Monday, August 22, 2016

Are My Sons Really Safe From Your Daughters?

It's back-to-school time. This means that over this past week, a lot of parents have dropped their offspring along with their boxes of stuff off on college campuses across the country. Lugging mini fridges and ramen noodles and boxes of crap up narrow residence hall stairways can be exhausting, but even more exhausting than the physical moving in, is the dropping off. Every parent already knows that college is often characterized by underage binge drinking and casual sex. It's an unfortunate part of the culture. When we add in the fear of sexual harassment and assault, it's enough to bring on a parental apoplexy of Biblical proportions. A lot of parents will need some seriously strong anti-anxiety medication after freshman drop off just to maintain a shred of sanity.

Of course, the college students don't make it any easier.

Last year, it was a bunch of dudes from Sigma Nu fraternity with snarky and inappropriate banners at Virginia's Old Dominion University. The white signs draped over the balconies of an off-campus house read "Rowdy and fun, hope your baby girl is ready for a good time," "Freshman Daughter Drop Off" and "Go ahead and Drop Off Mom Too."

Source: Twitter

Of course, everyone and their grandma was offended. ODU's Sigma Nu chapter was suspended. School administrators condemned the messages in two separate official statements, and ODU's Student Government Association called the signs in their own statement "unwelcoming, offensive, and unacceptable." And social media lit up with rants about rape culture and feminism and rampant acts of sexual assault on college campuses. 

The hammer came down hard on those boys. This sort of disrespect and objectification of women just will not be tolerated. I mean, we are supposed to be "teaching our boys to not rape" right? Signs like these are like the gateway drug to sexual abuse. Give them an inch and they're liable to violently take a mile.

Basically everyone was gasping and clutching their pearls (and rightly so). Fear for your daughters, everyone! Men just cannot be trusted!

This year, it's the women having their turn. A group of sorority girls at West Virginia University have taken paint to bedsheets to create their own snarky and inappropriate banners. "Freshman son drop-off," one sign reads. And right next to it, "You can drop off daddy too." And while those are more than slightly suggestive, these ladies (term very loosely applied) went even farther with some verbiage that is even more vulgar and crass than their frat boy counterparts. "We hope your son's pullout game is strong" and "We burned our couch so you can sit on our face" should be enough to leave the masses desperately clutching their pearls, right?




Wrong.

In perhaps the greatest example of the double standard the University scene has ever seen, not one person has been suspended or reprimanded or slapped on the wrist or even given a stern talking to. And social media is busy with their virtual high fives of congratulations to these tasteless young women.

Why? Because apparently strong sexually suggestive signs by men are considered "creepy" and "offensive" and blatant violations of zero tolerance policies regarding sexual harassment. However, if the same content is painted by people lacking a Y chromosome it's just "tongue in cheek" and "lighthearted" and even "truly inspirational". (If you don't believe me, check out these two very contradictory accounts of the two events that were published in Cosmopolitan almost exactly a year apart: West Virginia Sorority Trolls Sexist Fraternity Signs With Giant Daddy Posters versus College Bros Hang Creepy Banners at Off-Campus House)

I'm confused. If women throw around sexually crass vulgarities on a campus of higher learning they are somehow innocent, even inspirational, because they are sexually liberated. They aren't afraid to show the world that they are sexual creatures, that drunken uninhibited promiscuity is almost an act of gallantry for them. 

But when men throw around the same crass language, they are pigs and potential rapists and taking advantage of women (which is apparently a horrible, nasty, inexcusable thing even if the women really, really, really want to be taken advantage of).

I'm sorry, strange liberal media weirdos, if language like that isn't appropriate for our sons then it isn't appropriate for our daughters either. It cannot be acceptable to objectify men if it is beyond reprehensible to objectify women.

I know, I know. I should be afraid for my daughters. Some sketchy statistics tell me that they have a one in five chance of being raped while attending college. The media is constantly reminding me that we live in a culture of rape that is incredibly dangerous for young women. Men are just waiting for an opportunity to rape them and they must be constantly vigilant.

But truth be told, I am far more frightened for my boys than for my daughters. In today's culture, my sons must walk on eggshells around women, worrying that any vague pickup line might be interpreted as offensive or that any consent that isn't notarized and signed by witnesses might not be consent at all. While their female peers get carte blanche when it comes to promiscuity and changing their mind and overtly flirting but not really meaning it, my boys will likely need to give a breathalyzer test, a lie-detector test, and probably a drug test to any potential female partners. Just to be on the safe side. And if they don't have a good "pullout game" they could potentially have to raise a baby they didn't really consent to making and certainly had no say in whether it was carried to term. All because they were lured into a sexual act by a drunken scantily-clad strumpet, who certainly wasn't asking for it (although she repeatedly did ask for it).

Funny thing how that consent thing works these days.

We seem to expect our boys to behave like saints while we allow our girls to act like sluts. That's just not fair. We can't expect our boys to behave like gentlemen if our girls aren't behaving like ladies. This is supposed to be about equality, right? Even if feminism keeps screaming at us that women should be sexually liberated. Perhaps it is time to wake up to the fact that we are holding our sons to incredibly high standards while we allow our girls to wallow in swill. 

Sometimes I can't help but wonder if feminism isn't just an excuse for women to act like bitches and whores.

I'm not suggesting lowering the standards for boys. I've never liked the "boys will be boys" excuse for men behaving badly. But maybe it's time to make sure our girls are living by the same standards. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Are Bullies Really Evil? - The Waste of Anti-Bullying Campaigns

Middle school is Hell.

I recall with painful clarity the daily emotional warfare that preteen girls are capable of waging. As a 13 year-old girl, I was blindsided more than once, caught in intricate webs of social ostracization, the kind that would make the producers' of reality television shows heads spin.

To be fair, I often was guilty of doing the blindsiding, too.

Middle school seems to bring out the worst in people. The drama and intimidation and psychological combat that run rampant through so many middle school hallways, fueled by rampaging hormones and an animalistic drive for a decent seat in the social hierarchy, can lead to some deep-seated long-term trauma. Sure therapists and pharmaceutical companies and New Age life coaches are reaping the benefits of adults still dealing with painful middle school memories. They're preying on the survivors. The ones who made it out, however emotionally scarred they may be.

The truth is that everyone doesn't make it out of middle school alive.

Yesterday, Daniel Fitzpatrick's family buried the body of their 13 year-old son. On Thursday, Daniel's older sister found him dead, hanging from a belt in the attic. "I gave up," Daniel wrote in a long letter about his struggles with school bullying.

Only thirteen. It's sad and tragic and horrible in a way that just can't be put into words, but makes me hug my own pretten a little tighter with a huge sense of gratitude tinged with a kind of panicky fear. How could something like this happen?

Source: Facebook
Daniel Fitzpatrick's tragic suicide, so close to the start of the new school year, has brought the subject of bullying back into the national spotlight.

And so we're forced to endure hashtag activism from formerly bullied B-list actors. In the coming months, we might see some cheesy PSAs that are supposed to be designed to plant seeds of hope inside the hearts of suffering kids. New legislation will be introduced in city council meetings. Zero-tolerance policies will be added to student handbooks all across the country (You know, the kind that place guilt on innocent bystanders who witness bullying but do nothing? The policies that directly contradict the zero tolerance policies about violence? Do nothing and you're screwed. Stand up to an asshole by implementing a well-timed throat punch and you're screwed, too.)

Local school systems will be forking out loads of their scant funds on the social program du jour: Anti-bullying campaigns. There are a bunch, many of them making wild claims about their effectiveness at creating "bully-free schools". For only a large investment of funds these companies will help school systems implement their programs. It's a win/win, right? The company makes money, the CEO earns enough to buy a beach house somewhere posh, and the school kids get a drama-free, totally smooth, non-psychologically scarring educational experience.

Except that doesn't happen.

At least not the last part, but that beach house is totally bitchin'.

The bullying doesn't stop. In fact, research shows that students who attend schools with anti-bullying programs are actually more likely to experience bullying than students at schools that lack a program. Statistics make it easy to think maybe all of this anti-bullying hooplah is just a money-making scheme with a social agenda to make us feel good about what we aren't actually doing.

I'm no bullying expert, at least not aside from my own middle school experiences (as well as more than a few parental interventions on behalf of my own children), but maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the focus on what to do with the bullies.

We believe that bullies are evil incarnate and must be stopped, shamed, suspended, embarrassed, and exorcised right out of our school systems. We must search it out and exterminate it. For the children.

But sometimes the definition of bullying is so vague that almost anything that almost kinda sorta makes anyone uncomfortable might fall into the category. It has often been said that the harder you look for something, the more likely you are to find it. Does searching out bullies and bullying, actually create the thing we are trying to prevent? Because we are looking for it so we can stamp it out before it gets out of hand even if it isn't really there in the first place.

Maybe in doing so, we aren't giving kids the chance to learn the skills to manage disappointment and adversity all on their own. Adults and our anti-bullying campaigns will swoop in with our super hero red capes to save them. We wouldn't want little Johnny to feel sad. We can't tolerate anything that might even have the slightest hint of bullying.

I get that suicide is horrible and tragic. I get that Daniel Fitzpatrick's might have been prevented, and that makes it all the more horrible and tragic.

Daniel Fitzpatrick told his teachers. No one swooped in with a red cape to save him.

I can't help but wonder if we are focusing on the wrong things.

Maybe we shouldn't be lurking around corners trying to catch someone being mean or shouting about the evils of bullies. Maybe instead we should be trying to create more resilient people.

A child who knows that they are worth something, not because they've been told this through empty platitudes, but because they have proven it to themselves and others, children who understand respect and empathy aren't just better able to deal with the stress of being bullied... they are also less likely to be the bully.

It's weird how that works. By building up kids, creating situations where they can build their own self-esteem, prove to themselves that they are valuable and capable and strong, we can better prevent bullying than we could with any pre-packaged, over-priced, flashy program or zero-tolerance policy. Because bullies bully for many of the same reasons that kids suffer from bullying (low self-esteem for example).

We can't always be the ones with the capes, swooping in to save the weak. We need to give the weak their own capes and let them save the day for themselves. We need kids who can adapt to stress, who have a capacity to overcome and even be strengthened by life's adversities, instead of weak kids who need a safe space because words hurt.

Because adversity doesn't only exist on school playgrounds or within the cold cinder block walls of schools named after dead presidents. There are difficult human beings that we will have to encounter through all stages of our lives. I've dealt with bigger, meaner bullies as an adult than I ever faced as a school kid (and that's saying something considering how my "best friend" treated me in 7th grade). And once out in the real world, dealing with asshole neighbors and co-workers and government employees and waitresses with issues, there won't be any expensive anti-bullying programs to hide behind when people are mean. We can't shelter children from ever hurtful word or mean person and then expect them to magically deal with them once they turn eighteen.

We need to be focusing on raising kids who can suck it up, who can cope with hardship, who have such a confident sense of self that it doesn't make them feel less when someone doesn't like them. And yeah... we probably need kids with a sense of humor, ones who don't get completely butt-hurt when someone says something slightly crude or demeaning or inappropriate (like "butt-hurt" for example).

A kid with strong qualities like that... well, it won't matter what someone throws at them. Unless it's a wild right hook. But you can sign them up for martial arts classes to help them deal with that (Funny thing is: martial arts helps foster all of those other anti-bully qualities like self-respect, confidence, and tenacity, too. But that's a whole other blog topic).

I'm just saying that maybe, just maybe, it isn't about the bullies. Maybe it's never been about the bullies. Maybe we just need to raise better kids.

Maybe we just need to teach our kids to both literally and figuratively take a punch and have them keep on swinging. Maybe there are better things we can spend our money on than ineffective yet sanctimoniously satisfying anti-bullying programs. (Shameless martial arts plug: Karate only costs about $60 a month. That's way cheaper than the thousands the school systems spend on those stupid campaigns... Just sayin'.)


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Why Do Lazy Slugs Attack Outstanding Olympic Athletes?

I've been watching the Olympics, enamored with the events since the opening ceremonies with it's historic and mesmerizing Dance of the Cheese Graters.

The truly riveting Dance of the Cheese Graters


I'm not a swimmer... or a gymnast, or a diver, or even a racewalker. I've never run a marathon or slalomed a canoe or played polo in a pool. However, I still find myself watching the events, marveling at the inhuman athleticism, and mostly just saying, "Wow" over and over and over again.

Now if parenting were an Olympic-style event, I might be able to hang with the big dogs. But truth be told, I'm pretty sure Aly Raisman's parents would bring home the gold in that one, too.




While much of the world is stunned by the performances of world class athletes on the most competitive stage in sports, many are openly criticising the athletes. Gold medals don't protect you from internet trolls and couch potato haters.

Social Media, the cultural scourge that often may be, is abuzz with some major disrespect for Olympic athletes. From swimmer Ledecky's huge forehead to gymnast Gabby Douglas's messy hair, no athlete is immune to hate spewing from virtual sidelines. Keyboard commentators have criticized Michael Phelps and his scowling game face, Simone Biles' parentage, and Ibtihaj Muhammed's religion.

The scathing commentary isn't only directed at American athletes. No competitor is immune. Mexican gymnast, Alexa Moreno was ruthlessly body-shamed, called "fat" and compared to a pig (although I've never seen a pig do a decent balance beam routine) And Ethiopian swimmer, Robel Kiros Habte has been criticized for his paunchy tummy, even being dubbed Robel the Whale (although he didn't quite swim as fast as a whale, placing 59th out of 59. Although considering Ethiopia's water shortage, it could be considered a marvel that Robel swims at all).

It's disgusting really. Here we have some of the most physically talented humans on the planet, humans who have risen before dawn for most of their lives to train and practice and sweat while most of us sleep, humans who have sacrificed and are capable of feats that should inspire awe from the rest of us, are being insulted for the most petty bullshit imaginable.

Let's be honest, who are we to criticise an athlete's hair or forehead or bitchface, when we are so dormant that we text our teenagers to please come downstairs and hand us the remote when we can't quite reach it from our warm comfy spot on the sofa. All that effort seems just too much. We are too tired after a day at senseless, meaningless, soul-sucking jobs to do anything close to real work. We are too busy chasing paychecks to chase goals and dreams. We are too preoccupied with frivolous bullshit (Exactly why is the Swedish fish Oreo a trending topic right now?) to even think about getting our lazy pathetic asses off the furniture and doing something amazing.

Which is exactly why we criticize the trivial. Olympic athletes and their greatness make us feel threatened. They remind us of our shallow lives, our mediocrity, the drudgery of our unexciting existence. And there they are, paraded all across our television screens and newspaper stands and magazine covers, doing amazing things, pursuing amazing goals, strong and brave and focused. They are an unwelcome reminder of what an individual human being can become and accomplish with drive and ambition and commitment.

And if they can do it, why can't I? Well maybe not the gymnastics thing. I have bad knees and a major lack of flexibility. But why not something else? Why not some other dream? Some other goal? Some other thing that is equally magnificent? Some other endeavor that would make me say, "Wow"?

It's just that it takes so much effort.

Yes. It does. And that is why we complain about Gabby Douglas standing at attention during the National Anthem or Michael Phelps' weird cupping habit or Robel the Whale's extra layer of bodyfat...because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Knocking those amazing athletes down a peg from behind a keyboard makes them seem maybe a little less magnificent.

Sure Gabby Douglas can win gold medals. Sure she can literally fly circles around most people, but her hair is a hot mess.

Sure Simone Biles may be the best gymnast the world has ever seen, but did you know her biological mother was a drug addict?

If we make the great seem a little less great, we won't feel so uncomfortable in our own mediocrity.

The thing is, if we put a little more effort into ourselves, if we got up off the couch and did something worthwhile, if we didn't so easily give up on our own dreams, if we put forth the effort to make something special of ourselves... well... we wouldn't feel so threatened by the greatness of others.

Because we still can, you know? Be something great, that is.

We don't have to hate on the world's best humans to do it either. We can use their hard work and dedication as inspiration, instead of tossing our petty insults around like rubber balls.

Instead, we can step up. We can do something, make something, be something. There are amazing things that we can accomplish. But it's going to take some effort, which might sound scary, but there are things of which we should be far more afraid.

Mediocrity, for example.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

But What if They Outgrow Us? Dear God, I Hope So

I am not a short person.

Although both of my sons and several of my taller coworkers would strongly dispute this, I am in fact incredibly average when it comes to height. Measuring in at 5 feet 4 inches tall, I am right on par with the average American female, at least according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And yet, I am short when standing next to my children.

After posting a photograph to social media this weekend, one in which I am standing smiling next to my youngest child, someone asked when she had grown taller than me. Which can't be right. She is my baby. My youngest. She's only twelve.

And yet, she is taller... by almost an inch.

When did that happen? Someone forgot to remind me to pay attention. I swear I only looked away for a brief moment, got distracted by the laundry or the dust bunnies or that last really horrible season of The Walking Dead. I didn't see it happen. And yet, here we are.

When my children were small, with shorter legs and tiny feet, they used to have to run to keep up with me. It took them at least two strides to every single one of mine, their small hands clinging to mine, being pulled behind me through parking lots and across streets, down grocery store aisles and around fast food dining rooms. They struggled to live life at my pace, afraid of getting left behind. I was so much bigger. Faster. Stronger. More than them.

But not anymore.

They are so much more than me. All of them.

Last week I watched my youngest son handle himself with grace and dignity in a difficult situation. He was confronted by another parent, accused of some nasty acts of bullying. In the face of an angry adult, pointing fingers and questioning his character, he spoke evenly and calmly. He explained himself with such poise and maturity that I could hardly believe what was happening. I, on the other hand, pretty much lost my shit. Looking back on the incident, I realize that I had let emotions get the best of me, that I had too easily lost patience, that I had behaved like a child who just wanted to run away. In that moment of confrontation, I realized that my 15 year-old son is a much better human being than I am.

Meanwhile, my youngest, the one who so recently surpassed me in height, could totally own me on the dojo floor. She is far better at martial arts than I will probably ever be, in spite of my higher rank and life experience and general mastery of adulthood. She is faster and stronger and more skilled. And on top of it all, she carries it well, with a quiet confidence tempered by humility. She, too is a better human being.

My oldest daughter is the kind of go-getter I have never been. She is smart and driven and competitive. This past Saturday, I watched from the audience as she spoke to an auditorium full of strangers with a clear voice and confident words, without nerves. And she walks in heels much more skillfully than I do. Again, she's a better human.

And my oldest son just earned his Army jump wings. He may be one of the bravest and strongest men I've ever met. He lives his life with a level of integrity, loyalty, and grit to which I can only aspire. He's going places and now that he is Airborne, he can get to those places much faster than the average soldier.

The day of my oldest son's basic training graduation was an incredibly proud day. I cried big fat soppy tears. But his graduation wasn't only a culmination, a marking of hard work completed. It was just one step, a launching point, to bigger things. He is living a life, learning things along the way, that I, as his mother, will never understand.

On that day, when things had quieted, the excitement and chaos calmed, and my husband and I were alone, we marveled at how that little boy in footie pajamas had grown so tall and so strong and so brave, in what seems such a short time. We knew he was starting a life without us, that he had big plans and bigger dreams, that he would be learning and experiencing things that we could never have provided him.

"I just worry that he's going to outgrow us," my husband had said, a little misty-eyed. And while I understand what he meant, as we both waded through what seemed like a huge goodbye to the little boy we've loved so deeply, as we watched our adult son march off to places we can't follow, all I could think is:

"God, I hope so."

All four of these incredible people, the ones I am truly blessed to have raised and honored to call my children, are more than me. They've already outgrown me in so many ways. They no longer struggle to live life at my pace. Instead they set their own gait, measure their own miles, stretch for their own goals. They are so much more than I am.

They are speeding on through life toward their own destinations, learning and mastering new things, things I struggle to understand (like tech support and teen lingo).

And I find I'm the one rushing to keep up with them. Stretching my own stride to keep their pace, stretching myself to be the kind of mother they deserve. They inspire me to be better, to reach higher, to live braver, to breathe deeper. I find myself setting larger goals, working to be stronger, faster, bigger than I was just yesterday. Because I want so desperately to keep up. I don't want to get left behind, and I certainly don't want them slowing down to wait for me.

Isn't that what we're working for? All of the sleepless nights and math homework and carpools to soccer, isn't that what we're in it for? So our children can have more than we had? That they can be more than we ever were?

We should be hoping and praying and actively encouraging them to outgrow us.

Because the world needs better people than we are. Our children can be those people.

And they can make us better people in the process. The world still needs us, too.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

What Other People Think About Being Offended

It's been an emotionally charged week for me. Hot on the heels of two major political circuses (also known as conventions) both of which left me feeling demoralized, disgusted, and more than a little afraid, I landed right in the middle of some rather agonizing personal drama. I'm not one to go looking for drama, but I apparently am not particularly skilled at avoidance. Sometimes drama manages to find me in spite of my best efforts.

Interpersonal drama plus the current political abyss plus the knowledge that my son is parachuting out of airplanes has not been a great equation for inspired writing. Each time I have sat down to write this week, I've been afraid of what might come spilling out. I know that I'm going to offend someone. While you might think that offending people is one of my favorite pastimes, I'm just not feeling up to the emotional fall-out this week.

Everyone around me is offended. It's in the news, on my social media feeds, and bouncing around my circle of friends. Khizr Khan offended Donald Trump who offended Khizr Khan (and most other Americans). Hillary's face offends people. Police officers are apparently offensive. My children offended some other children at a birthday party, which caused a whole lot of other people to be offended.

 I'm offended. You're offended. Wouldn't you like to be offended, too?

The world is one great big giant ferris wheel of people being offended. This is frankly not a ride I enjoy. It makes me want to vomit, and I desperately want off. I'm still not in a great emotional space, so instead of forcing you to endure my scattered thoughts, fervent rants, or whiny complaints, I will instead leave you with the words of other, more emotionally stable individuals.

And, yes... I realize that this post is probably going to offend someone. Whatever.

Quotes on being offended:

"Apologies; our cultural obsession with them isn't actually about being offended, or simply needing to hear, 'I'm sorry.' It's not really about right or wrong. It's about wanting to throw a rock in the dark and hear something break." ~ Jim Norton

"If you are on a continuous search to be offended, you will always find what you are looking for, even when it isn't there." ~ Bill Kellogg

"When people do not respect us we are sharply offended; yet in his private heart no man much respects himself." ~ Mark Twain

"Just because you're offended, doesn't mean you're right." ~Ricky Gervais

"To be offended is a choice we make; it is not a condition inflicted or imposed upon us by someone or something else." ~ David A. Bednar

"If you are offended, it's your problem." ~ Salman Rushdie

"An offended heart is the breeding ground of deception." ~ John Bevere

"Being offended is part of being in the real world." ~ Courtney Love

"Don't change your mind just because people are offended; change your mind if you're wrong." ~ Criss Jami

"Anything designed to be inoffensive isn't worth your time - - life itself is pretty offensive, ending as it does with death." ~ Holly Lisle

"If you are too afraid to offend anyone, then I'm afraid you may not be able to do anything remarkable." ~ Bernard Kelvin Clive

"After all, its in the way an insult is received that makes it an insult. You can't really give offense unless someone takes it." ~ Portia De Rossi

"Nobody has the right to not be offended. That right doesn't exist in any declaration I have ever read. If you are offended it is your problem, and frankly lots of things offend lots of people.

I can walk into a bookshop and point out a number of books that I find very unattractive in what they say. But it doesn't occur to me to burn the bookshop down. If you don't like a book, read another book. If you start reading a book and you decide you don't like it, nobody is telling you to finish it. To read a 600-page novel and then say it has deeply offended you: well, you have done a lot of work to be offended." ~ Salman Rushdie


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Finding Grace in the None on my Son's Dog Tags

On Memorial Day weekend, my family made a trip through the hot and sticky South all the way down to Fort Benning, Georgia. It was only the end of May, but the weather was already hot and humid and gross in that stifling way that only the deep South can be. We made the trip for my oldest son's basic training "Family Day". At the time, we hadn't seen him for almost nine long weeks, our only contact with him crammed into short phone calls sliced and divided between five eager family members.

It was the first time we had seen him in uniform, the first time we had a glimpse of the soldier (and the man) he was becoming. There were tears and hugs. He showed off his budding new biceps and regaled us with drill sergeant stories. He told us about in-processing and the line-ups for mass inoculations... and he showed off his new dog tags.

Like with everything he had to tell us about his experiences since we tearfully watched him board the bus to Fort Benning, he talked on rapidly and excitedly, like he had to cram the whole of everything he wanted to tell us into a ten minute phone call. He pointed out his blood type (It was indeed AB positive just like we had speculated before he left) and explained how one of the tags could be snapped off while the other remained with his body if battle conditions prevented it from being immediately recovered.

While I shoved that little piece of information away for later mulling (or mental blocking, which seems way easier) I asked him what the word "NONE" was for, written in big capital letters.

"Oh, that's my religion," he replied rather nonchalantly.

It seems so odd that four little letters on two dog tags could cause a quiet feeling of panic, but they did. Not that I felt like I had necessarily failed my son spiritually in some way, it just seemed such a small way to summarize something so enormous and important. While I know that space is limited and there are only a few constrictive categories for soldiers to choose from, it seemed dismissive for the US Army to consider my child to be without a guide for the bigger, pressing, important questions of human existence. That word, with only four letters (three really... the N is repeated so it really only counts as one), is what would sum up my son's spirituality, the identifier that would remain with his irretrievable body should it turn cold, the potential marker of his final resting place. (Mental Note: I need to work on better mental blocking.)

Yeah. I was panicky. The image of that one word on those metal dog tags is one of the most persistent images I remember from that "Family Day" weekend.

I returned home from that weekend to find a pleasant surprise in my inbox, a request to review a book, Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, by Katherine Ozment. 

I had made the decision to participate after reading the very first paragraph of the synopsis:
Meet “the Nones”—In this thought-provoking exploration of secular America, celebrated journalist Katherine Ozment takes readers on a quest to understand the trends and ramifications of a nation in flight from organized religion.

Can you say serendipity? There I was struggling with the "None" on my son's dog tags, when I get an offer to review a book about exactly what that word actually means. It is happy coincidences of finding exactly what I need exactly when I need it that keep me believing in something bigger than myself... perhaps something benevolent... perhaps just something with a great sense of timing and an odd sense of humor.

I didn't need to meet "the Nones". I am one, and apparently so are my children. My son's dog tags are cold hard proof.

I spent the next two weeks reading Ozment's book, even lugging it to the beach (It is, admittedly, a bit heavy for a beach read... in content, not in actual weight.)

Part memoir, part critical exploration, this book isn't just for atheists. It's for anyone whose spirituality doesn't neatly fit into a preformed religious box. Not only does Ozment examine the reasons why large numbers of people are leaving religion, but also seeks to find solutions to the gaps that a lack of organized religion can leave in people's lives. She looks for alternative ways to fill an individual's need for community, values, volunteer opportunities, support in times of need, meaningful ritual, and life purpose. 

She takes us along on her own journey as she treads the more remote and unexplored areas of secular life, searching for her own way to find meaning and belonging outside of religion. She leads us through her explorations and meetings with experts in the fields of psychology, biology, sociology, and history. She talks with atheists, Buddhists, secular humanists, agnostics, scientists, and scholars in a very thorough exploration of the ways the nonreligious find purpose and fulfillment in a life without organized religion.

While I spent large portions of the book feeling like Ozment was attempting to convince me that I needed religion, that nothing could adequately replace the connection, purpose, and fulfillment that religion often has to offer, after reading the entire book, I realize it was just the author's personal frustration with her own quest showing through her outwardly journalistic demeanor.

While I personally feel like my family has already found ways to fill the gaps in purpose, morality, ritual, and community, those who are still struggling will find Ozment's list of resources invaluable. The resource section at the end of Grace Without God is full of books to read, questions to consider, and websites to browse.

Grace Without God is a great read for those attempting to navigate the world without the prop of organized religion. It is definitely worth a read (although you might want to consider something fluffier to tote along to the beach. Or if deep and serious is your beach style, have at it. I'm not one to judge.)

My favorite sentiment comes from the author's epilogue, which is actually a touching open letter to her three children.
"Christians believe that it is God who grants us grace, but I believe we create it for ourselves, through persistence, awareness, and clear-eyed reflection. Grace comes from knowing that to be alive and conscious in this world is a rare gift. If we are open to it, we can see that there is grace all around us, with or without God."
Thank you, Katherine Ozment for helping me understand that the "None" on my son's dog tags doesn't signify a lack of morality, meaning, or grace. It is indeed possible to have those things with or without religion. 

And thank you, TLC Book Tours for your incredible sense of timing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Can Someone Please Tell Me? - Questions Without Answers

Motherhood has a way of forcing us to confront the big unanswerable questions, questions about meaning and purpose, questions about morality and the state of the world, questions about just how much poop can come out of one tiny human butt.

Seriously, there are no answers to these questions, and yet we mothers find ourselves asking them anyway. Alone in the wee hours of the morning, rocking children that just won't sleep, mothers through the ages have pondered the deeper questions of the universe. Perhaps those big questions seem so important because of the weight of the little lives that we carry in our arms, or by surges of that maternal hormonal cocktail that surges through our bodies, or (more probably) by sheer delirious exhaustion and sleep deprivation.

Later, when those babies learn to talk, they come up with their own questions. The "What's dat?" labeling phase can leave a mom feeling like she has all the answers. While labeling everything from dogs to body parts to cheese toast might make you feel super smart and totally with it, do not succumb to that ego trip, because children have always been the great humblers of mothers. Remember how small you felt in the wee hours of the morning contemplating the meaning of life and the weight of parental responsibility? I assure you more questions without answers will flow from your child's lips.

"Why is that a dog?"

"Why doesn't the sky fall on us?"

"Why is it a pair of pants if there's only one of them?"

"When did air start?"

"When will I die?"

See? That's what we get for being cocky.

My kids are older now, able to read, capable of more complex thought, and have mad googling skills so I haven't had too many tough questions from them in recent years. They have been busy finding their own answers to questions, so that's nice.

But yesterday, I had a very existential conversation with a dear friend. During our conversation, I realized I am still plagued with unanswerable questions.

This week my oldest child graduates from Army basic training. From there, he goes on to Airborne jump school to learn how to jump from perfectly good aircraft. All of those years that I managed to prevent him jumping from the top of the playground slide seem suddenly pointless. (Perhaps I should have just let him get it out of his system when he was six. It might have been worth the emergency room visit.) A mother's worry isn't easily assuaged even knowing that her son is highly skilled and well-trained by the U.S. government (It could be that "U.S. government" part that has me worried. I'm not sure.) From there, it's off to Fort Bragg, NC where he will be a proud member of the 82nd Airborne Division, the primary fighting arm of the XVIII Airborne Corps.

While basic training, with its initial drastic separation and months of limited contact has been difficult, the next part seems harder. I don't even mean the "jumping out of planes" part. I'm referring to the "primary fighting arm" part.

My son, the same one who felt so heavy in my arms, who kept me up and deprived me of sleep, who forced me to ask the big unanswerable questions of the Universe... the same one who pelted me with rapid-fire questions of "what" and then "why"... the son I have loved so deeply and fought so ruthlessly to protect for twenty long (yet incredibly short) years, will willingly step into harm's way. When people have offered up congratulations and gushing sentiments about military opportunities and GI bills and paid education, I always counter with, "True... but it's highly likely that people will be shooting at my child." I'm just trying to keep it real. Put things into perspective.

It's more than I think my soul can bear and it's forced up more big unanswerable questions.

"How can I love this human being so very much?"

"How can I feel so much pride without bursting wide open?"

"How many prayers? How many offerings? How many candles? And to how many gods will it take to keep him safe?"

Because I need to know.

Can someone please tell me?

Why does it feel like the sky is falling on me?

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Joy is in the Journey


My daughter bought a car.

Like all-by-herself, saved-for-two-years, payed-all-the-taxes, doesn't-have-a-car-payment, hers-is-the-only-name-on-the-title bought a car.

It's the real deal. She's only seventeen, by the way. It's okay for you to be impressed, because I certainly am.

She got her driver's license this week, too. She actually took the driving test in her very own vehicle, so that's kinda cool. I went with her to the DMV because I love her and she was nervous and I enjoy smelling other people sweat on a Thursday afternoon.

When she arrived back from the driving test, she kind of made eye contact and sort of shrugged in my direction as she followed the administrator back to her desk. I could just make out the sound of her voice over the piped-in elevator music as she signed things and posed for her picture. I knew she had passed. I knew I was now the mother of another licensed driver.

She was ecstatic. I, however, felt a bit somber, but managed to muster some enthusiasm for her as she showed off the awkward license photo (Does anyone ever take a good photo for their license?) Then my husband and I sent her off in her new-to-her vehicle for her first solo run.

As we walked toward home from the DMV (one of the perks of small town living), I watched her stop at the first intersection stop sign. She glanced at us and waved before checking both directions for oncoming traffic. As she turned to check toward the right, I knew she was realizing that there was no one in the passenger seat. She was on her own, experiencing her first real taste of freedom, realizing that she is the master of her own destiny.

Watching her pull away from that intersection and drive away without me, something heavy hit me and hit me hard. It wasn't an incompetent student driver, either. It was a sudden realization.

All of my children are going to leave me.

I suppose I already knew this. They've been slowly leaving me since that first moment they were each laid in my arms. I knew, at least on some level, that they would all one day grow into adults (hopefully responsible and productive ones) and create their own lives, pursue their own dreams. I remember marveling at each of their newborn faces and wondering what kind of people they would be when they were grown.

So I knew they would grow up, but it always seemed so very distant, like a beacon pulsing far off in the distance, just barely visible beyond the strewn legos and scattered bath toys. I suppose I've been too busy wading through the everyday stuff, cooking dinner, folding laundry, paying bills, keeping them from killing each other, to look up and see just how rapidly that horizon was approaching.

It's been a rough summer. Child #1 left home in March. He's been in the care of the U.S. Army for the past three and half months, and we've had scant contact with him, only receiving a phone call about every third week. His absence has been felt in surprisingly tangible ways, always looming like it's own presence. His absence felt in his empty chair at the dinner table, the perpetually closed door to his bedroom, his missing opinion in every conversation.

And through these three months, with Child #1's departure to adulthood still so fresh, his sister has been working diligently on her own exit strategy, touring three college campuses, while Child #3 prepares to enter high school, already chatting it up about his future career plans.

I feel like I am coming undone. I have always been an incredibly goal-oriented individual. Put a target in front of me and I'm going toward it with laser-like focus. So, I'm surprised at my reactions to all of this growing up stuff. The goal has always been to raise adults, to get my children safely to adulthood, having them arrive ready to move forward with purpose and drive, capable of taking care of themselves and be productive members of society.

And here we are. I should be feeling all of those big giant feelings of accomplishment and achievement and triumph that come packaged together with a destination reached, a goal realized. It has been a long road. It's taken an awful lot of effort to get here. I should be thrilled.

I suppose I am thrilled and excited and proud. For them, at least.

But I'm left here missing them. Missing the legos and scattered bath toys. I'm missing the sleepless nights and having my arms full of babies. I'm already missing them and I'm missing me, missing the me that was "Mom" when that word meant to them the whole world.

It's true what they say about life and journeys and happiness. The joy really is in the journey, not the destination.

And it has been one tough journey, full of temper tantrums and tears, doubt and second guesses, mistakes and messes, heartache and hurt feelings, and "Are we there yet?" whining. So many times I wished for an end of some sort, or at least a brief reprieve, to the bickering and the stress and the energy-suck that was raising children. So many times I thought the journey was the hard part.

But let me tell you...this destination... well, it kinda sucks.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Why I Don't Want My Children To Just Be Happy

"I just want her to be happy. You know?"

I heard these words from a young mother in regards to her small daughter over the weekend, and they have been itching at my brain for days. They aren't uncommon words, I've heard them spoken by other parents of other children on other days. In fact, it is a pretty common sentiment, almost a modern parenting mantra. But something about those words just haven't felt right to me.

Surely, the highest goal, the pinnacle of parenting success, the mother of all attainment is that we produce happy people. We speak of it as if nothing else matters. Because if they achieve greatness and money and success but are miserably unhappy, it has all been for naught, right?

In that light, achieving a high level of happiness seems pretty important. But should it really be the ultimate goal?

Maybe we've placed happiness in the spotlight because we've found it so fleeting and difficult to achieve. A 2013 poll showed that two thirds of Americans are not "very happy". Antidepressants are the third most common prescription drug. And with the majority of Americans unhappy and dissatisfied with their jobs, the lack of happiness in the United States starts to look like a frightening epidemic.

Or maybe the placement of happiness on such a high pedestal is a reflection of the new culture of acceptance. Today's parents have seen friends cower in closets of sexuality because they were afraid of disappointing their parents. They've also watched adults while away their days miserably working a job they hate just because it pays well. And so we've decided to accept our children as they are and support them no matter their goals, because we want them to "just be happy".

But here's the deal... there is a whole lot more to life than just being happy.

By saying, "I just want my kids to be happy" without qualifying the statement, it insinuates that any choice is acceptable as long as it makes them happy. Does this mean that we are okay with our children choosing to live in our basement and smoke pot and play video games? ... as long as they are happy. Is it okay for them to drop out of school and work the rest of their lives as a cashier at McDonald's, getting people's orders wrong, and counting out incorrect change? ...as long as they are happy. What if the become big bank brokers or corrupt used car salesmen and cheat old ladies? ... as long as they are happy. What if they insist on ordering their steaks well done at nice restaurants? ... Surely we have to draw the line somewhere.

By telling our children that we "just want them to be happy", we are sending a message that is apt to develop little narcissists. It tells our children that there is nothing more important than their feelings, that their personal happiness is the ultimate pursuit. We've already sent them that message through our helicopter-style parenting, orbiting around them like planets around the sun. So telling them that our only desire for them in life is that they be happy reinforces the notion that they are all that matters. Screw other people and their feelings. Screw higher causes and deeper meaning. Screw doing anything challenging or difficult. And while we're at it, let's just selfishly encourage them to consume senselessly while using other people to get what they want.

Happiness is such a fleeting thing and it is all too often confused with pleasure. The pleasure of eating a cupcake or buying a new blouse or engaging in casual sex may seem like they bring happiness at the time, but those things, while surely pleasurable, can leave us feeling unfulfilled. Happiness isn't something you can consume or buy or sleep with. But because pleasure feels so much like happiness, we often find ourselves grasping and reaching for the next pleasurable experience because we think that's what it takes to make us happy. And since happiness is all we want for our children, it could leave them grasping at brief moments of gratification, never accomplishing anything and never achieving any real and lasting happiness anyway.

And there are far worse things our children could end up being than unhappy.

I don't want my  kids to just be happy.

I want my children to be productive and empathetic and gracious. I want them to be generous and hard-working and passionate. I want to raise people with purpose and character. The world needs more citizens who are honest and genuine and humble. I want them to give of themselves, to work hard for a worthwhile cause, to be part of lasting solutions to big problems, to be part of something bigger than themselves. I want them to strive to be better than they already are, to pursue goals that aren't easily achieved, and most of all I want them to be kind.

Interestingly enough, happiness seems to be a natural byproduct of those things. It's almost like when we stop looking for it, chasing it, desiring it, and focus on the really worthwhile things, happiness seems to find us. By focusing on others, while reaching for the things that are truly valuable, happiness just kind of happens.

So I hope that isn't all you really want for your kids, because if that's all you want for them, they'll likely never find it.



Monday, June 20, 2016

Are We Dancing on the Grave of Freedom?

Just over two years ago, I walked with my oldest son to the local post office just a few blocks from our home. He could have registered for Selective Service online, but there is something about that solemn walk to the post office, the coming-of-age ritual that young men have participated in since 1940, that just seemed fitting. It was an act that somehow tied him to his father and grandfathers and great-grandfathers who had also made similar walks to similar post offices not long after their own eighteenth birthdays.

As a mother, the act was slightly disturbing. My kid, who barely needed to shave, was registering with the government, surrendering to its will, suddenly subject to its whims. He could be forced to kill and be killed just because he was male and a citizen and between the ages of 18 and 26. Go, America! Let freedom ring!

I am not so far removed from the Vietnam War and it's era of burning draft cards. I've heard stories from my parents about their friends who were drafted to "serve" in the War and then never came home. There is something about the idea, the possibility of your own child that you've nurtured and protected and invested an awful lot of energy in keeping alive, being forced by the powers that be to serve as a pawn in international affairs and government interests.

My daughter turns eighteen in January. Just a little over six months away.

Last week, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed The National Defense Authorisation Act which includes an amendment that would require women to register for the draft.

I may soon be making that same walk to the post office with my young daughter.

It's only fair, right? With the pentagon recently dropping barriers to women serving in combat roles, it seems a requirement for women to register for the draft is the next, logical step to fairness and equality. That the bill passed so strongly with an 85-13 vote proves just how readily our lawmakers are willing to force the nation's girls into conscription.

In the name of fairness.

And equality.

Women have, after all fought tooth and nail for years to be treated like men. Our sisters struggled for centuries to serve as anything more than just nurses in our armed forces. And they've won. Even combat jobs are now open to females. There are women who actually don an Army Ranger tab on their uniforms. Inclusion in the draft is the next logical step in achieving gender equality, and one whose time has long since come.

There is nothing that Americans care about more than equality.

We certainly don't care so much about freedom, or we wouldn't be so quick and eager to throw it out in the name of equality.

Because Selective Service is kind of like a compulsory lottery for slavery (and perhaps imminent death). If not slavery, what label do you slap on a system that indentures individuals, tells them where they can go, what they can do, even what they can do to their bodies? They must do what they are told without hesitation and without regard to the whisperings of their conscience. Slavery is defined as involuntary servitude. And that is exactly what conscription is, involuntary service.  I concede that the meager paychecks our military servicemen and women receive does offer a significant perk over traditional slavery. But toss in the potential order to kill other human beings, or to have their life sacrificed for ideals the individual may not hold, and I think it almost evens out.

Remember how angry we all got over The Hunger Games? Remember how we couldn't believe that those parents would stand by and watch their children be sent off by an uncaring government to die? Remember how they didn't even do anything about it?

Dude, that's us!

For generations now we have knowingly allowed our sons to be registered and catalogued for possible sacrifice. We've even counted it as noble. We've handed over our sons' lives to the whims of an imperial government. And now we are lining up to hand over our daughters, too. All to the sound of thunderous applause. All to the celebratory chants of "Equality".

All because it is what's fair and right.

But it isn't fair or right. It isn't for our sons and it isn't any more for our daughters.

Instead of marching down the road to equality, and willingly placing our daughters' lives in possible jeopardy because it's what our men have to do, maybe we should just rethink the whole concept. Maybe Selective Service was never right in the first place. Maybe we are asking  the wrong questions. Maybe, for once, our country's men should be standing up and demanding the same freedoms that our women enjoy.

Or I could be wrong. Maybe equality is far more important than personal freedom. Maybe we've taken that "all men are created equal" phrase in the Declaration of Independence a little too literally. I'm not sure why those five words should seem more important than the words that follow, "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness".

It seems some people think equality trumps their inalienable rights. Or maybe they are just willing to trade those rights for equality.

I'm not. And neither are my daughters.




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