The time-consuming job of affordably clothing multiple children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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On Depression and Parenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A House without Teenagers Isn’t the Same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are sensory processing issues and who has them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming sensory-friendly performances at Playhouse Square include:

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

September, Peaches and the Beatles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holly, her father, stepmom and little sister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sensible gun laws are long overdue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Amendment rights and limits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are my ancestors’ immigration stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children need freedom to venture out on their own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach children respect and politeness for all

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

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

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

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

These experiences underscore three important lessons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect as they are, LGBTQ youths need support and safety

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

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

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

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

Tragically, this is not true.

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

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

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

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

In 2019, we can all do better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The upward spiral of integration of people with intellectual disabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You used to run?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

This is the upward spiral of integration.

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

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

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

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

Social contracts of last century brought prosperity and need reimplemented

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ageism can steal elders who still have many insights to share

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

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

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

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

Bascom and Holly at the Cleveland Orchestra, winter 2019

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

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

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

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

Bascom in WWII and in 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bascom fell again the next day and was taken to the emergency room. He had an untreated urinary tract infection that had gone to his bladder and then to his kidneys. Goodness knows how long he’s been struggling with this, given his complaints and test results in December.

Easter Sunday, we did not meditate with the Buddhists, sing with the Christians nor read our three newspapers. Max and I spent the afternoon in the hospital with Bascom. He hates being a bother, but we reminded him that patients with regular visitors have better outcomes.

Ageism. Another nonagenarian, Roger Angell, has written a number of excellent essays in The New Yorker about how the elderly become invisible, their words unheard, their lives misunderstood by the young. Bascom, who subscribes to, and reads, The New Yorker and several other publications, tells me Angell’s essays resonate with him. Of course they do.

Behavior modeled provides the strongest imprint on all offspring. There are many wonderful people who work in nursing homes, but I also know that most people decline rapidly when placed in one. I’ve repeatedly asked my eldest son to promise not to put me in a nursing home.

Bascom is not the first elderly relative my children have seen their parents care for. As young adults, they help, too, by visiting him, running errands or taking care of their youngest siblings so we can help him. But beyond keeping our elders in their homes for as long as possible, my children also know to listen to, and enjoy the company of, their elders.

Our job now is to find Bascom a doctor who listens and takes his concerns seriously. He thankfully survived the war, previous medical events and this latest scare. We want him here as long as possible, for he still has many stories and insights to share with us.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, May 5, 2019

Tending to my children’s spiritual development

In the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries traveled to Tibet. There they met the fifth Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political head of the country. Graciously welcomed to the high court in Lhasa, the missionaries worked tirelessly to learn Tibetan so as to translate the Bible.

Once their task was accomplished, they presented the book to the Dalai Lama who took several days to read it. When finished, he called the missionaries to his palace.

“I have read your Bible,” he told them, “and I agree with everything in it.”

“So you’ll convert to Christianity?” asked the hopeful Jesuits.

“Oh, no, no, no,” laughed the Dalai Lama.

I often think of this probably apocryphal story during Sunday services at Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Akron. Last year I wrote about the church’s music director, Jim Mismas, retiring after playing the organ and directing the choir there for 23 years. He and his husband are like family to us; our daughter Lyra calls them “the grandpas.”

And so Max, Claude, Jules and I joined the choir for Jim’s last season. Hugo came along, too, whenever he was home from college. It’s a beautiful church with a progressive minister and a vibrant community, and not surprisingly we loved every minute of our time there.

Except that we are not Christian.

The choir season ended on Jim’s final Sunday with tears streaking many faces. But then, even though our dear friend is no longer the music director, when the new choir season started last fall, Max and I found we wanted to return to the church.

I am no stranger to Christianity. While my barmaid mother slept in after her busiest night of the week, I took a bus to a nearby Quaker church for several years. I read a chapter of the Bible every night, including the “who begat whom” ones, until I had read the entire book twice.

But by the time I was in high school, answers to my questions from Christian teachers lacked resonance, ultimately requiring more faith than I could muster. Perhaps because my Christian upbringing was of my own doing, I did not leave Christianity with any resentment. Far from it.

I continued my inquiry into spirituality and organized religion at Ohio State University. The major Eastern religion I studied for my B.A. in religious studies was Buddhism.

One thing I found remarkable about Buddhism is how much it echoes 20th century Western philosophy. I especially remember writing a paper comparing the writings of French philosopher and writer Albert Camus to standard Buddhist teachings. I could find no disagreement between modern existentialism and a 2,500-year-old Asian religion.

Mircea Eliade, an early scholar in the academic study of religion, coined the term “homo religiosus.” He believed all humans are religious and will find secular alternatives for worship, such as organized sports, when sacred expressions are not available.

I took this to heart when I had children. As a mother, I seek to raise healthy bodies that house curious intellects and hearts open to spiritual growth. I chose Buddhism because I believe in the teachings, which appeal to both my mind and spirit.

As with all major religions, there are multiple sub-sects of Buddhism and I picked Shambhala for no other reason than they offer a family camp each summer at a meditation center in Vermont. For while it is far older than Christianity, Buddhism is still young in North America and few groups are set up to accommodate children.

Once a year, our children spend nine days with other Buddhist families. The rest of the time it’s on us to provide their spiritual training, which largely consists of stories and the knowledge that we meditate.

I love meditating with other Buddhist practitioners. But the year in the Presbyterian choir reminded me that I love singing with other people. I also appreciate the established community, which includes children our kids know from other places including school and Boy Scouts.

And I enjoy the Rev. Jon Hauerwas’ sermons, which are always insightful and frequently topical. I met with him in his office last fall to discuss our attendance at the church. I can’t become a full-fledged member because I’d have to vow to believing things that I do not believe. And yet, Pastor Hauerwas emphatically welcomed our Buddhist family to continue attending the Presbyterian church.

Some Sundays we meditate with the Buddhists. On others we find it heavenly spending the morning drinking coffee and reading all three of our newspapers. And at least a couple of times a month we make it to church.

This year I am not singing in the choir. I prefer sitting in the pews with my little ones, where Leif loves to follow along with me in the hymnal. He and Lyra both race to the altar for the children’s talk before leaving the sanctuary with their friends for music rehearsal and play.

Sunday, on Easter, our mixed spiritual experience reminds me of a quote from “Babe,” an unintentionally Buddhist movie: “That’ll do.”

Yes, it certainly does.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 21, 2019.

Approach is important when talking about vaccines

After several recent outbreaks of measles in the United States, the anti-vaccination movement has gotten renewed attention, much of which paints “anti-vaxxers” as either ignorant of basic science or sociologically indulgent, willing to coast on the high vaccination rates of others. I have found neither to be true.

Choosing whether and when to vaccinate my first child, as well as what vaccines to give him, was not simple for me. Reading everything I could find, I learned that (until 1995) the vaccination schedule in Japan, hardly a backward country, began not at birth, but at the age of 2.

With the exception of Haemophilus influenzae Type b, which is most harmful to children under the age of 5, I began vaccinating my son when he turned 1. By then, his immune system had developed and as an exclusively breast-fed baby for nine months, he benefited from my immunity.

It was the mid-’90s and I was hardly alone in seeking accurate information, since there were many legitimate concerns. The vaccine for DPT (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus), for instance, was often cited as being mixed in impure solutions. My son’s pediatrician confirmed this for me when we met to begin vaccinating him. She told me that Massachusetts, where we lived, had created its own batch of DPT, available only in that state, to avoid using the “dirty” batches found in the rest of the country.

However, the same pediatrician was incredulous when I insisted upon giving my son the killed polio vaccine because it was possible, albeit a very small risk, to contract polio from the live vaccine.

“You have to give the live vaccine in the first dose because it has to go through the gut, which is how the disease enters the body,” she told me. When I mentioned that diphtheria was also contracted through the gut but its vaccine is a shot in the arm, she had no response. I stuck to my guns and four years later, the United States abandoned the use of live polio vaccines.

In 1998, a vaccine for rotavirus was introduced and recommended by the American Academy of Pediatricians for all infants. It was pulled the next year when several children required surgery for intestinal blockages directly linked to the vaccine. It was eventually reintroduced in 2006, which means it took seven years of research to resolve the issues with a vaccine that for one year had been recommended for all infants in the United States.

And then there was the thimerosal controversy. A derivative of mercury, which is highly toxic in certain formulations, thimerosal was still abundantly used to preserve vaccines in the ’90s.

At the same time, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a diagnosis that was rare in my childhood, became much more common. So significant was the increase of ASD and Asperger’s (which is now seen as part of the autism spectrum) it seemed implausible to think the increase was simply due to improved methods of diagnosis.

Thus, as someone who bore children in the 1990s and early 2000s, it’s not surprising to me that parents were susceptible to claims connecting thimerosal in vaccines to autism. Eventually, in 2011, an article in the British Journal of Medicine thoroughly discredited any connection between the two. But by then my firstborn was 17 years old.

He is now 25, and many issues with vaccines have been resolved. This may be due in part to the fact that a small percentage of the population began opting out, thereby putting governmental light on their concerns, whether confirmed, as with the problems of polio and rotavirus vaccines, or not, as in the suspected connection of thimerosal and autism. Consider the following:

None of today’s vaccines come with the risk of developing the disease for which the vaccine is being given, as was the case with live polio.

Since 2001, thimerosal has been removed or greatly reduced in nearly all vaccines.

With cleaner, safer vaccines, the collective benefit of herd immunity, or the resistance to and eventual demise of diseases due to widespread vaccination, deserves strong advocacy.

Medicine is not the immutable science many believe it to be. In my lifetime, hormone replacement therapy was given to nearly all menopausal women until a study linked it to breast cancer.

Valium and Prozac were hailed as effective in treating depression and mood disorders — until it was determined they were being overprescribed, often with unpleasant side effects, including addiction.

The same is now notoriously known about opioids. Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, is embroiled in several lawsuits, accused of telling doctors that opioids were not addictive, when they knew the opposite to be true.

Once upon a time, doctors enjoyed broad deference. Who hasn’t had an elder relative who never questioned what her doctor told her to do or take? Today, however, more people are educated and rightfully apply critical thinking to important matters such as what to put in their bodies.

I hope that pertussis, measles and mumps can go the way of smallpox, which has been eradicated through vaccination. (The same would be true of polio, but extremists in parts of the Middle East have gone so far as to murder health workers in order to prevent the administration of the polio vaccine.)

Doing so requires convincing vaccination hesitaters that today’s vaccines are safe. And according to Sobo, “people are very ready to listen — if they’re heard. If you listen to them, and you allow them to say what they think without feeling judged, without pushing them into a corner, they’re absolutely ready.”

When I insisted upon killed polio for my firstborn, his pediatrician discounted my perspective and knowledge.

Contrast that with our current pediatrician, Stacey Memberg. Dr. Memberg is an M.D. with a Ph.D. in neuroscience who has a 14-year-old daughter with Down syndrome. Suppressed immune systems are common in people with Down syndrome, and I openly discussed my concerns with her.

“Research shows that not only do vaccines given on schedule help prevent the intended illnesses,” Dr. Memberg told me on our first visit, “they also strengthen the immune systems in people with DS.”

Speaking to me like an intelligent person and responding to my concerns with facts, Dr. Memberg easily convinced me to fully vaccinate Lyra on time. As the old saying goes, honey is far more successful in catching bees than vinegar.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on April 7, 2019.

Letting go of third son is hardest yet

My first child was born shortly after I turned 28. Having learned nothing about babies in my own upbringing, I approached my new role like a college course I refused to fail.

Between the deficit of attention in my childhood and the fact that I waited until I wanted children before having them, I glommed onto attachment-style parenting, which was in high fashion in the mid-’90s.

Breastfeeding on demand and exclusively for a minimum of six months, infant massage, co-sleeping in a family bed, and carrying babies either in front or back packs are all part of the program.

Among the claimed benefits of attachment-style parenting is that children who are held close and have their needs easily met become independent, confident adults. Or, as my mentor at Ohio State once opined, “If you can’t let your child come to your bed when he is scared, why be surprised when he becomes a disaffected teenager?”

With their father seldom home, sometimes not living in the same state, the boys and I were like the coveys of quail I frequently see when visiting family in Arizona. The mother hen leads a line of chicks wherever she goes, her top feather bobbing up and down on her head like a conductor’s baton.

Most attached to me was Jules, my third son, whom we nicknamed “Barnacle Bob.” Born with a mild temperament, Jules accompanied me wherever I went. And though he quickly grew tall, his bones were like those of birds. So light was he, I carried him on my hip until he was more than 6 years old.

Before Jules was old enough for school, he’d quietly play with whatever was available when I met friends for lunch. “I just wanted to be with my mama,” he now recalls. Sometimes it was frustrating. Doctor’s appointments, for example, were tough because until he was about 7, he’d become distraught if he couldn’t stay right next to me on an exam table.

Because he was quiet, it was often easy to forget Jules was present, thereby allowing him to take in everything. He was the first of my sons to guess that Max and I were more than just friends, a fact that threw his older brothers for a loop.

Hugo and Jules came home with lice shortly before I gave birth to my first child with Max. Hugo willingly got a buzz-cut. Jules, who was 9 and had hair several inches past his shoulders, did not want his cut.

“If you want to keep your long hair,” I told Jules on a Friday in late January, “you’ll need to let me pick the nits outside every day until they are gone.” He agreed and the last days that he was my youngest child were spent with me holding him close as I groomed his head hair by hair.

When I labored with Leif a few days later, Claude and Hugo stayed in the dining room. Jules was beside me and when each contraction started, I touched him. He’d strike a meditation bell, signaling to the midwife, Max, my stepmom and two friends to be quiet. When the contraction ended, Jules hit the bell again.

During the many hours of labor, delivery and postpartum activities, Jules never left my side.

When I was pregnant with Lyra, Jules came to every important appointment. He was there when they told us her neck measurements were thick and that, combined with my age, meant she had a likely diagnosis of Down syndrome. He was there several weeks later when the next tests showed the fetus was a female and had no features indicative of a diagnosis. And Jules was with me when I birthed my final baby, Lyra.

A child cannot attach himself so intrinsically to his mother without a symbiotic development occurring, like the blood exchange that occurs in utero between fetus and mother.

Last August, Jules was diagnosed with mononucleosis. He had hoped to make the state cross-country championships this, his senior, year, but he was too weak to run. Now, seven months later, he’s still easily fatigued and recently saw an infectious disease specialist at Akron Children’s Hospital. He may have chronic fatigue syndrome.

And yet, without any help, Jules applied to seven universities. He’s been accepted by five and wait-listed by the other two. Only once did he give me an essay to edit.

“I figure I’m an adult now and need to be able to take care of things like this on my own,” he told me as I repeatedly begged to help him. He’s also worked on his own to find and submit scholarship applications.

Sheesh. How to make your mom feel like a potted plant.

Bittersweet describes my feelings when each of my sons has left for college. It signifies the beginning of a new era of adult children, which I heartily enjoy. However, never again will they be my little chicks. How dear to me now are the years when we were a covey.

In January, someone asked where Jules would be going to college and I surprised myself. I began crying in the midst of small talk. Barnacle Bob is detaching, taking with him a chunk of the mother ship.

This spring, Jules has lined up interviews with biology departments in other states for summer employment. Places where they are doing research not unlike what he’s participated in at the University of Akron as a high school student. He could leave in a little over two months.

The boy who was the baby of our family for nine years, who slipped alongside me like my shadow, is leaving soon, as he should. If you see me weeping in public this spring, as I have now many times, you’ll know why. Please be gentle with me. I have a wound where the child who attached to me so deeply has extracted himself.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, March 22, 2019.

Poetry is the best gift during a final visit

Dear Mary Oliver,

I didn’t follow my own rule and now it’s too late.

I took your poems to Arizona a few weeks before my grandma turned 90. I knew it was the last time I would see her. Diabetes had taken two of the things she loved in life — reading and hiking. Several mini-strokes had stolen most of her short-term memory and much of the rest.

For three days, I sat at her bedside as she drifted in and out of sleep. When she’d awaken, I’d read your poems to her.

Someone I loved gave me a box full of darkness./It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.

Grama, my Uncle Neil and me camping with the Boy Scouts in the 1960s

My mother never loved me. After she left my father and me when I was a baby, Grama, a third-grade teacher, picked me up each afternoon from day care and kept me all summer. Those first months I would not let Grama go to the bathroom without me. Her love was a rope that saved me then — and later.

You do not have to be good…/You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.

My mother kidnapped me shortly before my fourth birthday and my childhood ended. I saw Grama only two times during a space of six years. The second time, I was living in Moline, Illinois, when my grandparents parked in front of our house, their huge Oldsmobile pulling their Aristocrat trailer. They were retiring from Chicago to Tucson and visited me in the yard for several minutes.

The bear … who sings to himself the secret song no one has ever heard…/as anything on earth/could ever be—/this is the bear/I want to see.

The summer after I finished the sixth grade, my mother realized she could be rid of me for an entire summer for the price of a plane ticket. Three summers in a row, I flew to Tucson.

Only 5 feet 3 inches, Grama would hitch her trailer to her Ford F-series truck that had two tanks for leaded gas. The first year, we went to the Chiricahuas, mountains so deeply worn by erosion, it’s as though God has stacked boulders one upon another, creating solid towers that only look precarious.

I was 11, and Grama 60, when we grabbed a ride from our campground in the back of a pickup truck. It wove its way up a mountain road in the Arizona sunshine. We sat in the open bed without anything securing us, admiring the landscape in which Geronimo successfully hid from the U.S. Army. We got off at the top of a mountain and spent the day hiking back to camp.

Lying together in the camper at dusk, Grama’s stories filled my lonely child’s soul. Stories of living in Florida on an Army base after my grandfather had been drafted at the end of World War II at age 36 and she was pregnant with her first child. Stories of the bears that frequently roamed America’s campgrounds in the 1950s when she traveled with her four sons. Stories of traveling shortly before retirement to Japan, where decades earlier Grandpa had been stationed with the Army of Occupation.

The following year, Grama introduced me to the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell. On our way back to Tucson, we stayed the night at my Uncle David’s house in Phoenix. In the cover of night, we were skinny-dipping in his pool when a helicopter hovered overhead, shining a beam of light upon us. We hugged the side of the pool until finally the pilot pulled the cyclic stick and flew away.

The second world — the world of literature — offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it.

The last time I camped with Grama at the Grand Canyon, December 1989.

When I was an adult, Grama regularly visited me in Ohio. She’d read any books in my house that she hadn’t already read. She was a big fan of Zane Grey’s westerns, but she also enjoyed her fat etymological dictionary. Well into her 70s, she took free literature courses at the University of Arizona and would send me her books at semester’s end.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those/ who think they have the answers./ Let me keep company always with those who say/‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.

Grama took me to my first symphony, my first opera, my first art song. For a time, she was president of the Tucson Opera Guild. For much longer she was a docent at the Tucson Museum of Art. Yet she often told me that the more she knew, the more she realized she didn’t know. It brought her joy to know she could always learn more.

Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.

Grama’s last digital clock had 2-inch-tall numbers. Calculating the last possible minute I could leave her and still catch my flight home, I watched my final minutes with this love of my life flick away. I awoke her and she was alarmed at the tears spilling down to my jaw before wetting my shirt.

“I’ll miss you Grama.”

“I’ll miss you too, Holly. And I’ll miss all that poetry.”

Your words, Mary Oliver, reached past Grama’s injured brain and touched her everlasting humanness.

When death comes…/I want to step through the door of curiosity, wondering;/what it is going to be like, that cottage of darkness?/When it’s over…/I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Grama died six months later and I felt as though I’d lost an endowment of love. I keep her number on my cellphone because it makes me happy to see it there.

Express gratitude quickly and often, that’s my rule. For 11 years, I meant to write and tell you how you guided our last time together, Grama and me. Your poetry mixed beauty with my grief and touched the woman who gave me love and, therefore, life.

Now you, too, have stepped through the door of that cottage of darkness. I don’t know what you found inside, but I like thinking you might meet up with Dorothy Christensen and talk with her about the many things you both treasured, especially nature and dogs. Give her my love.

All my best-


p.s. “Alligator Poem” is one of our favorites.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, March 10, 2019.

Family’s tragedy shows need for sentencing reform, affordable childcare

The grisly murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly by order of his country’s de facto head of state, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, caused me and many other Americans to finally recognize the horrific genocide occurring in Yemen, also by bin Salman’s order.

One dramatic event can shed light on a greater, if not systemic, problem.

Here in Summit County, the sentencing of Wynter Parker’s parents for her accidental death is such an event. Her parents’ felony convictions and prison sentences will not bring Wynter back. Nor will they vindicate her tragic, but absolutely accidental death.

My last column responding to Tierra Williams’ and Dariaun Parker’s prison sentences generated more responses from readers than any other column by fourfold. More than half of them wrote “There but for the grace of God go I” letters like this one:

“I once returned home from a doctor’s appointment to find my naked toddler walking down the street. My son, who is now 54, had unlocked the door and went on an adventure while his father, who had worked the third shift, sat sleeping in a chair. Had he intentionally abused or neglected his child? NO … though he did get quite a lecture, he was devastated. I pray the court will rethink their awful sentence and allow this family to reunite and gather their lives after their terrible loss.”

Many readers saw institutionalized misogyny in the charges and sentencing. Like me, they surmise that if the situation had been reversed — had the mother been home when Wynter slipped outside, and the father had returned from errands and then done everything he could to save his child — the father would not have been charged.

And many readers saw institutionalized racism, as do I. I don’t believe that if my daughter wandered outside and died of hypothermia, my husband and I would ever be charged with a crime, because we are white, middle-class professionals.

It is tempting to vilify Judge Alison McCarty for her egregious sentence and finger-wagging, telling the parents, “That’s an untenable situation,” referring to Williams driving to clients’ homes to style their hair while Parker worked on a musical career for which he had yet to earn income. “Not a lack of love, a lack of attention. Not all of the time, but some of the time, which put both of the children at risk.”

Untenable is what America expects of its working poor. On the same day my last column was published, the New York Times ran a piece by Katha Pollitt, who believes universal affordable day care would create more economic mobility than universal free college tuition. The Economic Policy Institute’s recent state-by-state analysis of the annual cost for infant care found it is often comparable to, if not more expensive than, annual tuition at a state college.

Pollitt states that parents “on tight budgets may be forced to seek informal, cheaper care. A neighbor … might be a godsend — or she might just plunk her little charges in front of the TV, take too many children or not know how to handle an emergency.”

Last Sunday, Catherine Rampell’s column in this paper pointed out that women’s issues are economic issues, including affordable child care. However, “policies that affect mothers’ ability to work are too often framed as being mainly about fairness, feminism, personal fulfillment and family bonding.”

Wynter Parker’s parents, like all working poor and middle-class families, could use policies that extend fairness and family bonding while also making good economic sense.

Finding a job

Also untenable is a legal system that makes gainful employment for working poor families nigh impossible. Thanks to the folks at Community Legal Aid and the University of Akron Law School’s Reentry Clinic, I’ve learned much about felony convictions in the past two weeks.

Felony convictions substantially limit opportunities for employment after release. As one reader wrote, “I was in retail management for years. When looking at applications, the minute our eyes went to ‘felony conviction’ the app went in the dead file.”

Williams and Parker first pleaded not guilty to the charge of child endangerment, a third-degree felony. That seems reasonable, as Wynter’s death was accidental. But before sentencing, they switched to guilty pleas, presumably on the advice of their attorneys.

A person with a felony conviction for child endangerment is legally ineligible to work in 616 types of employment in Ohio. Some convictions are eligible to be expunged, or to have the records sealed a year after the sentence has been served. But not child endangerment.

The prosecutors, knowing the lifelong effects, sought a felony conviction not only for the father who was with the child when she wandered, but also for the mother who was not, and who did everything possible to rescue her daughter when she found her.

Effectively, the felony conviction of Wynter Parker’s parents has probably sentenced her two siblings to childhood poverty.

Williams and Parker could have been convicted but not sentenced to prison. That they were likely gave Wynter’s siblings additional life sentences of poverty. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, “two factors influenced by parental incarceration — family income and children’s educational outcomes — have direct implications for children’s future upward economic mobility. The growth of incarceration in America has intergenerational impacts that policy makers will have to confront.”

Plight of the poor

Last Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Pastor Jon Hauerwas reminded congregants that, “Jesus was a poor man. He was one of them. And so, he spoke empathetically about the plight of the poor.” The prayer of confession that day included, “We have not stood by those who are hated, bullied or excluded. Comfortable with the way things are, we are too complacent, even complicit with injustice and prejudice.”

In response to American outrage at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Congress is now reconsidering America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia as it relates to Yemen.

For those who are outraged by the sentences given to Williams and Parker, I encourage you to no longer be complacent, lest you be complicit in unjust sentencing of life in poverty and limited opportunities, not just for this family, but any family who tragically loses a child to an accidental death.

We as a society can support families rather than seeking a pound of flesh. In some cases, Children Services may need to supervise after an accidental death, until it believes affected families are appropriately able to care for their remaining children.

We can seek sentencing reform. I petition my state representative, Emilia Sykes, and my state senator, Vernon Sykes, to craft legislation that would limit, if not eliminate, felony charges for the accidental deaths of children. Rather than seeking retribution, guidelines should be crafted outlining appropriate measures to take, and services to provide, when a family loses a child due to an accidental death.

And we can advocate for affordable, quality child care, so poor parents have the support they need to lead productive lives, which has the potential to lift them and their children out of poverty.

As for Williams and Parker, they can petition Gov. Mike DeWine for clemency, and I strongly hope Williams does. Beyond that, a year after they complete their full sentences, including parole, each can apply to the county courts for a Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE). In theory, if granted, this certificate would prove to potential employers that the parties have been fully rehabilitated and should be considered for employment.

Lyra attempting to escape, yet again, last week.

To find your state legislators, go to Write to them for change and you’ll feel better than you have since learning of Williams’ and Parker’s convictions and sentences.

Question: Why do amusement parks, fairs, even some shopping malls have “Lost Child Centers,” essentially child recovery offices?

Answer: Because in the blink of an eye, any child can and often will wander out of sight.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 24, 2019.

Prison sentence for child’s accidental death benefits no one

My daughter, Lyra, has become a runner. I don’t mean she’s racing fellow kindergartners in track, but like with many children with Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder, she takes off with no regard to safety or even a destination.

I have written about her running and all that we’ve done to keep her safe, from making our doors impossible for her to open to strapping a GPS monitor belt on her that lets us know if she’s left our property.

Thanks to neighbors, strangers and the Akron police, Lyra has returned home safely each time she has run. But what if, God forbid, she was struck by a motor vehicle? Or wandered to a nearby pond and drowned? What crime would her father, Max, and I have committed?

Years ago, when a friend of mine was in medical school, she dropped off her two older children at preschool before driving her baby to daycare. When she arrived at the daycare facility, she discovered the baby was not in her car.

My friend, who went on to receive an M.D.-PhD., is very smart and extremely competent. But raising three small children while attending medical school was demanding, if not overwhelming. My friend had no idea where her baby could be that day. Had she left her in her car seat in the parking lot at the preschool?

Trembling, she returned to the preschool. She found the baby asleep in her car seat on the floor of the preschool classroom, a fortress of cardboard bricks built around her by the young pupils.

One winter’s evening, a friend of mine who is an artist put his 3-year-old daughter to bed before returning to his studio to work. While the studio was attached to the house, it also had an exterior door used by customers.

Much later that evening, my friend was shocked when someone knocked at the door. He opened it, and there was his little daughter in her nightgown and boots. No coat, hat or mittens. She’d taken herself to the swing set, played and then toddled to the studio door when she became very cold.

But what if my friend hadn’t gone to the studio that night? What if he’d gone to bed and hadn’t heard his child knocking? She would certainly have died before morning. What would have been his crime?

On Feb. 2, 2018, 2-year-old Wynter Parker wandered outside on a day when the temperature didn’t reach above 19 degrees. She had been at home with her father, Dariaun Parker, then 23, who had been up all night recording music. Sleep deprived, perhaps he nodded off because it was Wynter’s mother, Tierra Williams, who found her.

Williams, who was then 22, had been running errands with the couple’s 4-year-old child. When she returned home and found her daughter outside, she immediately wrapped the girl in blankets and called 911. Tragically, Wynter died from the effects of severe hypothermia.

In articles, including in this paper, county prosecutors state that neighbors called the police before because the couple’s children were outside unattended. But the authorities did not report the family to Summit County Children Services, which they are required to do when they believe children are endangered. Lyra has run three times, and the police have been called each time. Children outside unattended is not a crime nor, in all instances, necessarily negligence.

There are parents who brutally beat their children and some who murder their own babies, or murder the children of romantic partners. Those people should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and prevented from ever harming a child again.

But what of a mother who leaves her daughter with the child’s tired father? Or the tired father who agrees to stay with the child? And that one time everything goes completely wrong and the child dies not because of any malicious intent on the part of either parent?

More than 36 children die each year in the U.S. from vehicular hyperthermia, or heat stroke, because a caregiver leaves them in a car on a hot day. Compared to a child who wanders away, the parent who leaves a child in a car is an active agent in the child’s death. It’s the parent who buckles a child into a car seat and then forgets to retrieve them.

The worst punishment a parent can suffer is the death of a child. Perhaps that is why the judge overseeing the case of a 6-month-old’s death last summer in Medina from vehicular hyperthermia sentenced the baby’s father, 22-year-old Christopher Lee Stewart, to two years of probation. Stewart did not intend to harm his child. That she died due to his actions will likely haunt him all his days.

Dariaun Parker and Tierra Williams, however, have been sent to prison for their daughter’s death. Two years for Parker and 18 months for Williams, neither of whom had a criminal record, nor, as far as any news reports reveal, did they have any reported history of drug or alcohol abuse.

Judge Alison McCarty, who sentenced the parents, told them she would consider granting them an early release, which they can request after serving 30 days because they received sentences of less than two years. The decision on whether to grant the early release will be up to McCarty.

There isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t had a heart-clutching moment when realizing if a situation had gone even a little differently, great harm would have resulted. My daughter who runs, my friend who couldn’t remember where she’d left her baby, my other friend whose daughter wandered outside on a winter night. And many more stories of my own and others.

Should Williams and Parker have received supervision from Children Services after Wynter’s death? Absolutely. But how does sending them to prison benefit society? We live in a country that does not believe in free, quality childcare for our working poor but now we will pay a total of three and a half years of prison costs, approximately $30,000 a year.

As for punishment, their daughter died.

And what crime did the couple’s other two children commit? For they, too, are being punished. According to Creasie Finney Hairston, professor and dean at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois, “The arrest and removal of a mother or father from a child’s life forces that child to confront emotional, social and economic consequences that may trigger behavior problems, poor outcomes in school and a disruption or severance of the relationship with the incarcerated parent that may persist even after the parent is released from prison.”

Judge McCarty didn’t have enough compassion for the remaining children to at least sentence the parents consecutively rather than concurrently.

So I ask, what crime did these parents commit that merits the additional destruction of their lives and the lives of their other children, not to mention the expense to the state, by incarceration?

This column will appear in the Akron Beacon Journal on February 10, 2018.

Finding joy in a cold, snowy winter

If you want someone to blame for last week’s weather, look no further. For several months, I have been using all my mojo to call up a hale and hearty winter in Northeast Ohio. I began doubting my powers as we slogged through a muddy autumn and early winter. But then, success! A large polar vortex broke apart, sending one section straight down from Canada to the Midwest.

I feel most alive when outside on a crisp winter’s day. The air is void of pollution-trapping humidity and with each inhalation my lungs quickly warm frigid air. Bundle up to shovel, sled, cross-country ski or walk the dogs in deep snow, and soon clothes are coming off. Even on bitterly cold days, if the sun is strong and the wind low, it’s easy to stay warm.

Give me hard winters and mild summers over mild winters and hot summers. For when it’s hot, there’s only so much you can take off.

I suppose there are location-bound Akronites, here because of jobs or family. But I chose Akron and part of what I love about this place are the (typically) snowy winters. I lived in Columbus for 10 years where winter is six months of dreary skies from which white stuff occasionally drops and promptly melts. Freezing rain rules Central Ohio winters, and there’s nothing fun about freezing rain.

But snow, oh, my! In the snow belt across the nation, kids build snow forts and snow creatures (we had a 15-foot dragon one year) and enjoy pelting one another with snowballs.

Leif and Angus at the Sand Run Park sledding hill on MLK Day.

Here in Akron, we can do even more with our snow. The Summit County Metro Parks have sheltered fire pits at their many sledding hills and skating rinks. Granted, the skating rinks require more than snow, they need frigid temperatures, which is one more reason to call down a polar vortex.

We also have great skiing here. Sure, the slopes at Boston Mills and Brandywine aren’t the Rockies, but guess what? My kids can ski at resorts with large slopes because they learned how, starting at age 7, in the very affordable school ski programs BMBW offers. When Claude and Hugo each turned 18, I bought them their own downhill skis, which they’ve taken to various slopes across the country.

Beyond the fun of our wintry winters, they are also vital. Frigid temperatures are the bane of invasive species — both fauna and flora. Brown marmorated stink bugs, emerald ash borers, gypsy moths, hemlock woolly adelgid and more destroy trees and crops across Ohio.

Indigenous animals evolved with indigenous plants. When invasive plants take over habitats, they crowd out native species, thereby denying food resources to Ohio’s wildlife.

Like most invasive bugs, invasive plants also often originate from temperate climates and die back in cold winters. Japanese honeysuckle, bush honeysuckle and common privet are all invasive plants. So, too, is purple loosestrife, phragmites (common reed), garlic mustard, autumn-olive and more.

Many invasive plants were introduced by gardeners. These include ornamental pears and Buddleia, the butterfly bush, which does not feed the butterflies found in Ohio. Please consider removing cultivated invasive species from your gardens and replacing them with beautiful native plants (or even non-natives that aren’t invasive).

Fungus is another problem addressed by cold winters. Bat and amphibian populations have been devastated by fungal infestations due to mild winters. Who doesn’t love to hear spring peepers heralding the renewal of life each spring or watch bats swoop in the skies on a summer’s eve, clearing out large quantities of mosquitoes? I do.

And then there is my dark side. I derive a nearly perverse pleasure when imagining the death by cold temperatures of three of Ohio’s native pests.

Number 3: Poison ivy. After a stern winter, this noxious sumac is not so glib the following spring and summer. It stays where it should, in the darker recesses of wooded areas, rather than running amok as it will after a mild winter.

Two of my boys are terrifically allergic to poison ivy. Fun fact: pregnancy can change the immune system of women, including their allergy status. The visceral feeling of running hot water on a poison ivy rash is indelible. But I’ve not experienced it since the birth of my eldest child, 25 years ago.

Number 2: Ticks. After 2 consecutive mild winters, I found the blood suckers on my pets every month in 2018. Granted, I walk my dogs in woods and fields most days, but I pulled off ticks, which look like grayish kernels of corn after a day of feasting on a host, almost daily last summer. I found the last tick of the year on one of our cats on Christmas Day.

Number 1: Fleas. When I was a girl, I remember my mother whispering that one of our neighbors had fleas. She indicated fleas infest homes that aren’t very clean. It’s true I will never win the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for a spotless home. But a spotless home isn’t healthy either. Nor does the dirt bring the biting beasties inside. The pets do, particularly cats.

For many years, we had one cat. His name is Boggart, but I referred to him as “Last Cat.” Then, in June 2017, at the house where Max has his law office, a feral cat had six kittens under the front porch. We found homes for three and kept three.

Last summer, another litter of two kittens was born under the same porch. We were able to catch only one.

“I’m going to call him Cuddlebug,” said Leif, who is the only one small enough to crawl under the porch and retrieve kittens.

Our four recent additions to the family.

“We’re not keeping him, Leif,” I said as we drove the kitten home to clean him up. Yet now there are five cats. (I swear we aren’t hoarders, but feel free to call us weird cat people. It puts us in good company.)

For several weeks last summer, the back of Leif’s legs looked like he had chicken pox, so dotted were they with flea bites. All of the over-the-counter flea treatments that worked in prior years failed. For three months before the first frost, I spent $140 a month on prescription flea treatments from our veterinarian. Those fortunately did the job, making them worth every penny.

So revel with me over the beauty, fun and environmental function of this glorious winter. And in wishing a frozen pox on our native pests.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 27, 2019.

The Golden Rule of Parenting: Just Show Up

When I met the big boys’ father in the early 1990s, he was a young architect. He worked at a drafting table with draftsmen’s pencils shaved into fine points with specialized sharpeners. I can still hear the whir of his leads spinning to precision, the mechanical sharpener held in one hand, the pencil in the other, white shirt sleeves rolled up just past elbows.

His blueprints were produced little differently than those of Howard Roark, as played by Gary Cooper, in the 1949 movie “The Fountainhead.”

Not long after our first child, Claude, was born, his father learned to draft in CAD, or computer-aided design. The pencils, sharpeners, drafting table and true blueprints became instantly obsolete.

Boston, 1995. I carried baby Claude, either in a backpack or a sling, throughout a city in which I knew nobody and where few locals were receptive to people whose ancestors hadn’t fought in the Revolutionary War. Three days a week, Claude’s father left extra early for work to receive CAD lessons from an officemate.

We moved back to Ohio soon after Claude began walking. In his home office, I watched my then-husband slide his mouse across a pad to open boxes on his computer screen, click and drag images around until buildings took shape.

Contemporaneously, hand-painted animated movies, many stunning works of art (see the opening scene of Disney’s “The Fox and the Hound”), gave way to the precision of computer-generated imagery. With every step forward, something must be left behind. Are today’s architecture students even required to draw by hand?

The boys’ father wanted to be an artist, like his mother. His father wanted him to be an engineer. The dilemma was solved when he decided to become an architect.

Like me, the boys can hardly imagine their father sitting down without him drawing with whatever was available, be it ink and sketchbooks or crayons and newsprint.

The boys went to schools in Akron that emphasize the visual arts, from the Waldorf School, which is why we moved to Akron, to Miller South School for the Arts and, finally, Firestone High School’s School of the Arts.

My sons draw both intricately and with the looseness of people comfortable doing so. Claude’s first major at the University of Michigan was art and design. The month before his first semester, I spent all my savings, about $5,000, buying the computer and software suite his program required.

Claude switched his major to English literature before I ever saw him working on computer design. Instead, Jules was the first of my sons who reminded me of watching my ex-husband design on the computer.

Working in the biology department at the University of Akron last winter, Jules developed, with much trial and error, a tool to extract pollen from the anthers of a specific plant. Once collected, the pollen grains were counted. After hand-drawing his ideas, Jules drafted them on the computer, using free software.

“Would you ever want to contact your father and ask him about computer drafting?” I asked Jules.

“No,” he responded promptly. “He’d just make it all about him.”

My ex-husband lives two states away. He never contacts the boys, even when he’s in Ohio. It’s been nearly four years since they’ve seen him.

Once there was a boy who could draw. His talent was innate but also influenced by spending time with his mother, a trained artist. Somewhere on his path to adulthood he lost his way, becoming less like his mother and more like his father.

Recently, Claude had the opportunity to pitch a brochure design for an Akron governmental office. He worked on it using the now-outdated version of Adobe Illustrator that was part of the software package purchased seven years ago for college.

Wanting feedback on his brochure from Max and me, Claude brought over his laptop the night before it was due. As I heated up a plate of leftover meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans for him, Claude’s program crashed, and he lost most of his work. Two weeks’ worth.

It’s happened to anyone who works on a computer. Re-creating lost work takes less time than generating it from scratch, but it still sucks. All I could do was make him a cup of coffee and sit beside him, starting this column.

There are many things I wish I’d done differently with my children. After our divorce, it became achingly clear that in choosing my ex-husband, I’d given my sons a parent who was little different than my own. With a few more years of therapy under my belt, I would have chosen differently, as I later did.

Years of trying to make a happy marriage without the essential ingredients left us empty-handed. But I’d do it again — all 15 years of futility — to have Claude, Hugo and Jules in my life.

The skills of my first three sons are an amalgam of their parents’. They draw as easily as their father, and work as hard as I do to write well. (Good writing is born more from determined tenacity than natural talent.)

The pre-verbal baby I carried around Boston turned 25 last week, on the 12th day of Christmas. I’ve always thought of him as my gift from the Magi. While I wrote on my laptop, Claude re-created his brochure with relative ease, occasionally asking me to look at his progress. He finished shortly before 1 a.m.

All parents have regrets. There is no perfect parent, and what child wants one? The first and last rule of successful parenting isn’t so much what a parent brings to the table, only that they come to the table. Not helicoptering, but simply showing up. Be present when your children need you, while also teaching them to become self-reliant.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on January 13, 2019.

Updates on popular columns from 2018

Reader response to my columns reads like the title of a country and western song: “Special girl, dogs and old cars.” Far and away, I receive more letters about our daughter, Lyra, and issues related to her Down syndrome than on any other subject. But readers also filled my email in-box over columns about our animals and, surprising to me, my 2003 Toyota Matrix.

As 2018 winds down, here are updates on some of those columns.

Dorothy and her 10 puppies.

Our dog Dorothy

We had not meant our house to become a cattery, but feral cats had six kittens under our porch in the summer of 2017. We found homes for three (including two adopted by our son Claude) and kept three. We already had one rickety cat, who himself had been born to a feral mother in 2001.

After a discussion last spring with our veterinarian, Dr. Julie Brown-Herold, we realized our 1-year-old German shepherd could not live in a house with cats. Dorothy, who regularly kills squirrels and chipmunks, relentlessly hunted the cats.

Finding a home for four cats is nigh impossible. Meanwhile, our small-animals menace is gentle with all humans including babies. My friend Sheri Brown, from whom I’d purchased Dorothy, re-adopted her.

The Browns ( have 10 German shepherds on a large property near Alliance. Dorothy, who loves playing rough with the big dogs, is a happy girl. This month, she became a first-time mama and a good one, too. We watched her birth the first six of her 10 pups via FaceTime and visited them when they were 14 days old.

Some people believe it hard, even wrong, to resettle a pet in another home, because the animal would be bereft without its current owner. In my experience, this is not the case. Rescue animals, not all of whom are victims of abuse or neglect, regularly settle in to new homes where they are much beloved.

As with children, it is important to ask what is best for each individual, assessing the situation honestly and with as little ego as possible. Sometimes major changes, no matter how difficult, are exactly what is needed.

Lyra wearing her AngelSense

When Lyra runs

Running, without thought of destination or concern for safety, is a common and terrifying behavior in people with Down syndrome and autism spectrum disorder. I learned this soon after Lyra was born, but she never ran off. That is, until this summer when she did so three times in one week.

I received many letters, mainly from parents whose own children have run. They were grateful to see the behavior highlighted in the Akron Beacon Journal, educating the public about running and its prevalence with these diagnoses. Often, parents of children who run feel judged because most people do not understand how our kids can vanish in the blink of an eye.

One long email response came from a mother who ultimately placed her 17-year-old daughter in a residential facility. Beautifully written, I had tears in my eyes when I finished reading her story. This mom has since begun blogging and wrote a piece about her daughter’s running, which I recommend reading. (

As for Lyra, we now use AngelSense GPS. Lyra’s adopted grandpas, Bruce Stebner and Jim Mismas, paid for the device, which is little bigger than a Matchbox car. We attached it to a belt that Lyra, so far, enjoys wearing.

The more she wears it when home, the more information the GPS gathers. If Lyra strays from our yard — or even to the back end of our yard where we seldom go — Max, Jules and I receive a text notification from AngelSense. We can open the app on our phones and it will show us where Lyra is.

One woman wrote to tell me she installed deadbolts requiring a key to lock and unlock not only on the outside of the door, but on the inside, too. We now have the same type of deadbolt on our front door because Lyra was able to turn the interior knob of the original deadbolt. Our fear was even with the AngelSense, if Lyra were to walk out the front door, she could get to our busy street in the short time it takes AngelSense to alert us and for us to look at the app.

“Keep the car!”

Next to our girl who’s safely carried us far and wide.

That was the subject line of multiple emails I received after writing about my 2003 Toyota Matrix, which has 238,000 miles and needs a new battery, alternator and at least one tire.

These letters, all written by men, were full of fun stories with old cars. One told me of his 1999 Honda Accord, which has “been to 37 states, Canada, was parked for about an hour in front of Fats Domino’s house while I was inside with The Man, and has shared all sorts of other adventures which I can’t share since the statutes of limitations haven’t expired on some of them.”

I grin every time I read that sentence and realize I am not alone in anthropomorphizing my favorite vehicle.

While I certainly do not have enough money to buy a new car, I also cannot currently afford the repairs needed for my Matrix. I have decided to wait for my tax refund in February and then make a decision. I’m leaning toward repairing my girl, unless there is more bad news when I take her in.

Thank you for reading my column and keep the letters coming. Blessings to you all for 2019.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 30, 2018.

Beloved car may be nearing end

Carlsbad, New Mexico 2007

According to Buddhist teachings, the root of all aggression is desire. Not being attached to a specific outcome — be it with events, people or things — reduces suffering. Buddhism also emphasizes the importance of compassion and, therefore, detachment is not the same as being emotionally null.

In 1988, I moved into a home two blocks north of Ohio State University’s campus with two roommates. Built in the 1920s, the home was simple. The few kitchen cabinets were original, the interior doors were gum wood varnished in a yellowish tint popular 100 years ago.

My roommates eventually graduated and moved away. I stayed, worked at OSU and bought the house. My then-husband moved in with me and I birthed our first two sons in my little house, which is less than half a mile from Ohio Stadium.

Hugo was born during the 1996 OSU-Michigan football game. The neighborhood, which had thrummed with activity all morning, hushed as though plunged into a soundproof room, just as I began pushing. When he was born 21 minutes after kickoff, I heard the cheers of more than 100,000 spectators, seemingly welcoming a new Buckeye to the world.

Two years later, my husband took a job in Pennsylvania and I agreed to the singularly worst financial decision of my adult life: selling the house. In my peripatetic childhood, houses were temporary, way stations for a few weeks or months. I chose my OSU house and stayed there many times longer than I had my parents’ many houses.

Before we left, I crawled through the hole in the closet ceiling of the bedroom where Claude had drawn his first breath. I walked on the rafters away from the attic entrance and, under one of the roof joists, I tucked my love letter to the house.

Throughout the 20 years since, my nighttime dreams are regularly set in that home. Again and again, I return to the first house that sheltered more than my physical body.

In 2002, I picked out my freshly minted girl, a Toyota Matrix. Hearkening the first and best movie in the Wachowski sisters’ series, I didn’t christen her anything else. The dealership had a red Matrix in stock, but red is not my color. Shipped in from a dealership in another state, my girl is light blue and has a roof rack.

The Matrix has been to northern Michigan and back more times than I can calculate. For many years, she carried us to Vermont for our Buddhist family camp where one year a local mechanic replaced her clutch.

Yes, my girl is a 5-speed. If you haven’t driven a standard transmission, you haven’t driven a car. With an automatic, the car does all the thinking, the human just presses one pedal to accelerate, another to slow down. With a stick shift, car and human merge together. As responsive as a horse who knows by the slightest pressure of a human leg what her rider wants, my girl likes to go fast.

Parents are the maestros of their children’s memories. From holidays and birthdays to predictable evenings after school or summer weeks spent with grandparents. The most significant memories cannot be predicted, but reveal themselves when the children have grown.

Such was the cross-country road trip the three big boys and I took in the Matrix the summer of 2007.

Mountain lake at Yosemite

We drove south from Akron, turned right in Georgia, noodled across the South and Southwest, our path zigging and zagging wherever we left I-10 to visit many treasures, both geographic and archaeological, along the way. We carried on westward until we hit the Pacific Ocean in Paso Robles.

Mount Rushmore

Every bucket list should include driving along California State Route 1, a dramatic concrete ribbon fit tight against the coastline like lovers spooning in bed. We again turned right at Yosemite National Park and made our way back to Ohio. Many days the four of us spent 10 or more hours in the Matrix. Today the boys describe the trip as seminal to their childhoods.

When I was pregnant with Leif, Max bought a minivan and the Matrix became the kid car. Claude drove it his last two years of high school. Hugo did the same.

Claude took the Matrix to Ann Arbor his final semester of college. Six months later, Hugo worked at Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts and the Matrix went with him.

Though her motor is still incredibly responsive, the Matrix has aged into a jalopy. The driver’s side window remains permanently closed with duct tape sealing the edges. An inch above the dashboard, a crack runs the entire length of the windshield. The reflection in the right-side mirror, an off-market replacement, wobbles like a fun-house mirror. I stopped replacing hubcaps long ago.

Seemingly out of politeness, the Matrix avoids more than one major expense a year. I have justified a big repair here, tires there, because it’s still cheaper than a car payment and she has continued to be reliable.

Two years ago this month, the clutch went out and came in at just under $1,000. A week later, Claude took Hugo back to school in Rochester and the Matrix broke down in Buffalo. This time it was the transmission.

Because my first ABJ column had not yet run, I know Jim & Sons Transmission treats all customers like family. They drove a tow truck to Buffalo and brought our Matrix back. I bit the bullet and replaced the transmission, but swore it was the last big fix for my girl.

And here we are. She now needs a new battery and alternator, about $600.

Another Buddhist lesson is that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. I must decide if it’s time to shoot our valiant horse or spend the money so Jules, too, can have his turn with the best little car in Akron. And while I do, she rests peacefully in our driveway.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 16, 2018.

Curiosity, essential to learning, is threatened by social media

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Claude picked up Hugo in Rochester and together they drove through Canada to their grandparents’ home in Northern Michigan. On their way, they listened to 1984. Hugo is taking a class on George Orwell, and Claude is reading along.

The rest of us also arrived on Tuesday, but much later, having headed out on the 450-mile trip after school let out. And then, like many families, we cooked, ate and did dishes. And repeat. But in other ways, we strayed from the presumed Thanksgiving conventions (as probably every family does).

American Gothic, Graveside

Wednesday morning, the boys helped bury a body at the city cemetery. As soon as each of them was big enough to hold a shovel, they have helped their grandpa, the city sexton, in the graveyard. It’s there that they’ve come to know their grandpa, and they all enjoy the time together.

Other than the Macy’s Parade, the television stays tuned to Turner Classic Movies. It’s like another welcome guest for the long weekend. The movies on TCM provide crack-sharp dialogue, grand song-and-dance sequences from the Depression era and visually saturated Technicolor musicals from the postwar decades. Who can resist?

Each day, Hugo and I walked the dogs along Lake Michigan. With summer tourists long gone, Petoskey stones, which are unique to Northern Michigan, are as easy to find as fleas on a squirrel. Walking on water-smoothed stones, their colors vibrant when wet, my boy and I chatted. Loud waves crashed on the shore and periodically large ones chased us back, flooding a spot where we were just standing.

We always bring board games, but inevitably play euchre every night. Our games are loud, with players swearing and laughing. Grandma is a euchre shark and will not hesitate to take someone’s seat without invitation. As she’s not one to relax, we love it when she joins us.

I enjoy my young adult children. We share many interests and regularly talk about politics, art, music, literature, science and more. Their knowledge of an array of topics is both broad and deep and I learn many things from my sons.

I assumed most families with young adult children were similar to ours. Then I began teaching college freshmen. Oh, I’ve taught them before, but not since I was in graduate school, and the world is a different place than it was a decade ago.

Adults have always complained about younger generations. Socrates, who lived in the 5th century B.C.E., said, “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households.”

But I love working with 15- to 25-year-olds. Their frontal lobes are connecting to the rest of their brains and the ability for complex thinking explodes. Think of the stereotype of college students sitting around saying things like, “Dude, if the universe is expanding, where is it expanding to? Whoa!”

Back when music was distributed on albums, and later CDs, most purchases were made by 16- to 26-year-olds. This age group has always been a sponge not just for information, but also art, ideas and complex concepts. It’s no coincidence most undergraduate college students are 18 to 22 years old.

The household I grew up in did not expose me to culture, literature, philosophy or art. Though we regularly stayed with family in Chicago, the only museums I visited were on school field trips.

But I was curious and by high school, I was reading voraciously, not just contemporary fiction, but also classics. I also watched movies, again, both new releases and classics. I remember crying inconsolably at 17 after watching Barbara Stanwyck in “Stella Dallas.”

My point is, even without parents presenting the lusciousness of reading good books, watching good movies, studying both history and current events, curious teens can, and often do, find these treasures on their own. Or at least they did.

My classes are filled with bright students. However, when I ask them if they’ve read relatively well-known young adult books, most say no. When I ask if they’ve watched relatively recent movies, most say no. And then there’s music.

In  The Glass Castle, we read about a segregated swimming pool. I recounted the story of management at a Las Vegas casino ordering a pool be drained of its water after a black entertainer swam in it. I mistakenly thought the swimmer was Nat King Cole (it was Sammy Davis Jr.) and asked my 40 students if they know who he was.

Not a one. “OK,” I said, “what about his daughter, Natalie Cole?” Nope, even though she died just three years ago, none of my students knew either of the famous Coles.

I now play music as my students enter the classroom. We’ve listened to many jazz icons — Getz, Davis, Fitzgerald and, of course, Nat King Cole. “Shall we start with a little music?” I ask when I enter the classroom and, to my heart’s delight, my students say yes.

For extra credit, I bring in my New York Times Sunday paper, back copies of the New Yorker, the Smithsonian, the Atlantic and more. For five points, they read an article and write a couple of paragraphs describing the content and analyzing the writing. Several have told me it’s the first time they’ve read a newspaper.

My students are eager to learn; few seem to glaze over when we discuss an array of subjects from politics to graphic novels. So why haven’t they found their way to the brain banquet of arts, history and culture? To answer this, I gave a brief lecture on Karl Marx.

“Opiate of the masses” is how Marx described religion. Were he alive today, he may still hold to his definition, but more than religion, I also think he’d zero in on the tamping down of curiosity caused by smartphones combined with social media. We’re all susceptible to these time vampires, myself included.

When they were in high school, two of my sons switched their smartphones back to basic cellphones because it was affecting their ability to do other things — including homework. I have at least one student in my classes whose deep addiction to his phone parallels the symptoms of drug addiction.

I wish I had a global solution for this very real problem. What I do have is advice for parents: Limit the time your children spend with screens. Do not give them smartphones when they are teenagers. No matter what their peers think, a child without a smartphone is not missing out on anything, but gaining everything.

LIFE Project teaches parents how to advocate for kids’ educational needs

By the time he’d finished the third grade, my eldest son, Claude, had attended a public school, a parochial school, a Quaker school, a Waldorf school and a Montessori school.

The following year, when he was in the fourth grade, he attended the Lawrence School, a private school in Broadview Heights that specializes in remediating learning disabilities.

Of all those schools, Claude only switched once because of a long-distance move — from Centre County, Pa., to Cleveland. Why so many schools? Because I was desperate.

As a little guy, Claude was obviously bright. He had a vivid imagination, creating a flower kingdom with his toddler brother, Hugo, under the thicket of forsythia that grew in our backyard in Pennsylvania. He often wore a handmade, felt Batman mask in public and when asked his name, he’d reply, “I’m Claude, the masked-rider boy.”

When interested in something, Claude went deep. Around age 5, he was our resident expert on beavers and their muddy constructs.

However, after his first three years of school, he remained unable to distinguish numbers from letters.

I first became concerned when Claude was in kindergarten. Though it was a wonderful school with two teachers in each class and plenty of play time, Claude soon became anxious about attending. I eventually learned, as is common, he was aware other students were easily understanding the academic lessons, while he was not.

And so began my questioning. Teachers at all his schools told me not to worry. “Boys mature more slowly,” they’d say. But I knew something was wrong. I grew obsessively concerned as more time passed, routinely reminding myself to focus on my other two little boys, too.

Then, in the summer Claude was a rising third-grader, one short conversation changed everything.

While at the Buddhist family camp in Vermont that we went to every year, a woman who’d also been attending for a few years mentioned she was a pediatric occupational therapist. I told her Claude held his pencils like violin bows. She asked me several questions and then declared, “You need to have him evaluated for learning disabilities.”

Such a simple thing, really, and one every educator I’d questioned should have offered to do. Why didn’t they? I believe because Claude wasn’t a behavior problem, the public schools prioritized their more difficult students over him. Private schools often do not have access to the substantive interventions found in public schools, and having him diagnosed might have resulted in his withdrawal from those schools.

That fall, Claude’s evaluation revealed he is severely dyslexic.

Firstborns bear the burden of rookie parents. Even though I was college-educated and very invested in my children’s educations, I did not know Evaluation Team Reports (ETRs, then called Multi-Factored Evaluations, or MFEs) existed, much less that I had the right to request one.

Nor did I know there are attorneys who specialize in education law and help families receive the services their children need. Though, even if I had, I likely would not have pursued retaining a lawyer because of the expense.

This is why I am truly thrilled about the LIFE (Learning Is For Everyone) Project, a pilot program launched by Community Legal Aid in Akron. In workshops held across the city, parents can learn what educational services are available and how to ask for them.

The materials Community Legal Aid created for this program are invaluable. A workbook with 11 pages of questions and information helps determine what problems a child is having in school.

Depending on the results of the first workbook, there is a workbook for an ETR, which is the first step in establishing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for a student. There is also a workbook for 504 plans, which are for students who do not meet the qualifications of an IEP, but who still need accommodations and supports to succeed.

Also included in the packet of materials is a glossary of terms and definitions. Educational jargon and acronyms are intimidating. As the current principal of Firestone High School knows, until very recently, I was unable to remember 504 plans, sometimes referring to them as “524s” or “those 500-things.”

Finally, to empower parents to advocate for their children, there is a template containing sample letters, general forms, as well as a copy of each of the four different types of intervention plans. Also found in this section is a seven-page list of community resources for concerns ranging from addiction to school transportation.

Parents who attend the workshops are walked through the first workbook, identifying their children’s needs. Then, either in small groups or one-on-one, staff from Community Legal Aid discuss with parents how to initiate and proceed with requesting interventions from the schools for their children.

To be clear, Community Legal Aid finds Akron Public Schools very responsive to the children in the district who need additional support. This has also been my personal experience. But there are children, like my Claude, who can fall through the cracks simply because their parents cannot ask for things they don’t know exist.

At this time, Community Legal Aid intends to hold a few workshops each grading period in different parts of the city. If successful, the program could be expanded to the other large school districts Community Legal Aid serves in its eight-county region, including Canton, Warren and Youngstown.

Once properly diagnosed, Claude began appropriate interventions. By the end of the third grade, he was reading chapter books. He went on to get a degree in English literature from the University of Michigan and writes for The Devil Strip, an Akron arts and culture publication.

Claude has done well, but I’ll always wish he’d been properly diagnosed in kindergarten, which is why I also wish the LIFE Project had existed 20 years ago.

LIFE Workshops

Community Legal Aid LIFE (Learning Is For Everyone) workshops will be offered Nov. 27 at the REACH Opportunity Center, 390 W. Crosier St., Akron; and Dec. 13 at Findley Community Learning Center, 65 W. Tallmadge Ave., Akron.

Workshops take place from 6 to 8 p.m. and include refreshments and children’s activities. The free workshops cover support available to students from kindergarten through 12th grade. To register, go to or text SCHOOL to 77453.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on November 19, 2018.

Raising a family of voters

Put me in charge of everything and I’d immediately mandate compulsory voting. In the 26 countries with compulsory voting, not only is turnout high (even when enforcement is weak), but a wider demographic of the electorate is politically informed.

For better or worse, I am not in charge of everything. I am, however, in charge of my children’s upbringing. While there are many dedicated nonprofits working tirelessly to register and turn out eligible young voters, nothing has more power than what is modeled at home.

My own parents voted regularly — my mother and her husband casting votes to the right of the John Birch Society while my father, at least once, voted for Comrade Gus Hall for president. My stepmom remains politically active and is currently precinct captain for the Democrats in her county.

When my boys were little, I took them with me to my polling station so they could see voting in action and become familiarized with how it works. But I didn’t stop there.

In 2003, when we moved to Akron, I packed up the boys, then ages 9, 6 and 3, and drove to Columbus. We met with our then-state senator, Kimberly Zurz. We also met with the legislative aide of our congresswoman, Barbara Sykes.

Intimate with the positions of their bosses, legislative aides allow politicians to be responsive to their constituents in a way no single person could do. Never refer to them as “just legislative aides” because the work of these public servants is invaluable to good governance.

In the fall of 2004, the boys and I spent several Saturdays in multiple Akron neighborhoods dropping leaflets for the Democrats. We also housed volunteers who came to Ohio from other states, including Oliver Moles, a man in his 70s from D.C. Moles grew up on Rhodes Avenue in Akron and for weeks the boys listened to dinner conversations either about politics or midcentury Akron.

In 2008, Akron Public Schools were closed, as is often the case, on the day of the November election. At the time, 11-year-old Hugo was the only one of my children who had the day off. Claude was at Akron Early College High School, which follows the University of Akron’s schedule, and Jules was at a private school. I worked in Youngstown.

Home alone, what did Hugo do? He walked to the nearby Obama campaign headquarters and asked if he could volunteer. They gave him a stack of posters to roll up. When Hugo told me what he had done, I could not have been more proud.

When they were in high school, the boys helped me canvas, seeking out registered voters at their homes to get out the vote. First-time canvassers are understandably nervous about knocking on strangers’ doors.

The day of the 2012 presidential election, 17-year-old Hugo went with me for a few blocks before I gave him his own list. With 3-month-old Lyra strapped to my chest in a baby carrier, doors opened easily for me. “Get in here with that baby!” more than one woman told me.

But a young man all alone? Hugo was sure he’d be met with suspicion, but when we reconvened, he was bouncing on his toes with delight. He’d had several engaging conversations and felt he’d made a difference.

When my children turned 18, I make a big deal about voter registration. With Claude and Hugo, who have winter birthdays, I pulled them out of school to visit the Summit County Board of Elections. Once registered, we went out for lunch before returning to school.

The first year Claude attended the University of Michigan, he mailed in an absentee ballot. Then in 2015, Ohio Secretary of State John Husted threw out absentee ballots that were not postmarked, even though the U.S. Postal Service cannot guarantee all mail will receive a postmark. Almost 900 mail-in ballots in Summit County were thrown out in that year’s November election.

Not only do I want every adult citizen to vote, but I also expect their legally cast votes to be counted. Since the presidential election in 2000, voter suppression, which had lain mostly dormant since the Civil Rights Movement’s successes in the 1960s, has raised its reinvigorated head across the country.

Waiting for our ballots at the Summit Co. Board of Elections

Jules turned 18 last June and rather than make a fuss over his registration, his brothers and I waited until his first election. After a delayed bus trip from Rochester and an Uber ride from Cleveland, Hugo arrived in Akron at 2 a.m. on the second Friday of early voting. Claude, who has been a weekend canvassing captain this fall, took the afternoon off from work. At home, the four of us again reviewed the ballot issues before driving to the board of elections.

“You didn’t ask us if we would come home to vote, you ordered us to,” laughed Hugo when I told them I’d let my college students know about our family voting early and in person for several years now.

Hugo’s correct; after Husted purged so many absentee ballots, I did tell them we could not trust the system unless we showed up in person. I told them to come home from college to vote. But I also didn’t “ask” Hugo to power wash the garage, help Leif put up Halloween decorations and polish a pair of my boots while he was home. And from that list of things I told him to do, he did zero.

But Hugo went out of his way to vote in person. For my kids, it’s second nature, and I don’t doubt they will be active citizens their entire lives.

It’s never too late to start participating in our democracy. If you’ve never voted, I encourage you to register and to support measures that make voting easier, not harder. The Summit County Board of Elections is open daily for early voting, including from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday. Go vote!

Christensen Early Voter Brigade Oct. 19, 2018

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, November 4, 2018.

A few words about Down syndrome

With our daughter Lyra’s birth, we learned, among many things, the importance of language when discussing her diagnosis.

In my lifetime, using the word “retarded” to describe a person with Down syndrome has become entirely unacceptable. I understood this perhaps as early as the 1970s. However, I still used the word to describe nonhuman things that might frustrate me from computers to proposed legislation.

I had to work at it, but I have completely scrubbed the r-word out of my vocabulary. Why? Because it has become a put-down in all contexts with the original referent being people with Down syndrome. Though the word was never ideal, it was once commonly used, including by the very organizations that support people with DS.

The Arc is one of the oldest of these organizations. Until 1992 it was known as “ARC,” an acronym for “Association for Retarded Citizens.” Their website includes a thoughtful explanation of why the name was changed, and that today the only r-word to use when referring to people with intellectual disabilities is “Respect.”

Here in Ohio, each county had a “mental retardation and developmental disability” (MRDD) board until 2009 when they were all retitled “developmental disability” (DD) boards.

When Lyra was 2 years old, I reread an essay I had written soon after her birth. While waiting several days for Lyra’s chromosomes to be analyzed, I wanted her diagnosis to be mosaic Down syndrome, in which not all cells have a third 21st chromosome. Why? Because in those first days after an unexpected diagnosis, I hoped for Lyra to have “milder symptoms,” as though Down syndrome were an illness.

“Milder symptoms” is a legacy of the terms “mildly retarded” or “severely retarded.” Even today, books and articles concerning pregnancy and childbirth still sometimes use the language of illness, such as this example from a parenting website: “While everyone wishes for a healthy baby, you may have one with Down syndrome.” (Disability rights activists petitioned the publication and the language was eventually changed.)

Lyra, thankfully, is a robustly healthy child. While some children with Down syndrome have other health issues, to confuse a diagnosis of DS with poor health is as incorrect as confusing deafness or blindness as poor health.

Lyra is just a kid, not a “Down’s kid.”

Also important to all people living with any diagnosis is people-first language. Lyra is not a Down syndrome girl, she’s a 6-year-old girl, a kindergartner, a sister to her four brothers, and a lover of music, books, playgrounds and cats. The British cartoon “Peppa Pig” is Lyra’s favorite show, from which she’s learned to pronounce several words in the Queen’s English including “luh-vley” for “lovely.”

And Lyra has Down syndrome. She’s not a Down’s kid, she’s a kid. Just as any person with any diagnosis is a person, not a diagnosis.

Yet the first months of Lyra’s life, I stopped myself multiple times as the words “Down syndrome child” slipped past my lips. People-first language is so easy to understand. However, it took time for me to consistently apply a simple turn of a phrase that identified my daughter as a person, not as her diagnosis.

“They are all so sweet, people with Down syndrome.” I’ve heard this many times, particularly in the months after Lyra’s birth. While it is statistically true that higher percentages of people with Down syndrome claim being happy with their lives than the typical population, calling them “all so sweet” is a stereotype that denies the full range of human emotions in someone with DS.

And what can happen when someone does not behave in accordance with the stereotype ascribed by society? In January 2013, Ethan Saylor, 26, was killed when he did not behave like a sweet man with Down syndrome.

While his caretaker had stepped out to retrieve her car, Saylor, an ardent fan of law enforcement and the military, slipped back into the movie theater where he’d just seen “Zero Dark Thirty.” Because he’d not bought a second ticket, the theater manager alerted security officers, all off-duty sheriff’s deputies. Saylor’s caretaker returned just as the deputies arrived and warned them not to touch him because it would cause him to “freak out.”

Rather than listen to the person who knew him, the deputies dragged Saylor down to the side of the movie screen, just out of the sight of the audience. Because of his failure to buy a $12 ticket, Saylor was wrestled to the ground, his larynx was fractured and he died of asphyxiation. Rather than watching the movie, the audience listened to Saylor cry for his mommy in his last moments of life.

Until I was 46, I gave the disability rights movement little thought. Since Lyra’s birth, however, I think every day about the need for acceptance and inclusion of all people with disabilities in all facets of life. This includes medical care, education, employment, housing and relationships. It also includes freedom from harassment both in public and at home.

Acceptance is born from understanding and understanding is best gained by exposure. That is why October is National Down Syndrome Awareness Month — to introduce our communities to our loved ones with DS, who are often their own best advocates, and to dispel misinformation about what a DS diagnosis means.

Words matter. Choose yours with empathy. And when someone uses outmoded or inappropriate language, consider their intent. If someone is using the only language they’ve known to discuss Down syndrome, but they are doing so kindly, I welcome it as a teachable moment. For I, too, have had a long history of needing important matters, including the language of disability, pointed out to me.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on October 21, 2018.

Those who sexually assault women do not consider them fully human

Earlier this semester, students in my English composition classes at the University of Akron read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”Written in 1729, Swift’s satirical solution to rampant poverty in Ireland was for English overlords to buy and eat 1-year-old Irish babies.

Swift compares the Irish to livestock, which is to say, less than human. My students and I discussed other groups of people who’ve been considered less than human, and to what end. Africans in order to justify slavery. Jews, Roma, Scinti, homosexuals and the intellectually disabled in order to justify genocide. Latino immigrants to justify tearing children away from their parents.

Then there are women. In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof wrote, “In surveys, when men are asked whether they have ever had sex with a woman or girl without her consent, a surprising number cheerfully say they have, without considering themselves rapists. They simply perceive themselves as fun-loving guys in a hunting game in which a ‘no’ can be vitiated with alcohol and muscular assertiveness; they leave smirking and the women leave traumatized.”

Politics aside, the twists and turns in the current Supreme Court confirmation saga are generating important conversations. My son Hugo called me from school the day after the hearings of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh to discuss what happened. Friends with daughters are sitting them down to talk about sexual assault, underscoring that should they, God forbid, ever be assaulted, to please tell their parents immediately.

I was 25 when the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings regarding Anita Hill’s allegations of workplace sexual harassment by her boss, Clarence Thomas. In a nationally televised, live broadcast, I saw a courageous young woman harassed yet again. I quickly realized the men I once viewed as elder statesmen were little different than schoolyard bullies.

The Kavanaugh proceedings were reminiscent of those from 1991. Like other women my age and older, I wonder what, if any, progress has been made in the ensuing 27 years.

The same year Dr. Blasey alleges Judge Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, I was invited to a party at the summer house of a wealthy young man in northern Michigan. His father owned, among many businesses, a ship that served dinner each night on Lake Michigan. Many of the ship’s waiters were college mates of the son, and their home was, for a few months, a de facto frat house.

Shortly after I arrived, a group of men passed me, two of them holding a semi-conscious woman upright as they dragged her to another room. She wore a sweatshirt, but no pants. Using permanent marker, her rapists, for that’s what they were, had graffitied her legs with words like “slut” and “whore” and images of male genitalia. I knew the woman. We were both rising seniors in the same high school.

I wish I could write I stopped the men and found a way to take my classmate home. But in my ignorance, formed by societal norms and reinforced throughout my childhood, I wondered why she let those guys do that to her. I left as soon as I could and never returned.

This past summer at the University of Rochester, where Hugo is a senior, all seven fraternity houses were vandalized. Two female students spray-painted the words “I Was Raped Here” on the front of each house. The women had been raped at two of the houses and they knew, firsthand, women who were sexually assaulted in each of the others.

Earlier this year, I listened to an episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain.” Titled “Why Now,” the piece asks why the #MeToo movement exploded last year, bringing down several powerful men, many of whom had been accused of sexual assault for years, even decades.

The podcast describes how “preference falsification” can explain why women often choose not to report. It’s because they’ve witnessed what happens to women who have. At best, they are ignored, their allegations dismissed. At worst, as alleged of Harvey Weinstein, powerful men can destroy their victims’ careers, devastating lives they’ve already traumatized.

Women weigh the benefit versus the cost of coming forward with allegations of sexual assault. Both Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford recounted anguishing at length with their decisions. All too often, women accurately determine the costs outweigh the benefits, leaving perpetrators free to assault again.

But in the era of #MeToo, the preference falsification has begun to reverse. “The social proof has changed,” says the host of “Hidden Brain.” Society, for this moment, has switched the burden of proof from the victim to the accused. The current Supreme Court confirmation process seems a test of whether this reversal will continue.

As with all difficult issues, the two most powerful tools of parents are modeling and talking. Ideally, all children would grow up in families where both parents respect one another. For children who do not, the examples of other families — those of their friends, relatives, and even acquaintances — can provide a vital counterpoint.

But even when parents do respect one another, it is still important they talk to their children, to cultivate relationships where children are comfortable bringing home difficult questions and discussions.

Tell your underage daughters and sons to avoid parties with alcohol, and to be hyper-cautious when attending them after turning 21.

Tell your sons no means no, even when first told yes.

Tell your daughters it is never OK — no matter what she wears, how much she drinks or any other variable — for a man to touch her body without her explicit consent. Neither is it OK for anyone to discuss sexual matters, either in earnest or jest, without her explicit consent.

“Boys will be boys” and “It’s just locker-room talk” are code phrases that trivialize and dehumanize women in order to justify sexual assault. Feminism is the radical notion that women are fully human. It seems obvious, but the endless stories of sexual assault indicate we have a long way to go before the full humanity of women is accepted as a universal truth.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, October 7, 2018.

Capstone trip with young adult children marks new relationship

A Viking inheritance as sure as my blue eyes, wanderlust courses through my veins. I’ve purchased less expensive houses and driven old cars to have more money for travel. Any dog I adopt and any child I birth quickly learns to enjoy road-tripping.

When he was 6 months old, I conked Hugo’s head on the stone ceiling of an underground cavern in Tennessee. Bending over to step through a narrow passageway, I forgot the head of my baby, who was strapped onto my back, stuck out further than my body. He was fine and, along with 3-year-old Claude, I spent several days hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains with Hugo on my back.

The notion of a capstone trip was born in 2007 at the Grand Canyon North Rim. Like me, 10-year-old Hugo wanted to return, stay in one of the park’s cabins and hike the Kaibab Trail to the canyon’s bottom.

“How about the summer after you graduate from high school, we come back, just you and me?” I asked Hugo.

Hugo is now a senior in college and we’ve yet to return to the Grand Canyon. Like his brother before him, after graduation, Hugo worked full time to help pay for college.

Instead, and perhaps better, I’ve traveled alone with each of my two eldest sons after they studied abroad. Four years ago, Claude went to Granada, Spain. When his program finished, we met up at the Madrid Airport and spent two weeks falling in love with the people, food and multiple cultures across the Iberian Peninsula.

This past summer, Hugo studied in Graz, Austria. A fine program with top-notch teachers, many of whom perform in Europe’s big opera houses, it is also private. That meant Hugo could not expect study abroad grants or loans from his college.

Instead, he gave recitals, received a scholarship from the Friends of Eastman Opera and simply worked, both during school years and summers.

Nearly two years after he auditioned and was accepted, Hugo made his final payment.

Meanwhile, I, too, squirreled away money, figuring I needed $2,000 plus the price of my airline ticket. When I returned to the States, my credit card dedicated to the trip had a balance of $2,100.

Like Claude four years earlier, Hugo met me at the airport. The next day, we traveled by bus from Vienna to Prague and two days later to Berlin. Three days before leaving Europe, we flew back to Vienna.

We always travel on the cheap in part because it’s what we can afford, but also what I prefer. If you stay at Hilton hotels in other countries, your experience will be different than if you stay with locals. In Spain, Claude and I averaged about $50 a night at modest local hotels.

In the time since my trip with Claude, a new kid has arrived on the accommodations block: Airbnb. Average cost: $30 per night. Heaven for Holly is staying in the homes of locals and learning about their lives. Our last host, a delightful 24-year-old named Heribert, studies art history. His large apartment in Vienna is about $1,300 a month and as an Austrian citizen not only is his tuition free, but he also receives a stipend for living expenses.

For my children and me, the unexpected is where adventure awaits. That’s why we travel on our own and not in organized tour groups. Mishaps are inevitable. And in the response to both delightful and stressful situations lies a traveler’s character.

Hugo always loved maps. Our time at the Grand Canyon was part of a cross-country road trip in our 5-speed Toyota Matrix. In 2007, GPS systems were around, but not ubiquitous. We used a road atlas and, as I was the only driver, Hugo was my navigator.

In Europe, Hugo took navigating to the next level. In each city, he figured out public transit and Google-mapped walking directions. He also found and booked our Airbnb reservations and travel tickets to each city.

On our last day in Vienna, we left with enough time to have lunch at the airport before boarding. Twenty minutes into the ride, we realized we’d taken the right train, but in the wrong direction. We got off in a sleepy alpine village and waited half an hour for a train heading toward the airport.

Hugo repeatedly apologized, telling me how stupid he felt. Going the wrong direction on a train, particularly in a foreign country, is not only an easy mistake to make, everyone has done it (if someone says otherwise, they’re lying).

“So long as we catch our flight, it’s all good,” I told him. “But if we miss our flight, we’ll just book a new one, possibly without having to pay more.”

We caught our flight but not lunch. Hunger makes the best sauce, and hours later at Heathrow Airport, we made quick work of two large plates of fish and chips.

Traveling far from home with each of my young adult children crystallizes two decades of work. Yes, work, along with love, humor and the growth of both child and parent. Together every minute, seeing amazing things for the first time while also figuring out unfamiliar languages and ways of living (a toilet paper dispenser in a bathroom stall in Prague left me feeling more ignorant than any human ever has), a person who started as a collection of cells in my uterus becomes mostly my equal.

Perhaps because I trained them to travel like me — have a plan, but keep it loose in order to take advantage of unexpected delights — some of the best days of my life have been trekking in foreign places with my adult sons. That they, too, treasure this time together is more dear to me than any gift.

First published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, September 23, 2018.

Runners: A terrifying behavior in certain children, including one of my own

“One of the first questions I ask parents who come to my office is, ‘Do you have a flopper or a runner?’ ” The audience laughed knowingly.

We were listening to a talk given by a doctor of behavioral medicine at the first National Down Syndrome Congress convention Max and I have attended. Lyra was only 10 months old at the time, but already we’d heard stories about floppers and runners.

Children with Down syndrome can, and frequently will, use their low muscle tone to transform themselves into immovable objects — “floppers.”

By the time she was 2 years old, if Lyra didn’t want to do something asked of her, she sometimes dropped to the floor and went completely limp.

Back then, it was easy to pick her up around the waist and cart her off like an oversized football. But last month at her 6-year physical, Lyra weighed 40 pounds. I now wait for Lyra the Temporary Statue to reanimate, ignoring her when possible.

Except in places like parking lots, flopping comes with few risks to a child’s health or well-being. Running, on the other hand, is almost always extremely dangerous and, therefore, deeply terrifying.

“Some children and youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or intellectual disability (ID), have challenges understanding safety issues and communicating with others … a child might run off from home to play in the pond down the street — and be unable to respond to his name or say where he lives. This can happen quickly, even under constant supervision,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

Running is not free-range parenting. Soon after Claude was 11 and Hugo was 8, they were allowed to ride their bikes far from our house, including downtown Akron. But they understood how the world works. The only problem they encountered was a stolen bike, which Hugo hadn’t secured. He saved for a new bike and never again forgot to take his lock.

I maintain a Facebook page, “Whoopsie Piggle,” devoted to information on Down syndrome and disability rights. As a resource for parents dealing with runners, in June I shared blogger Meriah Nichols’ updated post on solutions for this serious problem. Weeks later, we were those parents.

On the run

In mid-July, I sat on our front stoop with Leif and Lyra. We live on a busy street, but our house sits far back from the road. I went inside to refill my glass of water, gone all of 30 seconds, when I heard Leif screaming, “Lyra, no! Come back!”

I dashed to the door. Leif was running after Lyra, who was racing toward the sidewalk. I ran after them both, repeatedly yelling, “Lyra, stop!” which seemed only to increase her joy at running. Fortunately, she stayed on the sidewalk and I caught her just as she reached the light at the first intersection east of our home.

How a kid with low muscle tone can run so fast beats me but, again, it’s something families in the Down syndrome community know well. When Lyra doesn’t want to get examined in a doctor’s office, she fights like a pro. Staff at Akron Children’s Hospital called her the Incredible Hulk after a recent exam.

Also in July, Lyra first succeeded in opening the doors in our home. “Oh, no!” said Lyra’s occupational therapist when I told her. “I have parents ask me to teach their kids to open doors and I always refuse. I mean, sure, it’s great her hands are getting stronger, but you need to make sure she doesn’t escape.”

The next week, Max had a parental sixth-sense moment. “Where’s Lyra?” he asked. We searched the house, then the yard. Max got in our minivan and drove around the block while I ran to check the playground at the church across the street.

Max found Lyra on the street behind our house. People, some of whom we know, had her. Our backyard gate was open and we assume she walked over to our next-door neighbor’s yard, which extends to the street behind our houses. Lyra knows the way because it’s how we walk to the house of a friend of Leif’s.

Deputized by fear, we’ve all upped our diligence to protect Lyra. We all repeatedly make sure the gate is locked. The doors in the house are locked. And yet …

Less than a week after her dramatic disappearance, we were cooking dinner when the doorbell rang. “Probably somebody campaigning,” I said to Max as I walked to the door. I found Lyra on our stoop with two women. They had seen her trotting purposefully down West Exchange Street and went after her.

Luckily, one of the women knows me because her daughters went to Firestone with Claude and Hugo. However, she only connected that Lyra was also my child from reading my columns. Divine providence or great good luck. Either way, our debt to these women is immeasurable.

Extra precautions

“How to keep your bolting child safe is one of the biggest concerns for many parents of kids with disabilities … and I think only another parent of a child with a disability really gets it,” writes Meriah Nichols. Our children “run away without conscience, with a complete disregard for safety or caution, almost an inability to stop.”

What can we do?

We have walked our fence and blocked the places where Lyra might squeeze through the wrought-iron bars.

Last spring, we dismantled our dangerously derelict play set, which Lyra loved. With my tax refund, I bought a new, bigger play set. However, because we’re considering selling our house to reduce expenses, we delayed construction. Now it’s (mostly) built and keeping Lyra engaged. If we move, I’ll buy another one.

And we are investing in an AngelSense GPS tracker for children. Nichols calls it the gold standard of solutions for dealing with runners.

What can you do?

If you see children who seem too young to be walking alone, or possibly disabled and alone, calmly approach them. If they refuse to engage but continue on, call 911. First responders should be, and often are, trained on how to respond to children with intellectual disabilities or ASD who have run.

After Lyra’s last (and most terrifying) running episode, the police came to our house and took down her information. They did this so if, God forbid, it ever happens again, the department knows who she is and where she lives.

“It takes a village to raise a child” is a well-known African saying. This summer, Max and I felt like it has taken our village to keep our daughter safe and whole. And for this it is impossible to fully express our gratitude.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on September 9, 2018.

Cultivating a household of readers

“Did you hear they’re making a TV show of Donald Duck Adventures? You know, the one we had a subscription to?” asked Hugo.

There was no subscription to Donald Duck Adventures. In 2003, I called and told the publisher I would pay for 12 issues up front if they mailed them to us when published.

My eldest son, Claude, did not read until the third grade, the year he was diagnosed with dyslexia. Though clearly intelligent, he had developed low academic self-esteem. The definition of a learning disability is when a person’s academic performance is notably lower than their IQ would indicate. Like the right combination to a vault of riches, once we had an accurate diagnosis, effective remediation could begin.My children live in a home with few screens and endless reading material. Only last year did I break down and get DirecTV after Max bought our only television, located in the finished basement.

I forbid video games in my home. Sure, my big boys played video games at their friends’ homes. My rule is not “no gaming ever,” though I counseled them to avoid violent games (they didn’t).

Instead of passively spending their days in front of screens, my children play and fill their time with books, newspapers and magazines.

At library sales, I buy children’s books like penny candy, most in new condition. Going on a road trip? Head to the library to borrow audiobooks everyone will enjoy. Some of our favorite audiobook authors are Cornelia Funke, Eva Ibbotson, Roald Dahl, Sid Fleischman and, of course, J.K. Rowling. As a family, we named our only girl Lyra after the main character in The Golden Compass (skip the movie, get the audiobook).

We subscribe to (and read) the Akron Beacon Journal, the Plain Dealer, the Sunday New York Times and the West Side Leader. When Max and I began dating I was shocked he did not have a newspaper subscription. “How do you read the comics?” I asked, a question he found odd from a 40-something woman.

Each night before dinner, someone clears the newspapers off the table before setting it. Nearby on the floor I keep three baskets: one for local papers, one for magazines and one for the New York Times. Every few weeks, I cull through them, finding stories I missed or that might interest someone else in the family. I set those pieces aside and recycle the rest.

In this era of fake news, newspaper subscriptions are more important than ever. Most fake news is generated on the internet where anyone can post anything, whereas legitimate newspapers rigorously fact-check what they put in print (see Doug Livingston’s piece from January at If they get it wrong, corrections are published and if articles are found to be intentionally misleading, those involved usually lose their jobs.

We also subscribe to more magazines than we can all read. However, each magazine is read, if only in part, by at least one of us. Jules, our budding biologist, reads National Geographic, Audubon, several birding magazines and, until recently, Automobile. I receive The Sun and Creative Nonfiction. Max and Jules just switched from Cook’s Illustrated to Milk Street, a new cooking magazine. And we all read the New Yorker, Smithsonian, the Atlantic, Time, Down Syndrome World and This Old House.

Our fourth son, Leif, is now 7 and I see again how this works. He has organized dozens of dinosaur stickers on the four walls of his bedroom by the geological period in which they lived. A new book on dinosaurs guarantees a delighted “Awesome!” but Leif also loves his Junie B. Jones collection. As I type this, I hear him giggling every so often. He’s downstairs listening to the audiobook In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz.

Then there are comics. Until last year, Leif had someone read Garfield to him every morning. Now he reads it, and other strips, to himself. Most mornings, all of us talk about which strips made us laugh and the updates in those with ongoing storylines (in recent years, Sally Forth has developed rich and relevant narratives, while Mary Worth, with a new team of artists and writers, is still like a train wreck I can’t help but glance at). Max, who once looked askance at my love of comics, now reads them while the coffee brews, before anyone else is up.

Cartoons made my kids look not only at newspapers, but also Newsweek (back in the day) and the New Yorker. The last page of the New Yorker is the first page we all read. That is where you’ll find their cartoon-captioning contest, and this page has taught me how the best cartooning is as much the caption as it is the art, for most submissions are heavy on the obvious, light on the ironic and overwritten. Hats off to the pros.

When I was a girl, Harvey, Disney and Archie comics filled rounders near the checkout lanes in grocery stores (Mad, a nonsaccharine favorite, was hidden in the magazine aisle). Like most kids, I read my comic book stash over and over. Reading anything repeatedly develops literacy skills, while the drawings help decode language without the stigma of little-kid picture books. All this makes comic books perfect for struggling readers.

In 2000, when I first purchased comics for children, I couldn’t find any that were particularly kid-friendly. At that time, superheroes all needed serious therapy to get over their dark and brooding psyches. Resorting to the internet, I found reprinted collections of Disney comics by Carl Barks, which led me to Gemstone Publishing and the “subscription” to Donald Duck Adventures. Later, the boys moved on to other comics, including classic superhero collections, and eventually graphic novels.

Today, Claude and Jules (who is also dyslexic), often sit at the table so engrossed with a book, they cannot hear me speaking. Currently, Jules is enjoying the Earth Sea series by Ursula LeGuin and Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. Claude, who recently earned a degree in English literature and now writes for the Devil Strip, is reading Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (again).

Meanwhile, the one who needed no help learning to read reads the least. However, Hugo just finished, and wants every American citizen to read, On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.

And it all started with comics.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 28, 2017.

Flyer for Lyra’s classmates

Many families make flyers to send home with the classmates of their children with Down syndrome. I’ve seen several made by friends of ours, who helped us with ours.

Rather than wondering if Lyra has Down syndrome or why one student in the classroom receives extra assistance, a flyer gets in front of the proverbial bus. Information can dispel misunderstanding and fear and encourage acceptance.

Tomorrow is Lyra’s first day of kindergarten. She will be fully included in a general ed classroom with “push-ins” (assistants come into her classroom rather than pulling her out). There is not a single study that shows improvement for students who are in segregated classrooms based upon disability.

Furthermore, not only do typical students who grow up with a classmate with an intellectual disability become normalized to diversity, they, too, also benefit academically from inclusion.

Mom, stepdad and kids work together to create a family

The wedding of our friends Michael and Jessica, celebrated 10 years ago this week, was an event that brought together more than just two people.

For weeks, people prepared the farmhouse of Jessica’s grandmother. In the backyard, the couple were wed by Michael’s father on a platform built by Jessica’s father, covered with an awning sewn by Michael’s mother. The flowers were a year in the making — chosen varieties grown in the gardens of several friends filled dozens of vases.

Jessica’s father gave the first toast, saying everything an adult child wants to hear from a parent. Unbelievably touching then, it became more poignant when he died less than two years later from an aggressive brain tumor.

And when the day gave way to a moonless night, everyone gathered around what looked like a derelict gazebo. Easily 12 feet tall and 5 feet wide, boards of all shapes and sizes created a pattern reminiscent of webs built by drugged spiders. Built by Jessica’s firebug uncle as his gift, he ignited the structure. The celebratory pyre was tremendous, if not a little scary.

Several hours after we’d arrived, my boys, Max and I all sang Strawberry Fields Forever as we walked under the starlit sky to our car, parked a few blocks down the street.

That magical day seemed a nod from the universe. For that’s when my boys first met Max.

Photo from the 2008 wedding: From left, Claude, Hugo, Jules and Holly Christensen, Max Thomas. (Photo courtesy Holly Christensen)

While we had long been friends, a year after I became newly single, Max and I discovered among all the things we shared in common was a budding crush. It was March when he first kissed me, kindling something I thought unavailable to 40-somethings.

Five months later, when Max accompanied us to the wedding, I told the boys he was an old friend. We left it at that during the following months even as Max came to our house for dinners and invited us all to movies.

“What would you think if I started dating?” I asked the boys over dinner one evening in October.

“Oh, no! No, no, no!” said 11-year-old Hugo.

“What if I told you I already am?”

“What? Who?” asked Hugo, bolting up from his seat at the table.

“I know,” said 8-year-old Jules with a sly smile. My quiet boy has always been a great observer (though not so good at remembering names). “The guy with the glasses.”

The next time Max came for dinner, Hugo walked up to him and said, “So, I hear you’re dating my mom. Can I have 20 bucks?” Max politely declined.

At the time, I was taking night courses for my master’s degree. Before long, Max began driving to my house after work to cook dinner and stay with the boys until I returned. The first night, I did not leave instructions with Max, for Claude was 14 and the boys knew the rules.

Silly me, they hoodwinked Max. When I walked in the door at 10 p.m., nobody was ready for bed, all the dishes were dirty and homework was still spread across the dining room table.

That was the first time Max saw me angry with my children.

In the following 10 years, those little boys grew into men and a lifelong bachelor became a seasoned father. In the process, we’ve learned how to accommodate our habits and personalities, sometimes changing along the way.

For instance, Max and I do dishes differently. Before putting anything in the sink of hot soapy water, I rinse off all the muck. Max tosses everything as is into the hot soapy water. The boys do dishes my way. Many times, too many they say, Max tosses a sauce-coated serving spoon or a greasy pan into their wash water. They howl, he apologizes but can’t seem to completely break the habit.

Living together also means polite pretense vanishes. If I am mad at someone, I say so, at times with more diplomacy than others. Oddly enough for an attorney, Max avoids conflict. For years, when something bothered him, he quietly, but obviously, fumed. It drove the boys crazy and they’d call me and say, “Mama, Max is doing that thing.”

Going from zero to five kids in four years, Max soon learned all emotions are valid, even the messy ones. He now tells the boys when he’s upset with them, keeping me happily out of the middle. I’ve had to work on that, too. Raising children with someone who isn’t their biological parent elicits in me what I think is an evolutionary response to protect those genetic packets called children.

I can complain about my children’s behavior, their attitudes and when they disappoint me. I might even yell in their faces (not often and, really, just Hugo). But when Max corrects the boys, my first impulse is to defend them, whether they merit a defense. Even now.

A family photo from 2015. Holly and Lyra Christensen, Claude Christensen, Leif Thomas, Max Thomas, Hugo Christensen, Jules Christensen. (Photo: Shane Wynn)

Sons of single mothers do not need a man in their lives to show them how to be successful adults. Women are adults who can do that. And I did. But my relationship with Max has modeled something invaluable — that a man can love and support a strong woman without needing to control her. And even the best relationships require work and compromise.

Like our friends Michael and Jessica, Max and I came together not as two individuals, but as two larger families. Because of their ages when they met him, each son has a different relationship with Max. Unlike his brothers, Jules has few memories of life before Max. All three frequently tell Max how glad they are to have him in their lives.

And it all started at a rollicking wedding at a farmhouse.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, August 12, 2018.

Akron Children’s Hospital: Great for everyone, invaluable for frequent flyer

Ophthalmologist Dr. Richard Hertle, Lyra and dad Max Thomas before Lyra’s procedure on Thursday, July 26, 2018. (Photo: Holly Christensen)
They say it’s impossible to know how good your homeowner’s insurance really is until you file a claim.

The same can be said of your local hospital.

Until 2012, I had only a handful of experiences at Akron Children’s Hospital.

When he was in the second grade, Jules was tested and diagnosed with dyslexia at ACH. One of their orthopedists confirmed Hugo’s mild scoliosis and told him he had nothing to worry about. And ACH’s sports medicine department diagnosed Claude’s Osgood Schlatter disease, an inflammation of growth plates at the end of the tibia common in athletes who are growing rapidly.

Lyra, however, is an ACH frequent flyer. This month alone she has 11 appointments.

On her second day of life, we met for the one and only time with Dr. Catherine Ward-Melver, a kind geneticist who confirmed Lyra’s diagnosis of Down syndrome.

On her third day of life, we met Lyra’s ophthalmologist, Dr. Richard Hertle, whom we’ve seen multiple times a year ever since. He has operated on each of her eyes two times.

When she was 5 months old, Lyra was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, a condition common in people with DS. Certified nurse practitioner Stephanie Marszal in the endocrinology department is also someone we see regularly. Our visits with her are like double dipping, for Marszal worked in a pediatrician’s office before specializing in endocrinology. She provides both an update on Lyra’s thyroid and an extra wellness visit.

In the second half of her first year, Lyra began the infant block of therapies offered at ACH. Physical, speech and occupational therapies in back-to-back half-hour appointments make effective use of everyone’s time. Children from birth to 3 years old are eligible with a qualifying diagnosis.

Speech therapist Shelly Vaughn had Lyra singing Itsy-Bitsy Spider at our first visit, leaving me slack-jawed. Heather Reiss, her occupational therapist, got Lyra to work, work, work on both fine and gross motor skills all while Lyra thought she was playing. When she aged out of the infant block, I cried because I had grown so close to these ladies.

These days, Lyra has four speech therapy and two occupational therapy appointments per month. When we pull into the parking lot, Lyra chirps eagerly from her car seat, “Lisa, Miss Margaret!” Still, I sit in on enough sessions to know they make our girl work. Recently Margaret Norin, Lyra’s OT, told me, “I wish just once my clients with DS would say ‘Yes!’ the first time I ask them to do something!” Oh, yes, I could not agree more.

With Down syndrome comes a cascade of tests to rule out various issues. Annually we visit Dr. Diane Langkamp in the Down syndrome clinic to make sure we are on top of these things. (Down syndrome clinics are overwhelmingly located in the northeastern U.S. and I do not take for granted that we have one in Akron.)

Last year, an ACH otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor) ordered a sleep study for Lyra. Kids with DS have a higher rate of sleep apnea due to certain anatomical features. Any child not getting enough sleep has an increased risk of developmental delays, and children with DS need fewer, not more, developmental obstacles.

Most people with DS not only have low muscle tone, they frequently have ligament laxity. One common effect is foot pronation — ankles tilting toward one another while the toes splay outwards, fin-like — so Lyra has worn braces on her feet since she began walking.

But ligament laxity also affects the cervical spine. An injury to the atlantoaxial joint, or the first and second cervical vertebrae, can lead to paralysis or worse. So on July 20, Lyra had a spinal MRI under general anesthesia to examine the joint.

This past Thursday, Lyra also had an eye exam under anesthesia. Were she a more “compliant” patient, this would not be necessary. But Lyra fights like an oiled otter when getting examined up close and personal. Dr. Hertle needed to determine her first bifocal prescription and also test her for glaucoma. Because of her congenital cataracts and subsequent lensectomies, Lyra has a higher risk of glaucoma than the average bear.

Dr. Hertle. If I could put heart emojis in my column, they’d be here. When I learned my newborn needed eye surgery ASAP, I called a friend in a related field and asked who was the best in Ohio. Doctors hate talking about which practitioners are better, but as a friend of more than 30 years, this doc made some calls for me.

We’d be hard pressed to find a better pediatric ophthalmologist. Gentle and effective with Lyra (remember: oiled otter), when asked questions about the eye and his surgical techniques Dr. Hertle lights up like a boy getting his first puppy.

I learn other things from him too. When Lyra was 9 months old, she suddenly seemed to “awaken.” Dr. Hertle explained to me that the nerves in children with Down syndrome myelinate later than in typical kids: “See that wire down there,” he said pointing to an outlet with a thick cord plugged into it. “Because it’s insulated, electricity can travel faster. The same is true of nerves when myelination has occurred.”

I know of only two things lacking at ACH: One, the food could be better. Across the country, hospital restaurants serve food that is healthy, delicious and affordable. ACH has made some baby steps (two thumbs up for the cafe in the Kay Pavilion) but there is still ample room for improvement.

Also, all departments, including the ER and the surgery centers, should have more than popsicles and graham crackers (Goldfish, please).

The second deficit is big for us: No optometry. Because of her vision impairment, Lyra qualifies for a state insurance program called BCMH (Bureau for Children with Medical Handicaps). It helps with her visits to Dr. Hertle, but ideally we’d be able to use it for her glasses, too.

Lyra has no lenses, natural or artificial, in her eyes. Her glasses are essential and expensive. In order to use the BCMH insurance, however, our primary insurance must get billed first. The only optometrist’s office in the northern half of Ohio that takes both our primary insurance and Lyra’s BCMH is at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.

But these concerns are no more than a couple of cirrostratus clouds in a bright blue sky. Not a week goes by that I don’t thank the universe that it takes me less than 15 minutes to get Lyra to some of the top medical professionals in the country.

Not only is it an immeasurable convenience for Summit County residents, ACH has no shortage of business, or so Lyra’s neurologist told me recently. Which means ACH provides great medical care where it is greatly needed.

I know parents of children with Down syndrome who have moved to different states for better medical care. That decision is one we will never have to make. If ACH were an insurance company, we’ve filed just about every possible claim. And since the results typically exceed our expectations, we know firsthand how good it really is.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, July 29, 2018.

When households merge: What to do with all that stuff?

In the 1967 film Barefoot in the Park, newlyweds played by Jane Fonda and Robert Redford move into their first apartment together. They own so little, the apartment holds their vibrant emotions more than their meager belongings.

I envy such simplicity.

When my first son was 9 months old, we moved from a house in Columbus to a shotgun apartment in Boston. In the weeks preceding our move, my ex-husband visited his brother and sister to collect his inheritance. Years earlier, the three siblings had divided up their parents’ belongings, but my ex didn’t have a place for things like 12 Queen Anne chairs, drop-leaf tables, a sideboard and two hutches.

In Boston, it was immediately evident we should have left the heirlooms with their previous caretakers.

Dividing the apartment like a river, a narrow hallway ran front to back with doors to small rooms on both sides. At its terminus, the hallway opened into the kitchen with a table and four chairs.

All other rooms, however, could’ve been mistaken for antique shops. Furniture lined every wall, often stacked two high. One room was inaccessible, warehousing all that fancy dining room furniture.

Many of the antiques had been built by my ex-husband’s great-grandfather, adding a layer of obligation to keep and preserve every single piece. In 14 years of marriage, we moved, with all that furniture, five times.

When we separated and a moving van drove away with all he owned, I felt relieved of an unwanted curatorship. Rooms where heavy furniture once towered felt vast and airy. Where I had been overwhelmed, I became calm.

The boys also liked the freed-up space and we were mindful of adding anything new. A couch and a wing-backed chair given to us by friends were all we acquired.

And then …

Gourmet kitchen

Lamb shank roasted with berries and a layered root vegetable casserole was the first meal Max cooked for me after he’d put an addition onto his house, which included a gourmet kitchen. More than the granite countertops and hickory cupboards and floors, I loved the layout of the kitchen — both open and cozy.

The rest of the house, however, was a curious blend. Max’s father had lived there for more than 20 years before he died in 1999 and much of his furniture and collectibles remained. Added to this were the contents of Max’s household, acquired during the years he lived in Philadelphia and Iowa City before returning to Ohio when his father became ill.

Books of poetry, fiction and literary criticism, from Max’s previous career as an English professor, filled shelves in several rooms. Artwork, including African masks, recalled long-ago trips taken by Max’s dad. Some things were stunning, like the table lamps with Buddhist figures for bases. Others were trinkets valued only for the connection to their previous owner.

The first years of our relationship, Max and I maintained our two homes, even after Leif was born. We started calling his home in Chagrin Falls our pied-à-terre, a village getaway from “big city life” here in Akron.

For well over a year, our friend and realtor, Barb Snyder, patiently showed us houses. With two homes already, we weren’t in a rush. Every month or two, we’d put together a list of properties we wanted to view.

Many newer homes had ideal floor plans for our large family. The houses we already owned were both early 20th century Arts and Crafts style. Old homes with doors made of solid wood, doorknobs of brass with decorative scutcheons, rooms with quirky features. We were very tempted by a home built in the ’60s with terrazzo flooring in the entryway. But the hollow-core doors and sterile bedrooms nixed it for us.

After the sellers dropped the price significantly, a home built in 1940 popped into our price range. We knew instantly. Rooms that flow with doors of solid wood and decorative trim. An acre and a half in the city with a 5-foot-tall wrought-iron fence enclosing the back yard. A month later it was ours.

Months to move

As we sold neither of our previous houses, we took several months to move. Endless moving. I opined over the couple I know who built a modern home in Peninsula and when they sold their century home in West Akron, sold nearly all their possessions in a tag sale and started afresh.

That couple has more money than we do.

The homes Max and I moved from were about 2,000 square feet each. At 3,000 square feet, the one we moved into is bigger, but still required substantial downsizing.

We had yard sales at Max’s Chagrin Falls home and at our new home. We sold stuff on Craigslist (it’s amazing what people will buy; seriously, Craigslist anything before throwing it out). And yet, we still had enough for an extra house.

So it was fortuitous when I bought the home next to my old one on land contract. We quickly filled it with our extraneous furniture. When Max opened his solo law practice, we made the ground floor of the new home his office. Our extra dining room table became his conference table.

The second and third floors became an apartment for Claude and Hugo when home from college. After he graduated in December 2016, Claude moved in permanently and began paying rent.

But wait, there’s more.

Still, sections of our garage and basement are filled with stuff we never use, will likely never need and, in some cases, cannot even say what it is. Over time, we’ve become largely blind to these piles, which include all the boxes we used when moving.

A Buddhist friend recently said managing a household like ours requires a continual balancing of order and chaos. Homes that are too tight and tidy restrict creativity, even joy. But extreme disorder makes clear thinking difficult.

And it’s not just an adult thing. Kids thrive with relaxed order. For one thing, it allows them to more easily find the toys they want. It also provides predictability and predictability fosters security.

This summer, I’m leading the charge. And I have a very willing crew. We have been in our house for seven years now. Enough time to lessen our attachment to items no longer of use. Room by room, floor by floor, things are going on Craigslist, to Goodwill and, on rare occasion, the trash. We can let go of once-precious possessions so they can bring joy to someone else.

And thereby bring us some much-needed simplicity.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 15, 2018.

Fully house nearly empty…for now

I have at times, like most parents, imagined my life with a different number of children:

What if Claude had been my only child?

What if I had stuck to my guns on zero population growth and birthed only Claude and Hugo?

What if Max and I had skipped having two more kids together? I’d be nearly done with the parenting of nonadults. Jules, who has one more year of high school, just turned 18.

Undeniably, my life would be different in any of these scenarios. But to imagine something is not the same as to wish for it.

Currently only one child, Lyra, is home with Max and me.

Jules and his girlfriend are in Northern Michigan. Leif, who will stay a few weeks with the grandparents, went with them. Jules comfortably drove everyone up there. I checked in on them throughout the long trip, but I knew they’d be fine.

It was different the first time a son of mine drove himself to Michigan. At the end of Claude’s first semester of college, he had a week between his second-to-last and last final exam. He took a Greyhound bus home and drove back to Ann Arbor for the test.

Before he left, I found some excuse to fill up the car for him at the BP in Fairlawn, right off I-77. Then, as he drove away, I whispered, “Please be safe, please be safe,” while my eyes welled up.

Some things do get easier.

After two years of saving and holding fundraisers, Hugo flew to Austria to study vocal performance in Graz for six weeks. Before he left, he came back from Rochester for wellness visits with doctors and the dentist.

While Hugo scheduled and got himself to his appointments, I was routinely involved. During a lunch meeting, I received four text messages and one call:

“So no fluoride, right?” Right.

“Do I need X-rays?” No.

“Just so I’m clear; I’m getting the fluoride and X-rays?” Hahaha.

“I need a filling for a chipped tooth, they’re checking on insurance.”

And that’s when he called, to get my OK for the $50 co-pay. Before I hung up, I told him how nice it was having him join my lunch meeting.

By the time I was Hugo’s age, I’d been on my own for years. Even then, I often wished I’d had someone to turn to as a young woman navigating adult decisions for the first time.

Hugo navigated the complexities of insurance coverage but understandably had questions. We soon commiserated over the amount of time it takes to get medical bills properly processed.

Apparently, Hugo and I are a lot alike. People regularly tell us as much. We’re both direct, extroverted and energetic. We have choleric temperaments, which is to say we are fiery.

Perhaps that is why he was the hardest kid for me to raise. His last two years of high school, I counted down the months until he moved out. The spring of his senior year he was so frustrating (not in my eyes alone), I had him move into a room at one of my rental homes.

Like me, Hugo values his independence. Moving him out early was reactionary on my part but, as it turns out, just what he needed. On his own, Hugo is more responsible and even tidier.

I drove Hugo back to Rochester so we could have time together before he left the country. Nobody makes me laugh like Hugo makes me laugh. We stopped at a Wendy’s in Erie for Cokes and when I asked for a biggie, nobody knew what I was talking about.

“These are our sizes,” said the cashier as she swept her hand under the row of cups.

“Okay, Mama, what’s with the baby talk?” asked a giggling Hugo. I looked it up on my phone and showed the two of them that Wendy’s did once, and for a long time, have a “biggie” size for a variety of items.

As soon as we were in the car, Hugo, a skilled raconteur, called Claude and retold the story, making it funnier and far more interesting than it was.

Still chuckling, we stepped into a T.J. Maxx to look for some things he needed for his trip. As we searched for backpacks, everything became hilarious and we found ourselves holding on to a fixture, belly laughing until tears rolled down our cheeks. When we finally stopped, we sighed loudly — several times.

Hugo, Claude and Jules Christensen all watch James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” with Paul McCartney. (Credit Max Thomas)

“You know,” said Hugo when we were back on I-90 East, “a lot of people have best friends they’ve known for years. I have good friends from when I was growing up, but my best friends really are Claude and Jules.”

Hugo will be a senior this fall, so it’s not like we aren’t used to him being away for months at a time. But there’s something different about him being so far away. Claude and Hugo especially sought to spend as much time together as they could before Hugo left. I had to tell Claude he could not call off work to hang out one last night with his brother.

It’s not always pretty. My boys will call each other out on transgressions in a hot second. But what a gift to have someone who will never walk away, who will always be in your life, point out when you are screwing up. Not to draw blood, but to push you to be your better self.

The armchair psychologist who lives in my head tells me I had five children because I was a lonely child. Funny thing, I love time alone. I enjoy a quiet house, including a week with only one child to feed. But that’s because the other four always return to fill it up. With a noisy mix of emotions all rooted in, yep, you guessed it, an abiding love.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 1, 2018

Childhood abuse still echoes in adult survivors’ lives

In a room recognizably located in a nursing home, a tiny lady with white hair speaks in a bird-like voice to her young nurse, “I must hide under my bed.”

“Why?” asks the nurse.

“He’s coming!” says the old woman.

“Are we playing hide and seek?”

“No, my papa is coming, please don’t let him find me!”

The Spanish short film at the Cleveland Film Festival several years ago breaks from the scene with a message: Childhood abuse lasts indefinitely.

This column demanded to be written, no matter what else I had in mind. Why? Because in the two weeks since my last column, many women have shared their stories with me.

Some have been strangers sharing the impact, if not all the details, of their decades-long struggle with the abuse they suffered as children.

Others are women I’ve known since childhood, like one who told me about her teen rapist. I first met him, too, in elementary school.

Many women who wrote were sexually assaulted, but equally as many were physically abused. “I was told that my dad loved me as he bashed me around. It’s the loss of trust that is so damaging,” said one.

For any child abused, even if that child is now 30, 50, 70 years of age, I am deeply sorry other adults didn’t intervene. If I could strip away the lingering pain and replace it with enduring safety for the child-self left inside these adults, I would. Just as I wish I could give the same to my own child-self.

What I can do is love and protect my own children. For though child abuse may never be 100 percent eradicated, we can do better.

Celebrity shame

Since my last column, Woody Allen told the media in Argentina he should be the poster boy for the #MeToo movement. Why? Because he’s never had a complaint of assault from any of the hundreds of famous or just-starting-out actresses he’s worked with over the decades.

Great. He kept his sexual assault limited to the children in his family and never took it to work. Based on his logic, my dad, too, could be a poster boy for the #MeToo movement. (Unless my doctor writes me an unlimited prescription for Zofran, I need to avoid reading anything Allen says.)

Days later, Bill Clinton went on the interview circuit. He has a new fiction book, co-written with author James Patterson, about a president battling a cyberterrorist. As a result, the topic of Clinton’s affair 20 years ago with Monica Lewinsky has resurfaced. At the time, he was 49 and president of the United States. She was a 22-year-old college grad.

Clinton was defensive when asked about the affair on the Today show, claiming two-thirds of Americans sided with him at the time. He was comparative, wondering why he had to endure impeachment hearings when Kennedy and Johnson were never pressured to resign over their affairs. He touted his record of promoting women to high positions in government. And he attacked the reporter asking the questions.

Nothing he said conveyed an iota of contrition.

“Clinton’s smart and can afford the best PR firms, I’m sure,” I said as we discussed his tone-deaf answers over dinner. “Why didn’t his advisers better prepare him for these inevitable questions?”

“I’m sure they did,” said Max, “And he ignored them.”

When the Clinton impeachment hearings were going on, a friend of mine from a well-connected Democrat family wished Clinton would resign. I disagreed. I don’t now.

No party should parse between the personal behavior of a politician and the political gain of his policies. As Frank Bruni wrote in a recent column in the New York Times, nominating the first women to serve as secretary of state and attorney general does not compensate for eviscerating the life of a 22-year-old.

Lewinsky, who has admitted her own mistakes in allowing the affair, has become a modern-day Hester Prynne. Meanwhile, Clinton has gone about his life, amassing fortunes and building a library to commemorate his life and time in the Oval Office.

The thing about men like Allen and Clinton is no matter what outrage they face, they will never see the error of their ways. Perhaps they are all narcissists. But also, when predatory violence against women continues, sometimes for decades, with impunity, it underscores a predator’s notion that the rules don’t apply to him. Everyone who witnesses such abuse and does nothing is culpable.

Complexity of abuse

Today is Father’s Day. If you read my last column you might think I have nothing good to say about my father. But that is not true. The complexity of child abuse is that nobody is always evil, just as nobody is always perfect.

When I was an undergrad at OSU, I read a review of a British movie about an abusive family in the student paper. The college-age reviewer couldn’t understand how the father could beat the children in one scene and have a joyous Christmas celebration with them in the next. Clearly that writer had an upbringing devoid of violence.

Just as all parent-child relationships are layered, if not complicated, reconciling the history of parental abuse can be fraught with conflicting emotions. Making this even more difficult, abusers, and sometimes other survivors, often claim the abuse never happened.

In 2013, Emily Yoffe, formerly’s Dear Prudence writer, wrote a column on what adult children owe the parents who abused them as children. Her answer? Nothing, absolutely nothing.

“Holy moly, you are right! I’m a horrible excuse for a human being and what I did to you can never be excused. I am truly sorry for the endless suffering I have caused you. Tell me what I can do to help.” These are words I don’t expect Woody Allen and Bill Clinton (and Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, etc., etc.) to say to their victims. Neither will most nonfamous parents who’ve abused their children.

“Make a list of all the persons you’ve harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.” That is step 8 in Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program. It is also the step too hard for many to make. More people stop at this step, I am told, than any other.

For those with whom my last column resonated, do not give control to the people who harmed you by waiting for them to understand your pain and make amends. Seek whatever help you need, surround yourself with kind people — for most people are truly good — and be kind to yourself.

Be the adult you deserved in your life when you were a child and you will find what was taken from you. For me, parenting my kids as I wished I’d been parented has been the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

The column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 17, 2018.

No more: All sexual assault is intolerable

On February 1, 2014, Dylan Farrow published an open letter in the New York Times describing how Woody Allen, her adoptive father, had sexually abused her.

A week later on Facebook, I shared a Vanity Fair article that deconstructed, point-by-point, claims made by Allen’s defenders in response to Farrow’s letter. To my surprise, several friends of mine who’d never met argued heatedly over Farrow’s allegations.

At the time, Farrow was pilloried in the press and by people I know. Most believed, if anything, Farrow was a victim of her mother, Mia Farrow, and her longstanding anger at her former partner, Allen.

Reasons to question Woody Allen’s credibility were no more hidden than Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter.’

When she was 20 and he was 55, Allen convinced his stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Previn, to pose nude in photos he took for his personal pleasure. That they later married and had two children does not make their initial interactions any less predatory on his part.

And Allen’s movies, particularly Manhattan, are crystal-clear windows into his attitudes about women. In his films, mature women are too demanding, too brittle. But young women don’t question older men and often see them as mentors, including in bed.

Ah, the everlasting myth, held and promulgated by men, that young women want to be sexually mentored by older men, no strings attached. (Excuse me while I take some Zofran.)

My story

When I was 16, my father arranged for his friend John (not his real name) to watch me bathe.

John lived two hours away and often visited for days at a time. Months earlier, he had listened in the next room when a boyfriend broke up with me because I hadn’t had sex with him. After the boy left, John, a trained counselor, comforted me.

As one of those adults who didn’t condescend to children, I trusted him.

On an August afternoon, I returned home from Michigan Beach, covered in tanning oil and sand. Sitting at the table next to the bathroom door, my father and John were stoned. They cheerfully blocked my way.

I remember their words, both flattering — there’s nothing more beautiful than a 16-year-old bathing — and shaming. Nothing could be more natural, they claimed when I resisted, than what they were suggesting, especially since John would be naked, too.

None of their words considered my humanity or agency.

For decades, I told myself it was nothing. I had a college friend who was raped by her father for years. Multiple friends have recounted awakening in the middle of the night to find their brothers freely groping them. I’ve known women who’ve passed out at parties and been raped. One woke up with her skin graffitied in permanent marker by her proud rapists.

When I was 19, a boyfriend told me he believed my father had sexually abused me. I vehemently denied it. He didn’t know about that summer afternoon and I found his accusations an unfair judgment of my father’s hippie lifestyle.

Later still, I studied feminist theory at OSU. In those classes, I learned about the male gaze, the objectification of women, the commodification of women’s bodies, the infantilizing of women as reflected in laws across the globe, including in the United States.

But knowledge of institutionalized misogyny did not undo what I had internalized: shame and guilt for that one day and an abiding distrust of most straight men. With the exception of a few close friends, I told no one.

In 2007, my grandma died and my eldest child turned 13. While the death of my father’s mother ripped the prosthetic closure off a festering wound (we were close and only then did I realize I never wanted her to know), I also considered my adolescent son.

What would I do if a friend of mine asked to watch him bathe?

After initial disbelief, I’d call the police. I’d call children’s services. I’d struggle not to commit crimes of violence.

I found a therapist and worked to unpack that day and all it has meant and done to me. And I wrote about it, but never anything I intended to publish. While lighter than before, those events were still mine to carry quietly.

Taking on Weinstein

The common thread of all sexual abuse is power imbalance. And the more powerful the abuser, the more freedom he has to continue abusing, even when it’s a wide-open secret.

Ronan Farrow knows this as well as anyone. He stood by his sister Dylan and claims Allen not only assaulted her and Soon-Yi, but several of his sisters. Ronan Farrow is a privileged white man, but it took more than his power as such to pursue the story on Harvey Weinstein. It took tenacity.

As a reporter at MSNBC and NBC, Farrow was told to drop his investigation of Weinstein. By then, several women had told Farrow of their encounters with the producer, reliving events he described as “their worst moments of a lifetime.” Farrow refused to stop and was released from his television jobs.

Fortunately, the New Yorker picked him up and his stories on Weinstein were printed. Those pieces, along with others published weeks earlier by Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey at the New York Times, electrified the #MeToo campaign. Women posted this small phrase on social media to open the world’s eyes to the pervasiveness of sexual assault.

The beauty of those two words smashed together with a hashtag is nobody who shares them has to go through what Dylan Farrow and so many other victims have (and still do): The shaming of the victim.

According to Rachel Denhollander, one of gymnast-doctor Larry Nassar’s victims, “pedophiles are reported at least seven times on average before adults take the reports of abuse seriously and act on them.”

Now, I pray, we have turned a corner.

Mia Farrow, left, becomes emotional as she listens to announcement for her son, Ronan Farrow, right, 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for public service, during an awards luncheon ceremony at Columbia University, Wednesday May 30, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

In January, Dylan Farrow’s brother, Ronan, along with Kantor and Twohey, won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigative reporting on Harvey Weinstein and other powerful predators.

In April, after decades of drugging and raping women with impunity, Bill Cosby was convicted. Two weeks ago, Harvey Weinstein was arrested, his passport revoked and a GPS snapped on his ankle while he awaits trial for two counts of rape and one count of a criminal sexual act.

While I’ll never know, I don’t think my father was done pimping me out. I didn’t wait to find out. I moved back to my mother’s house in Ohio for my senior year.

For me and many others like me, the power of #MeToo is the recognition of all sexual abuse as harmful and intolerable. Abusers of all varieties — sexual, physical and emotional — rationalize gradations of abuse in order to keep the door open for further assault. This must stop.

Thank you Jodi Kantor, Meghan Twohey, Ronan Farrow and all the brave women who shared your stories with these reporters. May your truth-to-power efforts stop society’s willfully blind eye to sexual assault, thereby saving many would-be victims from the violence of predatory men.

And Dylan Farrow, I always believed you.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on June 3, 2018.

Simplicity & creativity need when potty training

“What about potty training?” I asked the doctor.

What I was really asking was, “But what does it mean to have a child with Down syndrome?”

Lyra was less than 36 hours old when we met with the geneticist to determine if, as it appeared, Lyra had Down syndrome.

In the years since Lyra’s birth, I have learned many in the national Down syndrome community view geneticists as “often not our friends.” Nothing could have been further from the truth with the geneticist we met at Akron Children’s Hospital.

“Yes, she has the adorable facial features common in Down syndrome,” were the doctor’s first words after she’d placed Lyra on the exam table.

When my first child, Claude, was born, I read babies require somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 diaper changes before they are fully potty trained. With the 18-year spread of my five children, I’m a seasoned diaper changer.

For months after Claude’s birth, a diaper-service truck would come to our house once a week, pick up a bag of dirty diapers from our porch and leave a bag of clean ones. All cloth.

Later I bought my own diapers, washed them myself and hung them outside to dry. One of the most satisfying things I’ve observed is the sun bleaching of cloth diapers. No matter how many detergent commercials refer to “sun clean” or “sun fresh,” it means little until you experience the real thing.

Jules wearing the same rubber pants his mother wore in the 1960s.

I continued this with my second and third sons, though with Jules I gave up on fancy Velcro diaper wraps (they inevitably leaked) and went old-school, pinning his cloth diapers and popping him into a pair of rubber pants (now made of plastic, but still called rubber pants).

I didn’t use cloth 100 percent of the time. Day care providers require disposable diapers, and disposables are easier when traveling. But beyond being better for the environment, I had read that wearing cloth diapers aids potty training.

Like the ads say, babies always feel dry in modern single-use diapers. Newborns void without any recognition of the event. But if they feel the wetness, babies begin to connect the acts of voiding with the physical sensations that occur just prior. Eventually, they know they have to go and make it to the potty.

Sounds so easy.

Different methods

There are at least two methods of potty training. Some parents pick an age, commonly 2, and switch from diapers to underpants. My first day care provider, Edna Young, followed whatever type of potty training the parents of her charges chose, but she despised this first method.

“It’s just the adults who are trained to take the child to the bathroom,” she said. And also, “Parents who start too soon end up potty training much longer. Start when they are ready, and it happens very quickly, with little frustration for both the parents and the child.”

Edna taught me much.

My big boys potty-trained with few accidents by the time they were 3½. In preparation, potty seats appeared several months before needed.

When they were ready to try the potty seats, I had my boys pick out candy rewards. Gummy peach rings for number one and big chocolates for number two.

Each time we ran out, I replaced them with smaller candies until it was jelly beans and M&Ms. And then, I would only give them the reward when they asked for it. Eventually they’d stop asking.

This worked great with the first three children. Success was predictable, albeit with occasional accidents, and not an emotional ordeal that would scar the psyches of my boys. I believed I was a potty-training Supermom.

Then I had Leif. Whip-smart, I figured he’d be even easier to train than his brothers. Once again, I let a son pick out candy rewards not long after his third birthday. I stored them in glass jars on a shelf out of his reach in the bathroom — visual incentives.

Leif would ask for the candy, I’d remind him what he needed to do first and he’d give me the toddler equivalent of “meh.” Good hygiene need not accompany intelligence, or so I learned. Leif decided it was easier to let the rest of us change his diapers than be bothered toileting.

By his fourth birthday, we’d made little progress.

I complained to a much younger friend, who gave me this tip: Stop telling Leif he’ll get the candy rewards for using the potty. In fact, stop potty training altogether. Instead, whenever anyone else goes to the bathroom, make a big deal out of it.

Starting the next day, Max and my teen sons yelled out whenever they went to the bathroom and I showered candy upon them with excessive enthusiasm. In less than a week, Leif wanted in on the action.

Try, try again

That brings us to Lyra, my only baby who never wore cloth diapers. The first months of her life were spent visiting myriad health care professionals and preparing for eye surgeries at 6 and 7 weeks postpartum. We took every easy option available when so many important decisions were required of us.

When things settled down a few months later, we realized Lyra was regularly constipated. And while she’s not my first baby to suffer constipation, this was different.

People with Down syndrome, with few exceptions, have low muscle tone. Low muscle tone will delay when babies sit up, crawl, walk, run, hold a spoon or pencil. Low muscle tone in the mouth, and not poor cognitive functioning, is why many people with DS must work hard to speak crisply.

Human intestines, both small and large, have smooth muscles, and are also affected by low muscle tone.

Shortly before Lyra’s first birthday, we learned about Fruit-Eze. A jam-like blend of prunes, dates, raisins and prune juice, Fruit-Eze is a natural alternative to laxatives. Two tablespoons mixed into her breakfast each morning got Lyra going for about three years.

When she was 3, Lyra stayed dry every night for six months. But then she soaked her diaper every night for another six months. Too big for the Fruit-Eze to do its job without giving her more than she’d eat, Lyra was so constipated, her bowels were compressing her bladder.

A specialist told us to give Lyra Miralax, a product widely used by people with DS. At the same time, we learned it is not a true laxative, but works by pulling more fluid into the intestines. Determining the correct dosage took months.

Today, Lyra congratulates herself every time she uses the toilet. She also gives an enthusiastic, “Good job, Mama!” whenever she’s with me in the bathroom. (Do all young children follow their moms to the bathroom, or is it just mine?)

So, yes, potty training has taken longer with Lyra, but not for any of the reasons I might have imagined in the first days of her life.

Like so many things, people with Down syndrome just need more time to reach the same milestones as their typical peers.

The reward is well worth the wait.

The End of an Era: 25 Years of Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

“How does that make you feel?” asked my physician. My eyes suddenly burned and I gulped before speaking, my voice hoarse with emotion.

“Wow, I wasn’t expecting that,” I said, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand.

After 25 years of pregnancy and breastfeeding, my youngest child has weaned.

I also cried when learning to nurse my first baby. Sobbed really. Sitting in a rocking chair, I begged my infant to latch on, tears on my face, breast milk everywhere except my baby’s mouth.

“Just 6 weeks, do this for just 6 weeks, and you can stop,” I repeated to myself.

Before breast milk, there is colostrum. A thick, serum-like liquid, colostrum is newborn super food. It is high in nutrients, antibodies, secretory immunoglobulins (protects mucous membranes), leukocytes (protects against bad bacteria and viruses) and a mild laxative to help eliminate the first stool (tar-like stuff called meconium). It also helps clear out excess bilirubin, which reduces the risk of jaundice, and it establishes beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract.

Whew! That’s a lot of heavy lifting. And because newborns have very small digestive systems, colostrum is super-duper concentrated. A little bit does the job. After two to three days, colostrum’s work is done and the milk arrives.

Whoa, Nelly! If a first-time nursing mother was getting a handle on breastfeeding during the colostrum days, she might still give up when her milk comes in.

Breasts often swell with the arrival of milk, making them taut and cartoonishly large (many a new dad has been told in no uncertain terms to put that camera away). This can make it harder for newborns to nurse, which is exactly what ta-tahs need to get back to a manageable size.

First-time nursing mothers and their babies are both rookies. Sure, babies come with instincts, but many struggle to figure it out. My second through fifth newborns all nursed like champs within an hour of birth. That’s because after nursing my first baby for over two years, I had the hang of it.

Zealots Not Wanted 

Yes, breastfeeding is very healthy for babies. It also helps a mother’s uterus return to its regular size and reduce postpartum bleeding. Long-term, due to a reduction in estrogen production while lactating, breastfeeding reduces a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

But not everyone can or wants to breastfeed.

I read an article by a woman who regularly endured quips and comments from strangers, usually other women, about how breastfeeding would be better for her baby than formula. Besides the fact that it was nobody’s business what this woman fed her baby, breastfeeding was never an option for her. Her breasts had been removed years earlier to save her from the cancer they contained.

Other women find it difficult to return to work and pump their milk. I get it. I leaked like crazy the first year of my babies’ lives and can think of many jobs in which I might have chosen formula over the struggle to keep my shirts dry.

And some women just don’t want to breastfeed. That does not make them bad people or mothers. We live in a time and place where healthy alternatives abound.

On the flip side, women who breastfeed their babies in public may also feel harassed by strangers.

An editorial cartoon I once saw sums up the folly of this harassment: mall cops badgering nursing mothers who are seated in front of a lingerie store window featuring a 10-foot-square photo of a bra filled with a buxom bosom.

Currently, laws allow women to publicly breastfeed in 47 states, D.C. and the Virgin Islands. In South Dakota and Virginia, nursing mothers are exempt from public indecency or nudity laws (in effect little different than the other 47 states). Only Idaho has nothing on the books regarding public breastfeeding.

If a woman nursing her baby in public makes you uncomfortable, just move along.

Six weeks later

My midwives convinced me if I nursed my first baby for six weeks, it would benefit his health lifelong. But also after six weeks, nursing becomes much easier. Swelling is usually gone, nipple pain or sensitivity fades as breasts become accustomed to their new role.

And after six weeks, mom and babe are no longer rookies.

But the primary reason why I breastfed my children long term is whenever there is an easier way to do something, I’ll sign up. Breast milk is always ready, the right temperature, and the perfect formulation for your child. Yep, I breastfed because I’m a little lazy.

How long is normal?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) both recommend exclusively breastfeeding babies until they are 6 months old. The AAP recommends continued breastfeeding along with appropriate foods until age 1 year or longer. The WHO recommends breastfeeding up to 2 years or longer.

But when does long-term breastfeeding become Last Emperor weird?

Katherine Dettwyler, a University of Delaware anthropologist has researched breastfeeding habits across cultures. According to Dettwyler, large-bodied mammals nurse until the first permanent teeth erupt, or 5.5 to 6 years of age for humans. Most European languages call the first set of teeth “milk teeth.”

I weaned Claude, Hugo and Leif when they were 2 years old because I was pregnant with the next baby. Pregnancy leaves me bone-weary and I needed to maintain as much of my bodily resources as possible.

Jules, who was 8 when I became pregnant with my next child, gradually weaned somewhere between the ages of 3 and 4.

Difference with Lyra

I nursed Lyra as soon as the midwife handed her to me. Red and screaming, Lyra’s eyes were scrunched shut until she began to suckle. When she finally looked at me, I thought her eyes looked “Downsy.” Three days later, her diagnosis of Down syndrome (DS) was confirmed.

Overwhelming evidence indicates that breast milk improves brain health in infants. Knowing DS impacts cognitive functioning, it was important to me to feed Lyra’s brain best by nursing her for as long as possible.

There is also growing evidence that long-term breastfeeding decreases the risk of childhood leukemia. While rare in the typical population, children with Down syndrome have a heightened risk of developing both types of childhood leukemia, particularly acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). This risk is greatest during the first four years of life. (Interestingly, kids with DS also have higher survival and lower relapse rates than typical children.)

Lyra nursed multiple times a day until she was between 3 and 4. Whenever I was away from Lyra for more than 24 hours, I pumped to keep my milk established. Then, for about a year, she nursed first thing in the morning and last thing before bed.

For the past year, Lyra’s morning routine has been to get up, go to the bathroom, then run to my side of the bed, crawl in and nurse. As she has since she was an infant, she wraps her thumb and fingers around one of my thumbs and I close my hand over hers.

This February, when Lyra was exactly 5 1/2, she abruptly weaned. The end of nursing means my hair becomes blonder (hormones do strange things) and I lose a few pounds, things I quite like.

But gone, too, are the sweet morning snuggles with my girl.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, May 6, 2018.



Urban community comes together for schools and kids

While local communities must contribute, the OSFC has provided over $9 billion to the rebuilding of schools across the state in the past 20 years.

When Hugo was a first-grader at Case Elementary School, I attended meetings on the construction of the new building. We knew Case would be one of the last Akron schools to get rebuilt, which I figured would happen during Hugo’s fifth-grade year.

The doors of the new Case Elementary will open to students this fall. Hugo will be a senior at the University of Rochester.

You may have noticed I said “Case Elementary” and not “Case Community Learning Center.” Technically, I’m wrong, but can we talk?

The first time I saw an Akron school named a “community learning center” was when Portage Path Elementary reopened in the fall of 2010. It confused me. Did that mean anyone in the community could just walk in and use the resources of the school, you know, like a public library? Wouldn’t that be unsafe?

Of course, it would. But someone decided where two words, “elementary school” or “high school,” are clear to most Americans, three ambiguous words are better. I disagree.

Akron has a great sense of community. It’s the primary reason my family is committed to living here. And institutions can help foster community, but not simply by applying a label.

So I hope you, and my editors, will forgive me for calling a school a school.

My big boys went to myriad schools, both private and public, for kindergarten through eighth grade. But they have all attended Firestone High School. For many reasons, I feel Firestone is the ideal of what a public high school can be. Beyond standard academics, it has a school for the visual and performing arts, an international baccalaureate program and an engineering program.

Most importantly, it’s integrated. Diversity is as essential as English and algebra to a high school education because it gives daily, concrete form to the notion that all people are equally human. Just telling students in a homogenous district does not have the same impact.

My first three boys are athletes. Arguably, Hugo is the best but he did not participate in high school athletics because it conflicted with his musical pursuits. Claude (class of 2012) and Jules (class of ’19) are cross country runners and each has won the Akron city championship.

But winning beyond local championships is not common for most urban schools. Oh, it is done from time to time. In 2012, Firestone’s Sarah Meeks qualified for the state championship race in cross country and in 2015, Harley Moyer, also from Firestone, qualified for the 3,200 race at the state track championships.

But, by and large, the teams who win at district, regional and state competitions, year after year, are the wealthier suburban districts. The undeniable fact is they have more resources, including better facilities and more coaches.

Community steps up

The funding of new schools has been a tremendous benefit to Akron Public Schools. While OSFC does not cover all the costs associated with rebuilding schools, the cost is greatly reduced, which made rebuilding feasible.

What OSFC funding does not do is allow for improvements such as larger gymnasiums or football stadiums. Those can be incorporated into the master plan, but must be funded by local communities. As OSFC points out in its fact sheet, “lower wealth districts are less able to pursue such initiatives than are wealthier districts because of their smaller local tax base.”

This is where community comes in.

Last month, Claude and I attended a meeting with Firestone’s coaches and boosters representing sports from bowling to soccer to discuss improvements to the athletic facilities. The school’s athletic director proposed the installation of a new weight room and teaching the coaches up-to-date weight-training methods.

In the past, the weight room hasn’t always felt like it was available to all athletes. Certain teams, namely football and basketball, seemed to have priority. The new weight room, should it get funded, will have the capacity to train all of the school’s athletes.

On Aug. 4, Firestone’s first golf outing fundraiser for athletic programs will be held at Mayfair Country Club in Green. The primary beneficiary will be the weight room. The PTSA at Firestone also will match donations made by May 31, up to $10,000.

Back at Case …

Several years ago, Craig Sampsell, an intervention specialist at Case Elementary, saw a flyer for a 5K fundraiser for a private preschool. “Why don’t we do that?” he thought, and the Race for Case, a certified 5K, was born.

Its first two years, 2012 and 2013, the Race for Case raised money for technology, including SMART Boards, iPads, and desktop and laptop computers.

The next two years, the proceeds were used to upgrade the playground at the new Case. Fully funded by grants and the race proceeds, the new playground surpasses the minimum standards for ADA compliance and is far more deluxe than what OSFC funds alone would have purchased. This is a boon not only for Case students, but also for children in the community who can play there after school.

Last year, proceeds went toward building a greenhouse at the new Case Elementary.

This year, wanting to help other schools in the Firestone cluster, Sampsell reached out to Firestone boosters who want to upgrade the track and field to include a rubberized track and the installation of stadium lights. This will allow Firestone to hold track meets and the soccer team to host games at night.

“Most of our kids will eventually attend Litchfield [Middle School] and Firestone, so it makes sense to have our now-established race help with this project.”

Registration for the 2018 Race for Case allows participants to choose which project they wish the proceeds of their registration to benefit — either the greenhouse at Case or the track and field at Firestone.

Sampsell says the May 19 race is open to everyone and walking the course is an option. The 1-mile fun run will be at 8 a.m. and the 5K starts at 8:30. Register by the first week of May and you’re guaranteed a shirt, but walk-up registrations will also be available on the day of the race.

Most of the boosters working on these projects will no longer have children in the school district once the projects are completed, but their commitment to the community, the kids and the schools remains.

Boy, do I love Akronites.

Sign up here for the Race for Case.

For information on first Falcon Athletics golf outing, go to the Facebook page “Falcon Athletics Golf Outing” or contact Brian Fuller at

This column first appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 22, 2018.

Getting Kids to Eat a Healthy Diet–Relax!

Mothers trying to get their kids to eat is such a universal stereotype, I’m pretty sure it’s hardwired in all women’s brains.

Long before humans farmed, we were hunter-gatherers. So, too, were our direct ancestors, Homo erectus, for nearly 2 million years. I’m also pretty sure for all those eons of food insecurity, women pushed their kids to eat as much as possible whenever food was available.

In 1939, Dr. Clara Davis, a Canadian pediatrician, presented the results of her longitudinal study on self-selection diets of young children. Entering the study as recently weaned infants, they were given 33 healthy foods to choose to eat at each meal for several years.

While the children chose different foods from one another (and different from the recommended diet at the time), they all ate similar proportions of proteins, carbohydrate and fats. Overweight kids slimmed down, underweight kids gained weight. One child with severe rickets chose to drink cod liver oil.

The takeaway? Present your children with healthy food options and they will eat a balanced diet. Maybe not each day, but over time.

Small children

For infants who are weaning off breast milk or formula, all food is new. With my first baby, I introduced rice cereal when he was 6 months old. He refused to eat it, or anything else, and exclusively breastfed until he was a year old.

He then became an adventurous young eater. My friends from South Asia marveled at toddler Claude eating spicy curries their own children wouldn’t try. (Indian cooking remains a favorite of Claude’s and for many years we took him to the Saffron Patch for his birthday.)

Some small children strike on a food they enjoy and then want it all the time. For months, toddler Jules wanted chicken. Always thin, I used to call Jules my “air fern” because he ate so little. If he wanted chicken, I made him chicken. Then he switched to eggs and for months, that was his primary protein.

Kids eat free at Macaroni Grill on Mondays and Tuesdays

Vegetables are a hard sell with most children. You can sneak it in them pureed when they are toddlers, but they won’t eat baby food forever. Again, find what vegetable they do like and go deep. Lyra loves broccoli right now. We give it to her nearly every day.

School-age children

Every kid I’ve ever met loves carbohydrates. Here are some tricks to get them to eat something that isn’t white and processed:

Give them false choices. For example: “You can have green beans or broccoli with your hamburger.” And then tell them no dessert until the vegetables are finished. If they leave anything on the plate, I prefer the protein over the vegetable.

Give them vegetables first. Hugo was my pickiest eater. I’d often make him eat five baby carrots or peanut-butter filled celery before I’d give him the rest of his lunch.

Hide the vegetables. My kids think spaghetti sauce is thick and stew-like. Ours always includes sautéed onions and garlic, grated zucchini and whatever other vegetables I can dice small enough so they won’t know it’s in there. Even the universally kid-abhorred mushrooms can slip by undetected if small enough.

Buy healthy carbohydrate alternatives. We get Ronzini SuperGreens pasta at Acme. It tastes fine, but has a lower glycemic index and more fiber that white pasta. Whole wheat pasta is also a healthier option, but I don’t like how gummy it is.

Always have fruit available. Our kitchen counter has a bowl of washed apples (Jules easily eats 10 pounds of apples a week) and a second bowl of other fruit. Clementines are great because little hands can peel them on their own.

My kids never have to ask to eat fruit, though I wish they’d always finish it. Sometimes in the bowl I find an apple with a trail made by a small mouth. She came, she nibbled, she returned the apple to its kin.


So far, all the teens I’ve raised have been boys. When Claude and Hugo were very little, a woman who taught me many parenting skills warned: When they are teenagers, you will not believe that a gallon of milk will be gone in one afternoon.

Around age 13, most boys experience a big growth spurt. Twice, once with Claude and once with Jules, they came down for breakfast taller than when they went to bed the night before. Their bones may ache, they often need more sleep. And, wow, do they eat.

When Claude was in high school, we called him the “Gaping Maw.” I double or triple most recipes not only to have enough for one meal, but also for leftovers. When Claude was growing, there were never any leftovers.

One benefit of teenage boys is we rarely throw away food. It all gets eaten.

Though 17, Jules is still growing. My onetime air fern, who had such light bones I carried him on my hip until he was 6, is now 6 foot 5. He’s a really good kid, but I can’t trust him with food I don’t want him to eat. Even if I tell him not to eat it and even if he promises he won’t, he still will. And there went the box of Malley’s Bordeaux Max gave me for Valentine’s.

When he was in the eighth grade, picky Hugo stopped eating carbohydrates. His portions became smaller and he rarely finished what was on his plate. I became worried that he was developing an eating disorder, but he vehemently denied it.

I took him to our pediatrician and also met with an eating disorder specialist. Hugo pulled through and later admitted he had been fasting in an unhealthy way, but didn’t believe he had an eating disorder.

Estimates are that only 5 to 15 percent of people in the U.S. with eating disorders are male. Because it is so uncommon in boys and men, it can be harder to detect because it might not occur to a parent that their son has an eating disorder.

If you have any inkling a child has an eating disorder, contact a health care professional immediately.

Today, Claude and Hugo mostly cook for themselves and regularly call me for recipes of various dishes they ate growing up. When he was in middle school, Jules became a fabulous cook and baker. He made his first salmon almandine at age 12. He’s too busy now to cook elaborate meals.

I miss those days and hope they eventually return.

Sometimes the best decisions are the toughest

“She has an incredibly strong hunting instinct and you can’t change that,” my vet said. “One day, her instinct will override her training and it’ll happen so fast, there’ll be nothing you can do.”

I had asked the vet about Dorothy, our 1-year-old, 70-pound German shepherd and her obsession with our cats. Having tried everything, the vet made it clear there was only one decision, albeit hard, to make.

Last June, a month after we brought puppy Dorothy home, four tiny kittens marched out from under the porch of the house where Claude lives.

I drove over with Jules and Leif. Sure enough, when we pulled in the driveway, there they were: three white kittens and an orange one frolicking in the front yard. As soon as they saw us, they darted back under the porch.

The underside of the porch is open but covered with lattice. I slid the lattice to one side and sent Leif, who was 7 at the time, into the dusty space. One by one, he delivered the kittens to us.

What to do with four feral kittens? The best we can, because feral kittens become feral cats, which have more kittens. One of a Kind Pets was so full it was not accepting even young kittens. Nothing to do but take them home.

With eyes still blue, they were between 3 and 4 weeks old. A good age to tame feral kittens. At home in our back garage, we placed them in a sofa box we’d been saving because how much fun is a box big enough to hold a sofa?

Since they were too young for chemical flea treatment, I washed each kitten with dandruff shampoo, which stuns the fleas. While they were in their torpor, I pinched dozens of fleas off each kitten with a pair of tweezers.

Two weeks later, we trapped two more kittens at Claude’s house (I’m his landlady). Again, all-white kittens, but one significantly larger than its buddy, who was slightly smaller than the first four.

Turns out we had two white mama cats in the neighborhood. We eventually caught and spayed both, thanks to One of a Kind Pets, which has a very affordable trap-neuter-and-release program for feral cats.

Suddenly our household included seven people, three dogs, a 16-year-old cat and six kittens.

We quickly found a home for the largest of the six kittens. Claude said he wanted one, but I told him he must take two as I strongly believe, when possible, that pets should live with at least one other member of their species.

When they were old enough for flea treatment, the kittens moved into our basement laundry room. For weeks, I started my days by pouring a cup of coffee and heading down to the basement. When I’d open the door, the little kitten we took in last would stop playing and go hide. I named him Pipsqueak because he was so tiny and his meow sound like the noise from a squeeze toy.

Kittens play in the laundry room.

Sitting on the floor with my back against our upright freezer, I’d watch the kittens chase each other, tumble and roll. Like Jane Goodall with her chimpanzees, I mostly observed my wild subjects. Soon, Pipsqueak would cautiously rejoin the kitten rampage.

Playtime ended with the kitties making their way to my lap. There they licked one another and fell asleep as I stroked them.

When I went back upstairs to start my workday, I often was shocked to discover I’d spent 45 minutes or more sitting on my laundry room floor. It was perfect meditation — I stayed completely in the moment when watching them.

In September, the kitties turned 3 months old. Claude took his two back to his home and we let the remaining three roam free in the house. Dorothy immediately began stalking them. We figured she needed some time to get used to these new creatures.

But time only deepened Dorothy’s obsession. She was not allowed on the second floor or the basement. None of my dogs are allowed in the basement, which is where the cat boxes are kept, because cat boxes are to dogs what open bars are to college students.

Day after day, Dorothy paced back and forth between the bottom of the staircase leading to the second floor and the top of the staircase leading to the basement, waiting for a cat to try to pass.

Dorothy and Pipsqueak

So long as they could stay up on furniture, the cats came into the same rooms as Dorothy. When one settled on a dining room chair, Dorothy often sat next to it, her face level with the cat’s, aching for it to make a move. Several times she air-snapped at them.

When she went outdoors, Dorothy could not wait to get back inside. She began jumping on the back door regularly and only moments after being let out.

She begged to be let in even when all of us, the people, were outside in the yard. To her, the cats were prey and as a predator, she could not “leave it” as we all told her repeatedly.

She forgot about the cats only when we walked in the parks. Watching Dorothy, solid and lean, gallop at peak speed across a field is a glorious sight. She’d then come slide her big head between my body and hand so I could rub her ears while telling her what a good girl she is.

After a family discussion in which we had to choose which animals to keep, I called the people we bought Dorothy from and told them what our vet had said. They quickly offered to take Dorothy back, but asked if I wanted the rag doll kitten they’d adopted last summer. Their dogs were on constant alert around the cat. “I’d never forgive myself if I came home one day and found the cat’s neck broken,” said the mother of the family.

I was relieved they understood exactly what we had been struggling with. I thanked her but said with four cats, we were maxed out.

Good parents, like good pet owners, take into consideration what is best for each member of the family and the family as a whole. With divorce, relocating for jobs, choosing where and with whom to live, taking ego out of the equation isn’t always easy, but it is necessary. What is best for the children? Where will they thrive?

It may not be with you, and there is no shame in that.

I cried as I drove Dorothy to the breeder’s house. And I’ve cried since when I view photos of her playing happily with other German shepherds and bonding with one of the sons in her old, now new, family.

As much as Dorothy loved us, she is much happier in an environment where she’s not constantly struggling against her instincts.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 18, 2018

Screen time: less is always more

In the 1980s, a bumper sticker that read “Kill Your Television” was common, especially around college campuses. A rather radical notion at the time, today, when most people have smartphones in their pockets, it seems charmingly quaint.

For many years, my school bus let me off at my house at 3:30. Minutes later, my mother would leave for work. I made my dinner and ate it alone in the kitchen while watching syndicated shows on our 12-inch black-and-white TV. I believe I’ve seen every Hogan’s HeroesThe Odd Couple and Adam-12 ever made. Multiple times.

When the news came on, I did my homework and got ready for bed so that at 8 p.m., network television’s prime time, I was ready. Many nights I watched until 11.

Lonely. If I had only one word to describe my soap-operatic childhood, I would choose lonely.

At 15, I ran away to my father and stepmother in Northern Michigan. During the 10 years I hadn’t seen them, I romanticized what life would be like with this other set of parents. I was soon disabused of those dreams. That is, except for family nights.

Those nights, my dad made popcorn on the stove top. He shook the dedicated pot until it overflowed as he poured batch after batch into large bowls.

We played rounds of backgammon or cards. My sisters and I often painted one another’s toenails. In the background was always the sound of … music. Proper hippies that they were, my parents did not own a television.

On those nights, I felt I belonged.

I remembered this when I had children of my own.

When my big boys were little, we had a tank-like monitor that got no television reception. We used it to watch videos or DVDs. Claude and Hugo had cartoon movies they watched repeatedly, but also had long runs with musicals such as The Sound of Music and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

(Tip: If anyone is interested in dating one of my boys, you have to pass the movie test. Tell that son of mine you love Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or you won’t make the cut. Their rule, not mine.)

By the late ’90s, Nintendo Game Boys were popular. I saw young children, including those of my friends, silenced at length by the little screens. I never wanted that to be my kids.

When Claude went to kindergarten, I made an ironclad rule that we would never own a gaming system or Game Boys. It was probably the best single decision I ever made as a parent.

This year, the World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to its list of diseases. Rightfully so.

When I was in high school, my friends and I often hung out in video arcades on the weekends. We’d play Pac-Man and Space Invaders, flirt with boys. It was fun, but then we went home and did other things.

I talked with Claude a few months back when writing a column about the heroin epidemic. I asked him if not having video games was part of the reason he never used drugs. It’s been well documented that gaming companies use psychological strategies to make games addicting.

Claude agreed but then said, “You know, I think it’s as much that people who game all the time don’t make many real social connections.”

I’ve known many kids who played a ridiculous amount of video games and turned out just fine. But what do many children lose when they are drawn, as I was, to screens over all else?

“Holly is very bright, but they don’t give her much intellectual stimulation so she doesn’t stretch her mind.” My grandmother wrote this to my father in August 1979.

She was right.

Kids who do not have screens available find things to do. Eight-year-old Leif plays with his Legos; 5-year-old Lyra listens to her music while looking at her books. Leif plots out elaborate stories for his dinosaur figures; Lyra undresses her dolls and puts them to bed. Both children go outside and play in the yard.

They also listen to stories.

For 20 years, I’ve regularly checked out children’s audiobooks from the library. I think today’s increase in reading comprehension issues is possibly connected to children seldom getting the chance to imagine a story told to them.

Claude, who was diagnosed early on with severe dyslexia, became a voracious reader. In 2016, he graduated cum laude from the University of Michigan with a degree in literature.

Hugo, who quickly learned to read, was not a bookworm. Instead, he played the guitar, the piano and sang. His dedication to music earned him entry and scholarships at one of the best music schools in the country.

The summer he was 17, Hugo spent time with one of my most absurdly talented friends. She took him to a wedding of musicians in rural North Carolina. It was a three-day bluegrass jam fest. Hugo joined in on his guitar while my friend played her banjo. It remains one of Hugo’s favorite memories.

“How can I get my son to play guitar?” my friend asked Hugo. “He says he wants to but all he does is play video games.”

“Get rid of the video games,” Hugo said.

It’s not easy, once that Pandora’s box is opened, to remove games. Max recently learned this firsthand when he let Leif play Lego Creator Islands on our iPad. Sounds reasonable enough, right? In short order, it’s all he wanted to do. Max quickly put strict limits on Leif’s time with the Lego video game.

I make my living on the computer. I studied French film in college. I expect my kids will play video games at their friends’ homes. But as parents, we have the power to save our children from themselves. To teach them balance.

For two decades, my rule has been no screen time on school nights (with the Winter Olympics and the U.S. presidential debates as exceptions to this rule). Our only television is in the basement and the adult in charge must approve any viewing, which is limited.

Kill all your screens? No. But for everyone, especially kids, less screen time is always more.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 4, 2018

Treat friendships as though your life depends upon them–for it does

Until this month, the last time my friend Jen Marvelous and I had a long, uninterrupted visit was Jan. 5, 1994.

I met Jen in a plant pathology class at OSU’s College of Agriculture. She and I alone seemed to notice that the professor’s solution to all plant problems was to hit them with chemicals. At our request, he let us co-teach a class on sustainable agriculture.

Jen moved to Kansas to work at the Land Institute after graduation, but always stopped by when she was back in Ohio. After lunch that winter’s day in ’94, we sat down in my living room with mugs of tea. I suddenly felt a hot wetness spread across my legs — my water had broken.

Our lunch visit lasted more than 24 hours as Jen stayed and helped with the home birth of my first child, Claude.

The second and third time I gave birth, again Jen was there. And when she had her second baby in 2003, I went to her house in Philadelphia to help care for her oldest daughter. Sasha and my third son, Jules, were both 3, so I took him along, too.

For decades, Jen and I have regularly gotten together whenever she visits her parents in Painesville. With kids in tow, we’ve been to parks and museums together across Northeast Ohio.

For several years, we’ve tried getting away together without our kids, but with nine of them between us, it’s hard. Now, however, our kids are older and more self-reliant. So when Jen recently accepted a new position at the University of Pennsylvania, she purposely gave herself two weeks between jobs.

Kayaking through mangrove forests in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands

We each bought cheap flights to Florida, rented an economy car and toured the lower half of the peninsula together. We stayed with friends and at Airbnbs. We talked leisurely and at length for seven glorious days.

It was one of the best things I’ve done for myself in a long time.

Social beings

Lately, reports about the importance of a variety of relationships are in the news. Evidence indicates that being lonely can have the same negative effect on health as smoking and obesity.

Furthermore, couples that have been together for a long time find they feel more romantic with one another after spending time socializing with another couple than after a clichéd candlelight dinner for two. Socializing is the “spice of happiness,” according to social psychologists.

I’ve only recently focused on the importance of friendships for adults. But I have long thought about it for my kids.

In the 1970s, when I was a girl, nobody worried about finding friends for their kids. The streets were choked with children tossed outside until the streetlights came on. Stay-at-home moms were still common. If you wiped out on your banana-seat bicycle as I often did, in all likelihood a mom would come outside to wipe away your tears and blood.

Today, parents are often their kids’ social secretaries — regularly organizing supervised play dates. Yeah, that’s not me, but my first three boys, who are each three years apart, had built-in playmates. Still, they didn’t roam the neighborhood with other kids like I did.

Currently, there are no children in any of the homes near ours. Leif has Lyra, and they play together, but it’s not the same as it was for the older boys. We’ve had over several of Leif’s classmates, but it’s not regular time outside of school with friends. We’ve decided to sign him up for Boy Scouts and hope it will be just the ticket.

Alone in technology

Changes in child rearing are compounded by technology, another major culprit in loneliness. Children don’t learn appropriate social interaction when they communicate using devices rather than in person.

Technology exacerbating loneliness is not limited to kids. It makes people of all ages seem connected when, in fact, they are not.

Exhibit A: Me. I make most of my money sitting alone in front of a computer. I check my email and Facebook while I work. But clicking “like” for someone’s picture of their dog/kid/dinner is not the same as socializing.

Five years ago, I picked up a part-time job in a store. My time there is an energizing social outlet, where I interact and have relationships with my co-workers and the customers.

Some friends are lost when the commonality is gone — co-workers at a previous job, people whose kids went to school with yours, neighbors who move. Other people are just not value added. With more days behind me than ahead, I find it better to wish those folks well and move on.

I treasure all my close friends, yet there is something deeply rewarding about those friendships cultivated before parenthood, marriage or even adulthood. Friends who have seen each other develop and age yet who also recognize how much of who we are now was always there.

A poignancy of middle age is realizing “one day” may easily never arrive. In 1990, I studied for several months in France. I loved the country and the French people (they are chronic interrupters, just like me) and considered staying. But I was only two terms away from receiving my bachelor’s degree.

I returned to the U.S. promising myself I’d move to France soon after graduation. I have yet to step on French soil in the nearly 28 intervening years.

My friend Sam and I regularly promised to meet each other in Columbus. Like the lead vest dentists place on your chest before taking X-rays, I have been cloaked in a weighted pall since Sam was killed last month.

I can give you many reasons why we never had our date in Columbus, but because our one day will now never arrive for Sam and me, those reasons are as irrelevant to me as how many drops of rain fell today.

With the people you cherish, those who invigorate your days on this planet, do not count on one day getting together with them. Move around what are really just errata on your calendar, pick up the phone and make plans with those friends right now.

I am so glad Jen and I did.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, February 25, 2018

For Valentine’s Day, Send Love

Rather than chocolates and dinner at a crowded restaurant, would you like to fill your heart on Valentine’s Day?

Then check out the Valentine Project.

Co-founder Andrea Margida is no stranger to cancer. When she was 16, it took her mother. Later, her brother was diagnosed and, with treatment, survived.

But when Andrea was a young mother, she and her husband, Anthony, found themselves among a community that nobody wants to join — families whose children are diagnosed with cancer.

When she was 5, their daughter Michaela had brain surgery to remove a tumor at the top of her spinal cord. Luckily, the biopsy results were benign. Even though she didn’t have cancer, Michaela’s post-operative therapies were conducted in a pediatric cancer unit. And because of the concern for a recurrence, it is also where she went for annual brain scans and whenever she had a severe headache.

Today Michaela is a healthy young woman working on a Ph.D. in environmental science.

Remembering what it was like for their family before and after Michaela’s surgery, Andrea and Michaela volunteered in 2007 at Camp Quality, a summer camp for Ohio children with cancer and their siblings.

Their jobs were to buddy with one camper each and make it the best week possible. Michaela was 18 at the time and partnered with one of the siblings. Andrea was assigned to the sister of Michaela’s buddy, a 13-year-old girl with soft-tissue cancer. Andrea was told it would be the girl’s last summer.

Miraculously, she lived another eight years, years filled with difficult treatments, including a double mastectomy. She also returned to camp several times, allowing only Andrea to be her buddy. At 21, the young woman died with Andrea and Michaela by her side.

The third year that Andrea and Michaela volunteered at the camp, Andrea’s son Gregory joined them. It was he who had the idea to start the Valentine Project.

“What if we anonymously send each camper, both the kids with cancer and their siblings, a box of fun things for Valentine’s Day?” he asked and his family immediately got on board.

Gregory listed the 88 campers by first name, gender and age. Michaela used Facebook to invite students in her small, all-women college to choose a child and create a gift package. All 88 children were picked minutes after she published her post.

That was in 2010. The Valentine Project quickly grew after that first year. Families tell other families about it, as do staffers at children’s hospitals. Two years ago, the project expanded to include children with chronic illnesses and their siblings.

This year, Gregory, who is now 24, is piloting the project in California where he now lives.

What is it that makes the Valentine Project so special to the community of families with children who have cancer or chronic illness?

I spoke with Sara Taggart, whose third child, Annie, has osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. “There are so many things for kids with illness, but nothing for siblings. They have to take a back seat while the focus is on the sick child.”

For the Taggarts, Valentine’s Day is now like Christmas. Nobody knows what is in the packages. “People don’t skimp, and rather than pity, it feels like an outpouring of love from strangers.”

Entirely anonymous, children are listed by first name, age and gender. Donors do not know if the child they choose has an illness or is a sibling. Taggart told me this was really important because the gifts her kids receive are not chosen with Annie’s illness in mind.

“Can you imagine if people knew she had brittle bones?” Taggart asked. “They’d only send stuffed animals.”

Like many other recipient families, the Taggarts feel so touched by the Valentine Project they now sponsor a child each year. “The kids and I are thrilled when we shop for the child we’ve chosen to sponsor. It’s a great way to teach my kids the joy of giving.”

So how does the Valentine Project work? I admit I couldn’t fully comprehend it until I made a trip to Andrea and Anthony’s home in Alliance, widely known as the Valentine House.

Eligible families register on the Valentine Project’s website. It is also where people can choose a child to sponsor or to donate money.

Cash donations help pay for shipping. This year 889 boxes will be sent out in Ohio and 116 in California, totaling $20,040 for shipping.

Meanwhile, back at the Valentine House, the ground floor has been taken over by the project. Just inside the kitchen door, I found a mountain of donation boxes sent from all over the country.

As action breeds understanding, I put together a package.

Each child has a number, which the donors write on the shipping box. On Andrea’s kitchen counter, gift tags are organized by number with the child’s name, gender and age.

I picked and opened a box and pulled the corresponding gift tag. My package was for an 8-year-old boy. I inspected the contents of the box. Anything referring to illness, such as cards with the words “Stay strong” or “Keep fighting,” are removed. These packages are meant to be a reprieve from the immersion of acute or chronic illness.

Along with whatever the donor chooses to send, each package must contain a stuffed animal, something to do (craft, board game, art supplies), and candy. If any of these items are missing, the Margida living room has a “shop” of toys to make each package complete. Mine needed a stuffed animal.

Valentine packages ready for shipping boxes.

Finally, I chose a handmade pillowcase patterned with bright lizards on dark green leaves. I filled the pillowcase with the gifts and tied it with the gift tag. Once assembled, my package went in the dining room. There, assembled packages were neatly stacked under the large table, the buffet and in every corner.

The front parlor has packaging materials on a table. Next to the table, unassembled boxes are stacked higher than I am tall.

“Tonight, FedEx will bring over a truck,” Andrea explained. The packages are boxed, the boxes labeled and then stored in the truck until it’s full. FedEx then takes the boxes to their facility where they have secure storage.

“Everything ships on the same day. We’ve sent one truck already,” Andrea told me.

Part of why the Margidas went to the cancer camp all those years ago was to teach their children to have compassion and to give to others. Every step along the way, the Valentine Project teaches countless volunteers the value of giving. Giving money, yes, but also time and energy. Giving creative ideas and products, like the pillowcases.

A troop of Girl Scouts came to the Valentine House and colored the heart-shaped return labels that go on every package. Students from the University of Mount Union and Walsh University keep the “shop” organized. They also regularly build and box packages.

In other cities across the state, people offer their homes as drop sites for packages and then drive them to the Valentine House.

“I know we’re not solving world hunger,” Andrea told me, “but we see the impact this has on families. It reminds them they are loved and that there are good people in the world.”

What better message to send on Valentine’s Day?

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on February 11, 2018

January Stillness

Each December, I look forward to the frozen quiet of January.

Holiday décor goes back in boxes and the boxes go back on shelves in the furnace room. It’s a relief to reclaim the living room as adult space.

For arable farmers, at least in this part of the country, the fall harvest is put up and the spring planting is months away. Walk outside and winter seems to say, rest, try to rest.

Dogs and taking long walks have been two constants of my life. Long before I had kids, I had dogs. And before I had dogs, I walked.

I enjoy many of the trails in our parks, but hike the same one most days. Walking the same path day after day is a subtle gift. Skunkweed that fills coves in the spring is later replaced by wild columbine, which later still is covered over with fallen leaves and then snow.

For the better part of three months, when the temperatures are well below freezing, I rarely see another person on the trail. This is my reward for being undeterred by the cold. A forest muffled by deep snow when even the animals are quiet is a stark reprieve from the sensory clutter of modern life.

Until last week, this winter has been hearty, which is fabulous. The kids can ski and sled. The dogs don’t get muddy. And every night when the temperatures hover around zero, fleas, ticks and mosquitoes are exploding in their winter homes. Hooray! After last year’s balmy winter, we had to spend a fortune on flea and tick treatments for several months.

The epochs of my adult life can be divided by sets of dogs. First were Goldie and Alex, a shepherd mix and a sable sheltie. I got Goldie when I was 17 and both she and Alex died when I was 31 and the mother of two small boys.

Bruce Springsteen once said about having children, “You know, all of a sudden, your dogs are just gonna be dogs.” But those dogs adopted before I was a mother were the hardest to lose. They were my proto-children.

Next came Greta, another shepherd mix, and Hoover, my first tri-color sheltie. When young, Greta could pick off a chipmunk running up the side of a tree and shake it dead before I could holler for her to stop. Though past her prime when we moved to Akron, Greta still enjoyed darting after creatures, including bumblebees, then returning to me over and again.

As years passed, our walks became slower so Greta could keep up. One summer day, as I forged up a steep hill, I realized Greta was no longer with me. I turned and saw her lying on the trail 25 yards behind. I called to her and she looked up at me.

Greta was a smart dog and if you have ever had a truly smart dog, you know how well they can communicate. More than once, Greta woke me in the night, presumably to be let out. I’d walk with her to the door and open it only to find Hoover accidentally left outside. As he trotted in, Greta would lie back down on her bed.

That day on the trail, Greta’s eyes told me she wanted to come, but couldn’t. A dignified dog, she was also embarrassed.

I walked to Greta and helped her stand. She ambled a few paces before dropping back to the ground. Not as heavy as she’d been in her prime, she was still easily 45 pounds. I picked her up like a lamb, my arms around the tops of her four legs, her body on my chest.

I walked as far as I could and set her down. She walked as far as she could before I picked her back up. We repeated this until we crested the hill. Though she lived another year, that was Greta’s last hike.

After Greta died, I brought home Lily, my bi-black sheltie. Hoover was 9 and for the next few years, Lily kept him active. I would watch from my kitchen window as they sneaked up and chased each other around a row of privet.

“Please don’t be dead, please!” said all of us many times after Hoover, at age 12, went deaf. When asleep, he’d lie stock-still until touched, no matter how noisy we were.

That’s when Lily became Hoover’s assistant. When I’d call the dogs to come, Lily would dart to Hoover and let him know to look at me. He would, and then come running as best as he could on his arthritic legs.

I know it sounds like I’m anthropomorphizing my dogs, but dog owners understand it’s true. These pack animals work together.

Now 7, Lily’s the old dog. Angus, my second tri-color sheltie, and Dorothy, my big German shepherd, are barely out of puppyhood. It took Lily awhile to remember how to frisk. She’d lived with a senior dog for so long, she acted like one herself.

Creatures grow up and, if we are lucky, we grow comfortably old before we die.

Statistically, we know some of us will not be so lucky. Before 40, the deaths of friends are rare and often accidental. By middle age, illness, especially the Emperor of All Maladies, begins claiming a life here and there.

In Jules’ small classroom at the Waldorf School, two parents did not live to see their eldest children enroll in high school. The first died of melanoma, the second due to liver cancer. Both were in their 40s.

“To love one another, to have compassion even for those who would do us harm, that is the point.”

Sam’s 5th grade photo below mine.

I turn in my columns on Tuesdays. Before these words from my last column were inked on newsprint, Sam, my friend for more than 40 years, had been killed.

Half an hour before she was shot in the chest, she told another friend she was going home to tell her husband of 33 years she was leaving him.

To lose someone prematurely to illness or accident seems unfair. But in the end, it just is. A death like this requires volition, actively choosing to end a life. The grief for a slaying victim defies acceptance because it didn’t have to be.

Compassion remains the point.

I made the three-hour trip to West Milton, Ohio, for the calling hours. Sam raised four boys to manhood, including her stepson. All four of them stood alongside their mother’s casket and comforted more than 100 people. Sam would be proud.

These young men, their wives and children, and Sam’s parents all need endless compassion as they face the months ahead, which includes a trial.

Back home the next day, a dry snow looked like the rice cereal I once added to my babies’ applesauce. It swirled around my boots as I walked across the field to the woods. The dogs barked and chased one another, delighted to be in the park. Delighted to be alive.

Buddhist family finds joy and friendship in church choir

Those of you who regularly read this column know we are a Buddhist family. Our children learn Buddhist teachings, stories and, starting at around age 4, how to meditate. At 10, they undergo a 9-day rite of passage at a Buddhist meditation center in Vermont.

So it may surprise you to learn that Max, Claude, Jules and I sing in a Christian church’s choir.

It all started with Hugo.

He first sang at Westminster Presbyterian Church the fall 2011, his freshman year at Firestone High School. The church is also the home of West Side Vocal Academy, which has an ongoing relationship with the vocal program at Firestone. That is how Hugo came to know the church’s music director and organist, Jim Mismas.

We met Jim and his husband, Bruce Stebner, while attending a concert at Westminster. For a couple of years, we’d run into them at performances, in the store where I work or around town. What started as friendly hellos became longer and longer chats until one November Jim and Bruce invited Max and me to a party at their house. Since then, we regularly have each other over for dinners and parties.

A Note to Parents of Young Children

You are in the trenches. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you children don’t get easier as they get older, they absolutely do. And if you are lucky (and by lucky I mean if you raise them to be enjoyable, curious people), your children may one day be vibrant additions to your social circle. Exhibit A: Our big boys have their own close relationships with Jim and Bruce, separate from our own.

Hugo, whose vocal talent first was recognized by Sue Wallin at the West Side Vocal Academy, studied both with Ms. Wallin and Jim. It was Jim who taught Hugo to sight read music, an important skill for a singer. When Hugo gave a recital at Westminster last spring, Jim automatically assumed he’d accompany Hugo on piano. That’s like having David Remnick insist on editing my manuscripts.

When our eldest son, Claude, was still in college, he went to France with Bruce. A professional artist, each summer Bruce takes a group of students to the Loire Valley. They set up easels alongside the river, in villages with cobblestone streets, or country lanes. Painting all day, they break only for lunch.

At night, they eat like the French–long dinners with plenty of wine and conversation. Claude, who’s been painting for several years, sold his first painting to the restaurateur of the establishment they visited most evenings.

Back in Akron, Claude and Bruce regularly paint together.

When our third son, Jules, was scheduling classes for his sophomore year in high school, choir conflicted with biology. Learning this, Jim said, “Well, he should join the church choir.”

The Westminster choir is full of professional singers. Vocalists at Firestone who show talent and industry are honored when asked to sing with the choir. Hugo wasn’t asked until his senior year.

Jules was appropriately grateful for the opportunity Jim gave him. Every Sunday, he put on a dress shirt and tie and walked to church while the rest of us drove to Cuyahoga Falls to meditate with our Buddhist “sangha,” or congregation.

Last June, we celebrated Bruce’s birthday with small party at the couple’s home. Along with other friends, Claude and Jules were there. Hugo would have attended were he not working for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Leif and Lyra stayed home with a sitter.

The dinner was as French-styled as the backyard—pea gravel pathways weave through herb and vegetable gardens. After sunset, strings of lights softly illuminated the long table covered with floral tablecloths where we sat. Whether or not it was the case, my memory’s soundtrack for the evening includes Edith Piaf and accordion café music.

Departing as late as it would all year, the sunlight was gone when Jim told us he had a secret announcement.

“I’ve been making arrangements with the church, but this won’t be public for a few weeks. I’m retiring after the upcoming season. For 53 years of Sundays I’ve made music for Jesus and it’s time to let someone else take over.”

Stunned, we were all stunned. And full of food, wine and love.

“Oh, I wish I could sing in the choir your last year!” I said.

“Well, you can,” Jim quickly replied, disabusing us of our long-held notion that choir was open only to those with the voices of angels. Max and Claude also signed up that night.

Most Sundays since September, we’ve been at church by 9:15. We drop off Leif and Lyra at Sunday school and for the next hour, we practice with the choir before slipping on our blue robes and golden stoles. Then, processing two by two, we sing our way into the sanctuary for the service.

Guess what? We are having the time of our lives. The choir is a raucous bunch, many of whom are, yes, professionally trained and also graciously helpful. Beginning each week singing beautiful music with joyful friends is, well, a blessing.

But what about sitting through a Christian service?

The young minister, who one-on-one is a quiet man, gives sermons that complement our Buddhist beliefs. At the pulpit he is gentle, yet not shy in addressing important issues.

After Charlottesville, he spoke about the importance of free speech, including hate speech. But he then pointed out the pain of those who are targeted by hateful, often violent, language. We need to stand with, support, and when necessary, protect the victims of hate speech.

To a packed church on Christmas Eve, when many a pastor would try to convert the occasional visitor to a full-time congregant, Westminster’s pastor made a brave choice. Without passing judgment, he asked the crowd to consider how to reconcile believing in Jesus as the Prince of Peace with the overwhelming number of guns, approximately 300 million, or one for each man, woman and child, in the U.S.

I like this guy. And the community at Westminster Presbyterian Church. We all do. It is yet another example of how living in Akron is a gift that keeps on giving.

No, I do not believe all central tenets of Christianity. Buddhist theology also has a miraculous birth story and, just prior to becoming an enlightened teacher, the Buddha was repeatedly tempted by a Satan-like being.

Whether these are facts or allegory is not the point. Love one another, have compassion, even for those who would do you harm. That is the point.

Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday last year. Thus, we sang both in the morning and at the evening candlelight service. Hugo was home from college and also joined the choir that day. Before the morning service, a group of seven good friends clustered together for a photo: Our big boys, Jim and Bruce, Max and me.

Max, Hugo, Jules, Bruce, Claude, Jim and Holly

This column was published in the Akron Beacon Journal on January 14, 2018



The problem with Ohio’s Down syndrome abortion ban

Look for the fishies at the KCL pond

In many serious discussions about Down syndrome, abortion is the ghost in the room.

Teaching medical professionals to give accurate and appropriate information when announcing prenatal diagnoses, state funding for early interventions, state funding for K-12 education, federal funding for research, even health care costs — these issues either directly or indirectly relate to the abortions of fetuses with Down syndrome (DS).

I was in my 40s when pregnant with my last two children and knew I had an increased risk of having a baby with Down syndrome. However, I allowed only non-invasive testing because I would not have terminated a pregnancy due to a diagnosis of DS.

With both pregnancies, I was told there were no concerns based on the results of blood work and high-level ultrasounds. At the birth of my last child and only daughter, Lyra, we immediately recognized two markers of Down syndrome, the shape of her eyes and her sandal toes (each big toe is located far from the four smaller toes, as if designed for flip-flops). Later that week, genetic testing confirmed the diagnosis.

We quickly learned that what we thought we knew about Down syndrome was little and mostly incorrect. As a writer, I process difficult issues and emotions by writing. Three months after Lyra’s birth, I began blogging at, documenting my development as a mother of a child with DS.

Our love for Lyra was immediate and fierce. Max and I felt like we were taking a crash course on DS. We worked to give her the best start possible, including regular speech, physical and occupational therapies. But our first years as parents of a child with DS were also filled with enormous fear. On top of that, I was overwhelmed parenting three teens and two tots, regardless of Lyra’s diagnosis.

Soon, we understood that there has never been a better time to be born with DS. In a column on May 6, 2017, “Busting myths on life with Down syndrome” (, I outline how people born with DS today can expect to lead lives more alike than different from their typical peers.

Knowing what I do now, I would encourage any woman who receives a prenatal diagnosis of DS to learn the current facts and strongly consider continuing her pregnancy, even if she feels she would give the child up for adoption (the waiting list to adopt a baby with DS is longer than that to adopt a typical baby).

Avoid bias

I speak each fall to first-year medical students at Case Western Reserve University. I encourage them to guard against bias when interacting with patients who have disabilities and their parents.

And yet, this past fall, I told the students that I and many, though not all, parents of a child with DS oppose the state bill outlawing the abortion of a fetus prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome.

Nobody likes abortion, not even abortion rights advocates. But, legal or not, abortion has been around as long as pregnancy. The solution to lowering abortion rates is to find out why women have them and address those issues.

I learned at the National Down Syndrome Congress convention in 2014 that the termination rate of fetuses diagnosed with DS is higher in Southern states, where elected officials are overwhelmingly Republican and abortions harder to obtain, than in cities in the North. The reason given is simple — services and supports for children with disabilities are limited in many parts of the South.

In recent years, Denmark and Iceland have adopted policies to entirely eliminate people with DS from their populations. All women receive free prenatal testing in these two countries and are encouraged to terminate when a fetus is discovered to have DS.

Most do, but not all. I know a woman raising a child with Down syndrome in Denmark. Because there are so few children with DS in that country, supports are commensurately limited. And this, I suspect, contributes to many other women choosing not to carry a fetus with Down syndrome to term.

Ethicists around the globe have called for women to terminate pregnancies of children with DS. Richard Dawkins, a Brit, claims doing so reduces suffering. This flies in the face of all research conducted on people with DS and their families.

Australian ethicist Peter Singer, much of whose work I find enlightened and inspiring, believes fetuses with DS should be aborted because they increase the cost of health care for the rest of a country’s citizens. Determining the value of a human life based purely on cost is a slippery slope. What happens when one day we can prenatally test for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism or addiction?

Funds for testing

In the United States, funding for DS research overwhelmingly favors further development of prenatal testing over the development of drugs to improve health and cognition. The primary point of prenatally diagnosing a fetus with DS is to allow for the option of termination. Thus, federal research dollars effectively promote elimination over amelioration.

I know a family who moved back to Northeast Ohio shortly after giving birth to a son with DS. The region where they were living in Michigan had little access to the medical care and educational programming important for a child with DS.

I know a family that moved from Akron to Bath because they felt their child with DS would receive a better education, with more supportive services, in Revere schools than in Akron Public Schools.

In Ohio, the state provides services to children with DS through the county developmental disability (DD) boards for the first three years of life. Then, from age 4 to 22, state services are administered through the public schools.

Our statehouse is controlled by the Republican Party and has been for many years. The same legislators who voted to outlaw abortion of fetuses with DS also voted this past year to remove language that would have increased funding to county DD boards.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees as a right for children with disabilities, including DS, a free, appropriate public education. And yet everyone knows all Ohio school districts are not created equal. Some families, like the one I mentioned, move to districts with better resources. But for many that is not an option.

Furthermore, just because a child is guaranteed an education doesn’t mean schools comply, and parents regularly sue school districts for enforcement. Here in Ohio that happens in the Sixth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The Sixth Circuit has a mixed record with disability rights. A recent decision stated a school could not be penalized for strapping a preschool child with disabilities to a toilet with a leather belt because it was part of the school’s pedagogy. Think about that.

Ultimately, I believe underlying the move to eliminate people with Down syndrome is a bias against people perceived to have lower intelligence. Therefore, this is for me an issue of civil rights.

Which is why it’s important to point out that the law outlawing the abortion of fetuses with DS has little, if anything, to do with protecting people with DS. If our state legislators truly cared about this population, they’d put our money where their mouths are.

They’d adequately fund county DD boards, including everything from early interventions for babies to job training and housing with qualified, well-paid staff for adults.

All of Ohio’s public schools would receive the funding to provide equitable education for all students, including those with developmental or intellectual disabilities.

Today, Ohio women wanting to terminate a pregnancy in which the fetus has been diagnosed with DS will need to travel to a state where it is legal. And those who do not or cannot will find themselves in a state that inadequately addresses the needs of their children.

john pavlovitz

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