• During PBS’s broadcast last night, political analyst Amy Walter disclosed that she would not be allowing her fourth-grade son to watch the second presidential debate. Like many parents of young children, Walter was uneasy imagining how a young person would process likely references to sexual assault, marital infidelity, and who knows what else might fly out of Donald Trump’s mouth.

    I don’t have young children at home any more, so I didn’t need to engage in a moral calculus pitting a sense of civic duty to be informed against a desire to protect kids from exposure to inappropriate subject matter. But I was thinking about what I’d have done were my kids in grade school. I concluded that I’d probably have asked the kids to watch with my husband and me and that I’d have asked them to talk about what they were hearing.

    Same with the recently-released video of Trump describing his “techniques” in making unwanted moves on women. As with most things having to do with sex and violence, I think it’s better to watch/listen — once (not in a continuous media loop) — and discuss than risk handing the job over to other kids.

    The two big takeaways for young children should be:

    Words are never “just words.”

    When we talk about other people, we need to remember that they are people. We don’t refer to people as “it.” We don’t use words for body parts that make those body parts seem shameful. We also all make mistakes and say things that have the potential to hurt others. It’s inevitable. We always need to take responsibility for our words and the damage our words may do. Learning to repair and comfort is an important skill to practice.

    No one ever has the right to touch another person without permission. 

    It doesn’t matter who is doing the touching, whether it’s a presidential candidate or a family friend. We all — boys and girls, men and women — have a fundamental right to decide where, when, how, and by whom we are touched. If we don’t like the way we are being touched, we need to tell someone we trust to help us make sure it never happens again. It’s OK to make a lot of noise and risk offending someone who is touching us in ways that make us feel uncomfortable.

    The harder questions to answer have to do with how the American political system works. How to answer questions about why Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for the presidency? That one leaves me flummoxed.

  • Perhaps you missed this story.  A 21-year-old Syrian “man” shot his 45-year-old mother in the head with a rifle and killed her.  He was involved with ISIL, the Muslim terrorist organization. She wanted the two of them to leave the Syrian town of Raqqa, fearing for his safety as US-led troops neared the ISIL stronghold.  He told ISIL leaders of his mother’s request.  They insisted he publicly execute her.  He complied.

    I was telling one of my kids about the execution this weekend, and he asked a simple question. Don’t most world religions command followers to honor their parents?  I told him I thought this to be the case, but I didn’t know about Islam, in particular.

    Lucky for me, we had the good fortune Saturday morning to be invited to a Turkish friend’s home for breakfast.  As we passed plates of delicious Turkish pastries, cheese, and olives around the table, I asked our hosts what the Qur’an and Hadith had to say about relationships between parents and children.  The story goes, my hosts and their other guests told me, that the first three times Muhammed was asked this, the Prophet insisted that followers obey their mothers.  The fourth time, they explained, Muhammed included fathers in the mix.

    I pursued this line of inquiry over email with my host and received from her a comprehensive compilation of suras from the Qur’an and quotes attributed to Muhammed from the Hadiths, all having to do with parenthood.  The teachings demand that children respect their parents.  Even when parents are “infidels” who don’t follow the teachings of Islam, they are to be honored.  My host included the following Hadith, whose meaning could not be more clear:

    It was narrated from Mu’awiyah bin Jahimah As-Sulami, that Jahimah came to the Prophet (PBUH) and said, “O Messenger of Allah! I want to go out and fight (in Jihad) and I have come to ask your advice.” He said, “Do you have a mother?” He said, “Yes.” He said, “Then stay with her, for Paradise is beneath her feet.” (The Book of Jihad, 6)

    “Jihad,” my host explained, can be internal, metaphorical, a struggle with the self to do right — not just an external military battle or fight.  In any case, she wrote, the first responsibility is to care for the mother.

    Though I understand a bit better Islam’s guidance on parent-child relationships, I can’t fathom how a believer, someone claiming to be shaped by God’s word, could shoot his mother in the head.  I felt similarly when a Jew assassinated Yitzhak Rabin and, more recently, when an apparently observant group danced at a wedding and celebrated the burning of a Palestinian toddler.

    I haven’t anything profound to offer, here.  I was relieved to read verses condemning the mother’s killing.  What will it take to get extremists of all stripes to invoke scripture to impose basic rules governing decency?  I don’t intend my question as a naive exercise in hand-wringing.  I’m serious.

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  • We meet every month or two.  We sit around a long table, sometimes in a dark-paneled room in the church downtown where my temple is located, sometimes in a brightly lit conference room in a neighborhood cultural center.  We are middle-aged, Reform Jews.  We are young, ritually observant, Turkish Muslims.  We kvell over babies and share baked treats.  Our conversations focus on favorite passages from our respective books of scripture, the role music plays in our worship services, the “bad women” in our faith traditions, and so on.  We volunteer a few times a year at a food bank or soup kitchen.  We call ourselves “Sisters in Spirit.”

    Our topic this past Sunday was Jewish and Muslim doctrine concerning the environment. Several Sisters had prepared to lead the discussion.  The ten of us never got anywhere near Muslim and Jewish perspectives on animal rights or ecological justice.

    In the wake of the Daesh attacks in Paris, at services and over email, we Jewish Sisters had been worrying about our Muslim Sisters.  At services and over email, we wondered if it would OK to open the meeting by asking “Are you OK?”  We didn’t want to put anyone on the spot. We needn’t have worried.  One after another, our Muslim Sisters told stories of verbal abuse and feelings ranging from isolation to fear.

    One Sister — dark, sweeping eyebrows punctuating a face encircled by a satiny, fuchsia head scarf — described sitting outside in the sun, eating lunch at a Whole Foods market Monday after the Paris attacks.  A man approached her.  He called her an “Arab,” then berated her loudly for covering her head and allying herself with terrorists.  His words, though offensive, didn’t really bother her, she said, since the man seemed “kinda crazy.”  It broke her heart, meanwhile, that her fellow sun seekers heard the words but said and did nothing.  She worried that she’ll be attacked if she drives badly or jaywalks.  She’d heard stories from other women in headscarves being shoved towards oncoming T trains.

    Another Sister — sparkly eyes behind rimless glasses, creamy scarf surrounding a delicate face — fed a toddler perched on her lap.  On Tuesday after the Paris attacks, she went to the weekly parent support group she’s been attending  for more than two years.  She is the only Muslim in the group.  She spoke at the beginning of the meeting, apologizing on behalf of all Muslims everywhere for the actions of a handful of terrorists, explaining that violence in the name of God has no part of the religion she practices.  She wanted someone to tell her that her apology was unnecessary.  She hoped someone might say that they all already knew this about her. But no one said a word. Worse, no one met her gaze.

    A third in the group spoke.  New to Boston and to our group, my Sister — a tall woman whose patterned scarf was pinned expertly to frame her even-featured face — talked about enrolling her daughter in first grade. The classroom teacher in her daughter’s public school is Jewish. She felt the teacher had been reluctant to engage with her, perhaps because of her head scarf. She worried about what this might mean for her daughter’s experiences in the class.  At back to school night, the teacher explained to parents that there would be no birthday celebrations to protect students with food allergies. The teacher said, as a funny aside, that, of course, she really does miss cupcakes.  So, my Sister baked.  She packed one cupcake in a Ziplock bag and wrote a note.  She had heard the teacher missing cupcakes, so she wanted to give her one. No nuts.  The teacher, she said, seemed more comfortable thereafter, looking her in the eye, not “in the head scarf.

    None of these women is from Syria.  None is a refugee.  All are struggling to find ways to connect with Americans who seem primed to view them as scary, other.

    As our conversation continued, we wondered how to identify strategies to diffuse tension and increase acceptance. How to find opportunities to forge common bonds? How to lay the groundwork for hard conversations? How to help one another ask what seem at first to be hard questions but are hard only because they have not  yet been asked? Nothing we came up with was as effective, we decided, as the cupcake, which helped a teacher view a woman in a head scarf as a mother, a parent, and a person.

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  • A while back, when Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg first published her book, Lean In, I argued that the concept of using social media to bring women together in consciousness raising groups was terrific, but that Sandberg’s formulation was flawed.  I’m excited to read an article in today’s Boston Globe that a domestic worker fighting to unionize at an area hotel has challenged Sandberg to lean into her cause.  The only way we’ll make real change happen in this country is to work across lines of difference (race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion).  Real change doesn’t just improve some peoples’ lives.  It has a positive effect on everybody.

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  • I stayed up late last night listening to Diary of a Bad Year: A War Correspondent’s Dilemma. The piece, produced with Jay Allison and Transom.org, is NPR reporter Kelly McEvers’s remarkable, hour-long audio documentary about her struggle to justify covering deadly war zones while raising a toddler.

    McEvers’s choice – and her agony over her choice – is specific and universal.  Not many of us civilians are in lines of work where a tenth of our colleagues have been murdered or killed in crossfire the past year.   But most of us struggle with the complex emotions of wanting to succeed professionally in jobs we love and also wanting to be with our spouses and kids.

    An avowed gung-ho thrill seeker, McEvers came to parenting late.  As best I can figure, she gave birth to a daughter at about 40, the peak of her journalistic career.  NPR assigned her to cover the Middle East.  Her job got dramatically more dangerous when the conflict in Syria heated up.  As the roll call of fallen journalists in and around Syria lengthened – Tim Hetherington, Marie Colvin, Remi Ochlik, Rami el-Sayid, Anthony Shadid, Ferzat Jarban, Gilles Jacquier, Mazhar Tayyara, Mika Yamamoto — McEvers found herself increasingly unhinged.  She sought the counsel of a former war correspondent turned psychotherapist.  He suggested she examine her motives and begin to imagine what life after covering war might be like.

    McEvers shared her turmoil in 2011 with Cape Cod-based radio wizard Jay Allison, who encouraged her to keep a diary. The resulting piece is emotionally and intellectually profound.  It’s also a masterful example of audio storytelling.  McEvers used her phone to record her musings.  She taped interviews with other war correspondents as well as a Canadian researcher running a study on journalists who cover foreign conflicts (*more on this last below).  Ambient noise of shelling and machine gun fire, sotto voce comments about the disgustingness of tear gas, the chatter of McEvers’s daughter all provide an evocative sound bed for the heart of McEvers’s dilemma.  “Should I quit my job?” she asks the likes of Sebastian Junger and Christiane Amanpour.  McEvers knows, even as she asks, that the only person who can really answer is she, herself.

    McEvers admits that the most difficult conversation she had was with Anna Blundy, the grown daughter of British war correspondent David Blundy, who was killed in 1989 at 44 by sniper fire in El Salvador.  McEvers writes that she felt she was interviewing an “adult version of [her] own child.”  Anna Blundy, 43, speaks as a grieving child whose father chose work over family.  Blundy’s words defeat and deflate McEvers, until, somewhere around 26:30, she claims her right to follow her path.  The decision, McEvers asserts, isn’t about her daughter.  “It’s about me.”

    And don’t we all – all of us women who want kids and career – find ourselves trying to figure out how much to give to “them” and how much to give to ourselves?  Men may ask themselves such questions, but I don’t know many who would allow others to listen in so publicly.  By the time McEvers reads the letter she’s written to her husband and daughter in case she is killed on the job, she has me in tears.  Spend an hour with this documentary, and you will weep for all parents who have fallen in the line of duty as well as all who, day in and out, struggle to find the best way to do right by themselves and their kids.

    *A NOTE on the explanation McEvers offers about the role dopamine plays in war correspondents’ career choices.  She interviews Toronto academic and medical doctor Anthony Feinstein.  Here is the summary of Dr. Feinstein’s work on his website: “Finally, Dr. Feinstein is involved in a series of studies unrelated to Neuropsychiatry but nevertheless of relevance to current issues within our society.  The questions being addressed are: How are journalists affected emotionally by their work in war zones and what motivates them to pursue such dangerous occupations?”  He presents his findings in Journalists Under Fire: The Psychological Hazards of Covering War (Johns Hopkins Press, 2006).

    I haven’t read the book and am not familiar with Dr. Feinstein’s work, so I don’t know if McEvers reports his findings accurately.  She says that Dr. Feinstein believes journalists who take extraordinary risks have higher levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine than the rest of the population.

    McEvers is correct in describing dopamine as a substance that conveys a sense of wellbeing, but she’s off a little bit in her understanding of what high levels of dopamine may suggest.  Most researchers have concluded that those who seek out risk and thrill crave more dopamine.  That is, for physiological reasons, their bodies either don’t produce enough or don’t use well enough the dopamine they create.

    If it’s true that war correspondents have more dopamine than the rest of us, it may be that their dopamine receptors are inadequate and that their bodies produce more dopamine to flood dopamine-hungry receptors.  They may therefore gravitate towards putting themselves in the middle of battlefields to produce the dopamine they need to feel OK.  Some of the best research on this topic comes out of studies on families that have high numbers of members with Attention Deficit Disorder. See especially the work of Russell Barkley, Ph.D. here and here.

  • Many years ago, Lily and I toured the ancient city of Nazareth with our Haifa friends and their three kids.  It was hot, so all the kids were eating popsicles.  Lily finished her treat.  She wanted to throw away her popsicle stick.  She scanned the city street for trash cans.  We walked a few blocks, and without a garbage receptacle in sight, she asked our friends what to do with her leftover stick.  They told her to throw it on the ground.  She protested: “That’s littering!”

    A burst of Hebrew and laughter among the Israeli kids. Lily and I wanted to know what they found so funny.  “If you leave a trash can,” one of the boys shouted, “they put bombs!”

    Stupid, naive Americans.  Even a nine year old should know better than to look for a sidewalk trash can.  So you litter.  Who cares?  It’s better than giving terrorists an easy place to leave an IED.

    Though Israeli friends didn’t laugh after the World Trade Center bombing, they again expressed dismay at our national naivete. Who would fly an airplane without locking the cockpit door? That, of course, is now standard practice on all U.S. flights, but El Al put that provision in place decades ago.

    At 2:50 PM yesterday, I was working at my desk.  I heard two very loud booms. I checked weather.com for thunderstorms.  It never occurred to me that what I’d heard were two bombs detonating.

    We don’t know yet how bombs wound up at the marathon’s finish line or where they were placed.  Initial analysis points to on-street trash cans or U.S. Postal Service mailboxes.  And we don’t know who perpetrated such destruction (although I firmly suspect this was yet another bunch of homegrown sickos).

    There are any number of reasons to be furious at whoever planned and carried out the bombing.  Number one, to me, is the inexorable slide towards a way of thinking that forces us to scan every landscape and imagine every potential encounter in terms of terrorism.  If we didn’t know it before, surely we Americans now have to embrace an Israeli-style popsicle stick etiquette.  We are getting hard lessons in conclusion jumping, even though we do not, with all our hearts, want to be enrolled in this particular school.

    The Boston Globe‘s reporters provided brilliant coverage of yesterday’s bombing.  Several writers referred to a “loss of innocence.”  I’m not sure what is worse: having to let go of the assumption that the world is mostly a benign place — or having to grow up in a place where even children know better than to assume that loud sounds are thunder and public rubbish bins are for trash.

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  • I can’t improve on Maureen Dowd’s column in The New York Times yesterday, Pom-Pom Girl for Feminism, in which she takes down Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  Lean In will hit the shelves and its website will go live March 11, 2013. Sandberg wants women to think positively about moving up through corporate America’s glass ceiling.  She’s pushing to get women meeting monthly in small groups, where we will empower one another “to explore topics critical to [our] success, from negotiating effectively to understanding [our] strengths.”  Dowd complains that the wildly successful Silicon Valley exec “doesn’t understand the difference between a social movement and a social network marketing campaign.”  Dowd, herself, is inclined to “lean out.”

    But me, I’m in favor of leaning in.  Closer.

    I wholeheartedly endorse Sandberg’s impulse to get women in small groups to recreate a ’70s-style consciousness raising vibe.  The issue — now and in the 1970s — is who belongs in the group.  The single biggest problem with American women’s attempts to organize for rights over time, from the 1840s to the present, is its inability and/or unwillingness to consider class and race.  Our contemporary women’s movement does not need another wealthy, articulate white woman encouraging increased dialogue among similarly entitled peers. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, Betty Friedan…not to take away from the remarkable achievements of these foremothers, but we’ve got to reconfigure our frustrations and rage so that we are angry on behalf of all women, not just ourselves.

    None of us has time to rely on Trickle Down — not in our economic policies, and not in our feminism. Sure, women at the top and women in business generally need better strategies to negotiate for higher salaries and better promotions. But I don’t for a minute believe that by earning these bigger paychecks and securing higher-powered jobs, better-off women will be paving the way for the poorest, most disenfranchised women in the country. They’ll be paving the way for themselves.

    If any of us needs a reminder of what women need, here are two, separate examples reported recently:

    The Last Clinic, a powerful, short documentary about the one remaining clinic in Mississippi providing abortions

    and

    Episodes 487 and 488 of This American Life, focusing on gun violence in Chicago’s predominantly African American Harper High School.

    We need to pull together, to lean in closer, so that we are working to ensure that all women have what the richest of us have: affordable health care, day care, sensible parental leave policies, the choice to use affordable birth control, access to nutritious foods, safe neighborhoods, and freedom from abuse, violence, and fear. We need to unify as a group so that we achieve these goals. Then, and only then, will the tide rise high enough to lift all boats.

    So, yeah, create a software platform that allows social media connections and the formation of  consciousness raising groups. Write an algorithm that peoples these groups with members who aren’t like each other in at least three or four profound ways.  Set up guidelines to help us tell our stories to each other. We need to listen deeply. And then? We need to get busy on behalf of each and every one of us.

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  • Just a week left, now, until the winter solstice, and less than twenty-four hours until kids start coming home from college. Mark and I have had a pretty terrific couple of months in our empty nest.

    Highlights of our time together: a day at The Big E (annual regional fair in Springfield, MA) to celebrate Rosh Hashanah; hearing brilliant banjo player Bela Fleck in concert at Berklee School of Music; making new friends at the Indian classical dance recital of the daughter of old friends; and babysitting our two favorite little boys. The humdrum has been terrific, too. We’ve watched TV together, talked over the newspapers at meals, gone out to the Cape for long walks with Amos. Was this what life was like twenty years ago, before we were parents? Maybe it’s even better now.

    I wondered what it would be like to celebrate a holiday without the kids at home. We all gathered for Thanksgiving, and that was a complete treat. But what would Mark and I do when we weren’t doing for the kids? When it’d be just us chickens?

    “What if we give each other a present every night when we light the candles for Chanukah?” I asked.

    Dead silence.

    “You mean, like a pack of gum,” Mark said.

    “Yep, like a pack of gum,” said I.

    “Wrapped?” Mark asked, looking as if he were about to swallow an arsenic capsule.

    “Wrapped!” said I.

    Five nights of candles lit, and no gum, yet. My favorite gift from Mark so far? Two Lotto scratch tickets. I won twenty bucks! Mark’s favorite gift from me? Probably the flannel footie pajamas I found. They actually fit his almost six-and-a-half-foot frame.

    A gift a night. Each night a gift, as we use this minor holiday to reclaim time, space, and each other.

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  • I took a red-eye flight from California overnight so I’d be back in Boston today to take Lily to the airport. It mattered to me that I be able to have a few hours with her before she left for five weeks in Spain. And it really mattered to me that I be able to escort her to security.

    I won’t be in Boston when Lily returns. Though that’s disappointing (because I won’t be here to hear the rush of stories when she’s fresh off the plane), it feels somehow far less significant to me than missing the send off.

    Of course, I love graduations and celebrations of achieving goals. But even more, I love the feeling that I’ve done all I can to help my kids step out into the wide world with open eyes and hearts.

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  • For my 49th birthday last year, Mark rented me a cello. He also gave me a music stand and a beginner’s book. I drew the bow inexpertly across the strings and made a commitment to this hour-glass shaped beauty. Sound waves rumbled up my arms.

    The summer passed before I managed to find a teacher and schedule lessons. Everything I’d been doing to coax sound out of my instrument was wrong. I’d been sitting wrong, holding the bow wrong. Even the size of the instrument was wrong. I rented a different-sized cello. And I practiced. Twenty minutes a day.

    The more correctly I placed my fingers on the cello’s neck and the more expertly I employed my pencil grip on the bow, the more my elbows and wrists ached. The fingers in my left hand went numb. Joints in my right hand stiffened and swelled in protest.

    Though I was in pain, I continued to practice. I learned ecumenical plucking: “Jingle Bells” and “The Dreidel Song.” Kids home on a visit in October asked for a concert, and I obliged. “Let’s hear that again,” they teased.

    My sense of loss around the absence of Sam’s power drumming diminished. I was no longer lingering in the hall, recalling Max’s increasingly indifferent, irregular sessions on trumpet. My cello and I, we were making new music memories to fill the Big Empty.

    A friend asked me how things were going with the cello. I filled her in, including details of numb fingers and joint ache. Why, she wanted to know, was I doing something that gave me pain?

    “I just need to practice harder,” I told her.

    “Will you listen to yourself?” she asked.

    I knocked off for a few weeks. Sensation returned to the fingers in my left hand. My wrists ached less. The bow lay where I’d left it, its strings slack but still coated in powdery rosin. And I thought.

    Or maybe I felt.

    I wanted to fill my heart and head with vibrant sound. I wanted to try something completely new. I didn’t want any more pain than I was already experiencing.

    So, this past January, I joined a choir. Every Wednesday, I retrace steps I took with my children to our neighborhood public elementary school. I climb the steps to the third-floor music room and slide into a stiff, plastic chair, squeezing in among the altos. The only pain I experience comes from climbing the stairs. That and the times I occasionally pinch my fingers in the metal clasps of the three-ring binder that holds my sheet music. Our brilliant, tart-tongued director warms us up. I take a deep breath and open my mouth. Sound waves rumble through my chest and out of my head. Our improbably named, almost 90-year-old accompaniest — Flossie — plays the first few bars of Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna,” and we’re off.

    I’m not good, but I’m getting better. I have trouble tracking the line, so I’ve highlighted the music staff in yellow. My counting is often off, so I’ve written in the beats, noticing time signatures, rests, and odd rhythms. I don’t practice, I won’t be in town for the year-end concert, so there’s no public payoff. But I am fully present each week. I join my voice with the rest of the choir and experience the joy of making music.

    I need to return the cello to the rental company, since the year-long contract is almost up. In a month, I will no longer punch “49” into the touch screen on the exercise machine I use at the gym. Fifty. And what have I learned in the first year of empty nesting, the last year of my forties?

    To age gracefully has little to do with skin care, hair color, sagging neck, or even productivity. The trick, I think, is to hold onto the dreams that matter most and to be creative and flexible in making them come true.

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