in practical terms, how money works. And I doubt my grandparents explained money to their boomer children either.

In my mother’s house, the refrain on an endless playback loop was “There’s never enough money!” The smallest miscalculation seemed able to pull the family further down an insurmountable pit of debt.

One Saturday morning, a notice arrived stating that the electric company had not received the prior month’s payment. Like a picador hitting its bovine mark, my mother cornered my stepfather and me in the kitchen, her sudden fury causing us to freeze.

She’d paid the bill! How dare they threaten to turn off the power! They’d cashed her check! Spittle whitened the corners of her mouth. I surreptitiously glanced at the opened notice, which had been flung onto the counter. In small print was the sentence, “If this bill has already been paid, please disregard,” but I didn’t dare point it out.

My father and stepmom were the only hippies in a swank resort town where most locals try to keep up with the uber rich tourists. My father’s chronic unemployment was punctuated by a string of odd jobs including seasonal work packaging live Christmas trees. For a time, he cashiered at a hardware store where they let him bring his parrot, Bailey, to work (and where Bailey learned to say, “Does he bite?”).

The job Dad held the longest was at a newspaper 50 miles south in the area’s largest city. Back then, photos were still taken with film and my dad operated the machine that converted photographs into clusters of dots — basic pixelation — making them printable on newsprint.

The only time I heard my dad and stepmom fight was after he walked away from the newspaper job. The boss had been rude to him for the last time. Sitting on my bed, my sister and I easily heard my stepmom barking at our father in the kitchen: “Just how are we going to pay the mortgage or anything else? Did you think of that before you walked away with your pride?”

I wanted a different relationship with money for myself and my children.

While the basics of a budget seem straightforward, it is important to teach kids how it works. I’ve known more than one person raised in a family of means — where the parents paid for everything from clothes to cars to college — who never learned fiscal responsibility.

And I know kids who’ve been trained by their parents to expect to be given whatever they fancy in stores. When my children ask if they can have something, I reply, “Did you bring your money?” For once they are 5 years old, I give my kids an allowance equal in dollars to their age. Like most people, children will spend someone else’s money frivolously, but more reluctantly part with their own cash.

When my children are 12, I show them my bank accounts online. They see for themselves that balances increase with each deposit and decrease with each payment. Scroll through two or three months of activity, and patterns are recognizable. Some deposits and some payments are the same every month. Others, such as credit card balances (which I pay in full), vary.

At age 16, my kids open a checking account, on which I’m a signatory, and receive an associated debit card. Because I started this before services such as PayPal and Venmo existed, I gave each of the boys access to my online banking. Requiring absolute trust, which I’ve never been given reason to doubt, we can transfer funds to each other as needed.

Also at 16, I give each of my boys a credit card for which I’m the primary cardholder. This has the practical benefit of letting them pick things up for me at stores. And when they go to college, they can use it when necessary, so long as they check with me first.

Rather than believing there is never enough money, I tell my children to think back and ask the following questions: Was there ever a time we were not able to afford our needs? Was there ever a time we were not able to fund our desires? The answer to both is no, regardless of how much or little money we had.

This isn’t because we’ve actually ever been flush, but because we live in our means, which sometimes means scaling back, and are unafraid of work of any kind (I cleaned houses the first two years after I left my ex-husband). We are also fortunate to live in a beautiful region where the cost of living is relatively low.

Raising children to become successful adults really boils down to three simple things: Show up, openly discuss anything important and model the behavior you wish to see. And when you fail, as all parents do from time to time, remember that your kids will always give you another chance to get it right.

Contact Holly Christensen at whoopsiepiggle@gmail.com.

This column was published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 26, 2020.

Smartphones are changing our brains

Over Thanksgiving weekend, Max went on an internet shopping spree, and we now live in a two-television household. This only four years after I first allowed cable service for the TV in our finished basement.

As I have written before, I firmly believe minimal screen time is essential to a healthy childhood — a position that leaves me feeling like Cassandra piteously trying to warn her fellow Trojans that the giant horse is loaded with murderous Greeks.

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984,” people are controlled by fear. Reminders are plastered everywhere that Big Brother, who may or may not be a real person, is watching each and every citizen.

But instead of a totalitarian state forcibly monitoring us, we welcome screens (most of which mine our data and listen to our conversations) into every aspect of our lives. Like the victims of vampires, we must first invite these monsters into our homes before they can drain us.

The first iPhone was released in June of 2007, and smartphones soon became ubiquitous. Today’s college freshmen were about 6 years old in 2007, and few, if any, have memories of life without these pocket-sized screens.

Launched before smartphones — YouTube (2005), Facebook (2006) and Twitter (2006) — and after — Instagram (2010) and Snapchat (2011) — social media sites found the ground even more fertile on our handheld devices than anywhere else. Bored in a check-out line, a waiting room or the car? Scroll away.

The omnipresence of screens, both large and especially small, is changing our brains physiologically — most drastically those of children raised since the smartphone pandemic began.

Alison Gopnik, a psychologist and professor at the University of Berkeley who specializes in how children learn and develop has written that: “Each new generation of children grows up in the new environment its parents have created, and each generation of brains becomes wired in a different way. The human mind can change radically in just a few generations.”

In other words, what a child is exposed to impacts how his brain develops. For example, every baby is born with the capacity to speak any of the roughly 6,500 human languages. But as each child is exposed to the language spoken by her parents, her brain weeds out the facility for speaking most others.

On the second day of her life, our daughter, Lyra, was diagnosed with bilateral cataracts and immediately scheduled to have her lenses surgically removed. Doing so allowed her nascent brain to develop as that of a sighted, not blind, person.

Furthermore, brains eagerly release happy chemicals like dopamine and endorphins when stimulation feels rewarding, a bar set pretty low.

Remember Pavlov’s dogs? They automatically salivated when given food. After several weeks of playing a metronome just before feeding, the dogs began salivating whenever they heard the metronome — whether or not food appeared — which is a conditioned response.

Smartphone apps all benefit from a conditioned response in which a brain gets a “hit” of happy chemicals for irrelevant stimuli, such as how many likes a social media post receives or finding a new treasure or tool in a video game. YouTube algorithmically picks videos, based upon what you’ve previously watched, to pop up as soon as a video you’ve chosen ends.

Even adults whose childhoods consisted of only one screen — a TV with three, maybe four, channels — struggle not to check their phones whenever they have down time. Too many brains are now unwilling to digest material that requires active effort — i.e. dissemination, analysis, contemplation. Sales of books, magazines and newspapers have all suffered as a result.

I was the first in our family to have an iPhone and because I was ignorant of the many distractions they provide, I used it much as I had my previous phone, a Blackberry: I checked my email and text messages, and used the GPS.

Then five years ago, I naively bought iPhones for my older boys. A year later, Hugo handed me his iPhone and asked for service to be restored to his old flip phone. Unbeknownst to me, he had become addicted to YouTube, and it was sucking time away from things he cared deeply about, such as making music.

Two years later, Jules came to me with the same request. I’ll not make the same mistake with Leif and Lyra, who will have non-smartphones until they graduate from high school. And as with the big boys, no phones until the ninth grade.

I understand the impulse to give kids screens in order to keep them out of your hair while cooking dinner or working. But without screens, kids find something better to do.

Leif, who is 9, has read three of the seven Harry Potter books and listened to the other four on audiobooks from the library, often while creating structures with his LEGOs. And he plays.

Recently, two of Leif’s friends were over, running around our backyard with Zing Air Hyperstrike bows and arrows. It started raining and when the boys didn’t come in, I checked on them. They were building a fort with sticks fallen from our trees, which they had collected, not at all deterred by the December rain.

I am worried about today’s young people. Many of the college freshmen I teach are stunningly unaware of books, movies and television shows that were created for them. Instead, their brains have been fed a diet of social media and video games — a gruel as intellectually nutritious as water and sawdust.

Our new TV is on the main floor and requires a code for all programs. Over the holidays, it was often tuned to Turner Classic Movies, which Leif enjoys as much as the rest of us. But as soon as school resumed, so did the house rule: no screen time on school nights.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on January 12, 2020.

Inclusion is a blessing for all

I first saw Todd Eisinger’s photo in Firestone High School’s Hall of Fame when my eldest son, Claude, was a sophomore. Todd’s picture hangs alongside other accomplished Firestone alums, including astronaut Judith Resnik and rock star Chrissie Hynde.

Todd is in the lineup as an athlete who swam for Firestone. Later, in China in 2007, Todd won four medals in swimming events at the World Special Olympics Summer Games. For you see, Todd has Down syndrome.

In 2012, the same summer Claude graduated from Firestone, our daughter Lyra was born with Down syndrome. She was less than 24 hours old when my obstetrician asked if I knew Todd Eisinger. I said I did not, for I had never learned the name of the young man in the photo at Firestone.

The first weeks of Lyra’s life were unsurprisingly intense as Max and I experienced a rush of emotions and concerns. We knew little more than anecdotes about raising a child with DS. But even more distressing were the eye surgeries Lyra underwent at 5 weeks and 6 weeks old to remove her bilateral, congenital cataracts.

Two months later, as I pushed Lyra’s stroller into a shop, a clerk spied a book on Down syndrome in the stroller’s basket. She enthusiastically asked me, “Does your baby have Down syndrome?” When I told her she did, the young woman said her cousin Todd Eisinger had DS and he just blew her away — there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do when he set his mind to it.

In 1982, Debby and Lee Eisinger brought a child with DS into a world very different than I did in 2012. Things have changed because of the Eisingers and other parents who, in the 1980s and ’90s, adamantly advocated for their children. Their persistent work made possible endless opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities where few had existed before.

Perhaps the most important change has been the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of life, rather than sequestering them, as was the norm for far too long. Todd’s life and accomplishments are a testament to the value of inclusion.

In Akron Public Schools, Lyra attends a general ed classroom where an aide keeps her on task. Each day, one of the school’s interventionists (what we used to call special ed teachers) pulls Lyra from her classroom for additional instruction.

Students enthusiastically greet Lyra in the hallways and classroom, often stopping to hug her. Kids understand what many adults do not yet, which is children with disabilities are not to be feared.

Unlike when her brothers were 7 years old, Lyra does not receive invitations to birthday parties or playdates. And this, I believe, is the legacy of parents who did not grow up in communities where children with disabilities were included and who are, therefore, unsure of what inviting such a child means and how they will behave.

Study after study has shown that inclusion maximizes the potential of children with disabilities. But it also benefits the typical population. Spending time with people who are not just like you increases awareness of how little different they actually are. This is as true with physical and intellectual abilities as it is with race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

At last summer’s National Down Syndrome Congress convention, joining a church choir was on a long list of inclusion opportunities. As longtime readers may recall, two years ago Max and I, who are practicing Buddhists, joined the choir at Westminster Presbyterian Church because our dear friend Jim Mismas, who had been the organist and choir director for 23 years, was retiring.

Last year, after our friend retired, we attended church services from time to time, visiting with parishioners we now call friends.

This year, Leif and Lyra are members of the children’s choir, and we are again regularly attending church. Max sings with the adult choir while I sit with Leif and Lyra in the pews. I love singing in the choir, but equally enjoy nestling with our children for the first part of the service.

When the children’s sermon is called, Lyra gallops down the aisle to the chancel steps. Then, after the short talk, the kids are dismissed for their choir practice, which Max also attends, helping Lyra learn the routine.

Leif and Lyra wait to perform in the Westminster Christmas Pageant on Dec. 12This month, Leif and Lyra participated in the Christmas pageant. During the first rehearsal, Lyra, in the role of an angel, fiddled with her halo until it broke. Rehearsing on the morning of the pageant, Lyra refused to stand to the side of the chancel with the other angels. She wanted to sit on the steps with the manger animals. And so, shortly before the performance, Lyra became one of them.

“Sheep! Sheep!” Lyra repeated in the pew before the service began, her fuzzy costume covering her mouth. Several parishioners near us giggled with delight.

I do not believe any one religion is exclusively right and all others are wrong. I do believe it is important to tend to the spiritual lives of our children. And so, because most Buddhist centers are not set up to accommodate children, for many years I took my sons to a Buddhist family camp in Vermont. And yet, while a lovely way to spend a week, it is an inadequate substitute for a local spiritual community.

In a recent sermon, Westminster Presbyterian Church’s pastor told his congregation that a welcoming community makes visitors return and become members. This Presbyterian church within walking distance from our home openly invites our slightly unconventional family to participate in warm and thoughtful spiritual practice. And it is a place where Lyra is not just welcomed but cherished by members willing to meet her where she’s at. It’s a blessing to us all.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 29, 2019.

Christmas, chaos and time well spent

Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan in “Christmas in Connecticut”

“Christmas in Connecticut” has been my favorite holiday movie for many years. Just ask any of my children, two of whom refuse to watch it yet another time. Filmed in 1945 before the war’s end, Barbara Stanwyck plays a food writer whose column includes details about her life with her husband and baby on their small farm in Connecticut.

The thing is, our writer isn’t married, doesn’t have a baby and lives in an apartment in NYC. She can’t even cook! This doesn’t bother her editor so long as her column generates sales. But when her publisher, a Randolph Hearst-like man, decides to send a wounded veteran to her Connecticut home for Christmas and that he, too, will be joining them,  we’re off to weaving tangled webs of hilarity with a perfectly delightful rom-com ending.

How my life has come to imitate art with regards to my favorite film! I write a column similar to that of Stanwyck’s character, who even breaks up (to all the other characters’ delight) with a man in the same profession as my ex-husband.

But unlike our heroine, I do have the five children about whom I’ve written many times over the past three years. I do live in West Akron, teach at our local university, shop at the Acme and walk my dogs in our parks. However, were my publisher to arrive at my door—well, let’s just hope he doesn’t.

I see mom-blogs with photos of elegant women whose clean children wear crisp outfits while playing in lushly manicured yards or rooms with nary a toy out of place. I get it, these photos are curated and nobody lives like that. But they can leave the rest of us feeling a tad inadequate.

Except for when I’m in the classroom or meeting with students, I work at home. In order to remain productive, I have near-perfect tunnel vision. I heat up coffee without looking at the dishes in the sink, on the counter or the stovetop. I work on my laptop without seeing the piles of documents on my desk or, when I work there, the newspapers strewn across the dining room table.

When I go upstairs, I avoid looking down lest I see the rolling balls of animal fur or, depending upon the bedroom, LEGOS a-scatter, dollies a-jumble or baskets of clean laundry waiting to be folded.

Even though only two of our five kids now live with us full time, they vigorously coordinate with the three dogs and four cats to facilitate entropy. That is, what is orderly is doomed to slide into chaos.

Stanwyck’s character relies on a man she calls Uncle Felix, scene-stealingly played by Hungarian actor S.Z. Sakall (whose three sisters all died in Nazi concentration camps), for the recipes in her column and her meals. Unlike her, Max and I love to cook. We’re even pretty good at it. But what we often lack is time. Luckily, we have our own version of Uncle Felix.

On Mondays, I begin my hour-long carpool pick up at 3 p.m. From 4:30 to 5:30, Lyra and Leif have back-to-back piano lessons. That’s why most Mondays we eat dinner at our “second kitchen,” a.k.a., Macaroni Grill. And, as opposed to the other nights we’re there, their healthy kids’ meals are free on Mondays and Tuesdays (with each adult entree ordered).

There’s a saying that people go to a restaurant because of the food, but return because of the service. At our second kitchen, which has very little turnover, we know everyone’s name and we are greeted with hugs. Jake’s been working there as long as I’ve lived in Akron. He was just 16 when he first waited on us. Today, 20 years later, he’s the apple of Lyra’s eyes.

Now that the semester has ended, I have time to cook and our second kitchen has seen us only twice in the past two weeks. I am plowing my way through disorderly rooms, closets and cupboards. Scrubbing the fridge and editing the toys are also on my list.  General order is slowly being restored before the whirlwind of the holidays blows it all to smithereens.

The mother of a friend, who also has several children, regularly tells her, “Someday, in the not too distant future, all you will have is a clean home and you’ll want for these days where life is too full to ever have things as clean as you think you want them.”

Kids don’t care if a home looks like it’s out of a Pottery Barn catalog. In fact, they’d prefer it not. When grown, what they’ll remember most fondly are the times spent together, often making the messes.

So pile onto the couch with your loved ones and a plate of cookies and watch one of your favorite movies (you know my recommendation). Who cares if crumbs get between the cushions? That’s what vacuums—and dogs—are for.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 15, 2019.

Contact Holly Christensen at whoopsiepiggle@gmail.com.

A mother’s college advice: Major in something you love

And so it went on a recent phone call with my son Jules, who is a freshman at Ohio State.

In kindergarten, Jules broke up with his best friend because the boy loved smashing ant hills. As soon as he could read, Jules devoured countless books about ants and their colonies. After he had read every book written by E.O. Wilson, the eminent myrmecologist, or ant expert, Jules sent Wilson a letter along with pen-and-ink sketches.

Max’s mom introduced Jules to birding when he was 9, which he took to like geese to golf courses. He joined the Ohio Young Birders Club and one year they awarded him a scholarship to study shore birds in Delaware with the American Birding Association.

In high school, Jules focused on bees. For two years, he helped do research at the University of Akron on the rusty-patched bumblebee. Once ubiquitous in Ohio, this bee species has declined by 87% in the past 20 years. Jules was part of a UA biology crew that crisscrossed the northern half of Ohio (a crew from Ohio State worked the southern half) looking for the rusty-patched bumblebee. They never found a single one.

I have a son with a degree in English literature and another who’s about to get a dual degree in opera vocal performance and European history. Perhaps that’s why I’ve made much ado of the fact that, with Jules, I also have a scientist in the fold. He chose Ohio State because of its renowned biology programs and was placed in the college’s scholars program, which includes housing with other biology-related majors.

“So, Mama,” Jules said when he called, “so the thing is, and I need you to be OK with it, but I’ve really been thinking about it and, well, so, I think what I want to do is, well, switch majors.”

“OK,” I say, not alarmed. He first enrolled as an environmental science major before quickly switching to ecology, which is similar, but focuses more on the big picture.

“Yeah, so, well,” Jules said while giggling. “Um, yeah. I want to study philosophy.”

“Philosophy? What?”

“Yeah, and when I tell my friends in the dorm, they all think that’s perfect for me.” Ah, the fail-safe feedback of floor mates whom you’ve known for two months.

“OK,” I said in a drawn-out way, inviting more explanation.

“Well, with ecology, so, you see, I really don’t want to do all that math and, yeah.”

“You might want to wait until you take a couple courses in logic before declaring a major in philosophy,” I told him. I loved my first logic course when I studied at OSU many moons ago. Learning to recognize fallacious arguments is valuable. Logic II, however, was more like an algebra class with letters equally this or that or not.

Before calling me, Jules had sought Hugo’s advice on how to break the news. “Praise Jesus and welcome to the family! I always thought you were adopted or a freak for wanting to go into the sciences and all that math,” Hugo told him in the course of an hour-and-a-half phone conversation.

The only high school math course I understood was geometry, which made visual sense. Also, I had Mrs. Conrad, an older woman who was both a teacher and a farmer and wore homemade polyester dresses. She read a poem at the beginning of each class and posted a different quote across the top of the board every week. Mrs. Conrad could have gotten me to enjoy kidney and liver pie.

Not wanting to color their opinions, I’ve never told my children how difficult math was for me. But the jig is up. We’ve all come clean and, thus far, I’ve spawned three men who, like me, love literature, art, music and history — math, not so much.

When applying to colleges, Jules was so set on studying biology that I neglected to give him my elevator speech on picking a major: Few people end up doing for a living whatever it was they studied as an undergrad. Therefore, study something that brings you joy. All I insist upon is that you do, in fact, get a bachelor’s degree.

Other parents approach college differently. Not surprisingly, my first-generation college students at the University of Akron overwhelmingly study computer science, engineering, medicine. Some parents refuse to allow their children to major in things like visual art, music, dance. And if they are paying for it, they have that right.

My kids are paying for their own college educations. I help them whenever I can, but they’ve all worked while in school and taken out loans. Time will tell if my advice on majors is wise, but so far I haven’t had any complaints.

“Thank you, Mama, whew! I feel so much better now,” said Jules when, near the end of our phone call, I gave him my speech. “And, hey, by the way, before I hang up, yeah, so, um, yeah. I got my ear pierced last week.”

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, December 1, 2019.

Contact Holly Christensen at whoopsiepiggle@gmail.com.

Supporting student success should be top priority of universities

Dear University of Akron President Gary Miller:

Welcome to Akron, a great place to live for many reasons: its park-filled river valley, friendly residents and housing stock, over which a Goodyear Blimp regularly sails, that is both gorgeous and affordable. Also, we have a killer library system, art museum and performance venues.

And, of course, there’s the University of Akron.

Several recent publications on thriving small cities in America, including the book “Our Towns” by Deborah and James Fallows, cite the presence of a local university as a key ingredient. Nowhere is this truer than here.

But the past decade has been difficult. After a period of overly ambitious campus-wide renovations, the university has struggled financially. Many employees feel the response to the fiscal crisis by prior administrators and the board of trustees has been to knock out the supports many students need to succeed.

In light of your early actions and communications, the current temperature on campus is guarded optimism. Your recent “Principles for Planning” letter and “Affirming Our Promises” strategic plan indicate that we may finally have a leader as committed to the success of our students as most UA staff and faculty are.

According to the university’s website, approximately 24% of our students are first-generation college attendees. As an adjunct instructor in the English department, I’ve found it’s more than half in my freshman composition classes. Many of these students arrive on campus believing they are college-ready when, in fact, they are not.

Oh, it’s not that they aren’t smart and hard-working. They are that and more. I suspect students from inner-city school districts were passed along because they were bright and not disruptive.

And many rural communities do not have rich enough tax bases to fund college-prep academics. This is a problem for these students but also for UA, where fewer than half our students obtain a bachelor’s degree after eight years on the main campus. And it’s a problem for our community, because we need UA graduates to join Akron’s workforce. The stronger our workforce, the more likely businesses will locate and stay here.

What can be done to adequately support UA students so that most obtain a bachelor’s degree in a reasonable amount of time?

A lot more than we do now.

The Office of Multicultural Development (OMD) does many things to address these issues. They have their own opt-in orientation program that, along with the usual components, provides information on what supports are available. And perhaps most importantly, they have a peer-mentorship program.

Over 90% of the student mentors graduate.

OMD was once run by eight full-time staffers and one administrative assistant. But due to funding cuts, for the past several years there have only been two full-time staffers and one admin (last month a third staff member was hired). All OMD services, including the augmented orientations, have suffered as a result.

Again, due to funding cuts, the Writing Lab, which I require all my students to use, also has a skeletal staff compared to a decade ago. Nor does the Writing Lab have a dedicated director who, when it did, held instructional meetings on strategies to help students become effective writers — something needed in all professions.

The Help-a-Zip program allows faculty to refer students for whom they have any concerns, be it academic, personal, mental health or financial. This important safety net is staffed by one person.

When my eldest son went to the University of Michigan, he was automatically placed in their Comprehensive Studies Program (CSP), because he had graduated from an inner-city school. UM admissions also targets students from rural districts and first-gen college attendees for this program.

The CSP includes its own group of academic advisers, workshops and free tutoring for a variety of subjects, including math and foreign language, all of which my son took advantage. Three years after he graduated, he is still in touch with his CSP adviser.

North Central College in Illinois also actively supports first-gen students. As one student put it in a recent NPR story, “We don’t have anyone in our families to rely on to give us that advice [for figuring out college],” she says, “so we need some help from the broader community to help us to get on board.”

In workshops and lectures, NCC teaches first-gen students how to successfully navigate college. They also provide free meals — once a week for freshmen and once a month for sophomores — where students are joined by faculty who are also first-gen.

Students who participate in a majority of these events receive a $1,000 recurring scholarship.

The support systems in place at UA are whispers of what they should be, due to lack of revenue, not lack of will. Some of that revenue was cut by the state, but plenty more resulted from the runaway expansion plan, and resulting fiscal deficit, by your predecessor Luis Proenza.

President Scott Scarborough, hired to fix the deficit, made matters worse. No matter how poorly thought-out, both men’s whims enjoyed the rubber-stamping of the same board of trustees.

We live in an era of economic disparity unseen since the Gilded Age. UA exists to educate students and yet we cannot fund the most basic supports for our students. That your two aforementioned predecessors receive a combined total of $633,000 a year from the university’s coffers — for which they provide nothing of value — is immoral. Those who permitted such unabashed plundering should go.

The challenge for you to make UA again work for its most important constituency, our students, is great. So please know that if you continue to take appropriate measures to promote academic excellence for all students, you will enjoy the strong support of all those who work with UA’s students. For your success will be everyone’s success.

Godspeed —

Holly Christensen

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 17, 2019.

The time-consuming job of affordably clothing multiple children

Two seasons of the year, spring and fall, one parent in every household with children too young for high school takes on an unpaid, part-time job: clothing processor. The assignment is most labor intensive in the fall thanks to school clothes and winter gear.

With my first three boys, the task was simple. Sorting in chronological order from eldest to youngest, I analyzed everything — pants, T-shirts, long-sleeved shirts, sweaters, even underwear.

What no longer fit was set in a pile for the next boy to wear.

In the basement of our 1909 home was a room half the size of the house’s footprint. It contained the washer, dryer and utility sink, along with a gas canning stove, which I never used but found antiquely charming. To the left of the two-burner stove was a wooden basket that caught laundry from a two-story chute. On the right, deep shelves lined the wall.

Rows of baseball cleats, track cleats, both rain and snow boots waited in orderly lines on these shelves to be, yet again, the correct size for one of my sons. Below the shelves were large plastic tubs, labelled in black Sharpie on masking tape: SHIRTS. PANTS. STUFF. Stuff was pjs, undies and anything else that wasn’t shirts or pants.

On a rack over the little stove hung winter and rain coats, along with snow and rain pants.

It was a good system, and my second son, Hugo, was its major beneficiary. Claude kept his clothes gently worn and stain-free. Hugo fixed that right away, spilling spaghetti sauce or chocolate milk on his shirts, particularly the white ones. He also excelled at putting holes in the knees of his pants, which I’d repair with iron-on patches patterned with red flames.

After Hugo’s turn, some clothing went to Goodwill or the trash, leaving Jules with a mix of old and new clothing. New sometimes meant purchased at stores in the mall, but could also mean just “new to us.”

I know some people cannot bring themselves to wear clothes once owned by a stranger. I figure once washed, it’s no different than any of our other clothes. I consider myself a veteran thrifter, and we live in a region with stellar thrift stores. The Village Discount Outlet, which we just call the Villager, is this family’s favorite.

In the fourth grade, Claude lost two GAP hoodie sweatshirts purchased at the mall. He’d get warm when playing, remove and forget them. Thereafter, his sweatshirts were all thrifted.

Later, when Claude needed his first sports coat, I found a Burberry jacket with a light blue window-pane pattern on a dark mustard background at a thrift store near the old Randall Park Mall in Cleveland. The purchase price and alterations totaled less than $50.

With my littles, however, I had to revamp my system. For one thing, I don’t pass Leif’s clothes to Lyra (except for school shirts). I thought I would, but after four boys, oh, what fun girls clothes are!

My new system starts the same as my old system: go through everything — drawer by drawer, closet by closet — and remove outgrown items. Some clothes, especially shirts with designs (dinosaurs for Leif, sequins for Lyra), require covert removal on the part of the clothing processor.

Outgrown clothes are organized in three piles: consignment shop, hand-me-downs and Goodwill.

Before giving away our hand-me-downs, I take the first pile to Hipsters Children’s Consignment shop in Bainbridge.

Every other week, I have lunch with our Uncle Bascom who lives in the village just west of Bainbridge. I leave Akron by 10 in order to stop first at Hipsters. While Becky, the delightful owner, goes through the clothing I brought to consign, I shop. Whatever she doesn’t take ends up in my hand-me-down pile.

Living in Bainbridge and its surrounding communities are many very rich people. “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote.

True, perhaps, but they, too, have to clothe their children.

Shopping at Hipsters, I imagine the very rich purchase entire wardrobes for their children every season. And this is wonderful! It means the consigned stock is largely high-end brands, many of which I’ve never heard of until I find them there.

On my last visit, I bought Leif a pair of Shaun White snow pants by Burton for $20 (retail $125), and for Lyra a pair by Columbia for $17.99 (retail $50). The Velcro on both pairs is so pristine I doubt either have ever spent a moment outdoors on a child’s body. Mmm-mm, I do love a good bargain!

Life has many bookends. After our lunches, Bascom has me go through clothes — both his and those of his cousin Sandy with whom he lived for 60 years until Sandy’s death in 2008. Gracious in all things, at 97, Bascom has been diligently Marie Kondo-ing his possessions so that one day we won’t have to.

I’ve taken shearling coats, Irish sweaters purchased at Saks, varieties of leather jackets, and more, some of which the big boys have happily adopted. I always take everything, knowing Bascom feels better giving them to me rather than discarding them in a donation box. And this makes him feel foolish, which he reminds me each time I place his piles of clothes next to bags from Hipsters.

I send encouragement to all my fellow clothes processors. Once we’ve reviewed and replaced our kids’ winter gear, which will soon be in full use, this season’s work will be finished. And that means … preparations for the holidays will soon begin. Oh, my.

This first appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, November 3, 2019.

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©2019 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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On Depression and Parenting

Opal drives a lackluster Ford pickup, its faded paint more of a burnt umber than the original Santa-suit red. With her dogs riding shotgun, Opal leaves Ohio one day without notice, driving west through the skinny states and a few of the wide ones.

The journey ends in Montana or maybe Idaho. Somewhere in big sky country where the open landscape sweeps up feelings of confinement, loss, agitation and more before tossing them into the atmosphere to become painterly clouds.

Opal settles in a town small enough to be quiet, but big enough to ignore her and the dogs. She rents a room by the month in a weather-worn, single-story hotel and hires on for the 5 a.m. shift at a local diner. Her afternoons are spent wearing out the dogs with walks alongside rivers and writing without interruption.

Like Eleanor Roosevelt’s Griselda, Opal is my personification of depression.

Years go by with no word from Opal, and then something, or even nothing, will trigger her to make contact. Mostly, like the wisps of steam rising from a cup of morning coffee, she quickly dissipates.

But when Opal plops down for a good long stay, she unpacks insomnia, headaches, weepy bouts and intermittent nausea. Worst of all, she’s a master ruminator. Thoughts about past events, comments made the day before, lists of things needing done — these and more she turns over and over like rocks in a polishing machine.

Were I to accept Opal’s standing invitation and drive away, my feelings, thoughts and moods would simply accompany me like Opal’s dogs do her. And yet there were times, especially in my 30s, when her siren’s call was potent.

As a child, I was my mother’s favored receptacle for her wellspring of rage. I struggled with depression and suicidal ideation starting in middle school, if not earlier.

While other children played games or gossiped during recess, my best friend and I sat with our backs on the sun-warmed bricks of the school. Her father was also abusive and we talked, day after day, about our lives after we could escape our parents.

When that day arrived, I sought professional help, both psychological and psychiatric. While this was enormously helpful, it wasn’t a cure.

A baby who has colic for nearly six months can give any parent or caregiver mental health issues. Hugo was such a baby when I was first prescribed Zoloft. By his first birthday, Hugo had become as happy as he was cherubic, and I no longer needed an antidepressant.

According to the National Institutes for Health, in any given year 1 in 10 American mothers suffers a major depressive disorder. And yet, even though a federal law (passed in 1996) requires parity in funding for mental and physical health issues, there is still a large coverage gap for mental health care.

Perhaps the lack of affordable treatment options is why there are few statistics for mothers having mental health episodes that are not major enough as to require hospitalization, but are difficult nonetheless.

I belong to a closed Facebook group in which all the members are women. In this private space, one woman timidly described her mental health difficulties but also her fear of taking Zoloft. For weeks thereafter, dozens of women from all walks of life recounted very personal stories about depression, therapy and medications.

Qualified professional help is the most important step in managing depression and other mental health issues. If a therapist seems “meh,” try again. He or she may be perfect for someone else, but the therapeutic relationship is just that — a relationship, which is why it’s important to find a therapist with whom you click.

And while antidepressants are not a panacea for all sufferers, they have helped countless people get to the other side of an episode. And just as diabetics need insulin to live, some people need to take antidepressants indefinitely, or always.

During my tortuously long divorce, I never needed, nor took, Zoloft. But after Max was laid off in 2015 by the only law firm for which he’d worked, he remained underemployed for three years. The chronic stress over finances affected my physical and mental health. Zoloft helped.

Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health concerns is still significant. Increasing awareness of the benefits of active treatment reduces the perception that having a mental health issue is somehow a character fault.

This is why I applaud Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and late-night comedian Conan O’Brien for speaking publicly in recent months about seeing therapists and, in O’Brien’s case, accepting pharmaceutical treatment.

For parents who are not flattened by their depression, caring for children can itself be helpful (along with professional care). Parenting requires thinking of someone else and helps the ruminating brain to pause, if only temporarily.

Children know their parents better than anyone knows anyone else. When he was 8 years old, my eldest son was aware that I was depressed. He did not have the language for it then, but he does now and he’s shared with me the concern he felt as a boy.

On one hand, that breaks my heart a little. I wanted my children to feel always secure with me in charge of our lives and never worry about me. But nobody’s life is eternal days of sunshine. Rain falls in them all.

How parents deal with life’s rainy times is fundamental. Our children are watching, even when we don’t know it. And when they become adults, how we handled our struggles will inform how they handle their own.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on October 20, 2019.

A House without Teenagers Isn’t the Same

Because Hugo was home, Claude came over more than usual. We played euchre three nights in a row, once after having dinner guests, including two of Hugo’s vocal instructors.

The house was full of cooking, laughter and yelling. For four days, my life reconstituted to the familiar — a large, opinionated family under one roof. For nearly 13 years, I have lived with one or more teenagers. Then, this fall, our house was emptied out of teens.

My friend Edna Young, who’s been gone many years, taught me much about raising children. She was a grandma when my big boys were born. “Just wait until they hit 13,” she told me, “you’ll not be able to keep enough milk in the house.”

She was right. For years we called Claude “the gaping maw,” his appetite akin to that of Audrey II’s in “The Little Shop of Horrors.” The fact that he was (and still is) a distance runner contributed to his high caloric needs.

One summer, we stayed in a hotel where Claude ran on the facility’s treadmill. When he finished, I looked at the read-out. In one hour, he’d burned 1,700 calories, more than I (should) eat in a day.

Like Claude, my third son, Jules, is also a distance runner. He stayed with his grandparents last summer and I worried he’d throw off their food budget. “No, it’s wonderful,” said my stepmom. “With Jules here we never throw out any leftovers.”

We’ve long had a membership to BJ’s Wholesale Club where we buy bulk items at a lower price per unit or ounce than in traditional grocery stores. Unfortunately, my $50 annual membership renewed in August before I understood how much less we would need with no teenagers around.

Without teenagers we do not need as much toilet paper, laundry detergent, toothpaste, shampoo or conditioner. Even cleaning supplies last longer.

Jules alone goes through five or more pounds of apples a week, which I happily supplied. Without him here, that many apples last closer to a month.

Not having teens also affects how much I cook. For many years, I doubled or tripled recipes and while that’s no longer necessary, some habits are hard to break. Leftovers routinely go bad now.

But with the departure of my last teenager, we also lost something we’ve long enjoyed and perhaps took for granted, especially Max who didn’t know differently: built-in babysitters.

When most parents have their first baby, a rude awakening follows. Footloose adults who could run out at any time for any reason become parents who must decide whether it’s worth bringing baby, getting a sitter or just staying home. Grocery stores alone can be an ordeal, particularly when toddlers are involved.

For nearly 10 years, Max and I have enjoyed long walks, child-free shopping excursions and dinners out, either the two of us alone or with friends. All this was done without requiring, except on rare occasions, someone to come to our house and tend our two littles.

But perhaps the biggest adjustment with no teenagers at home is losing roommates. Easily two, if not four, years before they graduate high school, teenagers are someone else to talk with about politics, art, science, the comics, people we know, things we want to see and do. Without any of them under our roof, it’s a little lonelier than before.

I wept when dropping off Claude, and then Hugo, at college their first year. But once I left them, I was fine. When Jules returned home for Labor Day weekend two weeks after I’d taken him to OSU, tears coursed down my face. “I can’t believe you don’t live here. It’s so good to have you home,” I told him.

Max pointed out my extended sadness may be due to something other than missing Jules. “Jules leaving home is an end of an era for you, Holly.” It’s true. For more than a quarter century, my identity has been entwined with mothering those first three children of mine.

When we first dated, Max told his family about “Holly and the boys.” Shortly after I met his now 97-year-old uncle, Bascom, he told me, “I thought Max was dating not a woman, but a Broadway show called ‘Holly and the Boys.’ ”

The father of my big boys hasn’t laid eyes on any of them in nearly five years. Even when I was with their father, it was mostly just Holly and the boys. Back then, a friend who often came for dinner told me, “I get help from family and friends because I’m a single mom, but few realize that someone, like you, can be a virtual single mom.”

In a “Pearls before Swine” comic strip, the crocodile son asks his mother what’s the most important part of raising children. She tells him it’s having them grow up and successfully lead their own lives. He then asks his mom what’s the hardest part of being a parent. She replies, “That one day you’ll grow up and successfully leave us.”

And so it is.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on October 6, 2019.

Cleveland’s Playhouse Square understands importance of sensory-friendly productions

During his job interview with Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, Daniel Hahn was asked about programming he wished to initiate. He then pulled from his valise a framed photo of two boys — his son and his son’s best friend — hamming for the camera.

“I want my son’s best friend to be able to enjoy live performance at Playhouse Square. I want sensory-friendly productions,” Hahn said. As he explained that his son is a typical learner and the friend is on the autism spectrum and nonverbal, Hahn choked up and thought he’d blown the interview.

Luckily for Northeast Ohio, Hahn’s passion for a population previously not served by Playhouse Square sealed the deal. He has served as its vice president of community engagement and education for the past six years.

What does it mean to have a sensory-friendly event and why is it important?

Until this past year, we could not take our daughter, Lyra, who has Down syndrome, to the movies. As soon as the lights went down, she’d try to race up the aisle and leave the theater. Other people with sensory processing issues may shout out when something excites them, or need to move around or, conversely, lie down in a quiet, dimly lit room.

What are sensory processing issues and who has them?

According to Dr. Jessica Foster, the director of Akron Children’s Hospital’s Department of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, sensory processing disorder is not a medical diagnosis, but a condition typically seen in conjunction with other diagnoses. Some of these diagnoses include autism spectrum disorder and Down syndrome, as well as dyslexia.

Sensory processing disorder involves a heightened sensitivity to sound, light and touch. Lyra does not like loud environments, even at fun places, such as an aquarium we visited in June when several busloads of children were also there.

Processing behaviors can make a variety of public events difficult, if not impossible, for many families. But in the last 10 years, sensory-friendly accommodations have begun popping up like flowers after a spring rain. Such events minimize triggers — loud noises, bright or flashing lights — while providing a number of ways to assuage sensory overload.

In Akron, Summit Mall has sensory-friendly times with Santa and the Easter Bunny and the Akron Soap Box Derby has an annual inclusion day. Next weekend, Akron will host the first-ever sensory-inclusive marathon. (Akron sure gets a lot right.)

But those events are held in open public spaces where a variety of behaviors are more easily tolerated. Not so with a live theater production. Like the best friend of Hahn’s son, the unpredictability of Lyra’s responses often rules out our attending live performances. It’s just too stressful.

However, since 2014, after Hahn was hired, Playhouse Square has presented nine sensory-friendly, one-hour plays. Each year, they provide one performance for school groups and another for the general public, all at the very affordable price of $10 a ticket.

These sensory-friendly productions have welcomed thousands of sensory sensitive individuals and their families.

Leif, Max and Lyra eagerly await “The Lion King”

Last month, Playhouse Square presented its first big kahuna, or rather “hakuna,” as in “Hakuna Matata”: a sensory-friendly, full-length performance of Disney’s “The Lion King.”

When the play began, the lights did not go down, the audience did not become quiet, children did not sit still in their seats. Seated on her father’s lap while large-as-life puppets of African animals paraded down the aisles to the stage, Lyra flapped her hands with excitement.

For each sensory performance, Playhouse Square rents pipes and curtains to create sensory-deprivation rooms for kids who need to decompress from sensory overload. One little boy ran in circles for a few moments in one of the created rooms. Others jumped up and down or stomped.

These behaviors are described as “proprioceptive input” in which the larger joints of the body are impacted. The impact on the large joints increases serotonin and dopamine levels, thereby helping the overstimulated person to calm down.

Playhouse Square also hires volunteers from the Cuyahoga County Developmental Disability Board. Strategically placed, the volunteers hand out headphones and fidget toys to kids who need them.

The “Red Coats,” as the ushers are called because of their scarlet blazers, arrive in the morning for a two-hour training session and a lunch provided by Playhouse Square.

Sign language interpreters Merry Beth Pietila and Erin LaFountain from the Theatrical Interpreting Services of Cleveland provided dramatic and engaging sign interpretation throughout the performance.

Finally, in order to reach as many families as possible, Playhouse Square deeply discounts the tickets for sensory performances. Which is to say, this is an expensive endeavor for a nonprofit organization, underscoring Playhouse Square’s commitment to providing sensory-friendly productions.

In fact, it is because of generous donations from people like Denise and Norm Wells that Playhouse Square can fulfill its mission to provide these performances that allow Lyra, and many others who’ve previously been excluded, to enjoy live theater.

Please note: Never buy tickets from a ticket broker, i.e., professional scalper. Two delightful young women seated next to us did not know they were coming to a sensory-friendly performance.

In an effort to get tickets to the appropriate audience and provide essential accommodations, a questionnaire accompanied the purchase of tickets to the sensory-friendly performance of “The Lion King.” Clearly a ticket broker had falsified answers and then resold the discounted tickets, at a profit, to the women next to us.

During the first act of “The Lion King,” Hahn stood at the back of the theater with his board’s president, Amy Brady, her husband and other staff members. It was not the play that they watched, but the audience. And each of them, to a person, wept with joy at what they saw.

Stay tuned: Playhouse Square is working to bring another sensory-friendly Broadway Series performance next August. If and when it is finalized, I’ll be sure to write about it.

Upcoming sensory-friendly performances at Playhouse Square include:

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on September 22, 2019.

September, Peaches and the Beatles

I savor Northeast Ohio’s distinct seasons. The snow-covered hush of January reflects the welcome quiet after the holidays. In April, snow gives way to mud and delicate flowers. June softly opens sweet summer before the dog days of July and August heat up.

But when the cricket song turns up and the humidity in the air dials down, my favorite month is upon us, September. Biting bugs begin to thin and poison ivy turns red, making it less noxious. School resumes, both for my children and me, bringing welcomed structure to our days.

This past weekend, I had 40 papers to grade, just under 250 pages to proofread, lessons to plan and a column to write. But September is also peak harvest season for many crops, so on Labor Day I canned peaches and made syrup from the skins and stones.

Self-employed people never have a day off, especially creative professionals. I would like to have a clean car (Hugo recently got in my van and said, “Ah, the smell of wet dogs that Mama’s cars all eventually smell like!”) but can’t justify the time when there are so many words waiting to be written.

Canning, however, is a worthy detour. I spent hours peeling and slicing a half bushel of the pitted fruit while reflecting on the people in my life, gardens in high bloom and the miracle of a ripe peach.

I did this all while listening to the Beatles. Every Labor Day weekend, Sirius XM plays their top 100 songs, as chosen by listeners, on The Beatles Channel.

All my children are Beatles fans. In the fourth grade, Hugo sang “Hey, Jude” when he auditioned for Miller South School for the Visual & Performing Arts. At 11, when he gave his first live performance, Hugo played guitar and nervously warbled, “Eleanor Rigby.” Today, as soon as 9-year-old Leif buckles up in the car, he asks for The Beatles Channel.

My appreciation for this British Invasion band has not diminished from repeated listening. Perhaps because one of my children is now an accomplished musician, I appreciate the complexity of the Beatles’ arrangements, the poetry of their lyrics, the sheer diversity of the canon — mostly written when the boys of the band were just that, lads in their 20s.

I also feel a personal connection to the Beatles. I did not see my dad, stepmom or sisters for 10 years after my mother kidnapped me. Nor did I have any photos of them as my mother attempted to erase my dad from my memory.

Holly, her father, stepmom and little sister

During that 10-year separation, I saw the face of John Lennon when I thought of my dad. It’s all I had and, as it turns out, was fairly accurate. When I eventually reunited with my father, I learned that he strongly identified with Lennon and the Beatles.

“I was driving on the Dan Ryan when I heard “Rocky Racoon” on the radio for the first time,” he told me. “It was a bizarre song. But then the announcer said it was from a new Beatles album and I thought, far out!”

In the years we lived together, my dad and his roommates called me his funky monkey. When “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” was released, it was like our theme song, though I have no memory of this.

The response to Lennon and Yoko Ono’s marriage was often negative (and the basis for “The Ballad of John and Yoko”), which echoed the reaction some people had when my dad took in my stepmom. Yet, in the end, my stepmom was far better for my dad than he ever was for her.

I give my children a movie musical every year for Valentine’s. In 2008, I bought both the DVD and soundtrack to Julie Taymor’s Beatles musical, Across the Universe. The talented Ms. Taymor is also responsible for the stunning stage adaptation of The Lion King and the film Frida, based on the life of Frida Kahlo.

Jules, who came home from college for the holiday weekend, said, “I wish the soundtrack to Across the Universe had all the tracks from the movie, they are all so good.” Indeed. This year, another musical based upon the music of the Beatles was released. It’s no secret that next year’s Valentine will be the film Yesterday.

Even though the top 100 Beatles songs played on continuous loop all weekend, I kept missing the final 10. As several jars of golden preserves cooled on the counter and peach skins and pits simmered on the stovetop, I proofread while waiting to hear the number one song. A perfect mash up of Lennon and McCartney pieces, “A Day in the Life” was deservedly chosen for the second year in a row.

There is a poignancy to September. As beautiful as it is, it heralds a death. Tomato plants have become spindly, the grass (thankfully) is growing a little slower. In a few weeks, a killing frost will smite flower beds, placing this summer in the past with other memories. Our Ohio earth will sleep, visible life pausing until next spring when life will burst forth anew.

Sensible gun laws are long overdue

When I moved from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to 22 Green St. in Dayton the spring I was 19, it felt like a homecoming. My peripatetic childhood included 10 schools, but between the ages of 9 and 14, I lived in a rural community just north of Dayton.

Like Akron, Dayton is a smaller city just 30 minutes from a bigger city. Both have wonderful housing stock, beautiful rivers, lovely architecture — including old YMCAs — and art museums with dramatic expansions.

In the ’70s, the manufacturing industry sustained Dayton’s working middle class. Both parents of my friends next door were factory foremen. Their large house, with an in-ground pool, was new, as were the cars they drove. Every summer they took their beautiful boat to Canada for several weeks.

Like Akron, Dayton’s factory jobs poured away in the final decades of the last century.

One difference between the two cities of my Ohio heart is leadership. While Mayor Don Plusquellic successfully steered Akron through its hardest decades, Dayton had a series of mediocre and even outright abysmal mayors. Until now.

Mayor Nan Whaley has long impressed me with her intelligent guidance of and passion for Dayton and its citizens. In the weeks since the shooting on East Fifth Street, she’s become my hero.

The trolley taking the wedding party and guests to the reception. August 31, 1985.

My first summer living in the Oregon District, I planned my wedding and worked at a vintage clothing store on East Fifth Street. In August, after my wedding at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, a trolley took the guests down East Fifth to the reception at Stouffer’s hotel.

A short walk from the duplex we rented, my husband and I regularly met friends at venues on East Fifth for drinks, to play pool and hear live music. I enjoyed living, without fear, in the Oregon District — a delightful neighborhood — for two years.

Second Amendment rights and limits

A former student of mine received his first rifle on his fifth birthday. Learning how to safely shoot, clean and store his gun taught him responsibility at an early age. He became a Scholastic champion in the sport of shooting and was offered scholarships by several colleges with rifle teams.

It may surprise you that this young man’s desire for sensible gun legislation is as strong as his love of shooting. Like many his age, he’s grown up under the shadows of mass shootings. He experienced a lockdown in his high school after a student credibly threatened to kill as many students as possible.

David Jolly, a former congressman who recently switched his party allegiance from Republican to Independent, wrote in an article in USA Today after the Dayton and El Paso shootings:

“It’s not because of mental health. It’s because those who suffer from mental health challenges have easy access to firearms in the United States.

“It’s not because too many today subscribe to platforms of hate. It’s because those who espouse hate have easy access to firearms in the United States.

“It’s not because youth are exposed to violent video games. It’s because youth who are exposed to violent video games have easy access to firearms in the United States.”

Plenty of other developed countries have young men with mental illness, white supremacists and people who play violent video games. What they don’t have is easy access to firearms, nor endless mass shootings. When defined as four or more people (not including the shooter) shot in one place at one time, from Jan. 1 to July 31 of this year, 248 mass shootings have occurred in America.

Anything else that killed that many people a year would marshal a call for research by the Centers for Disease Control, but not here. In 1996, the NRA pushed for the successful passage of the Dickey Amendment, which prohibits the CDC from using funds to “advocate or promote gun control.” The CDC’s articles on suicide prevention are bizarrely written in code-speak as they cannot directly mention the significant role firearms play in the number of Americans who take their own lives.

If cars killed lots of people each year, everyone would be required to register each and every vehicle they own and pass a licensure test before being allowed to drive. Oh, wait. They are. And yet we don’t expect the same for deadly weapons, including those designed for the battlefield, which can kill scores of people in seconds.

This is not sensible. Thirty years ago, the chance of being gunned down in the Oregon District never crossed my mind. Today, children cannot enjoy that same sense of safety going to school. Nor can their parents.

In the weeks after the Marjorie Stone Douglas High School shooting, my friend Cris, who is also a teacher, threatened to take away her daughter’s cellphone. But when Cris dropped her child off at high school, she thought, “What if today there’s a shooting and the last time I talk to my daughter is when she calls to tell me goodbye?” Her daughter kept her phone.

Last year, I met with several former classmates in Dayton. Not for a class reunion, but a funeral. Samantha Howard Freels told her husband she was leaving him, walked out of their house and got in her car. Her husband of more than 30 years chased her down in his truck, forced her off the road and shot her.

Days earlier, Sam had taken her three grandchildren to a diner for breakfast. In the photos she posted on Facebook, Sam had used an app to sprinkle hearts around their faces.

After she died, I learned that her husband had broken her leg years ago when she’d tried to leave him. He promised their four sons he wouldn’t lay a hand on their mother again if she stayed.

Would red flag laws have saved Sam’s life? I’ll never know. But it’s time to implement them. It’s also time to close all loopholes on background checks. Every gun purchased or gifted should require registration and a background check for the new owner. Most gun owners also agree with these reasonable measures.

Such laws are little to require when the failure to do so has caused the murder of so many innocent children, women and men.

#DaytonStrong

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on August 25, 2019.

Today’s immigration stories are little different than those of previous generations

When 13-year-old Christina Gyllenskog and her family left their country forever, she had never been away from her family’s farm for more than a short while.

Mormon missionaries converted the family in North Sandby, Sweden, and soon thereafter my great-great grandma Christina, her parents and five siblings traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark. There, her two sisters, presumably too old to be eligible for an immigration loan from the Mormon church, took factory jobs to earn enough money for passage to America.

The rest of the family boarded the Humboldt, a German ship, in Hamburg on July 19, 1866. Before the six-week journey, water was pulled from the River Elbe. The water quickly turned black in wooden barrels burnt on the inside or red in barrels of iron. The beds were wooden planks without mattresses, and eventually the food became so rancid that hogs onboard refused to eat.

In 1895, Christina’s 49-year-old husband died just five months after she’d given birth to her 10th child. As a single mom, she raised all 10 to adulthood.

After disembarking in New York, the family traveled by train to Florence, Nebraska, along the western banks of the Mississippi River. From there, they walked 1,300 miles to Salt Lake City. Initially, the Gyllenskogs lived in a partially subterranean sod home. When it rained, everyone ran to pick up the large bag of flour before the water flowed into the earthen dwelling.

Another branch of the family buried their 3-year-old daughter on the Mormon Trail after she was bitten by a poisonous snake. Others were confronted by Native Americans on horseback, who did not allow the pioneers to pass until they gave over whatever they could.

Eventually the Gyllenskogs built a frame house with four large rooms in Smithfield, Utah, and the sisters joined the family. Christina always chastised her sisters for speaking Swedish, but unlike herself, they were grown women when they arrived in America.

An older friend recently told me her great-grandparents sent their two children from Europe to America alone. My friend’s grandfather was 18 and his sister a young child when they were put on a boat. In the chaos at Ellis Island, the siblings became separated and were never reunited.

Unless you are 100 percent Native American or African-American (or a combination of the two) you, too, have ancestral immigration stories. And I have yet to meet someone who isn’t proud of what their ancestors went through to get to America and how they built good lives by working hard at any job they could get.

Irish immigrants were once disparaged as drunkards with questionable morals. Italian immigrants were stereotyped as prone to violence and crime. After decades of helping build America in a number of ways, including construction of the transcontinental railroad, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers. It remained on the books until 1940.

Born largely out of a fear of terrorism, today some Americans want to ban Muslim immigrants. Yet, according to a recent article by the CATO Institute, a conservative think tank, even when including “those murdered in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the chance of a person perishing in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil committed by a foreigner… is 1 in 3.8 million per year… [T]he chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack by a refugee is about 1 in 3.86 billion per year, while the annual chance of being murdered in an attack committed by an illegal immigrant is [statistically] zero.”

Meanwhile, many Muslim professionals are willing to provide necessary services, such as medical care, to under-served communities, including rural America, where attitudes about Muslims are some of the most uninformed in the country.

People leaving their countries forever, making hard journeys to distant lands where different languages are spoken. People leaving behind all they own and everyone they know and walking more than 1,000 miles to arrive at the Promised Land. People burying their children on the difficult trek; people paying off those who would bar the way to their destination.

These are my ancestors’ immigration stories.

People who are in such dire straits that they send their children alone on an arduous journey, not knowing if they’ll every see them again. That is the immigration story of my friend’s ancestors.

The stories of today’s immigrants applying for asylum at our southern border are remarkably similar to mine, to my friend’s and, I suspect, to many of yours.

In the recent Democratic Party debates, candidate Amy Klobuchar stated, “I believe that immigrants do not diminish America, they ARE America.” This is absolutely true. Yet, we must have an effective system to process immigrants at all points of entry and weed out criminals.

In my rhetoric classes, I tell students, “Never trust a simple solution to a complex problem.” Crafting effective immigration policy is complex. Placing asylum seekers in detention centers is a simple but ineffective solution. It is also unnecessarily cruel.

Continuing to separate children from the adult family members they arrive with, even after ordered by the courts to stop the practice, does not deter immigration and is a violation of basic human rights. My heart aches knowing my country does this every day.

For an example of what difficult, yet productive immigration reform could look like, Google: “This American Life Barbara Jordon Immigration” and listen to the podcast that will populate your screen.

We could use a politician like Barbara Jordon today. She brought together people with divergent positions to craft comprehensive immigration reform. Unfortunately, Jordan died before she could get her legislation passed. Had she done so, many of today’s immigration problems would have been preempted.

In her latter years, Grandma Christina was formidable and known for her fabulous garden.

Have heart for asylum seekers. They are like most people’s immigrant ancestors, including yours. The innocent children at our borders should be protected, not harmed. In demanding that our elected representatives do their jobs and craft effective immigration reform, no matter how hard the task, we honor our immigrant ancestors.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 11, 2019.

Children need freedom to venture out on their own

Before she retired, my mother-in-law was an elementary school principal. Recently, a former colleague of hers became the principal at a failing charter school, which she promptly overhauled. Student performance quickly began to improve — from academics to a reduction in behavior problems.

But not everyone liked the changes. A parent called the principal to complain on behalf of her child. Parents routinely complain to principals — but in this case, the parent’s daughter is a teacher at the school.

The young teacher later explained, “When I told my parents how stressful things were, they said they’d take care of it.”

A story in last Sunday’s New York Times described a Dutch rite of passage in which small groups of children are dropped off in forests on summer evenings. Without the help of adults, they must find their way back to a base camp, usually arriving by 2 or 3 a.m.

The adventure allows children to problem-solve without adult help. And while precautionary measures are taken to ensure safety, it is also meant to be challenging.

I learned the term “free-range parenting” in 2014 when two siblings, ages 6 and 10, were allowed to walk home alone from a park in Silver Spring, Maryland. Police picked up the children and held them for five hours. Their parents were charged with child neglect, though the charges were later dropped.

13-year-old Hugo exploring caves with his brothers in 2010.

Last year, Utah passed a free-range parenting law making it legal for children to play unsupervised in parks or walk home alone. I would welcome such laws nationally. The lack of independence, such as my generation experienced as children in the 1970s, directly correlates to young adults who believe it is OK for their parents to intercede with their employers.

To be clear, adults should always intervene when a child is truly in danger or hurt. And no child or adult should ever enter a body of water alone. But the definition of true danger does not include playing at a park or walking home without adult supervision.

Studies show that no matter how intelligent a child is, those who are better supported are more often successful than those who are not. The genius child who is poor will have inferior educational and other resources compared to the rich kid with average intelligence.

But studies also show that kids who never have to overcome challenges on their own face higher rates of dissatisfaction with life, including increased rates of depression. How can children learn true independence if never given the opportunity to navigate difficult situations on their own?

In “Last Child in the Woods,” author Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder,” which he ascribes to the lack of free play outdoors. Louv points out that today’s news cycles mask the fact that significantly fewer crimes against children occur today than in the 1970s. For if a crime against a child happens in one state, often it is reported nationwide on channels like CNN and Fox News, creating the false appearance of local danger.

When my big boys were young, our home was on the near west side of Akron, several blocks east of Highland Square. Together and alone, beginning at age 7 or 8, Claude, Hugo and Jules rode their bikes downtown. There, they’d visit the public library, the comic book store at Quaker Square, the art museum and any place that piqued their interest.

Over the many years they did this, nobody ever questioned why they were not with an adult. It turns out suburbanites are more likely to call police about unattended children than urbanites.

One December, I met a friend for lunch in Fairlawn. Eleven-year-old Jules asked if I’d drop him at Seiberling Nature Realm on my way. Scooping bird seed from his coat pockets, he spent half an hour on snowy paths, coaxing birds to land on his outstretched hands. Then he went into the park’s building to look at the exhibits.

A volunteer approached him and would not leave his side. In a room behind the animal displays, Jules saw a ranger and another volunteer looking at him while whispering furtively. The ranger walked over and began peppering Jules with questions before allowing him to call me on the park’s phone (I allow cellphones at age 13).

When I arrived at the Nature Realm, which had no other visitors, the ranger told me Jules could not be there without an adult. Among other things, I reminded her that it is a public place. I could have left him at a busy shopping mall and nobody would have cornered him the way she had.

The moment we stepped outside, Jules burst into tears. The ranger had terrified a boy who had just wanted to spend time in nature at a public park.

Most parents start with newborns whose intelligence is purely instinctual (feed and hold me), whom they ideally guide down the long path toward becoming competent adults. To independently navigate life, kids must experience the thrill of overcoming what once seemed daunting, either alone or with other children. Be it the first solo visit to the library, flying unaccompanied or, yes, getting dropped off in the middle of the woods at night. These experiences are essential in building confidence and the ability to succeed as an adult.

This column first appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, July 28, 2019.

Teach children respect and politeness for all

Where and to whom we are born is the ultimate crap shoot. No matter your circumstances, one human is not intrinsically better than another. Minority parents tell their children they are as important as their white friends. Working-class people also understand this. We are hard workers doing whatever we can to manage life well.

Neither of my parents have college degrees. When my father was old enough to collect Social Security, he quit his job of many years as a cashier at a Circle K. My mother worked as a waitress, a secretary and a baker. Both told stories of rude customers.

Modeled behavior is more powerful than encouragement or admonishment and my children observe me chatting with workers wherever I go. To further ensure my kids will never condescend others for their station in life, they have worked in the service industry.

Claude spent a summer at Chipotle and found it the hardest job he’s ever had. Hugo worked at Old Carolina Barbecue his last years of high school. And this summer Jules, who worked with biologists on bee research the past two years, has two retail jobs in Michigan.

These experiences underscore three important lessons.

Lyra and Hugo with our new friend, Matt Dean, who served us at Bitty & Beau’s cafe.

Number one: Acknowledge people. Ask your server or cashier how their day is going. Rather than asking an employee, “Where is such-and-such?” Start with, “Excuse me, can you tell me where…” or “Hi, how are you? Do you know where I can find…”

Even when employees are talking to each other, acknowledge them. At my Acme, many of the cashiers and baggers are high school students who banter with one another. I jump in and joke with them, too.

Get off your cellphone. When people talked on their phones while ordering barbecue, Hugo coyly annoyed them for being rude. “I’m sorry, what did you say? Could you repeat that please?” he’d ask over and over.

Number two: Give praise. Everyone, myself included, is quick to let management know when we have a complaint. But what if we were just as eager to share a positive interaction? An employee who made an extra effort to be helpful or friendly?

I often lodge compliments in grocery stores. Things can be hard to find (especially when they remodel your Acme), prices might ring up wrong or not at all. The employee who handles requests and issues with aplomb is an asset to their employer.

Positive feedback makes a difference with raises and promotions. Rightly so, as employers know few customers will stop to give accolades. So when they do, it carries extra weight.

Number three: Say please and thank you. Working-class kids know not to treat adults as servants. When learning language, I taught my children to answer questions with either “Yes, please,” or “No, thank you.”

Children over 5 should not say to an adult, “I’m thirsty,” but rather, “Can I have something to drink, please?” When told the former, I raise an eyebrow like an old school marm and respond, “Is that so?” If they don’t catch my drift, I suggest they try asking.

Handwritten thank-you’s are priceless. I keep a box of cards in the console of my minivan. Before I picked her up on the last day of camp in June, I wrote notes in the parking lot to Lyra’s two counselors, telling them how much I appreciated their kindness and care.

Some professional jobs are also in the service sector, and these people, too, appreciate acknowledgement for a job well done.

My divorce cost my ex-husband and me about $100,000, mostly from our retirement funds. We once paid a highly respected mediator hundreds of dollars to help sort things out. When we left her office, my then-husband said, “See you in battle.”

Three years into the miserable process, we met with the Summit County Domestic Court’s mediator. I’ve seen only a handful of people who are as skilled at bringing contentious negotiations to resolution as Magistrate Deborah Smith Cahan. In an hour and a half, we had an agreement that stuck. And as part of my motion for divorce, it was free! If only we’d seen Magistrate Smith Cahan first…

Eternally grateful for her help with what once seemed irresolute, I sent Magistrate Smith Cahan a thank you. As one of the most stressful times in life, divorce court is full of good people behaving badly. I came to learn Magistrate Smith Cahan is widely respected for her magic-like mediation skills with divorcing couples.

Years later, I ran into her at a grocery store. She told me in all her years mediating for the court, she’d received just six thank you letters, including mine.

Life is never too busy to acknowledge the people who pass through your life and to commend those who make it easier or better. Nobody is too busy to say or write “Thank you.” Not only do these simple measures brighten the days of those you meet, but doing so will put cheer in your heart while also making you a few new friends. I guarantee it.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 14, 2019.

Perfect as they are, LGBTQ youths need support and safety

“No, I want you to be happy,” I said. “When growing up, I had friends who couldn’t come out to their parents and I never want any of you to feel that way.”

My friend Tom Dukes, now in his early 60s, recently told me he was lucky he survived junior high in the deep South, where nobody spoke of homosexuality. In ninth grade, he could see freedom awaiting him in college and moved mountains to graduate in three years.

In 2010, gay activist Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, started the It Gets Better Project ( https://itgetsbetter.org/ ). This nonprofit’s mission is to “uplift, empower and connect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth around the globe,” letting them know that, for a number of reasons, after high school, life does get better.

Here in Akron where, like many urban areas, our LGBTQ citizens are widely accepted, if not embraced, it might seem no longer necessary to let LGBTQ youths know that things get easier.

Tragically, this is not true.

Only 5 to 7 percent of American youths are LGBTQ. But 40 percent of homeless youths are LGBTQ, 20 percent of incarcerated youths are LGBTQ (the number is higher for females) and, worst of all, 24 percent of 12- to 14-year-old Americans who die by suicide are LGBTQ.

That last fact hit me in the chest like the end of a 4-by-4 this past January when a dear friend lost his grandchild to suicide. The grandchild, who grew up in a rural community outside Dayton, was 14.

From the videos posted by her grieving friends, the teen had come out and was beginning to identify as transgender.

She shared with her family that she felt like a boy, but they did not know the extent of her inner turmoil nor the bullying she endured at school and in the community. That is, until she took her life.

In 2019, we can all do better.

Homosexuality, which some conservative religions condemn, is not unnatural. The already large list of species in which homosexuality has been observed continually grows, including all bird species that form parental relationships. Indeed, one of the many evolutionary benefits of homosexuality is having more adults available to parent offspring.

Furthermore, research has shown that the two hemispheres of the brain are the same size in homosexual men, just as they are in heterosexual women. Meanwhile, the brains of lesbians and heterosexual men have slightly larger right hemispheres.

It’s biology, baby, and yet rampant discrimination persists, even, and unthinkable to me, among some parents.

My friends Brian and David were 21 and 24 when they began dating. In the 16 years since, both have developed successful careers in the restaurant industry and accounting, respectively. They own their home and are wonderful neighbors and friends to many. They also give to the community, volunteering with nonprofits.

At Akron’s first New Year’s Eve Pride Ball last December, this wonderful couple was married by Judge Ron Cable. Set in the Akron Civic Theatre, with all its glorious Spanish-Italian Baroque architecture, the ceremony was perfect. With one exception: Though they love David and send him Christmas gifts each year, Brian’s parents refused to attend, tacitly rejecting the legitimacy of the couple’s bond. While he was not entirely surprised, his parents’ rejection of his committed, loving relationship cut Brian to the quick.

On Facebook, I have connected with many families who have children with Down syndrome, finding support, suggestions and camaraderie. But sharing one experience is no guarantee of other commonalities.

In 2016, California adopted an act that, in part, requires health education between grades seven and 12 to include a section on LGBTQ facts and issues. On a closed Facebook group, several mothers of children with DS expressed anger over the law, often writing, “This should only be taught at home by parents!”

These same mothers rally behind laws requiring accurate information be given to parents at the time of a Down syndrome diagnosis. And they would be thrilled if public schools were required to explain the biology of Down syndrome and how it affects a person. For that would foster acceptance of our children who are “Born This Way,” as the title of a successful reality TV show on DS puts it.

I pushed back, pointing out that many families will not choose to teach their children about LGBTQ issues, only to find that this was an acceptable outcome to the moms who opposed the California act. I reminded them that the best way to fight discrimination is to inform people.

After a few more times back and forth, one mother finally said it: “But homosexuality is a sin.”

Throughout history, including in some countries today, the birth of a child with Down syndrome has been viewed as evidence of parental sins. Not only ignorant, such beliefs have brought unfathomable harm to people with DS.

LGBTQ people are born the way they are born, too. The 25 percent of black swans and hundreds of other species that engage in homosexual activity are not sinning. They have no religion; thus, if life was created by God, clearly homosexuality was always part of the plan.

Perhaps I was excessive in checking with my older sons regarding their sexual orientation. It’s now a family joke. But better to err on the side of openness, to create a loving atmosphere in which anything can be discussed without fear of judgment, let alone rejection, than to let a child suffer in silence.

My friend said part of him died with his granddaughter. “I wish she’d talked to me. These kids need to know it’s OK to be whoever they are. [She] was perfect. She just didn’t know it.”

The upward spiral of integration of people with intellectual disabilities

Matt Dean, an employee at Bitty & Beau’s, interacts with author’s daughter, Lyra, this month in Wilmington, NC while Lyra’s brother Hugo looks on.

Babies with Down syndrome are the cutest, with their round little faces and eyes, tiny ears and noses, cuddly bodies. Even as they become toddlers, it’s not uncommon for strangers to comment on just how adorable kiddos with DS are.

But most parents of a child with DS harbor this fear: What happens when our children grow up and society no longer sees them as darlings? When their precociously friendly behavior is expressed as a teen or adult? What to do when it is no longer possible to scoop up a child who resists your every move?

Some of these concerns came to life for us when we vacationed this month in Carolina Beach, North Carolina.

Lyra loved ocean waves knocking her back as she sat on the shoreline and with all our big boys there, adults outnumbered children. Eyes were always on Leif as he learned to boogie board while someone else played with Lyra in the surf.

Four days in, several of us unsuccessfully ventured to a renowned serpentarium in nearby Wilmington. Like a Southern Gothic tale, the owner of over 100 reptiles was shot and killed by his wife two years ago. Six months later, the serpentarium’s cold-blooded residents were resettled in several zoos.

Our plans kiboshed, we instead walked along the Cape Fear River. Suddenly, Lyra stopped and said, “No! Go back!” I asked where she wanted to go and she pointed ahead, in the direction we were already walking, “This way!” Alrighty, then.

Moments later, Lyra dropped to the ground, refusing to move. Max carried her as she bitterly complained, “No! This way! Car!” While we had beautiful weather that week, it is the South and at 85 degrees and 1,000 percent humidity, wrangling Lyra was a surefire way to sweat up a thirst.

At the Platypus and the Gnome pub, Lyra continued to struggle until our secret weapon was set before her: a plate of french fries.

What is this behavior? Anxiety in response to new environments and changed routines is common in people with Down syndrome or autism spectrum disorder. What is familiar, both in time and space, provides predictability.

I imagine it’s like traveling in a country where English isn’t spoken. When I travel abroad, I’m more confident when I know what to expect and how much of the native tongue I’ll need to attempt, making guidebooks and Google Translate essential tools.

Many children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID) also have sensory integration disorder. Loud noises and crowd environments overwhelm them. At school fire drills, Lyra plasters her hands over her ears and trembles with fear while repeatedly screaming, “No!”

When we visited an aquarium, two school groups were also there. The noise and chaos caused Lyra to flee. Going forward, I will accept the sensory bags offered by museums and zoos. They include things like headphones to reduce noise and toys to distract anxious children.

One afternoon, I ended up alone on the beach with Leif and Lyra. Lyra approached a woman and her grown daughter and, as she often does, Lyra grabbed their hands and placed them together, creating a circle. The women kindly played ring-around-the-rosy with Lyra until one became dizzy. Lyra, however, refused to stop.

I called Leif out of the water so I could take Lyra inside, and when I turned to take her hand, she was 50 yards away, racing down the beach as if being chased by a land shark but with no fear.

The day we left NC, we visited Bitty and Beau’s, a cafe in Wilmington. Named after the owner’s two children with Down syndrome, Bitty and Beau’s cafes (there are three), employ people with ID.

At the counter, Matt Dean, who has DS, gave us a quick overview of the items on the menu.

“We have breakfast and lunch sandwiches and a new line of gluten-free cookies,” he told us, passing his hand over the cookie display. After we ordered, we waited at the pickup counter near the entrance for our food.

Lyra darted to the door, pushed it open with seemingly superhuman strength and ran outside, Hugo hot on her heels. Matt walked over and said, “I used to do that.”

“You used to run?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah, I was a runner!” he told me in his charming Southern accent. I asked Matt how old he is. “Most people don’t believe it, but I’ll turn 30 in October. By the way, what job do you think Lyra will want when she works here?”

“She’s very social like you. I think she’ll want to work the register.”

“Oh, like me!” said Matt, clearly delighted. “You know before I had this job, I was shy and reserved. Yes, I was. Shy and reserved.”

If we lived in Wilmington, I’d frequently visit Bitty & Beau’s, especially on the days Matt works.

Matt reminds me of Tim Harris, a successful restaurateur with Down syndrome. I learned that before he ran his restaurant, Harris was not nearly as verbal as he became. In 2015, I heard him give a superb keynote address to over 1,000 people.

This is the upward spiral of integration.

When people with Down syndrome were institutionalized or, post-institution, put into workshops together to perform menial tasks, often for less than minimum wage, their language and social skills remained limited. Not because they had Down syndrome, but because they were isolated from enriching relationships and experiences.

Celebrity chef Rachael Ray only uses coffee from Bitty & Beau’s. She wants to see their cafes compete with Starbucks. So do I. Eighty percent of people with ID are unemployed, a number that does not reflect the abilities of people with ID.

Bitty & Beau’s cafes accomplish several sorely needed things. They provide integrated employment with fair wages for people with ID, which, in turn, fosters the upward spiral of integration. And just as important, at Bitty & Beau’s cafes, the public interacts with people who have ID. Nothing dispels the falsehoods of what a person with ID is capable of than meeting someone with ID.

I encourage everyone to grab a hankie and check out Bitty & Beau’s Facebook page. Who knows? Maybe one day it will open a cafe here in Akron. If it does, it’ll become my new favorite hangout.

Social contracts of last century brought prosperity and need reimplemented

My eldest son, Claude, graduated from Michigan in 2016. This fall, his younger brother Jules will matriculate at OSU. Both boys chose their respective universities for the same reason: money.

After grants, scholarships and $5,500 a year in loans, Jules will pay $1,500 out of pocket each year, easily raised with summer employment. Graduating today with $22,000 of debt for a four-year degree is remarkably low. That should not be the case.

After World War II, Congress created the G.I. Bill so returning soldiers could affordably attend college. According the Veteran Affairs website, “Some questioned the concept of sending battle-hardened veterans to colleges and universities, a privilege then reserved for the rich.”

Within a decade, the G.I. Bill, along with other federal and state financial support for all low- to middle-income college students, produced the largest growth of the middle class in American history, becoming a model for other countries.

Two generations later, a study revealed that college graduates, over the course of a lifetime, earned, on average, $1 million more than those without a degree. The Reagan administration used this information to cut yet another “entitlement program.”

And so began the breakdown of the social contract to support higher education for all. It was not the only social contract our society abnegated.

In 1970, free-market economist Milton Friedman published an article in Time magazine asserting that employers had no obligation to their employees, the environment or anything but profit, pure and simple. Managers should not foster corporate social responsibility, but strictly work as agents of shareholders.

Recently, two Harvard Business School professors argued that Friedman’s theory is “rife with moral hazard.” They believe that the “costs of prioritizing shareholders’ interests are borne by the company, and by society as a whole, which is robbed of innovations, jobs, and tax revenue.”

The nearly complete destruction of these two social contracts has contributed mightily to the greatest disparity of income in the United States since the laissez-faire economy of the decades before and after 1900.

The Plain Dealer reported last month that the past presidents at the University of Akron collectively receive $932,517 annually. The most recent, Matthew Wilson, resigned July 31 and will leave UA to become president of a university in Missouri this fall. For the year in between his resignation and his departure, he was compensated $240,500 for which he taught one three-credit-hour class last fall and two this past spring. For comparison, the current dean of the law school earns $278,100 annually.

Sure, on paper he has a job, but it is a wide-open “secret” that Luis Proenza, who was president from 1999-2014, does little to justify his $334,750 annual compensation. Proenza was responsible for an overly ambitious building campaign — rubber-stamped by the board of trustees — that decimated the university’s finances.

After he stepped down, the same board of trustees that allowed Proenza to overextend the university replaced him with Scott Scarborough. Scarborough whacked away at popular and financially sustainable programs, making matters worse, not better. Donors stopped contributing, and enrollment disastrously declined.

Scarborough’s lack of business acumen, among myriad issues of his tenure, should have resulted in him being fired outright. Instead, he was given a golden parachute. Scarborough collects $298,267 annually to teach a few accounting courses, when clearly he cannot manage numbers out of a paper bag.

Meanwhile, as with many universities across the country, full-time faculty at UA have largely been replaced with adjunct faculty, like me. As an adjunct, I receive no benefits, save for retirement contributions into the Ohio State Teachers Retirement System.

I receive $2,000 for each three-credit-hour course I teach, which is 140 minutes of class time per week. That works out to roughly $37 an hour, assuming I only work in the classroom.

However, as any good teacher knows, that is never the case. I prepare lectures using PowerPoint presentations and seek topical readings to illustrate my lessons. I grade papers giving feedback on content and the rules of writing American English using the “MLA Handbook.”

Any student who wants me to line-edit their papers can meet with me. Other students, many of whom come from urban high schools, work next to me at a table in the library. (I tell students my office is wherever I am with my laptop.) I answer their questions and, hopefully, show them study skills they never obtained in high school.

By semester’s end, I make less than $3 an hour. I could do less, protecting my valuable time, but it is not the students’ fault that the system is rigged to load them with mountains of debt, little of which is spent on instruction. Also, there are few things that make my soul leap with joy like watching students improve.

According to a CNBC article, American CEOs today make 271 times more than the average worker. In 1978, when the breakdown in these social contracts was just beginning, the ratio was 30:1. The average worker has seen an 11.2% increase in income (adjusted for inflation) in the same time period, while CEOs have had a 937% increase.

I get it because I live it. Assuming I teach four classes in 2019 (I’d like far more), I’ll make 0.02% of what Proenza pockets. Teaching college is not something any warm body can do. I have three college degrees and 30 years of experience writing and teaching.

The fear of communism and the brutal realities of the Great Depression helped birth the mid-20th century social contracts of affordable college and corporate social responsibility. They were concurrent tides that lifted all boats, including those of the rich. And for a few decades after WWII, America upheld them.

What might reverse the current trajectory? Thus far, the Great Recession seems only to have spawned autocratic populism both here and abroad. The more these social contracts are diminished, so too are innovation, economic equality and the very health of the planet.

Go Bucks? Go Blue? What do sports rivalries matter when there’s so much more at stake?

Ageism can steal elders who still have many insights to share

I took maternity leave a week before Lyra’s due date. Since her elder brothers had arrived 10 to 14 days late, I figured I had at least a couple of weeks to nest (read: organize every closet and cupboard in the house) before descending into the chaos that accompanies a newborn.

The Saturday after my last day at work, Max took his Uncle Bascom to dinner for his birthday. Twelve-year-old Jules and I watched the documentary “Microcosmos” on the couch. A visually luscious film about insects, it lacks narration. Jules took up the slack and told me all about the creatures on the screen as I ignored my tensing womb.

“I’m in labor,” I told Max when he returned home late that evening. Lyra was born the following afternoon. Bascom cites the proximity of their birthdays, Aug. 13 and 14, as the reason he gives Lyra larger birthday checks than any of our other children.

If you didn’t know when you were born, how old would you believe yourself to be?

Bascom and Holly at the Cleveland Orchestra, winter 2019

Bascom was born in 1922 and Lyra was born in 2012. I think of them as the same age save 90. When she turned 1, he turned 91. Most who meet Bascom, however, take him for someone born in perhaps 1942.

One December, we brought the Firestone Madrigal Choir to Bascom’s home. He listened to them sing while sitting cross-legged on his living room floor, his back straight as a plank. After years of practicing Zen meditation, he sits like a small mountain. Hugo’s choir mates refused to believe he was 93.

I’ve found most people who live well into their 80s or 90s and still have their wits enjoy sharing stories about their lives. I love this, but Bascom is different — he is also a writer. I meet him for lunch every other Friday and he often spends the intervening days thinking about our talks. At our following luncheon, he always asks insightful questions.

Born in Georgia, Bascom still has a soft Southern accent, though he hasn’t lived there in more than three-quarters of a century. His voice reminds me of Civil War historian Shelby Foote, who was featured in the Ken Burns documentary on that horrific and fundamental chapter of America’s story.

Bascom in WWII and in 2015

When he fought in the European theater in World War II, Bascom’s best friend was blown up beside him. Bascom carries bits of shrapnel in his body from that moment, for which he received the Purple Heart. In recent years, he has started talking about the war.

“What was his name, your friend in the war?” I asked him over lunch last fall.

“What? I haven’t spoken his name in years. He was Russell Moller, but I just called him Moller, because that’s what you do in the Army.”

Sometimes we laugh so hard, I’m afraid he’s going to aspirate his lunch. Other times we hold hands across the table and weep together. “What am I going to do when you are gone?” I’ve asked him, as he’s very frank about the reality of his age.

Thanks to his physician, I almost learned the answer to my question last month. For months, Bascom complained about reduced energy. His doctor told him not to worry about it, dismissing his concerns as age-related even though, as we later learned, his kidneys’ creatinine levels tested above normal last December.

The week before Easter, Bascom awoke on the floor, not sure how he’d gotten there. It took a few minutes for him to figure out he was in his kitchen. His doctor remained unworried and ran some blood tests. The friend who brought him in suggested that Bascom was dehydrated and needed IV fluids, to which the doctor responded, “Are you in a medical field?”

Bascom fell again the next day and was taken to the emergency room. He had an untreated urinary tract infection that had gone to his bladder and then to his kidneys. Goodness knows how long he’s been struggling with this, given his complaints and test results in December.

Easter Sunday, we did not meditate with the Buddhists, sing with the Christians nor read our three newspapers. Max and I spent the afternoon in the hospital with Bascom. He hates being a bother, but we reminded him that patients with regular visitors have better outcomes.

Ageism. Another nonagenarian, Roger Angell, has written a number of excellent essays in The New Yorker about how the elderly become invisible, their words unheard, their lives misunderstood by the young. Bascom, who subscribes to, and reads, The New Yorker and several other publications, tells me Angell’s essays resonate with him. Of course they do.

Behavior modeled provides the strongest imprint on all offspring. There are many wonderful people who work in nursing homes, but I also know that most people decline rapidly when placed in one. I’ve repeatedly asked my eldest son to promise not to put me in a nursing home.

Bascom is not the first elderly relative my children have seen their parents care for. As young adults, they help, too, by visiting him, running errands or taking care of their youngest siblings so we can help him. But beyond keeping our elders in their homes for as long as possible, my children also know to listen to, and enjoy the company of, their elders.

Our job now is to find Bascom a doctor who listens and takes his concerns seriously. He thankfully survived the war, previous medical events and this latest scare. We want him here as long as possible, for he still has many stories and insights to share with us.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, May 5, 2019

Tending to my children’s spiritual development

In the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries traveled to Tibet. There they met the fifth Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political head of the country. Graciously welcomed to the high court in Lhasa, the missionaries worked tirelessly to learn Tibetan so as to translate the Bible.

Once their task was accomplished, they presented the book to the Dalai Lama who took several days to read it. When finished, he called the missionaries to his palace.

“I have read your Bible,” he told them, “and I agree with everything in it.”

“So you’ll convert to Christianity?” asked the hopeful Jesuits.

“Oh, no, no, no,” laughed the Dalai Lama.

I often think of this probably apocryphal story during Sunday services at Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Akron. Last year I wrote about the church’s music director, Jim Mismas, retiring after playing the organ and directing the choir there for 23 years. He and his husband are like family to us; our daughter Lyra calls them “the grandpas.”

And so Max, Claude, Jules and I joined the choir for Jim’s last season. Hugo came along, too, whenever he was home from college. It’s a beautiful church with a progressive minister and a vibrant community, and not surprisingly we loved every minute of our time there.

Except that we are not Christian.

The choir season ended on Jim’s final Sunday with tears streaking many faces. But then, even though our dear friend is no longer the music director, when the new choir season started last fall, Max and I found we wanted to return to the church.

I am no stranger to Christianity. While my barmaid mother slept in after her busiest night of the week, I took a bus to a nearby Quaker church for several years. I read a chapter of the Bible every night, including the “who begat whom” ones, until I had read the entire book twice.

But by the time I was in high school, answers to my questions from Christian teachers lacked resonance, ultimately requiring more faith than I could muster. Perhaps because my Christian upbringing was of my own doing, I did not leave Christianity with any resentment. Far from it.

I continued my inquiry into spirituality and organized religion at Ohio State University. The major Eastern religion I studied for my B.A. in religious studies was Buddhism.

One thing I found remarkable about Buddhism is how much it echoes 20th century Western philosophy. I especially remember writing a paper comparing the writings of French philosopher and writer Albert Camus to standard Buddhist teachings. I could find no disagreement between modern existentialism and a 2,500-year-old Asian religion.

Mircea Eliade, an early scholar in the academic study of religion, coined the term “homo religiosus.” He believed all humans are religious and will find secular alternatives for worship, such as organized sports, when sacred expressions are not available.

I took this to heart when I had children. As a mother, I seek to raise healthy bodies that house curious intellects and hearts open to spiritual growth. I chose Buddhism because I believe in the teachings, which appeal to both my mind and spirit.

As with all major religions, there are multiple sub-sects of Buddhism and I picked Shambhala for no other reason than they offer a family camp each summer at a meditation center in Vermont. For while it is far older than Christianity, Buddhism is still young in North America and few groups are set up to accommodate children.

Once a year, our children spend nine days with other Buddhist families. The rest of the time it’s on us to provide their spiritual training, which largely consists of stories and the knowledge that we meditate.

I love meditating with other Buddhist practitioners. But the year in the Presbyterian choir reminded me that I love singing with other people. I also appreciate the established community, which includes children our kids know from other places including school and Boy Scouts.

And I enjoy the Rev. Jon Hauerwas’ sermons, which are always insightful and frequently topical. I met with him in his office last fall to discuss our attendance at the church. I can’t become a full-fledged member because I’d have to vow to believing things that I do not believe. And yet, Pastor Hauerwas emphatically welcomed our Buddhist family to continue attending the Presbyterian church.

Some Sundays we meditate with the Buddhists. On others we find it heavenly spending the morning drinking coffee and reading all three of our newspapers. And at least a couple of times a month we make it to church.

This year I am not singing in the choir. I prefer sitting in the pews with my little ones, where Leif loves to follow along with me in the hymnal. He and Lyra both race to the altar for the children’s talk before leaving the sanctuary with their friends for music rehearsal and play.

Sunday, on Easter, our mixed spiritual experience reminds me of a quote from “Babe,” an unintentionally Buddhist movie: “That’ll do.”

Yes, it certainly does.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 21, 2019.

Approach is important when talking about vaccines

After several recent outbreaks of measles in the United States, the anti-vaccination movement has gotten renewed attention, much of which paints “anti-vaxxers” as either ignorant of basic science or sociologically indulgent, willing to coast on the high vaccination rates of others. I have found neither to be true.

Choosing whether and when to vaccinate my first child, as well as what vaccines to give him, was not simple for me. Reading everything I could find, I learned that (until 1995) the vaccination schedule in Japan, hardly a backward country, began not at birth, but at the age of 2.

With the exception of Haemophilus influenzae Type b, which is most harmful to children under the age of 5, I began vaccinating my son when he turned 1. By then, his immune system had developed and as an exclusively breast-fed baby for nine months, he benefited from my immunity.

It was the mid-’90s and I was hardly alone in seeking accurate information, since there were many legitimate concerns. The vaccine for DPT (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus), for instance, was often cited as being mixed in impure solutions. My son’s pediatrician confirmed this for me when we met to begin vaccinating him. She told me that Massachusetts, where we lived, had created its own batch of DPT, available only in that state, to avoid using the “dirty” batches found in the rest of the country.

However, the same pediatrician was incredulous when I insisted upon giving my son the killed polio vaccine because it was possible, albeit a very small risk, to contract polio from the live vaccine.

“You have to give the live vaccine in the first dose because it has to go through the gut, which is how the disease enters the body,” she told me. When I mentioned that diphtheria was also contracted through the gut but its vaccine is a shot in the arm, she had no response. I stuck to my guns and four years later, the United States abandoned the use of live polio vaccines.

In 1998, a vaccine for rotavirus was introduced and recommended by the American Academy of Pediatricians for all infants. It was pulled the next year when several children required surgery for intestinal blockages directly linked to the vaccine. It was eventually reintroduced in 2006, which means it took seven years of research to resolve the issues with a vaccine that for one year had been recommended for all infants in the United States.

And then there was the thimerosal controversy. A derivative of mercury, which is highly toxic in certain formulations, thimerosal was still abundantly used to preserve vaccines in the ’90s.

At the same time, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a diagnosis that was rare in my childhood, became much more common. So significant was the increase of ASD and Asperger’s (which is now seen as part of the autism spectrum) it seemed implausible to think the increase was simply due to improved methods of diagnosis.

Thus, as someone who bore children in the 1990s and early 2000s, it’s not surprising to me that parents were susceptible to claims connecting thimerosal in vaccines to autism. Eventually, in 2011, an article in the British Journal of Medicine thoroughly discredited any connection between the two. But by then my firstborn was 17 years old.

He is now 25, and many issues with vaccines have been resolved. This may be due in part to the fact that a small percentage of the population began opting out, thereby putting governmental light on their concerns, whether confirmed, as with the problems of polio and rotavirus vaccines, or not, as in the suspected connection of thimerosal and autism. Consider the following:

None of today’s vaccines come with the risk of developing the disease for which the vaccine is being given, as was the case with live polio.

Since 2001, thimerosal has been removed or greatly reduced in nearly all vaccines.

With cleaner, safer vaccines, the collective benefit of herd immunity, or the resistance to and eventual demise of diseases due to widespread vaccination, deserves strong advocacy.

Medicine is not the immutable science many believe it to be. In my lifetime, hormone replacement therapy was given to nearly all menopausal women until a study linked it to breast cancer.

Valium and Prozac were hailed as effective in treating depression and mood disorders — until it was determined they were being overprescribed, often with unpleasant side effects, including addiction.

The same is now notoriously known about opioids. Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, is embroiled in several lawsuits, accused of telling doctors that opioids were not addictive, when they knew the opposite to be true.

Once upon a time, doctors enjoyed broad deference. Who hasn’t had an elder relative who never questioned what her doctor told her to do or take? Today, however, more people are educated and rightfully apply critical thinking to important matters such as what to put in their bodies.

I hope that pertussis, measles and mumps can go the way of smallpox, which has been eradicated through vaccination. (The same would be true of polio, but extremists in parts of the Middle East have gone so far as to murder health workers in order to prevent the administration of the polio vaccine.)

Doing so requires convincing vaccination hesitaters that today’s vaccines are safe. And according to Sobo, “people are very ready to listen — if they’re heard. If you listen to them, and you allow them to say what they think without feeling judged, without pushing them into a corner, they’re absolutely ready.”

When I insisted upon killed polio for my firstborn, his pediatrician discounted my perspective and knowledge.

Contrast that with our current pediatrician, Stacey Memberg. Dr. Memberg is an M.D. with a Ph.D. in neuroscience who has a 14-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. Suppressed immune systems are common in people with Down syndrome, and I openly discussed my concerns with her.

“Research shows that not only do vaccines given on schedule help prevent the intended illnesses,” Dr. Memberg told me on our first visit, “they also strengthen the immune systems in people with DS.”

Speaking to me like an intelligent person and responding to my concerns with facts, Dr. Memberg easily convinced me to fully vaccinate Lyra on time. As the old saying goes, honey is far more successful in catching bees than vinegar.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on April 7, 2019.

Letting go of third son is hardest yet

My first child was born shortly after I turned 28. Having learned nothing about babies in my own upbringing, I approached my new role like a college course I refused to fail.

Between the deficit of attention in my childhood and the fact that I waited until I wanted children before having them, I glommed onto attachment-style parenting, which was in high fashion in the mid-’90s.

Breastfeeding on demand and exclusively for a minimum of six months, infant massage, co-sleeping in a family bed, and carrying babies either in front or back packs are all part of the program.

Among the claimed benefits of attachment-style parenting is that children who are held close and have their needs easily met become independent, confident adults. Or, as my mentor at Ohio State once opined, “If you can’t let your child come to your bed when he is scared, why be surprised when he becomes a disaffected teenager?”

With their father seldom home, sometimes not living in the same state, the boys and I were like the coveys of quail I frequently see when visiting family in Arizona. The mother hen leads a line of chicks wherever she goes, her top feather bobbing up and down on her head like a conductor’s baton.

Most attached to me was Jules, my third son, whom we nicknamed “Barnacle Bob.” Born with a mild temperament, Jules accompanied me wherever I went. And though he quickly grew tall, his bones were like those of birds. So light was he, I carried him on my hip until he was more than 6 years old.

Before Jules was old enough for school, he’d quietly play with whatever was available when I met friends for lunch. “I just wanted to be with my mama,” he now recalls. Sometimes it was frustrating. Doctor’s appointments, for example, were tough because until he was about 7, he’d become distraught if he couldn’t stay right next to me on an exam table.

Because he was quiet, it was often easy to forget Jules was present, thereby allowing him to take in everything. He was the first of my sons to guess that Max and I were more than just friends, a fact that threw his older brothers for a loop.

Hugo and Jules came home with lice shortly before I gave birth to my first child with Max. Hugo willingly got a buzz-cut. Jules, who was 9 and had hair several inches past his shoulders, did not want his cut.

“If you want to keep your long hair,” I told Jules on a Friday in late January, “you’ll need to let me pick the nits outside every day until they are gone.” He agreed and the last days that he was my youngest child were spent with me holding him close as I groomed his head hair by hair.

When I labored with Leif a few days later, Claude and Hugo stayed in the dining room. Jules was beside me and when each contraction started, I touched him. He’d strike a meditation bell, signaling to the midwife, Max, my stepmom and two friends to be quiet. When the contraction ended, Jules hit the bell again.

During the many hours of labor, delivery and postpartum activities, Jules never left my side.

When I was pregnant with Lyra, Jules came to every important appointment. He was there when they told us her neck measurements were thick and that, combined with my age, meant she had a likely diagnosis of Down syndrome. He was there several weeks later when the next tests showed the fetus was a female and had no features indicative of a diagnosis. And Jules was with me when I birthed my final baby, Lyra.

A child cannot attach himself so intrinsically to his mother without a symbiotic development occurring, like the blood exchange that occurs in utero between fetus and mother.

Last August, Jules was diagnosed with mononucleosis. He had hoped to make the state cross-country championships this, his senior, year, but he was too weak to run. Now, seven months later, he’s still easily fatigued and recently saw an infectious disease specialist at Akron Children’s Hospital. He may have chronic fatigue syndrome.

And yet, without any help, Jules applied to seven universities. He’s been accepted by five and wait-listed by the other two. Only once did he give me an essay to edit.

“I figure I’m an adult now and need to be able to take care of things like this on my own,” he told me as I repeatedly begged to help him. He’s also worked on his own to find and submit scholarship applications.

Sheesh. How to make your mom feel like a potted plant.

Bittersweet describes my feelings when each of my sons has left for college. It signifies the beginning of a new era of adult children, which I heartily enjoy. However, never again will they be my little chicks. How dear to me now are the years when we were a covey.

In January, someone asked where Jules would be going to college and I surprised myself. I began crying in the midst of small talk. Barnacle Bob is detaching, taking with him a chunk of the mother ship.

This spring, Jules has lined up interviews with biology departments in other states for summer employment. Places where they are doing research not unlike what he’s participated in at the University of Akron as a high school student. He could leave in a little over two months.

The boy who was the baby of our family for nine years, who slipped alongside me like my shadow, is leaving soon, as he should. If you see me weeping in public this spring, as I have now many times, you’ll know why. Please be gentle with me. I have a wound where the child who attached to me so deeply has extracted himself.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, March 22, 2019.

Poetry is the best gift during a final visit

Dear Mary Oliver,

I didn’t follow my own rule and now it’s too late.

I took your poems to Arizona a few weeks before my grandma turned 90. I knew it was the last time I would see her. Diabetes had taken two of the things she loved in life — reading and hiking. Several mini-strokes had stolen most of her short-term memory and much of the rest.

For three days, I sat at her bedside as she drifted in and out of sleep. When she’d awaken, I’d read your poems to her.

Someone I loved gave me a box full of darkness./It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.

Grama, my Uncle Neil and me camping with the Boy Scouts in the 1960s

My mother never loved me. After she left my father and me when I was a baby, Grama, a third-grade teacher, picked me up each afternoon from day care and kept me all summer. Those first months I would not let Grama go to the bathroom without me. Her love was a rope that saved me then — and later.

You do not have to be good…/You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.

My mother kidnapped me shortly before my fourth birthday and my childhood ended. I saw Grama only two times during a space of six years. The second time, I was living in Moline, Illinois, when my grandparents parked in front of our house, their huge Oldsmobile pulling their Aristocrat trailer. They were retiring from Chicago to Tucson and visited me in the yard for several minutes.

The bear … who sings to himself the secret song no one has ever heard…/as anything on earth/could ever be—/this is the bear/I want to see.

The summer after I finished the sixth grade, my mother realized she could be rid of me for an entire summer for the price of a plane ticket. Three summers in a row, I flew to Tucson.

Only 5 feet 3 inches, Grama would hitch her trailer to her Ford F-series truck that had two tanks for leaded gas. The first year, we went to the Chiricahuas, mountains so deeply worn by erosion, it’s as though God has stacked boulders one upon another, creating solid towers that only look precarious.

I was 11, and Grama 60, when we grabbed a ride from our campground in the back of a pickup truck. It wove its way up a mountain road in the Arizona sunshine. We sat in the open bed without anything securing us, admiring the landscape in which Geronimo successfully hid from the U.S. Army. We got off at the top of a mountain and spent the day hiking back to camp.

Lying together in the camper at dusk, Grama’s stories filled my lonely child’s soul. Stories of living in Florida on an Army base after my grandfather had been drafted at the end of World War II at age 36 and she was pregnant with her first child. Stories of the bears that frequently roamed America’s campgrounds in the 1950s when she traveled with her four sons. Stories of traveling shortly before retirement to Japan, where decades earlier Grandpa had been stationed with the Army of Occupation.

The following year, Grama introduced me to the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell. On our way back to Tucson, we stayed the night at my Uncle David’s house in Phoenix. In the cover of night, we were skinny-dipping in his pool when a helicopter hovered overhead, shining a beam of light upon us. We hugged the side of the pool until finally the pilot pulled the cyclic stick and flew away.

The second world — the world of literature — offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it.

The last time I camped with Grama at the Grand Canyon, December 1989.

When I was an adult, Grama regularly visited me in Ohio. She’d read any books in my house that she hadn’t already read. She was a big fan of Zane Grey’s westerns, but she also enjoyed her fat etymological dictionary. Well into her 70s, she took free literature courses at the University of Arizona and would send me her books at semester’s end.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those/ who think they have the answers./ Let me keep company always with those who say/‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.

Grama took me to my first symphony, my first opera, my first art song. For a time, she was president of the Tucson Opera Guild. For much longer she was a docent at the Tucson Museum of Art. Yet she often told me that the more she knew, the more she realized she didn’t know. It brought her joy to know she could always learn more.

Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.

Grama’s last digital clock had 2-inch-tall numbers. Calculating the last possible minute I could leave her and still catch my flight home, I watched my final minutes with this love of my life flick away. I awoke her and she was alarmed at the tears spilling down to my jaw before wetting my shirt.

“I’ll miss you Grama.”

“I’ll miss you too, Holly. And I’ll miss all that poetry.”

Your words, Mary Oliver, reached past Grama’s injured brain and touched her everlasting humanness.

When death comes…/I want to step through the door of curiosity, wondering;/what it is going to be like, that cottage of darkness?/When it’s over…/I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Grama died six months later and I felt as though I’d lost an endowment of love. I keep her number on my cellphone because it makes me happy to see it there.

Express gratitude quickly and often, that’s my rule. For 11 years, I meant to write and tell you how you guided our last time together, Grama and me. Your poetry mixed beauty with my grief and touched the woman who gave me love and, therefore, life.

Now you, too, have stepped through the door of that cottage of darkness. I don’t know what you found inside, but I like thinking you might meet up with Dorothy Christensen and talk with her about the many things you both treasured, especially nature and dogs. Give her my love.

All my best-

Holly

p.s. “Alligator Poem” is one of our favorites.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, March 10, 2019.

Family’s tragedy shows need for sentencing reform, affordable childcare

The grisly murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly by order of his country’s de facto head of state, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, caused me and many other Americans to finally recognize the horrific genocide occurring in Yemen, also by bin Salman’s order.

One dramatic event can shed light on a greater, if not systemic, problem.

Here in Summit County, the sentencing of Wynter Parker’s parents for her accidental death is such an event. Her parents’ felony convictions and prison sentences will not bring Wynter back. Nor will they vindicate her tragic, but absolutely accidental death.

My last column responding to Tierra Williams’ and Dariaun Parker’s prison sentences generated more responses from readers than any other column by fourfold. More than half of them wrote “There but for the grace of God go I” letters like this one:

“I once returned home from a doctor’s appointment to find my naked toddler walking down the street. My son, who is now 54, had unlocked the door and went on an adventure while his father, who had worked the third shift, sat sleeping in a chair. Had he intentionally abused or neglected his child? NO … though he did get quite a lecture, he was devastated. I pray the court will rethink their awful sentence and allow this family to reunite and gather their lives after their terrible loss.”

Many readers saw institutionalized misogyny in the charges and sentencing. Like me, they surmise that if the situation had been reversed — had the mother been home when Wynter slipped outside, and the father had returned from errands and then done everything he could to save his child — the father would not have been charged.

And many readers saw institutionalized racism, as do I. I don’t believe that if my daughter wandered outside and died of hypothermia, my husband and I would ever be charged with a crime, because we are white, middle-class professionals.

It is tempting to vilify Judge Alison McCarty for her egregious sentence and finger-wagging, telling the parents, “That’s an untenable situation,” referring to Williams driving to clients’ homes to style their hair while Parker worked on a musical career for which he had yet to earn income. “Not a lack of love, a lack of attention. Not all of the time, but some of the time, which put both of the children at risk.”

Untenable is what America expects of its working poor. On the same day my last column was published, the New York Times ran a piece by Katha Pollitt, who believes universal affordable day care would create more economic mobility than universal free college tuition. The Economic Policy Institute’s recent state-by-state analysis of the annual cost for infant care found it is often comparable to, if not more expensive than, annual tuition at a state college.

Pollitt states that parents “on tight budgets may be forced to seek informal, cheaper care. A neighbor … might be a godsend — or she might just plunk her little charges in front of the TV, take too many children or not know how to handle an emergency.”

Last Sunday, Catherine Rampell’s column in this paper pointed out that women’s issues are economic issues, including affordable child care. However, “policies that affect mothers’ ability to work are too often framed as being mainly about fairness, feminism, personal fulfillment and family bonding.”

Wynter Parker’s parents, like all working poor and middle-class families, could use policies that extend fairness and family bonding while also making good economic sense.

Finding a job

Also untenable is a legal system that makes gainful employment for working poor families nigh impossible. Thanks to the folks at Community Legal Aid and the University of Akron Law School’s Reentry Clinic, I’ve learned much about felony convictions in the past two weeks.

Felony convictions substantially limit opportunities for employment after release. As one reader wrote, “I was in retail management for years. When looking at applications, the minute our eyes went to ‘felony conviction’ the app went in the dead file.”

Williams and Parker first pleaded not guilty to the charge of child endangerment, a third-degree felony. That seems reasonable, as Wynter’s death was accidental. But before sentencing, they switched to guilty pleas, presumably on the advice of their attorneys.

A person with a felony conviction for child endangerment is legally ineligible to work in 616 types of employment in Ohio. Some convictions are eligible to be expunged, or to have the records sealed a year after the sentence has been served. But not child endangerment.

The prosecutors, knowing the lifelong effects, sought a felony conviction not only for the father who was with the child when she wandered, but also for the mother who was not, and who did everything possible to rescue her daughter when she found her.

Effectively, the felony conviction of Wynter Parker’s parents has probably sentenced her two siblings to childhood poverty.

Williams and Parker could have been convicted but not sentenced to prison. That they were likely gave Wynter’s siblings additional life sentences of poverty. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, “two factors influenced by parental incarceration — family income and children’s educational outcomes — have direct implications for children’s future upward economic mobility. The growth of incarceration in America has intergenerational impacts that policy makers will have to confront.”

Plight of the poor

Last Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pastor Jon Hauerwas reminded congregants that, “Jesus was a poor man. He was one of them. And so, he spoke empathetically about the plight of the poor.” The prayer of confession that day included, “We have not stood by those who are hated, bullied or excluded. Comfortable with the way things are, we are too complacent, even complicit with injustice and prejudice.”

In response to American outrage at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Congress is now reconsidering America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia as it relates to Yemen.

For those who are outraged by the sentences given to Williams and Parker, I encourage you to no longer be complacent, lest you be complicit in unjust sentencing of life in poverty and limited opportunities, not just for this family, but any family who tragically loses a child to an accidental death.

We as a society can support families rather than seeking a pound of flesh. In some cases, Children Services may need to supervise after an accidental death, until it believes affected families are appropriately able to care for their remaining children.

We can seek sentencing reform. I petition my state representative, Emilia Sykes, and my state senator, Vernon Sykes, to craft legislation that would limit, if not eliminate, felony charges for the accidental deaths of children. Rather than seeking retribution, guidelines should be crafted outlining appropriate measures to take, and services to provide, when a family loses a child due to an accidental death.

And we can advocate for affordable, quality child care, so poor parents have the support they need to lead productive lives, which has the potential to lift them and their children out of poverty.

As for Williams and Parker, they can petition Gov. Mike DeWine for clemency, and I strongly hope Williams does. Beyond that, a year after they complete their full sentences, including parole, each can apply to the county courts for a Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE). In theory, if granted, this certificate would prove to potential employers that the parties have been fully rehabilitated and should be considered for employment.

Lyra attempting to escape, yet again, last week.

To find your state legislators, go to https://openstates.org/find_your_legislator. Write to them for change and you’ll feel better than you have since learning of Williams’ and Parker’s convictions and sentences.

Question: Why do amusement parks, fairs, even some shopping malls have “Lost Child Centers,” essentially child recovery offices?

Answer: Because in the blink of an eye, any child can and often will wander out of sight.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 24, 2019.

Prison sentence for child’s accidental death benefits no one

My daughter, Lyra, has become a runner. I don’t mean she’s racing fellow kindergartners in track, but like with many children with Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder, she takes off with no regard to safety or even a destination.

I have written about her running and all that we’ve done to keep her safe, from making our doors impossible for her to open to strapping a GPS monitor belt on her that lets us know if she’s left our property.

Thanks to neighbors, strangers and the Akron police, Lyra has returned home safely each time she has run. But what if, God forbid, she was struck by a motor vehicle? Or wandered to a nearby pond and drowned? What crime would her father, Max, and I have committed?

Years ago, when a friend of mine was in medical school, she dropped off her two older children at preschool before driving her baby to daycare. When she arrived at the daycare facility, she discovered the baby was not in her car.

My friend, who went on to receive an M.D.-PhD., is very smart and extremely competent. But raising three small children while attending medical school was demanding, if not overwhelming. My friend had no idea where her baby could be that day. Had she left her in her car seat in the parking lot at the preschool?

Trembling, she returned to the preschool. She found the baby asleep in her car seat on the floor of the preschool classroom, a fortress of cardboard bricks built around her by the young pupils.

One winter’s evening, a friend of mine who is an artist put his 3-year-old daughter to bed before returning to his studio to work. While the studio was attached to the house, it also had an exterior door used by customers.

Much later that evening, my friend was shocked when someone knocked at the door. He opened it, and there was his little daughter in her nightgown and boots. No coat, hat or mittens. She’d taken herself to the swing set, played and then toddled to the studio door when she became very cold.

But what if my friend hadn’t gone to the studio that night? What if he’d gone to bed and hadn’t heard his child knocking? She would certainly have died before morning. What would have been his crime?

On Feb. 2, 2018, 2-year-old Wynter Parker wandered outside on a day when the temperature didn’t reach above 19 degrees. She had been at home with her father, Dariaun Parker, then 23, who had been up all night recording music. Sleep deprived, perhaps he nodded off because it was Wynter’s mother, Tierra Williams, who found her.

Williams, who was then 22, had been running errands with the couple’s 4-year-old child. When she returned home and found her daughter outside, she immediately wrapped the girl in blankets and called 911. Tragically, Wynter died from the effects of severe hypothermia.

In articles, including in this paper, county prosecutors state that neighbors called the police before because the couple’s children were outside unattended. But the authorities did not report the family to Summit County Children Services, which they are required to do when they believe children are endangered. Lyra has run three times, and the police have been called each time. Children outside unattended is not a crime nor, in all instances, necessarily negligence.

There are parents who brutally beat their children and some who murder their own babies, or murder the children of romantic partners. Those people should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and prevented from ever harming a child again.

But what of a mother who leaves her daughter with the child’s tired father? Or the tired father who agrees to stay with the child? And that one time everything goes completely wrong and the child dies not because of any malicious intent on the part of either parent?

More than 36 children die each year in the U.S. from vehicular hyperthermia, or heat stroke, because a caregiver leaves them in a car on a hot day. Compared to a child who wanders away, the parent who leaves a child in a car is an active agent in the child’s death. It’s the parent who buckles a child into a car seat and then forgets to retrieve them.

The worst punishment a parent can suffer is the death of a child. Perhaps that is why the judge overseeing the case of a 6-month-old’s death last summer in Medina from vehicular hyperthermia sentenced the baby’s father, 22-year-old Christopher Lee Stewart, to two years of probation. Stewart did not intend to harm his child. That she died due to his actions will likely haunt him all his days.

Dariaun Parker and Tierra Williams, however, have been sent to prison for their daughter’s death. Two years for Parker and 18 months for Williams, neither of whom had a criminal record, nor, as far as any news reports reveal, did they have any reported history of drug or alcohol abuse.

Judge Alison McCarty, who sentenced the parents, told them she would consider granting them an early release, which they can request after serving 30 days because they received sentences of less than two years. The decision on whether to grant the early release will be up to McCarty.

There isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t had a heart-clutching moment when realizing if a situation had gone even a little differently, great harm would have resulted. My daughter who runs, my friend who couldn’t remember where she’d left her baby, my other friend whose daughter wandered outside on a winter night. And many more stories of my own and others.

Should Williams and Parker have received supervision from Children Services after Wynter’s death? Absolutely. But how does sending them to prison benefit society? We live in a country that does not believe in free, quality childcare for our working poor but now we will pay a total of three and a half years of prison costs, approximately $30,000 a year.

As for punishment, their daughter died.

And what crime did the couple’s other two children commit? For they, too, are being punished. According to Creasie Finney Hairston, professor and dean at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois, “The arrest and removal of a mother or father from a child’s life forces that child to confront emotional, social and economic consequences that may trigger behavior problems, poor outcomes in school and a disruption or severance of the relationship with the incarcerated parent that may persist even after the parent is released from prison.”

Judge McCarty didn’t have enough compassion for the remaining children to at least sentence the parents consecutively rather than concurrently.

So I ask, what crime did these parents commit that merits the additional destruction of their lives and the lives of their other children, not to mention the expense to the state, by incarceration?

This column will appear in the Akron Beacon Journal on February 10, 2018.

Finding joy in a cold, snowy winter

If you want someone to blame for last week’s weather, look no further. For several months, I have been using all my mojo to call up a hale and hearty winter in Northeast Ohio. I began doubting my powers as we slogged through a muddy autumn and early winter. But then, success! A large polar vortex broke apart, sending one section straight down from Canada to the Midwest.

I feel most alive when outside on a crisp winter’s day. The air is void of pollution-trapping humidity and with each inhalation my lungs quickly warm frigid air. Bundle up to shovel, sled, cross-country ski or walk the dogs in deep snow, and soon clothes are coming off. Even on bitterly cold days, if the sun is strong and the wind low, it’s easy to stay warm.

Give me hard winters and mild summers over mild winters and hot summers. For when it’s hot, there’s only so much you can take off.

I suppose there are location-bound Akronites, here because of jobs or family. But I chose Akron and part of what I love about this place are the (typically) snowy winters. I lived in Columbus for 10 years where winter is six months of dreary skies from which white stuff occasionally drops and promptly melts. Freezing rain rules Central Ohio winters, and there’s nothing fun about freezing rain.

But snow, oh, my! In the snow belt across the nation, kids build snow forts and snow creatures (we had a 15-foot dragon one year) and enjoy pelting one another with snowballs.

Leif and Angus at the Sand Run Park sledding hill on MLK Day.

Here in Akron, we can do even more with our snow. The Summit County Metro Parks have sheltered fire pits at their many sledding hills and skating rinks. Granted, the skating rinks require more than snow, they need frigid temperatures, which is one more reason to call down a polar vortex.

We also have great skiing here. Sure, the slopes at Boston Mills and Brandywine aren’t the Rockies, but guess what? My kids can ski at resorts with large slopes because they learned how, starting at age 7, in the very affordable school ski programs BMBW offers. When Claude and Hugo each turned 18, I bought them their own downhill skis, which they’ve taken to various slopes across the country.

Beyond the fun of our wintry winters, they are also vital. Frigid temperatures are the bane of invasive species — both fauna and flora. Brown marmorated stink bugs, emerald ash borers, gypsy moths, hemlock woolly adelgid and more destroy trees and crops across Ohio.

Indigenous animals evolved with indigenous plants. When invasive plants take over habitats, they crowd out native species, thereby denying food resources to Ohio’s wildlife.

Like most invasive bugs, invasive plants also often originate from temperate climates and die back in cold winters. Japanese honeysuckle, bush honeysuckle and common privet are all invasive plants. So, too, is purple loosestrife, phragmites (common reed), garlic mustard, autumn-olive and more.

Many invasive plants were introduced by gardeners. These include ornamental pears and Buddleia, the butterfly bush, which does not feed the butterflies found in Ohio. Please consider removing cultivated invasive species from your gardens and replacing them with beautiful native plants (or even non-natives that aren’t invasive).

Fungus is another problem addressed by cold winters. Bat and amphibian populations have been devastated by fungal infestations due to mild winters. Who doesn’t love to hear spring peepers heralding the renewal of life each spring or watch bats swoop in the skies on a summer’s eve, clearing out large quantities of mosquitoes? I do.

And then there is my dark side. I derive a nearly perverse pleasure when imagining the death by cold temperatures of three of Ohio’s native pests.

Number 3: Poison ivy. After a stern winter, this noxious sumac is not so glib the following spring and summer. It stays where it should, in the darker recesses of wooded areas, rather than running amok as it will after a mild winter.

Two of my boys are terrifically allergic to poison ivy. Fun fact: pregnancy can change the immune system of women, including their allergy status. The visceral feeling of running hot water on a poison ivy rash is indelible. But I’ve not experienced it since the birth of my eldest child, 25 years ago.

Number 2: Ticks. After 2 consecutive mild winters, I found the blood suckers on my pets every month in 2018. Granted, I walk my dogs in woods and fields most days, but I pulled off ticks, which look like grayish kernels of corn after a day of feasting on a host, almost daily last summer. I found the last tick of the year on one of our cats on Christmas Day.

Number 1: Fleas. When I was a girl, I remember my mother whispering that one of our neighbors had fleas. She indicated fleas infest homes that aren’t very clean. It’s true I will never win the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for a spotless home. But a spotless home isn’t healthy either. Nor does the dirt bring the biting beasties inside. The pets do, particularly cats.

For many years, we had one cat. His name is Boggart, but I referred to him as “Last Cat.” Then, in June 2017, at the house where Max has his law office, a feral cat had six kittens under the front porch. We found homes for three and kept three.

Last summer, another litter of two kittens was born under the same porch. We were able to catch only one.

“I’m going to call him Cuddlebug,” said Leif, who is the only one small enough to crawl under the porch and retrieve kittens.

Our four recent additions to the family.

“We’re not keeping him, Leif,” I said as we drove the kitten home to clean him up. Yet now there are five cats. (I swear we aren’t hoarders, but feel free to call us weird cat people. It puts us in good company.)

For several weeks last summer, the back of Leif’s legs looked like he had chicken pox, so dotted were they with flea bites. All of the over-the-counter flea treatments that worked in prior years failed. For three months before the first frost, I spent $140 a month on prescription flea treatments from our veterinarian. Those fortunately did the job, making them worth every penny.

So revel with me over the beauty, fun and environmental function of this glorious winter. And in wishing a frozen pox on our native pests.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 27, 2019.

The Golden Rule of Parenting: Just Show Up

When I met the big boys’ father in the early 1990s, he was a young architect. He worked at a drafting table with draftsmen’s pencils shaved into fine points with specialized sharpeners. I can still hear the whir of his leads spinning to precision, the mechanical sharpener held in one hand, the pencil in the other, white shirt sleeves rolled up just past elbows.

His blueprints were produced little differently than those of Howard Roark, as played by Gary Cooper, in the 1949 movie “The Fountainhead.”

Not long after our first child, Claude, was born, his father learned to draft in CAD, or computer-aided design. The pencils, sharpeners, drafting table and true blueprints became instantly obsolete.

Boston, 1995. I carried baby Claude, either in a backpack or a sling, throughout a city in which I knew nobody and where few locals were receptive to people whose ancestors hadn’t fought in the Revolutionary War. Three days a week, Claude’s father left extra early for work to receive CAD lessons from an officemate.

We moved back to Ohio soon after Claude began walking. In his home office, I watched my then-husband slide his mouse across a pad to open boxes on his computer screen, click and drag images around until buildings took shape.

Contemporaneously, hand-painted animated movies, many stunning works of art (see the opening scene of Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound”), gave way to the precision of computer-generated imagery. With every step forward, something must be left behind. Are today’s architecture students even required to draw by hand?

The boys’ father wanted to be an artist, like his mother. His father wanted him to be an engineer. The dilemma was solved when he decided to become an architect.

Like me, the boys can hardly imagine their father sitting down without him drawing with whatever was available, be it ink and sketchbooks or crayons and newsprint.

The boys went to schools in Akron that emphasize the visual arts, from the Waldorf School, which is why we moved to Akron, to Miller South School for the Arts and, finally, Firestone High School’s School of the Arts.

My sons draw both intricately and with the looseness of people comfortable doing so. Claude’s first major at the University of Michigan was art and design. The month before his first semester, I spent all my savings, about $5,000, buying the computer and software suite his program required.

Claude switched his major to English literature before I ever saw him working on computer design. Instead, Jules was the first of my sons who reminded me of watching my ex-husband design on the computer.

Working in the biology department at the University of Akron last winter, Jules developed, with much trial and error, a tool to extract pollen from the anthers of a specific plant. Once collected, the pollen grains were counted. After hand-drawing his ideas, Jules drafted them on the computer, using free software.

“Would you ever want to contact your father and ask him about computer drafting?” I asked Jules.

“No,” he responded promptly. “He’d just make it all about him.”

My ex-husband lives two states away. He never contacts the boys, even when he’s in Ohio. It’s been nearly four years since they’ve seen him.

Once there was a boy who could draw. His talent was innate but also influenced by spending time with his mother, a trained artist. Somewhere on his path to adulthood he lost his way, becoming less like his mother and more like his father.

Recently, Claude had the opportunity to pitch a brochure design for an Akron governmental office. He worked on it using the now-outdated version of Adobe Illustrator that was part of the software package purchased seven years ago for college.

Wanting feedback on his brochure from Max and me, Claude brought over his laptop the night before it was due. As I heated up a plate of leftover meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans for him, Claude’s program crashed, and he lost most of his work. Two weeks’ worth.

It’s happened to anyone who works on a computer. Re-creating lost work takes less time than generating it from scratch, but it still sucks. All I could do was make him a cup of coffee and sit beside him, starting this column.

There are many things I wish I’d done differently with my children. After our divorce, it became achingly clear that in choosing my ex-husband, I’d given my sons a parent who was little different than my own. With a few more years of therapy under my belt, I would have chosen differently, as I later did.

Years of trying to make a happy marriage without the essential ingredients left us empty-handed. But I’d do it again — all 15 years of futility — to have Claude, Hugo and Jules in my life.

The skills of my first three sons are an amalgam of their parents’. They draw as easily as their father, and work as hard as I do to write well. (Good writing is born more from determined tenacity than natural talent.)

The pre-verbal baby I carried around Boston turned 25 last week, on the 12th day of Christmas. I’ve always thought of him as my gift from the Magi. While I wrote on my laptop, Claude re-created his brochure with relative ease, occasionally asking me to look at his progress. He finished shortly before 1 a.m.

All parents have regrets. There is no perfect parent, and what child wants one? The first and last rule of successful parenting isn’t so much what a parent brings to the table, only that they come to the table. Not helicoptering, but simply showing up. Be present when your children need you, while also teaching them to become self-reliant.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on January 13, 2019.

Updates on popular columns from 2018

Reader response to my columns reads like the title of a country and western song: “Special girl, dogs and old cars.” Far and away, I receive more letters about our daughter, Lyra, and issues related to her Down syndrome than on any other subject. But readers also filled my email in-box over columns about our animals and, surprising to me, my 2003 Toyota Matrix.

As 2018 winds down, here are updates on some of those columns.

Dorothy and her 10 puppies.

Our dog Dorothy

We had not meant our house to become a cattery, but feral cats had six kittens under our porch in the summer of 2017. We found homes for three (including two adopted by our son Claude) and kept three. We already had one rickety cat, who himself had been born to a feral mother in 2001.

After a discussion last spring with our veterinarian, Dr. Julie Brown-Herold, we realized our 1-year-old German shepherd could not live in a house with cats. Dorothy, who regularly kills squirrels and chipmunks, relentlessly hunted the cats.

Finding a home for four cats is nigh impossible. Meanwhile, our small-animals menace is gentle with all humans including babies. My friend Sheri Brown, from whom I’d purchased Dorothy, re-adopted her.

The Browns (www.noblek-9.com) have 10 German shepherds on a large property near Alliance. Dorothy, who loves playing rough with the big dogs, is a happy girl. This month, she became a first-time mama and a good one, too. We watched her birth the first six of her 10 pups via FaceTime and visited them when they were 14 days old.

Some people believe it hard, even wrong, to resettle a pet in another home, because the animal would be bereft without its current owner. In my experience, this is not the case. Rescue animals, not all of whom are victims of abuse or neglect, regularly settle in to new homes where they are much beloved.

As with children, it is important to ask what is best for each individual, assessing the situation honestly and with as little ego as possible. Sometimes major changes, no matter how difficult, are exactly what is needed.

Lyra wearing her AngelSense

When Lyra runs

Running, without thought of destination or concern for safety, is a common and terrifying behavior in people with Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. I learned this soon after Lyra was born, but she never ran off. That is, until this summer when she did so three times in one week.

I received many letters, mainly from parents whose own children have run. They were grateful to see the behavior highlighted in the Akron Beacon Journal, educating the public about running and its prevalence with these diagnoses. Often, parents of children who run feel judged because most people do not understand how our kids can vanish in the blink of an eye.

One long email response came from a mother who ultimately placed her 17-year-old daughter in a residential facility. Beautifully written, I had tears in my eyes when I finished reading her story. This mom has since begun blogging and wrote a piece about her daughter’s running, which I recommend reading. (https://frommyperspective.blog/2018/11/14/about-runners-it-is-a-real-problem/)

As for Lyra, we now use AngelSense GPS. Lyra’s adopted grandpas, Bruce Stebner and Jim Mismas, paid for the device, which is little bigger than a Matchbox car. We attached it to a belt that Lyra, so far, enjoys wearing.

The more she wears it when home, the more information the GPS gathers. If Lyra strays from our yard — or even to the back end of our yard where we seldom go — Max, Jules and I receive a text notification from AngelSense. We can open the app on our phones and it will show us where Lyra is.

One woman wrote to tell me she installed deadbolts requiring a key to lock and unlock not only on the outside of the door, but on the inside, too. We now have the same type of deadbolt on our front door because Lyra was able to turn the interior knob of the original deadbolt. Our fear was even with the AngelSense, if Lyra were to walk out the front door, she could get to our busy street in the short time it takes AngelSense to alert us and for us to look at the app.

“Keep the car!”

Next to our girl who’s safely carried us far and wide.

That was the subject line of multiple emails I received after writing about my 2003 Toyota Matrix, which has 238,000 miles and needs a new battery, alternator and at least one tire.

These letters, all written by men, were full of fun stories with old cars. One told me of his 1999 Honda Accord, which has “been to 37 states, Canada, was parked for about an hour in front of Fats Domino’s house while I was inside with The Man, and has shared all sorts of other adventures which I can’t share since the statutes of limitations haven’t expired on some of them.”

I grin every time I read that sentence and realize I am not alone in anthropomorphizing my favorite vehicle.

While I certainly do not have enough money to buy a new car, I also cannot currently afford the repairs needed for my Matrix. I have decided to wait for my tax refund in February and then make a decision. I’m leaning toward repairing my girl, unless there is more bad news when I take her in.

Thank you for reading my column and keep the letters coming. Blessings to you all for 2019.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 30, 2018.

Beloved car may be nearing end

Carlsbad, New Mexico 2007

According to Buddhist teachings, the root of all aggression is desire. Not being attached to a specific outcome — be it with events, people or things — reduces suffering. Buddhism also emphasizes the importance of compassion and, therefore, detachment is not the same as being emotionally null.

In 1988, I moved into a home two blocks north of Ohio State University’s campus with two roommates. Built in the 1920s, the home was simple. The few kitchen cabinets were original, the interior doors were gum wood varnished in a yellowish tint popular 100 years ago.

My roommates eventually graduated and moved away. I stayed, worked at OSU and bought the house. My then-husband moved in with me and I birthed our first two sons in my little house, which is less than half a mile from Ohio Stadium.

Hugo was born during the 1996 OSU-Michigan football game. The neighborhood, which had thrummed with activity all morning, hushed as though plunged into a soundproof room, just as I began pushing. When he was born 21 minutes after kickoff, I heard the cheers of more than 100,000 spectators, seemingly welcoming a new Buckeye to the world.

Two years later, my husband took a job in Pennsylvania and I agreed to the singularly worst financial decision of my adult life: selling the house. In my peripatetic childhood, houses were temporary, way stations for a few weeks or months. I chose my OSU house and stayed there many times longer than I had my parents’ many houses.

Before we left, I crawled through the hole in the closet ceiling of the bedroom where Claude had drawn his first breath. I walked on the rafters away from the attic entrance and, under one of the roof joists, I tucked my love letter to the house.

Throughout the 20 years since, my nighttime dreams are regularly set in that home. Again and again, I return to the first house that sheltered more than my physical body.

In 2002, I picked out my freshly minted girl, a Toyota Matrix. Hearkening the first and best movie in the Wachowski sisters’ series, I didn’t christen her anything else. The dealership had a red Matrix in stock, but red is not my color. Shipped in from a dealership in another state, my girl is light blue and has a roof rack.

The Matrix has been to northern Michigan and back more times than I can calculate. For many years, she carried us to Vermont for our Buddhist family camp where one year a local mechanic replaced her clutch.

Yes, my girl is a 5-speed. If you haven’t driven a standard transmission, you haven’t driven a car. With an automatic, the car does all the thinking, the human just presses one pedal to accelerate, another to slow down. With a stick shift, car and human merge together. As responsive as a horse who knows by the slightest pressure of a human leg what her rider wants, my girl likes to go fast.

Parents are the maestros of their children’s memories. From holidays and birthdays to predictable evenings after school or summer weeks spent with grandparents. The most significant memories cannot be predicted, but reveal themselves when the children have grown.

Such was the cross-country road trip the three big boys and I took in the Matrix the summer of 2007.

Mountain lake at Yosemite

We drove south from Akron, turned right in Georgia, noodled across the South and Southwest, our path zigging and zagging wherever we left I-10 to visit many treasures, both geographic and archaeological, along the way. We carried on westward until we hit the Pacific Ocean in Paso Robles.

Mount Rushmore

Every bucket list should include driving along California State Route 1, a dramatic concrete ribbon fit tight against the coastline like lovers spooning in bed. We again turned right at Yosemite National Park and made our way back to Ohio. Many days the four of us spent 10 or more hours in the Matrix. Today the boys describe the trip as seminal to their childhoods.

When I was pregnant with Leif, Max bought a minivan and the Matrix became the kid car. Claude drove it his last two years of high school. Hugo did the same.

Claude took the Matrix to Ann Arbor his final semester of college. Six months later, Hugo worked at Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts and the Matrix went with him.

Though her motor is still incredibly responsive, the Matrix has aged into a jalopy. The driver’s side window remains permanently closed with duct tape sealing the edges. An inch above the dashboard, a crack runs the entire length of the windshield. The reflection in the right-side mirror, an off-market replacement, wobbles like a fun-house mirror. I stopped replacing hubcaps long ago.

Seemingly out of politeness, the Matrix avoids more than one major expense a year. I have justified a big repair here, tires there, because it’s still cheaper than a car payment and she has continued to be reliable.

Two years ago this month, the clutch went out and came in at just under $1,000. A week later, Claude took Hugo back to school in Rochester and the Matrix broke down in Buffalo. This time it was the transmission.

Because my first ABJ column had not yet run, I know Jim & Sons Transmission treats all customers like family. They drove a tow truck to Buffalo and brought our Matrix back. I bit the bullet and replaced the transmission, but swore it was the last big fix for my girl.

And here we are. She now needs a new battery and alternator, about $600.

Another Buddhist lesson is that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. I must decide if it’s time to shoot our valiant horse or spend the money so Jules, too, can have his turn with the best little car in Akron. And while I do, she rests peacefully in our driveway.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 16, 2018.

Curiosity, essential to learning, is threatened by social media

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Claude picked up Hugo in Rochester and together they drove through Canada to their grandparents’ home in Northern Michigan. On their way, they listened to 1984. Hugo is taking a class on George Orwell, and Claude is reading along.

The rest of us also arrived on Tuesday, but much later, having headed out on the 450-mile trip after school let out. And then, like many families, we cooked, ate and did dishes. And repeat. But in other ways, we strayed from the presumed Thanksgiving conventions (as probably every family does).

American Gothic, Graveside

Wednesday morning, the boys helped bury a body at the city cemetery. As soon as each of them was big enough to hold a shovel, they have helped their grandpa, the city sexton, in the graveyard. It’s there that they’ve come to know their grandpa, and they all enjoy the time together.

Other than the Macy’s Parade, the television stays tuned to Turner Classic Movies. It’s like another welcome guest for the long weekend. The movies on TCM provide crack-sharp dialogue, grand song-and-dance sequences from the Depression era and visually saturated Technicolor musicals from the postwar decades. Who can resist?

Each day, Hugo and I walked the dogs along Lake Michigan. With summer tourists long gone, Petoskey stones, which are unique to Northern Michigan, are as easy to find as fleas on a squirrel. Walking on water-smoothed stones, their colors vibrant when wet, my boy and I chatted. Loud waves crashed on the shore and periodically large ones chased us back, flooding a spot where we were just standing.

We always bring board games, but inevitably play euchre every night. Our games are loud, with players swearing and laughing. Grandma is a euchre shark and will not hesitate to take someone’s seat without invitation. As she’s not one to relax, we love it when she joins us.

I enjoy my young adult children. We share many interests and regularly talk about politics, art, music, literature, science and more. Their knowledge of an array of topics is both broad and deep and I learn many things from my sons.

I assumed most families with young adult children were similar to ours. Then I began teaching college freshmen. Oh, I’ve taught them before, but not since I was in graduate school, and the world is a different place than it was a decade ago.

Adults have always complained about younger generations. Socrates, who lived in the 5th century B.C.E., said, “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households.”

But I love working with 15- to 25-year-olds. Their frontal lobes are connecting to the rest of their brains and the ability for complex thinking explodes. Think of the stereotype of college students sitting around saying things like, “Dude, if the universe is expanding, where is it expanding to? Whoa!”

Back when music was distributed on albums, and later CDs, most purchases were made by 16- to 26-year-olds. This age group has always been a sponge not just for information, but also art, ideas and complex concepts. It’s no coincidence most undergraduate college students are 18 to 22 years old.

The household I grew up in did not expose me to culture, literature, philosophy or art. Though we regularly stayed with family in Chicago, the only museums I visited were on school field trips.

But I was curious and by high school, I was reading voraciously, not just contemporary fiction, but also classics. I also watched movies, again, both new releases and classics. I remember crying inconsolably at 17 after watching Barbara Stanwyck in “Stella Dallas.”

My point is, even without parents presenting the lusciousness of reading good books, watching good movies, studying both history and current events, curious teens can, and often do, find these treasures on their own. Or at least they did.

My classes are filled with bright students. However, when I ask them if they’ve read relatively well-known young adult books, most say no. When I ask if they’ve watched relatively recent movies, most say no. And then there’s music.

In  The Glass Castle, we read about a segregated swimming pool. I recounted the story of management at a Las Vegas casino ordering a pool be drained of its water after a black entertainer swam in it. I mistakenly thought the swimmer was Nat King Cole (it was Sammy Davis Jr.) and asked my 40 students if they know who he was.

Not a one. “OK,” I said, “what about his daughter, Natalie Cole?” Nope, even though she died just three years ago, none of my students knew either of the famous Coles.

I now play music as my students enter the classroom. We’ve listened to many jazz icons — Getz, Davis, Fitzgerald and, of course, Nat King Cole. “Shall we start with a little music?” I ask when I enter the classroom and, to my heart’s delight, my students say yes.

For extra credit, I bring in my New York Times Sunday paper, back copies of the New Yorker, the Smithsonian, the Atlantic and more. For five points, they read an article and write a couple of paragraphs describing the content and analyzing the writing. Several have told me it’s the first time they’ve read a newspaper.

My students are eager to learn; few seem to glaze over when we discuss an array of subjects from politics to graphic novels. So why haven’t they found their way to the brain banquet of arts, history and culture? To answer this, I gave a brief lecture on Karl Marx.

“Opiate of the masses” is how Marx described religion. Were he alive today, he may still hold to his definition, but more than religion, I also think he’d zero in on the tamping down of curiosity caused by smartphones combined with social media. We’re all susceptible to these time vampires, myself included.

When they were in high school, two of my sons switched their smartphones back to basic cellphones because it was affecting their ability to do other things — including homework. I have at least one student in my classes whose deep addiction to his phone parallels the symptoms of drug addiction.

I wish I had a global solution for this very real problem. What I do have is advice for parents: Limit the time your children spend with screens. Do not give them smartphones when they are teenagers. No matter what their peers think, a child without a smartphone is not missing out on anything, but gaining everything.

LIFE Project teaches parents how to advocate for kids’ educational needs

By the time he’d finished the third grade, my eldest son, Claude, had attended a public school, a parochial school, a Quaker school, a Waldorf school and a Montessori school.

The following year, when he was in the fourth grade, he attended the Lawrence School, a private school in Broadview Heights that specializes in remediating learning disabilities.

Of all those schools, Claude only switched once because of a long-distance move — from Centre County, Pa., to Cleveland. Why so many schools? Because I was desperate.

As a little guy, Claude was obviously bright. He had a vivid imagination, creating a flower kingdom with his toddler brother, Hugo, under the thicket of forsythia that grew in our backyard in Pennsylvania. He often wore a handmade, felt Batman mask in public and when asked his name, he’d reply, “I’m Claude, the masked-rider boy.”

When interested in something, Claude went deep. Around age 5, he was our resident expert on beavers and their muddy constructs.

However, after his first three years of school, he remained unable to distinguish numbers from letters.

I first became concerned when Claude was in kindergarten. Though it was a wonderful school with two teachers in each class and plenty of play time, Claude soon became anxious about attending. I eventually learned, as is common, he was aware other students were easily understanding the academic lessons, while he was not.

And so began my questioning. Teachers at all his schools told me not to worry. “Boys mature more slowly,” they’d say. But I knew something was wrong. I grew obsessively concerned as more time passed, routinely reminding myself to focus on my other two little boys, too.

Then, in the summer Claude was a rising third-grader, one short conversation changed everything.

While at the Buddhist family camp in Vermont that we went to every year, a woman who’d also been attending for a few years mentioned she was a pediatric occupational therapist. I told her Claude held his pencils like violin bows. She asked me several questions and then declared, “You need to have him evaluated for learning disabilities.”

Such a simple thing, really, and one every educator I’d questioned should have offered to do. Why didn’t they? I believe because Claude wasn’t a behavior problem, the public schools prioritized their more difficult students over him. Private schools often do not have access to the substantive interventions found in public schools, and having him diagnosed might have resulted in his withdrawal from those schools.

That fall, Claude’s evaluation revealed he is severely dyslexic.

Firstborns bear the burden of rookie parents. Even though I was college-educated and very invested in my children’s educations, I did not know Evaluation Team Reports (ETRs, then called Multi-Factored Evaluations, or MFEs) existed, much less that I had the right to request one.

Nor did I know there are attorneys who specialize in education law and help families receive the services their children need. Though, even if I had, I likely would not have pursued retaining a lawyer because of the expense.

This is why I am truly thrilled about the LIFE (Learning Is For Everyone) Project, a pilot program launched by Community Legal Aid in Akron. In workshops held across the city, parents can learn what educational services are available and how to ask for them.

The materials Community Legal Aid created for this program are invaluable. A workbook with 11 pages of questions and information helps determine what problems a child is having in school.

Depending on the results of the first workbook, there is a workbook for an ETR, which is the first step in establishing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for a student. There is also a workbook for 504 plans, which are for students who do not meet the qualifications of an IEP, but who still need accommodations and supports to succeed.

Also included in the packet of materials is a glossary of terms and definitions. Educational jargon and acronyms are intimidating. As the current principal of Firestone High School knows, until very recently, I was unable to remember 504 plans, sometimes referring to them as “524s” or “those 500-things.”

Finally, to empower parents to advocate for their children, there is a template containing sample letters, general forms, as well as a copy of each of the four different types of intervention plans. Also found in this section is a seven-page list of community resources for concerns ranging from addiction to school transportation.

Parents who attend the workshops are walked through the first workbook, identifying their children’s needs. Then, either in small groups or one-on-one, staff from Community Legal Aid discuss with parents how to initiate and proceed with requesting interventions from the schools for their children.

To be clear, Community Legal Aid finds Akron Public Schools very responsive to the children in the district who need additional support. This has also been my personal experience. But there are children, like my Claude, who can fall through the cracks simply because their parents cannot ask for things they don’t know exist.

At this time, Community Legal Aid intends to hold a few workshops each grading period in different parts of the city. If successful, the program could be expanded to the other large school districts Community Legal Aid serves in its eight-county region, including Canton, Warren and Youngstown.

Once properly diagnosed, Claude began appropriate interventions. By the end of the third grade, he was reading chapter books. He went on to get a degree in English literature from the University of Michigan and writes for The Devil Strip, an Akron arts and culture publication.

Claude has done well, but I’ll always wish he’d been properly diagnosed in kindergarten, which is why I also wish the LIFE Project had existed 20 years ago.

LIFE Workshops

Community Legal Aid LIFE (Learning Is For Everyone) workshops will be offered Nov. 27 at the REACH Opportunity Center, 390 W. Crosier St., Akron; and Dec. 13 at Findley Community Learning Center, 65 W. Tallmadge Ave., Akron.

Workshops take place from 6 to 8 p.m. and include refreshments and children’s activities. The free workshops cover support available to students from kindergarten through 12th grade. To register, go to www.communitylegalaid.org/events or text SCHOOL to 77453.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 19, 2018.

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