Talking with children about death

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

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

But, of course, there are no guarantees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be kind to them, they are in pain.

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


Love for winter doesn’t melt

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

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

Hearty winters are one of the things I liked about moving to Northeast Ohio. For nearly a decade, I lived in Columbus where winters are grayer than they are here. Making it worse, it rarely snows in Columbus and when it does, it often quickly melts. 

During my first 14 winters here, bright snow made the darkest months of the year cheerful and fun. My children learned to ski at Boston Mills and Brandywine ski resorts where, yes, the slopes are small, but the skills needed are the same as anywhere. In recent years my big boys have skied on slopes across the country.

Since 2014, however, winters here have been annoyingly mild. Far too many weeks have been as dismally gray and snowless as they are in Columbus. Temperatures have not been cold enough to provide the important benefit of killing off invasive plant and insect species or reducing the pesky indigenous ones. Northeast Ohio pet owners know too well that treatments to prevent ticks and fleas must now be given 12 months of the year. 

Last fall, I received a rare phone call from my stepfather. He lives in Dallas, but grew up and lived much of his adult life in Ohio. 

“I could never live in Ohio again, I can’t take the winters,” he told me. 

“Pshaw,” I told him, “We hardly get below freezing here anymore.” 

Perhaps trickster gods overheard our conversation because 2021 is a banner year for winter in Ohio — and in Texas. Snow and cold have repeatedly visited Akron and set records in the Lone Star State. My son Claude is studying at Texas A&M and several days this past week endured rolling blackouts when it was colder there than here. 

Many, like me, love a good winter. Others do not. But remember, it could be worse. 

Last weekend, I took my two youngest children to Rockford, Illinois, to visit my second son, Hugo, his girlfriend, Claudia, and (most importantly) their dog, Rutabaga. During our four days there, the temperature never rose above 2 degrees. Claudia tells us it’s a typical winter for northern Illinois. 

On our way home, I accidentally chose a GPS route that took us through downtown Chicago. It was the first time Leif and Lyra had seen the city, but they didn’t see much. The region was enveloped in whiteout conditions. With traffic crawling at 3 miles per hour, it was safe driving until we reached the Chicago Skyway where traffic let up. Then, and for the next hour, I white-knuckled us through the storm on roads not recently plowed. 

Twenty years ago almost to the day, I was in the left lane on the outer belt south of Chicago when I hit black ice. My car spun so that I was facing oncoming traffic and then slid sideways across five busy lanes of traffic before hitting the guardrail next to the right lane. 

My three children, ages 7, 4 and 6 months, were sleeping in car seats behind me. They awoke at the moment of impact. A couple who stopped to see if we were OK were nearly as shaken from watching our accident as I was having experienced it. 

The car’s hood had been knocked sideways and no longer lined up with the latch. The couple helped me bungie-cord the hood to the grille and we all continued on. I crossed the border to Indiana and picked up speed when suddenly the car hood flew up and smashed the windshield.

None of my children were asleep that time and they all screamed before sobbing.

Flanking both sides of the interstate were farm fields covered in waist-deep snow. The nearest exit was too far to walk to with three small children and, like many people 20 years ago, I didn’t have a cellphone. 

I have family in LaPorte, Indiana, not far from the Illinois border. I again tied the hood down, this time to the bumper, and slowly drove in the right lane with my hazards on. Before long, but not far from a toll station, the hood again flew up, smashed the windshield and sent bits of safety glass into the car. 

Somehow, I made it to the toll station where the very kind workers let me call my grand-aunt and grand-uncle who came and collected us. 

Then, as now, we made it home safely, this time just before last week’s big storm. Now, as then, the dangers of driving in snow and ice have not diminished my love of a vigorous winter. 

I spent this morning clearing the snow from the storm. Several times since, I’ve peered out my office window to admire entire slabs of sidewalk being slowly revealed by winter sunshine. Such satisfaction.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on February 21, 2021.


Loving children when it’s hard

When I was 16, my father and stepmother told my two sisters and me that as much as they loved their children — they’d die for us — they loved each other more, that their love had only grown in the dozen years they’d been together.

Eight years later, my dad moved to Arizona, divorced my stepmom and married a woman with three young daughters who essentially replaced us. In the 27 years I’ve been a mother, my father’s never visited. Any interaction with him required my initiation and follow-through, ultimately failing a cost-benefit analysis.

My stepmom, on the other hand, has remained constant in her children’s lives. She’s celebrated our weddings and supported our divorces. She came to my home and took care of me every time I had a baby. She’s the only grandmother my older boys grew up with, a role she’s embraced so fully, it’s a large part of her identity.

There are no guarantees that any relationship will be permanent. But it is more assured between parents and children than between lovers. Nobody knows anyone as well as a child knows a parent. And, when fully committed, a parent cannot be laid more emotionally bare than by a child.

A committed parent shows up in both easy and difficult times, holding their seat as the one in charge while empathizing with children’s often confusing emotions. “How to Talk so Your Children Will Listen,” which was published in 1982, remains the parenting bible on how to do this.

Young children and teenagers alike often seem irrational. Most school mornings my 10-year-old, Leif, ignores my calls to get up and is whiny and angry when I make him do so, even though he’s slept for nine or more hours. “Get your butt down here right now!” I’ve yelled more times than I wish to admit.

Yet yelling never works. What does is going to his room to comfort him, stroke his head, give him a hug and tell him he’s going to have a good day. That’s not always possible, however, as there are breakfasts and lunches to make and another child, along with myself, to get ready.

When he was a teenager, my second son, Hugo, once shouted at me, “I only have one problem and it’s you!” For years, he directed what felt like endless anger at me. But as unpleasant as it was to live with, I tried not to take it personally.

“Why is he always so hard on you?” my partner, Max, asked after Hugo had marched into our bedroom and told me all the ways I had disappointed him on his 16th birthday. I believed then, as I do now, that Hugo regularly tested my commitment to him from a place of pain over his father, who never made an effort to have a relationship with him.

Hugo’s now 24 and we talk daily. We’ve started our own two-person book club after he recently texted, “For whatever reason, I’m craving some depressing, overly descriptive and nature-focused literature. Do you have any Russian authors to recommend?” We’re starting with Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls.”

But what of the anger of an adult child? One who never gave me trouble before now claims that if he is to have a relationship with me, he needs me to understand him. He’s angry I didn’t intuit what he is going through. Of all my qualities, psychic powers are not on the list.

Regardless, “If I am going to have a relationship with you” are words that cut my heart to the quick. Emotions are neither right nor wrong, they just are, and I’ve always treated them as such. But it isn’t always a two-way street that, certainly not with this son at this time.

It reminds me of young baby boomers stating that they needed to go find themselves, to which their greatest-generation parents scratched their heads and said, “Huh?” And that somehow made the young boomers angry.

On a walk last month, my son talked and I listened. When I was a child, I felt hot shame whenever I disappointed an adult I respected. It felt similar listening to my son’s complaints.

There is nothing, short of causing harm, that I won’t accept of my children, which I’ve made clear in word and action all their lives. Yet this child, in an effort to find his way, feels he must push away from me. I don’t know what I could’ve done differently, but my love for him remains steadfast.

There are many benefits in being the mother of a large family, including seeing children turn out so differently from one another that it’s impossible to credit or blame myself too much for who they become. But also, there are witnesses, people who have known each other all their lives.

“He’s being really selfish right now and you need to set boundaries with him,” my two other adult sons recently told me. And they reminded me, as they have throughout their brother’s life, that he’s not the angel I think he is.

“But he’s my child,” I told them, a relationship they cannot yet understand as they are not yet parents.

One summer years ago, I told my father, mother and stepmom about things that they did in my childhood that painfully echoed into my adulthood. My father and mother became angry and stopped talking to me, neither a surprise nor a disappointment. My stepmom wept as I spoke and apologized with a simple sincerity, making no excuses.

Her response, meaningful to me then, is an example for me now.

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


Mark important moments in history with children

“History is not was, it is.” — William Faulkner

On a January day in 1973, a bulky television atop a 4-foot metal cart was wheeled into my second-grade classroom at Longfellow Elementary in Toledo. Former President Lyndon Johnson had died the day before at his ranch in Texas and we were shown a news program about his life.

I didn’t know anything about Johnson — he’d left office when I was 3 — but I did know about the current president, Richard Nixon. In the weeks leading to his reelection the previous fall, children in my white working-class neighborhood, myself included, chanted “Nixon, Nixon, he’s our man. Let’s throw McGovern in the frying pan!” as we walked to and from school twice daily (once for lunch).

No, the white working-class conversion from union Democrats to a GOP voting block didn’t begin with Donald Trump, nor did it begin with Ronald Reagan. The movement started in the ’60s as a response to civil rights legislation, yes, but also to a host of societal changes occurring in America and other developed countries (1968 is remembered in France as a year of protests, strikes and riots).

There are periods in history that are pivotal and can shape nations for decades. Johnson’s administration was responsible both for progress on civil rights and the escalation of a war the government knew we could not win. I’m sure much of the program on Johnson went over our 7-year-old heads that day. And, yet, nearly 50 years later, I remember watching it.

On Sept. 8, 2009, President Barack Obama gave a televised 15-minute speech to the nation’s K-12 students. My second son, Hugo, was in the seventh grade at Miller South where I assumed they’d make the students watch the highly publicized event. But they did not.

When I spoke with her the next day, the school principal told me they had a television on in the cafeteria, but that most students instead had gone out for recess. Well, yeah, they’re kids. It’s up to adults to guide children to watch and listen to important events.

Earlier that year, I kept all three of my boys home from school to watch Obama’s inauguration. It was an historic moment for our nation, which has treated Black Americans as lesser humans for four centuries, often violently so. Because I didn’t have a TV, my friend Dana, who worked that day, gave me the key to her house. Twelve years later, my sons remember the ceremony.

Not all historic events are appropriate for young children, and I was glad not to have a TV in the months after 9/11. But we shouldn’t underestimate what children can handle by the time they are 9 or 10. My 95-year-old friend Barbara Campbell recently told me that the day John F. Kennedy was shot her kids were outside playing ball. She called them in and had them watch the news coverage.

Long before November’s election, I was concerned about Trump’s reaction should he lose. Anyone seeking the highest office in the land must think well of themselves, but notable mental health experts have described this president as having something far worse than an over-inflated ego: malignant narcissism. And when thwarted, narcissists have one response, which is rage.

Former cyclist Lance Armstrong, who is also believed to have narcissistic personality disorder, won the Tour de France seven years in a row. At the time, it was often rumored that he used illegal performance-enhancing drugs, which he vociferously denied.

When Betsy Andreu, the wife of a former teammate, testified under oath that Armstrong had indeed used performance-enhancing drugs, he tried to destroy her with a costly lawsuit and a smear campaign in which he claimed she was an alcoholic prostitute.

Eventually, the world learned that Andreu was correct and Armstrong was the liar. He was stripped of his Tour de France titles.

So it was not surprising when, after November’s election results became clear, the current president began granting pardons to war criminals and cronies, signing executive orders to frustrate the incoming administration’s ability to address the panoply of once-in-a-century crises facing our nation and, just for an added measure of cruelty, rushing through federal executions.

But I hadn’t imagined Trump giving a 70-minute incendiary speech calling on his supporters to attack our Capitol in an armed insurrection that endangered the lives of those inside, including the nation’s congressional members who were there to certify the presidential election results.

After NPR first reported rioters breaking through the barricades surrounding the Capitol and then into the building itself, I began streaming CNN on my laptop. My 10-year-old son, Leif, and I watched in horror as the house of our democracy was desecrated. According to reports, rather than being alarmed by the violence he had incited, the president watched it on television, pleased his supporters had taken him seriously.

Only hours later, and after President-elect Joe Biden and pleaded on national television for him to do so, did the man who had unleashed the mob appear on TV with the mixed messages of “Go home” and “We love you.” Trump did not condemn their behavior nor concede the election.

As I write this, there is one day left in which the 45th president can wreak havoc on our already suffering country. While the road ahead for our nation and the world will continue to be difficult, after the inauguration of Biden and Kamala Harris I will breathe and sleep a little easier.

You can be sure that Leif watched the televised ceremony with his father and me. And in 50 years, I hope he remembers doing so.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 23, 2021.


Where, oh where, had my little dog gone?

The Thursday before Thanksgiving, I took my three dogs for their morning walk and then to my house on Akron’s near west side, where I worked. At 4 o’clock, I told the dogs we were heading home, but the eldest one, Lily, didn’t join us at the door.

Lyra walking Lily in 2018

I checked the house to see if she was stuck behind a closed door or on a landing, afraid to descend a flight of stairs. But she was nowhere to be found. My best guess is that she didn’t come inside with the rest of us earlier that day.

Lily, whom I adopted more than 10 years ago from a breeder, is different from all the other shelties I’ve owned over 35 years. A bi-black, or black and white, she’s perfect in size and structure because she was bred to be a show dog.

However, Lily has too much white in her coat for American Kennel Club standards and, thus, was rejected from her would-be career.

Typically, shelties are unbelievably easy to train, particularly if an older dog is in the home. But Lily, who was over 3 months old when I adopted her, first stepped outdoors on the day I picked her up. She took so long to house train a friend began calling her “Betsy Wetsy.”

Eventually she learned to go outside and became the dear companion to our other sheltie, Hoover, who was 9 when we brought Lily home. As his faculties diminished over the next six years, Hoover increasingly relied on Lily. After he lost his hearing, she’d let him know when I was calling them inside or for dinner.

The relationship was good for both dogs as Hoover’s mildest of manners never intimidated Lily, who is rather anxious. I suspect she spent most of her early life isolated in a crate because playful dogs and people who approach her directly both make her nervous.

And yet, she desires affection. Like a butterfly, Lily approaches only when someone quietly minds their own business. She likes to sleep by my partner Max’s feet when he’s in his office and sidles up to me when I’m working at the dining room table. She doesn’t come to my office because it’s on the second floor and Lily’s no fan of stairs.

Any other dog I’ve owned would have gone to the door and barked if I’d accidentally left them outside. But instead, fretful Lily went on a walkabout.

We searched the neighborhood and I texted the neighbors for whom I have phone numbers, which they forwarded on to other neighbors. I also posted on multiple social media sites, including the Facebook page, “Akron Summit County Lost and Found Pets.”

On Friday, a neighbor spied Lily in the driveway of another neighbor who puts food out for feral cats. Lily presumably stopped by for a bite, but when we arrived, she was gone.

We again walked the neighborhood, with no luck.

Meanwhile, several friends also searched for her on their own. Joy, who drove around with fried chicken to lure Lily into her car, asked anyone she saw if they’d seen a black-and-white dog. A few streets from my house people told her Lily had been seen heading toward Krispy Kreme.

On Saturday, Maureen Foley and her husband, Steve, who regularly help find the lost pets listed on “Akron Summit County Lost and Found Pets,” offered to help us. They set up a feeding station with a motion-activated camera near the Krispy Kreme on Saturday evening, but only cats visited.

Then, at 3 in the morning on Sunday, a man called and said he was “100% certain” he’d seen our dog. She’d been on West Market Street near St. Vincent’s church when he followed her down Walnut Street and the grand Glendale Steps into the adjacent cemetery, where he lost her.

Like Mount Auburn Cemetery near Boston or Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, Akron’s

Glendale Cemetery, with its Civil War Chapel, avenue of distinctive mausoleums and newly restored bell tower, is an iconic 19th century memorial park that invites visitation, which at its inception was a departure from church graveyards.

Our family enjoys strolling the hilly grounds where the names on many gravestones match those of area streets, buildings and schools. In the predawn hours that Sunday, Max and I walked every section of Glendale, streetlight peacefully reflecting on polished granite obelisks and orbs the size of my exercise ball.

But Lily was not there. Sunday evening a freezing rain poured and I prayed our dog had found shelter.

On Monday, I spent $40 to laminate several missing-dog posters. That afternoon, Leif and Lyra, my two youngest children, were helping me staple them to telephone poles when my phone rang.

“I think we have your missing dog,” said a man. Tim Hite’s wife, Meg, found Lily crossing

Front Street in Cuyahoga Falls. In just one day, our little 10-year-old dog had walked roughly 13 busy miles.

The Hites posted a photo of Lily on Facebook and within minutes someone shared with them my Facebook post about our missing girl. In less than an hour after they’d found her, Lily was in our van, headed home. Fortunately, other than bleeding paws, she was perfectly fine.

That day the internet, assisted by our community, was a tool for goodness.

While I wish she’d never been lost, curiously, Lily’s solo journey seems to have affected her personality for the better. She’s been more animated and less anxious since her return. If only she could tell us about her four-day adventure.

There are many who helped in our search for Lily, prayers included. We thank you all from the bottom of our dog-loving hearts.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 10, 2021.


Seeking a holiday refresh after a year when nothing was usual

Viking duo Leif and Lyra on October 31, 2020

I recently read that after nearly a year of pandemic life, many are finding a renewed sense of holiday spirit this year.

I am not one of them. Perhaps it’s because for the past 10 months home has also become office and school. It’s hard enough keeping everyone’s work stations in multiple rooms organized without adding seasonal stuff.

This fall whenever I pulled into our driveway, I thought, we really must get our Halloween decorations out. But we never did. Had our 10-year-old son, Leif, asked us to, I imagine we would have, but he didn’t.

On Halloween, we put our life-size plastic skeleton named X-ray on the porch and took two little Vikings trick-or-treating. And that, apparently, was sufficient.

Thanksgiving, unlike other years, was a small affair with no travel and far less cooking. It felt little different than Sunday dinner any week of the year.

And then the year-end biggies: Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Let’s dispatch with New Year’s Eve first. With no Pride Ball at the Akron Civic, we’re staying home. Whether we remain awake to toss out this doozy of a year or pay it no mind and go to bed early hasn’t been decided.

As for Christmas, I spent little on presents. The big boys each received four pairs of Bombas socks and a WKSU T-shirt. Leif and Lyra get gifts from relatives, so their haul was on par with most years, which, frankly, is too much.

The truth is, I’ve never spent much on Christmas as I believe less really is more. But the last-minute urge to buy additional gifts, which I admittedly often fall prey to, never arose this month. I didn’t want to charge headlong into stores. Besides, 2020 provided an adamant reminder that what we most need is our health and hearth.

Which begs the question, how much of what parents do for any holiday is motivated not by what kids expect but what our consumer-driven economy has led us to believe is necessary for their happiness? Is the stress to provide a perfect holiday simply the byproduct of a successful con?

Last year I read “How to Change Your Mind,” Michael Pollan’s book about the history of and current medical research on psychedelic drugs. Pollen necessarily includes a lot of information about our brains. For instance, in the first years of a human’s life each moment is open to endless possibilities. But as we grow, our brains begin to recognize patterns and thinking becomes streamlined.

This is important for efficiency. If every step we took, every bite of food we ate, every person we encountered had to be met as though it were for the first time, every time, well, as a species we’d have long ago died out.

But the price for our high-speed large brains is that we gloss through many parts of our lives like automatons. Luckily, there are methods, including meditation, to get the brain re-attuned with the moment.

One of the easiest ways to think again like a young child is to travel — the more foreign a place the better. Presumptions seldom succeed when visiting a place for the first time. Food, money, systems of transportation and, depending upon where you go, sometimes language, must be negotiated anew.

Like other parents, the holidays became overly routine for me long ago. I recall ABJ columnist Robin Swoboda once describing her adult daughter nagging her to put up more holiday decorations. Robin’s reply was basically, “Meh, I picked up tinsel for months every year when you were kids, leave me alone.”

Unlike Robin, I baked a second batch of babies in my 40s and have felt obligated to remain in the business of holiday memory making for over 25 years.

But what if, like travel for the brain, the blur of holiday traditions could be refreshed?

Last year, otherwise known as the “before times,” I floated the idea of taking a cruise this Christmas. I’ve never been on one and very well might not enjoy several days on a ship — I never travel with tour groups, preferring adventure over predictability — but I was willing to find out.

Everyone, including Leif, was not just open, but enthusiastic about a Christmas cruise.

Instead, given COVID, we again stayed put this year and sadly canceled a more recent tradition —Christmas Eve dinner with our friends Brian and David, whose table settings and meals should be featured in Food and Wine.

With life as we once knew it halted for so long, this year has felt like a big reset button. Things that were taken for granted, even those we may not have enjoyed or that had become rote, have been missed. Others not so much.

Next year, after widespread vaccination hopefully puts an end to the global pandemic, what will you do differently than you did before?

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, December 27, 2020.


Respect science on COVID-19 — masks are essential; remote learning is not

If ever there was a time when we needed to respect science, it is now.

Minimizing the destruction of COVID-19 can be done at local and even personal levels. But it requires people to accept a few basic facts, which is proving astonishingly difficult for far too many Americans.

Let’s start with the most obvious — masks. To see why masks work take a squirt bottle of water and spray it into the air. The droplets shoot forward and disperse, much the way saliva droplets do from a mouth.

Next, hold a mask in front of the bottle and spray again. The result is far fewer airborne droplets. COVID is spread by infected airborne droplets. Limit the droplets, limit the transmission. It’s that simple. And yet many people cannot seem to understand this.

Perhaps they don’t believe the virus is real or, if it is, it’s not that dangerous. A friend of mine who’s a hospital nurse told me last summer that anyone who misunderstands the seriousness of COVID should spend a day with him at work.

During World War II, Americans sacrificed greatly to defeat a common enemy. Food, gasoline and rubber were rationed. Citizens donated all they could to scrap and rubber drives. Victory gardens ensured enough food was available for the military. Women gave up nylon stockings and donated silk ones to be repurposed into things such as parachutes.

In comparison, wearing a mask is but a minor inconvenience in fighting our current common enemy. Yet in today’s crisis, too many people aren’t doing their part.

Another friend runs a preschool near Columbus. She told me that mask wearing to prevent the transmission of COVID this fall has had an additional benefit: far fewer cases of typical colds and flus.Get the Afternoon Update newsletter in your inbox.

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Which brings me to another act of science defiance: zero in-person instruction at Akron Public Schools. Science tests our assumptions to see if they hold up. While it may seem intuitive that 100% remote learning is the only safe way to educate our children this year, it’s not.

Last spring, schools nationwide understandably closed when this new virus invaded our nation. But we have since learned much. First of all, masks work. Secondly, we now understand the risk levels of different situations.

There is now a huge body of evidence indicating that schools aren’t super-spreader locations and younger children in particular, for whom remote-only learning is most detrimental, are far less likely than middle and high schoolers to bring COVID into the buildings from home.

While APS has remained remote-only, schools locally, nationally and internationally opened their buildings this fall, some with five-day full instruction, others in hybrid form. By following standard protocols and creating classroom bubbles, the risk of transmission turns out to be far lower than that of contact sports, indoor dining at restaurants or in gyms–all of which have been prioritized over education.

Locally, Copley and Norton’s school districts switched from remote- or hybrid-only after the first weeks of school, when it became evident that schools aren’t super spreader locations, to optional 5-day-a-week instruction. Neither have resulted in COVID catastrophes.

Meanwhile, the negative effects of not having in-person instruction are also well documented. Drop-out rates increase dramatically, which in turn leads to loss of income potential and even earlier death rates. For districts that have recalcitrantly remained remote only, they may well be responsible for a lost generation of students.

Last year our daughter Lyra, who has Down syndrome, repeated kindergarten. After testing in January, it was determined that she was finally first-grade ready. Then, in March, schools closed and Lyra regressed. We’ve worked all fall to get her caught up.

Her father and I pay a special education teacher to assist Lyra with her remote learning, something few families can afford. And while this has been helpful, it cannot replicate in-person instruction and Lyra remains where she was academically a year ago. Furthermore, she cannot derive the important benefits of speech, physical and occupational therapies through virtual instruction.

That’s why we were relieved when APS announced in late October that they would supplement remote-only learning with what they called “remote plus,” or in-person support. But the then district reversed course, as they have so often, cancelling the program before it began.

When they did, Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda stated that large districts such as Akron’s cannot safely bring all 20,000 students back into the buildings, that they can’t bring even half that into the buildings.

That formula is overly simplistic. First of all, remote plus would likely not have brought half the student population into the buildings. But even if it did, that doesn’t mean they all had to be there at the same time.

For those who think now is not the time to consider alternatives to remote-only education, that is exactly what New York City schools, the largest district in the nation, did last week. Preschool and elementary students now have the option of returning to the buildings, even while the city faces increased COVID cases.

Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show, often decries the lack of nuance in important considerations. All-or-nothing approaches all too often reign the day. This, coupled with people who are motivated by hubris or fear informed by unreliable sources, is not a recipe for getting out of this pandemic swiftly or with minimal losses.

Wear a mask. And let’s give our most vulnerable children the option of some form of in-person instruction.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 13, 2020.


Pandemic pauses family traditions, not thanks

Thanksgiving 2018

Every August, as predictable as summer fruit ripening, my three eldest sons begin to announce, “I’m really looking forward to Thanksgiving.”

For more than 20 years, we’ve made the 450-mile journey to Charlevoix, Michigan, for the November holiday. My stepmother has lived in the same 950-square-foot house near Lake Michigan since 1972. She and her husband (not my father) are my big boys’ only grandparents.

After my first three boys grew adult-sized and I had two more children with their stepfather, Max, we found it necessary to caravan north in two vehicles. For five years, when my eldest son, Claude, studied at the University of Michigan, his brothers picked him up in Ann Arbor, and they’d have a mini-reunion in the car.

Though we always reconvene at Christmas, it is Thanksgiving that our family most enjoys. Free of gift-giving pressure, and not tied to a specific religion, it has a simple requirement: eat well and often while enjoying each other’s company — a comfortable perch for gratitude.

Last year, we did not go home for Thanksgiving, but in everyone’s mind, it didn’t count.

Hugo gave his senior recital at Eastman School of Music the Saturday before the holiday and we were all there, including Grandma. She flew to Rochester and then rode with us to Akron where she stayed for a few days. Same show, different station.

Now in 2020, we, like everyone, regularly make plans — whether to take trips, go to school or buy more toilet paper — only to find it necessary to adjust them.

The neighbor’s home in Charlevoix, where for many years we’ve stayed over the Thanksgiving weekend, is no longer available. Last summer when the kids and I were there, Barb, a good friend of 40 years, invited us to stay with her.

On a day with breezes blowing from the lake and boat horns regularly bellowing for the town’s draw bridge to open, Barb and I sat on her porch and planned the Thanksgiving our families would share this year. An artist of local note, Barb plotted out the tables and decor for the feast, which our family would happily provide.Get the Afternoon Update newsletter in your inbox.

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My second son, Hugo, who recently moved to Illinois with his girlfriend, bought a one-way plane ticket from Chicago to Dallas. Claude, who is in graduate school at Texas A&M, was to pick up Hugo at the airport and then they’d promptly begin driving home. On their way, they were to pick up their younger brother Jules in Columbus, where he’s a sophomore at Ohio State.

First to fall was Thanksgiving in Michigan. By the end of October, we all knew. The boys and I talked about it, Max and I talked about it and then, finally, my stepmom and I talked about it. With the pandemic spreading like a California wildfire, it would be irresponsible for us, coming from three states, to visit the grandparents.

Then, two weeks ago, Hugo called and told me he wasn’t going to fly to Dallas. Illinois may soon enact a travel ban, and he and Claudia, who was going to drive here to join us, didn’t want to risk getting stuck in Akron.

With several podcasts downloaded on his phone, Claude drove home over two days last weekend and will stay here until his classes resume in mid-January.

Finally, the Friday before Thanksgiving, Jules and I had the following text-message exchange:

“Hey, I’ll stay in Columbus over Thanksgiving.”

“Feels kinda like getting a text break up.”

“OMG, but I think we both know this is for the better.”

Yes, we do. I was the one who had alerted Jules when Franklin County (where OSU is located) was declared purple, the worst possible COVID rating in the state’s color-coded health advisory alert system.

“Jules could have called you,” Claude said, “He’s going through some weird bro phase.”

I chuckled. We all go through phases, and what Claude calls Jules’ “bro phase” is far preferable than others I can think of. But yeah, he could’ve called.

Several weeks ago, Max and I ordered a fresh-killed turkey large enough to feed 10 with ample leftovers. We picked it up from Fresh Fork Market on Wednesday, but instead of brining the bird whole as we usually do, we quartered it.

On Thanksgiving Day we served only the breasts, which had been brined in buttermilk and salt. We’ve used the rest of the bird in soups and casseroles, some of which we’ve frozen.

No, our favorite holiday was not the same this year with our family scattered hither and thither. But my feelings of gratitude are, in fact, significant. I’m grateful we are all healthy, that none of us ignored science over minor inconveniences.

And, I suspect, after this pandemic-induced break in our annual tradition, future Thanksgivings will be more savory than ever.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on 11/29/2020.


COVID interrupts valued friendship

“I waited on Maureen O’Hara at the MGM commissary. She was an observant Catholic and didn’t eat meat on Fridays, so we’d save a plate of chicken and she’d come by after midnight.”

I’ve written before about Bascom, who became family through my relationship with Max, and my bi-weekly dates with this nonagenarian Southern gentleman.

Last February, as we were driving to Playhouse Square to see the Broadway Series production of “Anastasia,” we were chatting, as we often do, about old movies. Turner Classic Movies is the primary reason why I still pay for cable service.

I don’t recall how the feisty Irish star of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Quiet Man” and dozens of other films came up. I’m sure we’ve discussed her before, but Bascom not only neglected to mention serving her midnight meals, I’d had no idea he’d ever worked for MGM.

“Hold up,” I said while navigating through the five lanes of traffic on I-480 West. “When did you work for MGM?”

“I’ve told you that before, haven’t I?” he asked. Yeah, nope.

“When did you work for MGM?”

“Well, it was after I returned from the war. My friend Julia and I hitchhiked from Atlanta to Culver City, near Hollywood, where she had a friend with a trailer we all lived in.”

After the matinee showing of “Anastasia,” which Bascom loved, we went, as we always do after a show, out to dinner.

No sooner had we placed our cocktail order, than I began peppering him with questions, scribbling down his answers in a notebook, which I always carry in my purse.

After graduating from high school in an Atlanta suburb in 1939, Bascom enrolled in ROTC at Northern Georgia College, but studied journalism at Emory College because he wanted to be a writer.

He was drafted in 1943, in the middle of his final semester. Even though he didn’t finish, Emory understandably gave Bascom his diploma. After basic training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, the Army sent him to New York City, where he arrived on his 21st birthday.

Because large numbers of young men had been conscripted for World War II, colleges and universities were suffering from a lack of students. To help with their revenue losses, the military paid for soldiers to attend college while awaiting deployment. Bascom, who lived on Fleet Street in Brooklyn, took courses at Pratt University.

Nearly a year after he arrived in New York, Bascom deployed to Germany. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge where his best friend, Russell Mohler of Petaluma, California, was killed at his side. Bascom was wounded in the same attack and later awarded the Bronze Star. “Mohler had a wife and children,” Bascom told me. “I wrote his wife, and thought of visiting her, but never did.”

After 33 months in the European theater, Bascom returned to Georgia just before Christmas in 1946. And then, the following spring, he and his friend Julia, whose parents Bascom says were “beatnik types,” thumbed their way to Tinseltown.

As I drove him home after dinner that winter evening, I told Bascom I would have more questions for him on our next date. But we didn’t meet two weeks, or even two months, later. COVID landed on our shores and for six months I feared our evening in February might have been our last.

During our long conversations, Bascom closely listens to me. He then goes off and ruminates on what I’ve said and, at our next meeting, returns with probing questions. I find this an expression of love more meaningful than any tangible gift.

In August, just in time for his 98th birthday, Bascom and I resumed our dating schedule, dining on the patio of a local establishment where he’s well known and beloved.

He subscribes to, and reads, several publications—including the New York Times, The New Yorker, Time and more—and we often discuss articles we both particularly enjoyed. But Bascom doesn’t have a radio or television.

A few days after the election, I called and told him his home state, Georgia, was trending blue.

“Oh, that’s marvelous. That’s grand! I remember when Georgia always voted Democrat.”

“Yeah, but, Bascom,” I said, “those were different Democrats, those were Dixiecrats.”

“Well, sure, you’re right, but, oh, how we loved FDR! You know, he was often there, at Warm Springs. Did I tell you I saw him once when he drove by my father’s business on Peach Street in Atlanta?”

No, he hadn’t. And I’m left wondering what other events and people of the past century my dearest friend has witnessed and not yet shared with me.

Last weekend, when the weather was gloriously warm and dry, we spent hours talking at our favorite restaurant. “Bascom,” I told him before I left, “COVID cases are rising like crazy and it’ll soon be too cold to eat outdoors. We may need to stay apart again for a bit.” He agreed.

And so, yet again in this year like no other, I pray I’ve not seen the last of my friend, who is also like no other.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 15, 2020.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Vote as though our democracy depends on it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.”

Soon after DSA Biobank opened, they received their first application for biospecimens. Dr. Dimitrios Karamichos at the University of North Texas Health Science Center is studying an eye disorder known as keratoconus, in which the cornea thins and bulges out. It can cause problems with vision and, in severe cases, require cornea transplants.

Like many comorbidities, keratoconus is far more common in people with Down syndrome. On average it affects 30-40% of people with DS, compared to just .00055 percent of the general population. As a part of their effort to expand research on Down syndrome, the National Institutes of Health just awarded Karamichos $275,000 for his work.

“I’d been looking for a biobank to work with for years,” said Karamichos, whose primary specimens will be tears as they are effected by cornea diseases. He was thrilled when he found DSA Biobank and its quality supply of research materials.

Karamichos hopes his two-year study will help explain the mechanisms of the disease, and make it possible to identify who is at risk and possibly prevent the disease pharmaceutically.

In a year with few bright spots, the 2020 opening of DSA Biobank is cause for celebration. The potential to improve the lives of people with DS — and many others — has never been as promising as it is today.

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


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.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Changing racial justice starts inside you, white America

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

— From “The Fellowship of the Ring,” J.R.R. Tolkien

The same day Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi, author Eudora Welty wrote a prescient short story from the perspective of the killer. Welty’s insight into the mind of the white supremacist, who waited near the Black civil rights activist’s home before shooting him in the back, was not the product of supernatural powers.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve lived here all my life. I know the kind of mind that did this,’ ” Welty said in a 1972 interview. Sadly, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” remains as insightful as when it was written in 1963.

Two weeks ago, I wrote of the need to discuss racism in America. And, predictably, I received a handful of letters spewing hackneyed racist tropes.

However, I received far more letters asking for resources to better understand America’s history of slavery and its legacy in institutionalized, systemic racism.

As I wrote before, getting to know people who are different in any way — including color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or ability — is one of the best ways to dissipate the sense of otherness and recognize the humanity of all people.

But it is not the job of Black folks to teach white folks to become “woke” and understand what Black Americans have lived with all their lives, generation after generation for 401 years.

To my earnest readers, I sent a list of articles, movies, interviews, books and podcasts to better understand what, as white Americans, we often don’t see because it is not a part of our experience.

Of course, as soon as I pressed “send,” I immediately thought of things I’d forgotten to include. The truth is finding fact-based, quality sources on how and why racism in America remains an enduring contradiction to our Constitution, and the fallacy that we live in a meritocracy, is not hard.

Here is a small set of recommendations:

Shortly after it was published in 1996, I read Leon Dash’s book “Rosa Lee: A Generational Tale of Poverty and Survival in Urban America.” Derived from his Pulitzer Prize-winning, eight-part series for the Washington Post, Dash spent three years interviewing Rosa Lee Cunningham and her family.

Dash’s extensive research on D.C.’s urban underclass, including chapters on the history and sociology of African American sharecroppers in the South after the Civil War and the later Great Migration to the North, was my first exposure to the depth of the chasm under the whitewashed education I received.

Zora Neale Hurston, American author, anthropologist and filmmaker. Lived 1891-1960.

I had read novels, including “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, both of which paint compelling and tragic pictures of 20th century life for Black Americans. But until “Rosa Lee” I’d not read nonfiction accounts informed by academic research.

I’ve since tried to fill the void in my education on a number of topics. And yet, as my grandma often told me, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.

The 2016 documentary, “The 13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay, recounts how time and again when one system of racial suppression is eliminated in America, another quickly takes its place. Several notable scholars and journalists are interviewed in the film, which I recommend everyone watch, no matter how much or how little you know about this history.

For narrative film, there is no director with more clarion ability to represent many aspects of Black lives and history than Spike Lee. “Do the Right Thing” is particularly topical right now, three decades after it was released, for the Black anger it accurately depicts like no movie before.

For a thorough recounting of the myriad ways our government policies have intentionally disadvantaged Black Americans, read MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, “The Case for Reparations.”

The podcast “Code Switch” and its newsletter provide black perspectives on current affairs. So does journalist Roxane Gay. And the discussions with mostly Black guests on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, who is biracial, provide insights not found elsewhere.

For those willing to read books, consider “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, “Letter to My Son” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, “The Sun Does Shine” by Anthony Ray Hinton, “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr.’s essential work, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”

This month, I had the honor to meet the mother of the young black man who recently, while waiting at a bus stop, was harassed by an older white man with a shotgun. She told me some of her white friends said, “I can’t believe that happened to James, we know him!”

That disbelief is the product of white privilege.

White mothers, no matter how rich or poor, do not fear when their sons leave the house: What if he’s pulled over by the police? Or hunted down by white supremacists in a pickup? Or harassed at a bus stop by a man with a shotgun?

Over the centuries, we have changed laws regarding race without changing our country’s bone-deep racial caste system. For that, we need to change hearts and minds. It starts with you.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 5, 2020.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

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.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

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.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

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.


©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.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

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.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

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.


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

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

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.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

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.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

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.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

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?

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

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.

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