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For My Bama

30 Sep

** A short note. This is the eulogy that I wrote for my grandmother. I have gone back and forth over whether or not to post it but ultimately the decision was made for me by my friend Miriam who has been my guiding light through this grief journey. She believes that we all need someone(s) to be witness to our lives, to our death, to our grief, to our success. And so all of you who read this are a witness not only to my process and experience, but to the life that I was able to bear witness to. In this way, Bama’s legacy is able to spread even farther and you all get a glimpse at what a magical person she was **


There is a painting on my wall. I always say that in the event of a flood it is the only non-living thing I will take with me. It measures 4 foot by 2. It is made up of pinks, oranges and yellows – a beautiful African sunset. There is a tree off to the right side; I think it is a baobab, although it very well might be a marula. Running towards the tree is a giraffe. The giraffe is…imperfect. Too small with awkward, stumpy legs, its neck – however proportional to the rest of the animal it may be – would never reach far enough to allow the giraffe access to the leaves. If it were real this giraffe would surely starve. But I love it. I love everything about the painting. I love the detailing on the leaves, the grasses that seem to move, this one cloud that is absolute perfection – the rays of the sun illuminate its shape so clearly that I am certain that this singular cloud is real, living in an otherwise painted landscape. But the giraffe – I always come back to the giraffe. It is framed by orange, more orange than exists anywhere else on the canvass. It is something that other people might not notice but I do. I notice because I remember when Bama painted it.

She was having trouble getting the giraffe right and try as she may her hand never seemed able to recreate what was in her mind. I sat in the airy, pastel living room of the house in Florida completely in awe of her ability to recreate this magical sunset again and again and again, each one more colorful than the last. Eventually she settled on a giraffe – I don’t know that she was enamored with it but it was good enough to stay in the painting which occupied the space above her bed for decades in a perfectly chosen gold and black frame. Of all the paintings she ever created, and there are quite a few, it is by far my favorite. Partially because I feel I was part of the process – although I probably got in the way more than anything else – but also because of the bold and beautiful colors. I love colors and so did Bama – I learned that from her.

When I was younger I was quite partial to oversized t-shirts and sweatshirts, generally in dark blues and blacks. I remember one day I was hanging out with Bama and she said to me,

“Bekahboo, why don’t you wear more color? You have my skin tone, see?”

She was sporting a beautiful, billowy turquois top that just set her off. She put her forearm against mine and she was right – I had the exact same olive skin tone and so, after a discussion, we got in the car and headed to Nordstrom’s – her favorite department store – to look for clothes. We rode the escalator to the top and there in front of me was Plum, Nordstrom’s answer to the needs of the young adult market. She bought me a couple of tops – one of them was neon pink and strapless if I remember correctly – and it changed my life. I have had a color-heavy existence ever since. Except, of course, for that one day I showed up at her house fresh from a shift at Banana Republic wearing a black turtle neck and dark jeans and she said,

“Bekahboo, you look lovely in black. Why don’t you wear it more?”

It turns out that to Bama, I was perfect no matter what. And she, in turn, was perfect to me.

Bama’s was the first phone number I ever memorized. Her house was where I went when I wanted to hide, to feel safe, to eat those weird raspberry-shaped candies she had lying around for awhile, and to learn how to make things like corn bake and latkes. It was where I went when I wanted to laugh. I like to flatter myself and think that I share her sense of humor. And, in fact, if she were here right now she would probably tell me I did and then look at me and say,

“Well, you didn’t lick it off a bush!”

Which, the more I think about it, is a really weird saying. Sometimes I think maybe Bama didn’t get her due entirely. Papa was sort of an out-sized personality with his schemes, loud voice and serial obsessions but Bama was always there, always consistent, always ready with a funny comment and a smile. She was the real star of the show. The real Hollywood.

So, I guess before I stand here talking for the rest of the day I will just say this: we were lucky to have her for as long as we did. And we are lucky that her humor and her artistic talent was passed along to each and every one of us. Except for maybe my dad who is not really very artistic at all but tells a hell of a joke about a coffin. Bama, I love you, I miss you and your giraffe painting is safe with me forever.

What Would Your Super Power Be?

13 May

Aaaaaand after a 7 month break I am back. Let’s see what happens.

I have been thinking about old people a lot. Partially because old people really like my dog, Goose, and that makes me happy. It’s made me think about maybe training her to visit old folks homes to bring a few smiles and a little spunk into what I imagine can sometimes be a dreary life. I’ve been thinking about how when I walk Goose I am very aware of how people react to her. People are afraid of dogs and she is not small. But I have noticed that for some reason a lot of older people are drawn to her. Their faces light up, eyes brighten, mouths turn up into a grin. And so Goose and I stop so they can say hello and I think to myself about how this world erases the old people among us and how lonely it must be to walk along the streets unnoticed. And how important it is not to stop and smell the flowers, although that is nice too, but to take notice of the lady slowly pushing her cart to the store or the gentleman sitting out front of his house on a vinyl chair, a pocket full of treats for the dogs walking by.

I’ve also been thinking about old people because my grandma is an old person. And not just any old person. She is my old person, my Bama. She is hilarious. One time my dad brought her a sandwich and she made some sort of comment about how she might die soon (Jews, am I right?!), and my dad said that he hoped she wouldn’t die too soon and do you know what she said? She said, yeah, because then you would have wasted money on this sandwich. I don’t know. I think it’s comedy genius but maybe you had to be there.

In an effort to grapple with the fact that my last remaining grandparent is 93 and not in the very best of health, I have been doing what I often do: I have been hiding in the big picture. I’ve been thinking a lot about systems and causes and humanity. I’ve been thinking about how we got here and where we go from here. How we move forward from what I think of as an expensive, yet substandard, approach to care and towards something better. I’ve been thinking about compassion and empathy. I’ve been thinking about how we, as a society, define the idea of being human and how that classification may or may not change over the course of a lifetime. How we cycle through different levels of value simply by existing and those values are almost always placed on us by the world in which we live.

It is an interesting thing, thinking about the trajectory of a life. How the rights of a zygote are valued more than those of the women who carry that zygote. How maybe sometimes those women give birth to a baby girl, whose rights and values will be added to and chipped away from depending on how old she is, how attractive, whether she gets pregnant, if she is assaulted, how opinionated she is and so many other factors. How one day, inevitably, she will cycle from youth to adulthood to middle age to old age and she will become less and less visible. And then, maybe, depending on the family in which she is a member, she will be forgotten. Overlooked. Gone before she is even dead.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about because that will be me some day, assuming I don’t get ill or run over by a self-driving bus. And it just makes me wonder, what will late in life look like for me? What am I owed as an engaged, mostly good person on this planet? But, way more importantly, what do I owe to those who came before me? And how do I continually do better?

This all makes me think of that question people used to ask when I was younger – and, to be honest, that some people still ask me to this day: if you could have any super power, what would it be? And while my answer for the past 2 decades has been to be able to speak every single language, it used to be invisibility. I used to want to be invisible sometimes. Not for any nefarious reasons, just so I could occasionally disappear. But then one day I realized that as a person on this earth, and more specifically as a woman on this earth, invisibility is an inevitability so wishing for it is a waste. I will be invisible one day whether I want to be or not.

Trauma is a Mother Fucker

30 Sep

This has been an especially rough week. Few weeks, actually. I remember a while back I read this article that summarized a study that had been carried out on Vietnam Vets. Please excuse my lapse in memory since I read this a long time ago and am a little fuzzy on the details but the gist of it is as follows:

Following the Vietnam War, some social scientists questioned a number of soldiers returning from battle. They asked them specific questions about their experiences, what happened, how they felt. They took detailed notes, took down their names and said they would follow up in a few decades time. The years passed and then, 30 or 40 years later, they tracked down the people that they could find and asked the exact same questions they had asked upon their initial return. The vets fell distinctly into two different groups: those whose memories had changed, and those whose memories had not. They had all experienced some horrible things while overseas but some of them had the distinct markers of trauma and some of them did not. Those whose memories had changed over time – who in hindsight saw their experience at war through rose-colored glasses – had not developed PTSD. It was the returnees who explained scenarios exactly as they had decades before, those who remembered all the details of specific events as if they had happened just yesterday, that were suffering the longterm psychological effects of war.

I think about that study a lot in regards to myself and my life. What do I have unwavering memory of and what has faded and changed. I’ve been thinking about it a lot these past few weeks as we have read about Christine Blasey Ford and as we watched her speak before the Senate Judicial Committee. I thought about it while she talked about her hippocampus and the fact that she installed a second front door in her home. You see, we never forget. Trauma simply does not allow for that.

But there’s more there than just that. I have been watching as the women in my life have struggled. How we have all been sad and in pain; how we have had old wounds torn open; how we have seen women on the subway, walking down the street, in cafes huddled over their phones crying. We all know why. It is because all of us, or at least most of us, have either been or almost been Christine Blasey Ford. We have either reported our experiences, not reported our experiences, or tried to report our experiences and been turned away or dissuaded. Her story is not just hers it is mine, it is yours, it is all of ours. How do I figure? I’ll tell you.

Last night I finished an especially busy shift at work and decided to sit down and have a shift drink and a chat with my coworkers. I was sitting at the bar talking to my friend to my left when I felt a quick *tap tap* on my right shoulder. I turned but no one was there. And then I saw hands and realized that the man who had tapped me had then used my distraction to place one hand on either side of me on the bar, essentially trapping me in my seat. I was immediately transported back to my senior year in college when at a frat party a “friend” of mine, upset with me for who knows what reason (he always seemed to have a reason) trapped me against a wall by placing one hand on either side of my shoulders and leaning his body towards me, making escape feel impossible. Not that it matters but I’ll say it anyway: he was drunk, I was not. And I know that because he had tricked me into driving our mutual friend to the airport at 3 in the morning because he wanted to enjoy the party; he knew me well enough to know I was too responsible, even at 21, to put my friends at risk or cause someone to miss their flight home. I don’t remember how long we stood like that, me cowering and him talking loudly at me before I broke free, he lost interest or someone came to my rescue. But I specifically remembered that feeling of knowing that anything could happen, anything could be done to me in that moment and I would have very little ability to stop it. I experienced that feeling again last night and I realized something.

The man who trapped me wasn’t trying to scare me. He wasn’t trying to make me feel powerless or intimidate me. He was just treating me the way a lot of people treat and think of women: as slightly less human than men. My personal space wasn’t his concern, nor my personal safety. He could do what he wanted because even though we are not friends and have never had more than casual conversation he owns me a little bit. He is entitled to me. And even though he might not have been actively thinking that in the moment, or been actively trying to make me feel like I had  no right to take up space, that’s exactly what he did. He reminded me in that small yet aggressive action that I, and women in general, are only permitted to taking up exactly the amount of space a man deems necessary and that amount of space is subject to change at any time depending on any specific man’s mood or level of intoxication.

Let’s bring it back a little. Back when the #MeToo movement had its second life (it was originally conceived by Tarana Burke and, surprise surprise, co-opted by wealthy white women) a lot of people were afraid of an impending sex panic. How will men ride in elevators with women? How will they hit on us? How will they interview for and secure jobs? How will they have sex? How will they do all of this when any woman at any time can accuse them of sexual misconduct, sexual assault or rape and ruin their lives? Clearly women are unhinged and it is the men who are really at risk here. But let me remind you of something:

  • Donald Trump has 16 credible accusations of sexual misconduct, assault and rape and he is the president of the United States (vomit)
  • Larry Nassar sexually assaulted 400 women and counting; he was first accused back in 1997 and nothing was done for 20 years
  • Louis C.K. jerked off in front of women, stopped performing for 9 months and then walked on stage at the Comedy Cellar here in New York City and got a standing ovation before he even opened his mouth
  • Bill Cosby was sentenced 3-10 years in prison for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand. He drugged and assaulted or raped other women as well, something he admitted to in front of a grand jury in the early 2000s
  • Brett Kavanaugh had been accused of rape by 3 women – one of whom detailed “train rapes” that he and his childhood friend Mark Judge participated in – and there is a very good chance he will be confirmed and end up with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court

So I guess what I am trying to tell you is this: yes, things have been changing. Yes, women are being heard now (whether or not they are being believed is still up for debate). But remind yourself which women are being heard. And remind yourself that the entire country just watched, transfixed, as a giant man baby blubbered to a group of politicians about how his life was being ruined.  And while you’re thinking about that, don’t forget about the woman who had carefully, and respectfully, testified earlier that morning about how her life had been turned upside down by actions taken by a young Brett Kavanaugh. She wasn’t just effected by this now, in 2018. She has been dealing with this, and living with it, since the early 1980s. While every one is saying that we need due process, that we cannot “just believe the victims,” that she is probably part of some conspiracy to keep the court from becoming more conservative just remember that it is Dr. Ford who was hacked, it is Dr. Ford who is being called a slut and a liar, it is Dr. Ford who had to move her family out of their home and hire protection. She is not guaranteed a right to space, to her story and to her humanity. None of us are. And trauma? Trauma doesn’t allow us to forget. That is what this is about.

Neural Pathways and the Patriarchy

9 Apr

In case you didn’t already know this, I am the co-host of an almost famous podcast called Welcome To My Vagina with my good friend Jessy Caron. You should listen to it. It’s great. And Jessy and I aren’t the only ones who think so. My brother and sister-in-law agree. And a bunch of our friends. And some people we don’t even know. So, you know, we’re basically crushing it. The reason for informing you of this is that I have been trying to up my feminist game by doing some more focused reading so I can speak from a place informed by more than my personal experience. And so as part of this project I recently bought the following books (and am open to suggestions if you have any):

  1. This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins
  2. When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Asha Bandele and Patrisse Khan-Cullors
  3. Headscarfs and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy
  4. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
  5. Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti

I decided the best plan of attack was to start closest to home and read Jessica Valenti’s book. I have been reading her writing since its early days on Feministing, the website she cofounded with her sister, and then followed her over to Jezebel and now read her at The Guardian. I like her. I relate to her. We are both white women who grew up on the East Coast at roughly the same time. We both write (although she far more successfully than me.) We both hate the patriarchy. Also, the other books on my list haven’t arrived at my house yet. (Shoulder shrug.) Anyway, the strangest thing happened. So yesterday during the afternoon I was casually thinking to myself about the possible connection between female victimhood and neural pathways. I have always been of the understanding that neural pathways are created as we gain knowledge and that

(a) those pathways are part of what allows us to retain that knowledge and then                       build upon it and
(b) that then allows us to learn how to interact with the world in which we live.

So then I started thinking about this article I read a while back about trauma. The article basically summarized a study that had been done involving veterans of the Vietnam War. Scientists interviewed the soldiers upon returning home from the war, and then interviewed them again a number of decades later. They found that for the men who suffered from PTSD, their memories of their experience in combat did not change over time. They still remembered all of the events in the same detail and had similar feelings about them. The men who did not suffer from PTSD had a change in feeling between the initial interview and the one carried out later. In the first interview they might have had complicated feelings about their time in combat and in the army, but decades later they remembered it mostly positively, as a time of camaraderie amongst buddies. (Obviously I am over simplifying this in a HUGE way.) I have thought about this article a lot. I’ve thought a lot about the memory of events in my life that have changed or grown muddy over time and those that I remember in intense, unchanging detail. I wouldn’t say that I have PTSD relating to the latter events, but that perhaps they qualify as trauma. Perhaps those memories have been burned deeply enough into my brain that they cannot be altered.

What does this have to do with Jessica Valenti? Well, while I was on this little adventure of mine, I began thinking about women’s experiences. I started thinking about the ways we are treated in our day-to-day lives and how we internalize those experiences, how they shape who we are, how we behave and the ways in which we live in, and relate to, the world around us. I started thinking about how our subconscious understanding of our status as women limits us and causes us to limit ourselves. I wondered when those neural pathways are initially formed and who we could be if we weren’t constantly living in fear for our safety and under the ever-looming presence of the patriarchy. I wondered about how much this world has missed out on because of the way women (and POC and the LGBTQ community and Jews and Muslims and, and, and) are disenfranchised. And then, a few hours later, I read this passage on page 15 of Sex Object:

“We know that direct violence causes trauma — we have shelters for it, counselors, services. We know that children who live in violent neighborhoods are more likely to develop PTSD, the daily fear changing their brains and psychological makeup so drastically that flashbacks and disassociation become common. We know people who are bullied get depressed and sometimes commit suicide.

“Yet despite all these things we know to be true — despite the preponderance of evidence showing the mental and emotional distress people demonstrate in violent and harassing environments — we still have no name for what happens to women living in a culture that hates them.”

And if we wonder why it is that we have no name for it then let me put forward an idea. It is because we cannot name what we cannot separate out and study. Not all children grow up in the midst of violence; not all veterans develop PTSD. We can study the difference amongst people in society but we cannot, not even with all that we know, study something which is all-pervasive, something that exists everywhere and is so instrumental to every single aspect of our culture that it cannot be separated out. We cannot create a control group and a test group because we are all part of the same group. Our personal experiences might vary by degree but the over-arching system that makes those experiences possible is shared by all of us. And perhaps this is what makes it so difficult for many people, men and women alike, to acknowledge the existence of the patriarchy. We know what water is, but we cannot separate the elements – the hydrogens from the oxygen – that make it what it is. It would cease to be water and we would no longer have a context in which to understand it.

In our 7th episode of the WTMV podcast Jessy asked me what I would change using science if I could choose one thing. And I said I would like to somehow create an environment free from the patriarchy. Not the environment in which we live now, where we try to figure out and unravel one aspect of it at a time, finding lined up behind that partially solved issue a never-ending cavalcade of injustices. I wanted to see what women would be like, what women could do and achieve and dream and be, without the shroud of patriarchal culture that we live wrapped up in. Because let me tell you right now that I have absolutely no idea what that would look like. Every time I try to conjure it, I realize that the pathways in my brain are burned too deeply to be able to even imagine that world. The pathways in all of our brains are etched beyond repair.

We all have our own experiences and we all react to them, and handle them, in profoundly different and personal ways. We as women spend a lot of time being afraid, even when we don’t actively realize that we are. We spend a lot of time wondering what might happen if we walk down this block instead of that one; what we might encounter if we comment on that Tweet; what house we are walking into when we go home with a new partner; what ways our bodies and minds might be used against us. It is a hard world to navigate, some of us managing it seemingly more easily than others. But I believe it is true that we are all traumatized by the patriarchy and I think that Jessica Valenti agrees with me.

Enough is Enough

21 Sep

I don’t know how you all have been feeling recently, but I have not been feeling good. I have been feeling really angry, really anxious, really sad, really depleted. I have been feeling like all the sexism that I have always talked about has just been pummeling me, dragging me down, and then telling me that it isn’t what it appears, that it isn’t sexism at all.

Let me just tell you a little bit about how this last year and change has felt. Take it for what you will. Feel free to disagree with my recollection of events, but please keep your opinions about how those experiences have led to a specific way of feeling to yourself. Because the way I feel is weak, powerless, unimportant and fucking exhausted. Let me tell you why.

It has always sucked a little bit to be a woman. Sometimes it has sucked a lot. It sucks to be catcalled, to have men try and run alongside you when you are out for a few miles, to have people question your experience and opinion. It sucks to read about backlogged rape kits that could have stopped countless serial rapists but were never tested because the cost – $500 – $1500 per kit – was deemed prohibitive. Because our lives, our sanity, our safety is not worth the money. It sucks to read about sexual assault and rape and, inevitably, have some asshole dude bring up the Duke lacrosse team. I cannot tell you how many times I have been instructed to read “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case”  or “The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of our Great Universities.” I don’t need to read those books to know that a false rape claim was made against a group of athletes and that that one false rape claim made it harder for every other victim to make her case. Every single damn time a woman makes a high profile rape allegation someone brings that damn case up. Enough already. But if you need proof, just look at Brock Turner, the swimmer from Stanford University. The woman he assaulted was found unconscious behind a dumpster while he was humping her, after he manually penetrated her, and that was barely enough to convict him; it wasn’t even nearly enough to send him to jail for any reasonable amount of time. The cards are stacked against us. I mean, I don’t know how else to put this other than by saying this: rape means that someone stuck a foreign object or a piece of their body, like their penis or their finger (depending on the laws of the specific state) inside the body of someone else. Just let that sink in, really think about it. When it comes to the criminal justice system and how it deals with rape allegations, the victims are guilty until proven innocent, not the criminals, and you just try and prove to me otherwise. I have stats on stats. I dare you.

And the thing is that it isn’t just about sexual assault it is about everything. God forbid we have a female superhero without a bunch of dudes getting their panties in a bunch about her being too sexy, not good enough at fighting, too easy to jerk off to, not super not hero enough.  Was she perfect? No. Could she have been better? Of course. But the reality is that male superheroes have been in movies for a long time and the casting still isn’t perfect, the storylines still could be better, the fight scenes still could be more convincing. But I have never, in all the times I have read reviews of superhero movies where the men are the stars read quite so many complaints that this person or that person was cast specifically to be jerked off to. That is not our problem. That is not the problem of the casting. That is not the problem of Gal Gadot. That is not the problem of her and all the women who played the Amazons in that movie who worked their butts off for months to prepare to be picked apart by you for being too this or not enough that. That is your limitation. Yours and yours alone.

And while I am on about that, don’t act like your criticism about Wonder Woman isn’t based in sexism. Ask yourself if you would make the same critique if the lead were a guy. And then think about what you are so afraid of. Because this isn’t about the movie, really. It is about challenging your own perspective, taking a step back, thinking, and then stopping yourself and saying “if I have to specifically say that I am not being  sexist then maybe I should rethink this.” What is it they say about people who say “I’m not racist but…?” Because the same thing applies here. There are, as I said, multiple legitimate criticisms to be made about this movie. The fact that Gal Gadot is too easy to jerk off to is not one of them. Honestly, most people I know – male and female – would fantasize about that woman if she was wearing a potato sack.

Let me just put this into perspective a little bit. This movie came out over the summer, the summer after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in a contest between him and arguably the most qualified presidential candidate ever. This man is racist, he is anti-semitic, he is an elitist schmuck masquearading as a man of the people, and he is an admitted sexual abuser. He grabs women without their consent. That is assault. And he was elected president. How do you think that made a lot of us feel? And how do you think it made us feel that white women, who have drank the Kool-aid of their own oppression, helped put him there? And how do you think it makes us feel now to see people, women and men, tell Hillary to “shut the fuck up.” Well I will tell you how it makes me feel, it makes me feel like shit. And seeing Wonder Woman, watching Gal Gadot kick some ass, made me feel just a teensy bit better and honestly, at this point, I will take what I can get.

Because here’s the thing: I honestly don’t care if you like Hillary or not. I don’t care if you voted for Bernie in the primaries and still think he is some sort of savior. (If you voted for Trump instead of Hillary for whatever bullshit reason, kindly fuck right off because I have exactly zero time for you now and in the future.) What I care about is that you think about this critically. Since the publication of Hillary’s book, people have been saying that maybe she should do something good for the country rather than write a book that no one cares about, that Bernie is still working to make a difference. Bernie, I will remind you, wrote a book already and is still in government. Hillary is a private citizen and therefore can do what the fuck she wants and if she wants to write a goddamn book about what it was like to be the first woman to run for president as a major party candidate then fuck yes she should do it. You’d better believe I would. Because whether or not you like her, her story matters, she matters, and her experience will help shape the campaign of the next woman to run for president, the next woman who might have seen Hillary get so close and thought to herself “you know what, I could do that.” And i the same way, Wonder Woman has made little girls, and some of us grown women, think we could grow up to be a super hero too.

And so for me, every time I hear someone say Hillary should shut up or go away or disappear, I take it personally. Because honestly, I don’t remember seeing countless front page articles in major publications telling Mitt Romney and Al Gore and John McCain that they don’t matter. And it fucking sucks. Because, no, Hillary wasn’t perfect. No one is. But the treatment that she has endured since the beginning of her presence in the public eye, but especially in the months leading up to and following this election has been disgusting. And we should be ashamed. I know I am.

So yeah, I am tired. So in the future, don’t come at me with your opinions about Wonder Woman or Hillary Clinton or Leslie Jones or whatever other woman you for some reason think is undeserving. Unless you really think. I think before I speak because I have to. I’m a woman. I have something to prove all the time. So does Gal Gadot. And so does Hillary Clinton. Just remember that. We don’t get the benefit of the doubt, we get your bullshit.

A Letter to a Friend from Houston

7 Sep

Dear Friend,

I can’t stop thinking about you. I think of you every time I turn on the news and see people plucked from rooftops by helicopters, rescued by neighbors on boats. I think of you every time I see a highway that was passable a few very long days ago that is now indistinguishable from an ocean if it weren’t for the drowned exit signs and street lights that won’t see power for days if not weeks. I think of you every time I see people crammed into convention centers and furniture stores and churches, not knowing the status of their family and friends or their homes, schools, jobs, churches; not knowing anything about what comes next. I think of you every time I contemplate the long journey back from here. I think of you always.

Because, in a way, I know what it is. I know what it is to come home to a place you understand with every inch of your being and have it be forever changed, forever scarred. I remember when the towers fell. I remember the fear of waiting for phone calls from family and friends, of returning home and seeing my city smoldering, of arriving back in my small town and seeing the cars left abandoned at the train station by people who never came home for them. And of course you know that, too, because you were here. You were here for all of that and I am sure it left a mark on you like it did for the rest of us. That mark of knowing what once was will never be again. That knowledge that nothing will ever be the same, that you will never be the same. That something happened that has changed the world, your world and the world at large, for a very long time. Like September 11th changed everything about the way we interact with our fellow humans whether by choice or through the force of law, these storms – one after another after another like clockwork – change our collective feelings of safety and security in our environment, make the need for action even more dire. This storm will be a mainstay in our conversation about the imminent dangers of climate change, and it will be a marker of time in your conversations about your city.

And so I think of you flying over your city for the first time and having to take that in alone. And I so wish I could be there to hold your hand. And I feel in some weird way that it is a gift that I will be there to meet you at the airport, that I will be in the car with you as you see it all at ground level for the first time, so I can be whatever support I can be. If you cry, I will cry with you. If you need to laugh, I will come prepared with jokes and stories and memories like that time we hitch hiked with priests in Guatemala; that time our car broke down on the freeway; that time we were walking through Houston and a dog ran at us and you puffed yourself up and yelled NO in a voice so grounded, so powerful that he ran away with his tail between his legs and we were safe. And then we will take a deep breath, stand up straight and head out into the world and help as best we can because all we can do right now is offer ourselves to others as support and love and relief. And I hope I can be that for you.

I am here for you. I am thinking about you. And I love you.

Love always

Rebekah

Sexual Abuse Allegations Rock USA Gymnastics

21 Aug

I wrote this awhile ago and it never got published and so, given the fact that Aly Raisman just spoke publicly about this for this first time this past weekend, I thought maybe I would drop it here. Trigger warnings for sexual violence and pedophilia. 

On Tuesday, March 28th, 2017, former Olympic gymnast Jamie Dantzscher testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about her experiences as an elite athlete. Dantzscher reported that starting when she was 12 years old and continuing through the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games six years later, she was sexually abused by the USA Gymnastics (USAG) team doctor, Larry Nassar. She spoke in front of The Committee in support of an amendment to the federal law that governs Olympic sports organizations in America. This amendment, formulated by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Cali), would overhaul the ways in which organizations that put together the United States Olympic teams deal with allegations of sexual assault and misconduct within their sport. The legislation would require anyone associated with an Olympic governing body, such as USAG, to report allegations of sexual misconduct to law enforcement and would create procedures intended to prevent coaches who have been fired due to such accusations from getting a job at another club. Although this legislation would impact all Olympic sports, it appears to be in direct response to what some have characterized as gross negligence on the part of USAG when it comes to protecting its athletes from serial sexual predators.

Women’s gymnastics poses a unique challenge when it comes to preventing misconduct. Athletes spend roughly 35 hours per week in the gym, sometimes working one-on-one with their coaches. Hands-on spotting is required to assure athlete safety, and as a result coaches are often male owing to the fact that on average men are taller and have more upper body strength than women. The sport also requires that an incredibly high level of trust exists between coach and athlete; a poorly placed foot or a missed hand could result in serious injury or death. In the best cases, this leads to an incredible bond between gymnast and mentor, where the two individuals function as a team and are able to help one another reach the goals they have set. In the worst case, this unquestioned trust and imbalanced power dynamic can result in a situation where a coach abuses the athlete or else turns a blind eye to the misconduct of others in pursuit of a shared dream. In the case of Dr. Larry Nassar, and of 2010 USAG Coach of the Year Marvin Sharp before him, the organization seems to have prioritized its own success over the safety of the athletes, many of whom are minors.

In an interview with 60 Minutes this past February, former USAG National Team member Jessica Howard summarized her experience of abuse and explained why she and the dozens of other gymnasts who have come forward since Nassar’s arrest didn’t do so previously. She said, “no one wants to step out of line because there’s a group of people that make decisions that dictate whether you’re successful or not. So you just comply with what you’re told to do.” The people who make up the governing body of USAG, the body that chooses who represents the United States in international competition, are the same people who see these young women monthly at the National Team Training Camp in Huntsville, Texas and they are the same people who hire the support and medical staff that are tasked with keeping the athletes safe and healthy. The gymnasts spend their entire childhood and early adulthood attempting to impress the members of USAG because those people hold the key to their futures; without the approval of the USAG Selection Committee the gymnasts dreams simply cannot come true. As a result, the athletes unquestioningly do as they are told because they assume, understandably and probably correctly, that obedience is required for the realization of their dreams.

As of March 23rd, 103 women have come forward and joined the federal lawsuit against Dr. Larry Nassar. Among these women are members of the USA gymnastics national team, club gymnasts in Eastern Michigan as well as student athletes at Michigan State University where Dr. Nassar had an office. Almost all of the suits list USAG, MSU and Geddert’s Twistars, a Lansing-area gymnastics club, as codefendants for ignoring red flags about Nassar’s behavior. What this growing lawsuit indicates is that over the course of at least 2 decades USAG, as well as other organizations and individuals, shirked their moral responsibility to protect the women under their guidance and instead allowed a doctor to have unfettered access to them. Perhaps these organizations operated in a shadowy area of the law, but what they did was look the other way as young women were routinely victimized and disempowered under the guise of medical attention. If the situation involving the Catholic Church is any indication of what is to come, it seems likely that this lawsuit will grow larger by the week, month and year and the uphill battle that USAG will have to fight to regain its reputation as a safe space for young athletes is only beginning.