Legally Blonde, Purebloods And Mudbloods

Since 2001 when the film Legally Blonde was released, we’ve come a long way. The United States has a female vice-president who is Black and Asian American. A high school classmate — female and Black — is president of a liberal arts college. Yep, we’ve come a long way. 

Or have we?

In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods (played by the talented Reese Witherspoon) is a perky sorority princess, excessively enamored of the color pink. On the night she expects Warner (her fraternity prince boyfriend) to serve up a diamond, he instead dumps her over dinner in an ultra-fancy restaurant. With the other diners looking on askance, she breaks into sobs, sounding like an agitated bernedoodle. She shuts herself in her room for several days — eating bonbons, barely speaking, neglecting her hair and nails. Then she hatches a plan. She (and her equally perky chihuahua) follow Warner to Harvard Law School with the intention of (not being a lawyer but rather) winning back her coveted (albeit lunkhead) ex. This is all supposed to be funny. Elle’s yappy sobs — her alarmingly pink outfits — her perfect hair — and most of all, the idea of a pretty sorority babe going to Harvard. It’s a joke.

Or is it?

From this angle, the film is deeply offensive. Something’s got to give, or more accurately — something’s got to bend and snap. So lets’ do another take, from a different camera angle.

Elle Woods was born and raised to be a brainless ornament on a handsome man’s arm. As she grew, her natural beauty propelled the process forward. The “problem” is she also grew up strong, bright, quick with words and movingly kind. Throughout the film, Witherspoon manages to give a spark to Elle’s most vapid moments, a dignity to her most absurd reactions. As she shops for a dress for her (soon to be failed) engagement dinner, the sales clerk tries to sell her a sub-par product for an over-the-top price. Elle shows no fear as she eloquently puts the woman in her place. She is — there’s no way around it — savvy, tough, clever. As an outsider at Harvard (too dressed up, pen with fluffy pink feather, heart shaped note pad), Elle is immediately ostracized. Interestingly, having spent her college years neck-deep in sorority pretensions, she sees right through Harvard’s Ivy pretensions and — even more interestingly — figures how to navigate a successful path in her new environment.

Reese Witherspoon’s talent — along with a gifted team both on camera and behind the scenes— rocketed this potential train-wreck into a near-cult success. But even now, looking back 20+ years later, I wonder what many men see when they look at a professional woman who happens to be as gorgeous as Elle Woods. Do they see the potential for success, a brain waiting to be tapped, a rising talent — or do they still see an invitation (which actually exists only in their heads) to trade sex for career advancement? Do they see a serious professional or do they see the Bend And Snap Maneuver?

The what?

“Bend And Snap” is “a little maneuver mother taught me in junior high” (Elle): 

Step 1: drop something on the floor (oops!)

Step 2: BEND to retrieve the item (butt sticking out perkily)

Step 3: SNAP back to a standing position (elbows bent, hands at your shoulders, boobs shoved as far forward as possible without risking spinal injury)

What’s wrong with the famous Bend And Snap Scene? Plenty. A bit later, however, the film took me by surprise. One of Elle’s friends finds herself gifted with the perfect Bend And Snap Opportunity. Following Elle’s instructions, she drops a pen (so cute, too adorable). Her love interest bends to pick it up, just as she bends over as well. She snaps back up, cracks his face, breaks his nose…and they fall in love. The film repeatedly invites the viewer to join in a stereotypic mindset, and then debunks its own stereotypes.

Or does it?

Although the film challenges its own gender stereotypes, it unfortunately does no such thing with its stereotypes about gay men and lesbian women. The one and only self-proclaimed lesbian in Elle’s Harvard class is caustic and obnoxious. The film’s only significant role of a gay man is a defendant’s pool boy, who dresses in sequins, lies under oath, and is pegged as gay because he knows who designed Elle’s glorious shoes. 

This film holds a lot of talent, but the issues shouldn’t be ignored. We humans are trapped in a never-ending hunt for a convenient group to target. JK Rowling (author of the Harry Potter series) wrote a wonderful portrayal of “Purebloods” (100% wizard DNA) and their contempt for “Mudbloods” (who carry “Muggle” DNA). Years later, she revealed her contempt for transgender women, who are apparently her own personal Mudbloods. 

I’ve watched Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, whose credentials are impeccable, face a series of attacks from the GOP. These senators demonstrate spectacular talent at modeling a When-I-Go-Low-Then-I-Go-Lower mentality. Their focus, through their ranting, seems to be that Judge Jackson is a Black woman and worse, she’s brilliant, strong and decent to the bone. Are these the new character-markers for Mudbloods in our government? 

We also have an ongoing crusade against the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Choose your poison: DON’T SAY GAY, bathroom bills, banning books. And while we’re riding the wave of oppression, let’s not forget voting rights, which we certainly can’t endorse. I mean, c’mon, it would be unacceptable if They The People (largely of color) might cast their votes differently from We The Purebloods (predominantly white, whiter, whitest). 

Folks, honestly, we have more productive options. We have an eminently qualified person joining the highest court in the land, making history as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. We have a democracy based on the right to vote. We have classrooms where all children could be equal, if we endorse just a sprinkling of humanity. We have an LGBTQ+ spectrum of folks who enrich our lives every day. We have books with diverse viewpoints to open our world. 

Even if pieces of Legally Blonde need a rewrite, it’s far beyond time to follow Elle Woods’ example. We need to drop-kick our assumptions, enable others to bring forward their strengths, wear shocking-pink if we choose. 

Most of all, we need to bend the Pureblood-vs.-Mudblood mentality until it snaps.


Filed under Uncategorized

Orange Is The New Red, White And Blue

Orange Is The New Black was a television series based on the book by Piper Kerman about her year in a women’s prison. The first 3 (out of 7) seasons are harsh with guards wielding power and inmates targeting each other. The show also celebrates the bonds that develop among the women prisoners. The inmates are troubled and rageful, decent and dignified, kind and thoughtful, entitled and narcissistic. Through the harsh, their relationships are strong, moving, even uplifting. 

Then season 4 (2016, the beginning of the Trump Era) brings harsh to a new level.

The prison becomes overcrowded as the owners pledge allegiance not to the humane treatment of the prisoners, but instead to their own economic bottom line. Money and Power are the driving forces behind all decisions, unchecked by a conscience. The new warden, unqualified and flailing, hires a group of guards who are even more unqualified. They have no idea how to sustain order and safety, and resort to school yard bullying to exert control. Worse, the warden then hires a guard who turns out to be a hit-man. 

The lust for power is contagious and the prisoners, already divided by racial heritage, begin a pointless turf war. One woman ends up in solitary confinement, emotionally broken. Another woman is gagged, restrained and branded (not a metaphor, literally branded). One of the woman prisoners — beloved by inmates, guards and TV audiences alike — is killed in an incident disturbingly reminiscent of George Floyd’s murder. Another guard forces a prisoner to act like an animal, and then rapes her. A third guard tortures women inmates. A fourth forces a prisoner to eat a live rodent (again, not a metaphor).

Impulses unchecked. Pack mentality. Violence erupting. Prisoners in a cage.

It’s just a TV show, right?

Wrong. Welcome to January 6, 2021.

The footage from the January 6, 2021, insurrection is raw. There are no clever camera angles, no artistic lighting, no adrenaline-rush background music. This is a mob, assaultive, out of control, chanting death threats, out for blood, a hostile takeover. 

Impulses unchecked. Pack mentality. Violence erupting. Prisoners in a cage.

Prisoners in a cage?

Actually, yes.

As I write this post, the aftermath continues, and I’m thinking of Orange Is The New Black. Cages come in many forms, many shapes, many sizes. People who support the insurrection, who twist accountability into something unrecognizable, are trapped in cages of their own creation. Whether they realize it or not, these people have the keys to their own cages. But will they unlock their own prisons? I don’t know, because their keys are made not of metal, but of accountability, decency, integrity, the capacity to admit they’ve made a terrible mistake.

In the final episode of Orange Is The New Black, the “prisoners” exit the set, waving and smiling, some graceful and others charmingly awkward. The series is finished, on to the next project, out of prison. But with the insurrectionists, using their keys to let themselves out of their personal prisons isn’t so simple. In Piper Kerman’s words from her book: “…some people were way too comfortable in prison. They seemed to have forgotten the world that exists on the outside….The truth is, the prison and its residents fill your thoughts, and it’s hard to remember what it’s like to be free.…”

I hope the insurrectionists, along with their supporters, remember soon. I hope they find within themselves the ability to stop, dig deep, reconsider. From sea to shining sea, I hope they find a path to reach for the dawn’s early light. 


Filed under Uncategorized

A Layer Of Rebekah

My sister-in-law Rebekah was an avid cyclist. When she didn’t arrive home from a ride, her husband David tracked her to the nearest trauma center, where she had been rushed into surgery. She had fallen and sustained a traumatic brain injury. She was found unconscious, on the side of the road. Their two sons caught flights home from college. They gathered with David at her bedside. For a day, she hovered between life and death. Then her intracranial pressure increased, and she died a few days later.

Rebekah and I married two brothers and over time, the many layers of my sister-in-law revealed themselves. She was a gifted midwife, a role-model educator, a terrific chef, a runner, passionate about Judaism, a tireless advocate for equality in health care. She was a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend. Our paths overlapped and diverged, connected and reconnected, as we moved from our thirties into middle age. Nearly twenty years after we met, when our husbands’ father Arnold was dying, I discovered another layer of Rebekah. 

Arnold was fading. He was in the hospital for a week, and in home hospice care for an additional two weeks. At first, he requested clean pajamas. He asked his nurse for a shave. He initiated conversations. He wanted me to keep him oriented to time. He was living as he was dying. 

Although our wonderful hospice nurse prepared us for what was around the corner, Arnold’s final phase took us by the throat. He lost interest in food, then in ice chips, then in sips of water. He stopped speaking. His breathing rattled. He needed meds to rest comfortably, then more meds, then much more. 

My husband and I lived near Arnold, so we were with him through the progression. As he entered the home-hospice-care phase, David and Rebekah arrived from the other side the country. Together, they went into Arnold’s bedroom. They stayed a long time, bonded in loss and in love. Lying in bed, Arnold turned toward their voices, feeling their presence.

Rebekah was a fine athlete, and she moved with a supple grace familiar to me. But this time I saw something different. As she crossed the threshold into Arnold’s bedroom, her movements changed almost imperceptibly. She slowed her pace slightly, her body took on a subtle fluidity, responding to invisible atmospheric currents. She placed her hand on Arnold’s arm and spoke a few quiet words. Without understanding how or why, everyone breathed easier. 

Before Rebekah arrived, even as we accepted Arnold’s death, we all wanted to fight against it. But Rebekah wasn’t fighting. From a place too deep for words, she understood the essence of Arnold’s experience and in an unconscious instant, she entered his world. Somehow, she opened herself, an unspoken invitation to Arnold’s physical being to communicate directly with her physical being, no verbal translation necessary. At one point, I asked how she, a midwife, an expert in labor and delivery, knew with such completeness how to help Arnold find his path into death. She smiled gently, shrugged slightly. “This is a lot like when someone gives birth.” 

Arnold died in the early hours of the morning. Rebekah saw his skin take on a different hue. She woke the others and brought them to his bedside. Arnold took his final breath with his midwife guiding him into death. 

Today, several years after Arnold died, I know that if love had been enough, Rebekah would have stood up after her fall, dusted herself off, climbed back on her bike, and returned to her husband and her sons. I’m thinking of Rebekah’s hand on Arnold’s arm, the calm of her voice, the curious beauty of her movements. If I close my eyes for an instant, I see her on her bicycle, eyes intent and shining, brown curls streaming. In my mind, she slows her pace, and our eyes meet. She smiles at me, then through me, a quiet light reaching for David and their sons. Then she turns and rides into death, gone and extremely here.

Rebekah Kaplan

1/4/1960 – 11/16/2021

Rest In Peace


Filed under Celebration Of Life, eulogy, Grieving, Midwifery

The Pulse Of Visual Images

I had known Cal Bernstein since I was three years old, and I knew when he began his battle with pancreatic cancer decades later. In spite of his diagnosis, I never linked him with illness and impending death. I linked him with visual images. 

Cal was a stunningly talented photojournalist. He photographed Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimi Hendrix, the Civil Rights Movement and much more. Not every picture tells a story, but Cal’s pictures tell the stories of our hearts, guts, minds. Light and shadow, sharp and fuzzy, obvious and subtle — the lens of Cal’s camera instilled a pulse in the palette of visual images.

I met Cal’s daughter, Jonine, in preschool, and we grew up together. Her family’s house was a large rambling structure, built into the Hollywood Hills. Cal’s living room was always an event, full of ongoing changes and new surprises. He and his wife Roz were fascinated by modern pieces. Their home was crammed with art, and by art, I mean furniture. Shiny steel and sleek leather, curious shapes and unexpected angles. I remember one chair which looked so intimidating that I refused to sit, too shy to admit that I couldn’t figure out where to park my butt. Now I wish I had just asked, because Cal never, not once, mocked another person for ignorance. He would have quietly demonstrated, then offered me a chance to try. He would have hovered nearby until I felt comfortable. Cal was over six feet tall and in a world fraught with people trying to exert power, he was often the tallest person in the room. He was also the most gentle.

Decades later, Cal’s condition worsened until the cancer outdistanced his body’s capacity to fight. I went to his memorial. As I entered the room, I was greeted by a picture, drawn by Jonine’s young daughter, to honor her grandfather. This child had poured her love and loss onto the canvas, and captured the vivid brightness, the boundless warmth, of Cal’s essence. Jonine, her brother, and several others spoke, from all phases of Cal’s personal and professional world. Every day of his life, Cal felt a magnetic pull toward color, shadow, ideas, people, perspectives.

As the final speaker left the podium and we filed outdoors, I turned back. I stood still, looking at the empty room. The chairs were arranged in rows, ordinary and predictable. I wondered how many memorials those chairs had seen, how many people those chairs had held. I smiled to myself, certain that if Cal could attend his own memorial, he would be studying those chairs. He’d find an elusive surface, a shaft of sunshine, a ray of shade. He’d travel the room — standing, kneeling, searching — until he found his vantage point. He’d adjust the lens and the camera would click. In that instant, Cal would recreate those chairs, bringing their story into the light. Those inanimate, uninteresting pieces of furniture would blossom into something they never dreamed they could become. Then Cal would move forward, eyes sweeping his surroundings, always ready to discover the next image, confident that he had given those chairs a story, a meaning, a pulse.

Cal Bernstein

August 30, 1925 – August 10, 2003

Rest In Peace


Filed under Uncategorized

The Curse Of The Gift

“Eloise” was from a small rural town in Ohio and in first grade, during reading time, her teacher found her deeply engrossed in an algebra textbook. By age ten, she had moved to live with an aunt in Columbus, enrolled in Ohio State University for Calculus and home schooled in all other subjects. Her “friends” were students in college and grad school, and she became the math department’s mascot. She was never invited to a birthday party, and had no friends her own age. She entered several math events, state and national, and became a local celebrity. Strapped in the back seat, she shifted in her new dress as her aunt drove to her home town for Eloise Day, including a parade where the entire population of 1,506 showed up to cheer. Then she was rushed back to Columbus for her Calculus midterm.

Eloise and I met in our first week of college, and we went out one night for a post-study snack at a family owned pizzeria across the street from our dorm. I told her I planned to major in psych, and take as many lit courses as I could fit into my schedule. She told me she didn’t know her major, but she was certain that it wouldn’t be math. I looked at her, puzzled. “Math ruined my life,” she said quietly.

When a child is tapped with a gift —academic, athletic, artistic — a dangerous rabbit hole opens up. The gift, not the person with the gift, threatens to become the focus. Achievement can eclipse the child who is achieving. Trophies, ribbons, medals and press releases can loom larger than the person herself. Her individuality can be pushed into a small corner, to create more space for her gift. Instead of the child’s owning the gift, the gift owns the child.

The rabbit hole becomes wider and deeper when others become involved. You’re the star of the class, so don’t let your school down! You’re the star of the team, so don’t let your coach down! You’re the star of the show, so don’t let your fans down! Over time, more and more pieces are mortgaged to the sponsors, the community, the country. The rabbit hole becomes more seductive (and more dangerous) with the allure of being The Star. 

Often, the greater the gift the more choices are taken away. When too many choices are taken, the rabbit hole fills with anxiety and depression. In therapy, an important part of the work is for the patient to reclaim his own self, the pieces that he lost along the way, the parts others claimed for their own. The patient needs to reconnect with the emotional vital organs that were placed in cold storage. As the person reclaims his own self, he also reclaims his choices. As he reclaims his choices, he redefines his relationship to his gift. As he redefines his relationship to his gift, he owns his gift instead of his gift’s owning him. 

I’m in awe of the athletic gifts possessed by Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles. But I’m even more in awe of their courage as they renew their vows to their own full selves, including their emotional wellbeing. Few will be able to follow their athletic footsteps, but many can follow their path towards mental health. 

Today, looking back, I remember the cheese pizza that Eloise and I shared so long ago. At the time, I didn’t give much thought to her anything-except-math choice in majors. Now, I view that moment as her commitment to her full self, her refusing to allow her gift to consume her. I didn’t keep in touch with Eloise after college, but I hope she still enjoys poetry and ballet, Spanish and guitar — which she liked in college. 

I hope she enjoys math as well — math redefined in her own terms, on solid ground, in the light above the rabbit hole.

*All identifying information about “Eloise” has been changed.


The Anxiety And Depression Association Of America


The National Alliance On Mental Health


The Suicide Prevention Lifeline


The Association Of Black Psychologists


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Royal Racism

In March of 2021, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry (Duchess and Duke of Sussex) were interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. They talked about racism within the Royal Family, which contributed to their decision to set out and blaze their own trail. In response, Prince William (Prince Harry’s brother) issued a statement that The Royals are “very much not a racist family.” A friend of Prince Charles’ leaped into the spotlight to announce that his pal (Prince Harry’s father) is not a racist.

Quick recap: Two extremely white British Princes declared themselves and their entire family free of racism. 

Four months later, in July of 2021, Tarrant City (Alabama) Council member Tommy Bryant used the n-word in a council meeting, referring to a female council member, Veronica Freeman. In case further clarification is necessary, Tommy Bryant is white and Veronica Freeman is Black. In the aftermath, although Alabama GOP has suggested that Tommy Bryant resign, he has other plans. He has refused to apologize, and is talking about running for mayor.

Quick recap: An extremely white American man appears to view his own racism as free of racism.

When white people are accused of racism, their knee-jerk reactions are often instant, loud, resounding denials. Although England and the United States both overflow with racism, the massive majority of white folks in both countries seem to view themselves (like Prince William and Prince Charles and Tommy Bryant) as Very-Much-Not-Racists. 

Royal Racism, at core indistinguishable from Commoner Racism, knows no boundaries. Like COVID-19, it crosses oceans, infiltrates continents, spreads through cities, poisons families. Also like COVID-19, it kills. Unlike COVID-19, however, there’s no vaccine. 

So I’m offering an alternative approach. I’m extending an invitation to the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge and Mr. Tommy Bryant. I’m the princess of nowhere, the duchess of nothing, and a member of no city council. Still, I hope all three of you will take a short walk with me through a different incident of racism.

In 2016, Yale University discovered that a dean of a residential college had posted multiple racist remarks. Yale took a strong stance against racism, the situation was handled and the dean no longer works at the university. Sound straightforward? It’s not. Racism is a complex issue, so let’s 


In this moment, I wonder how many readers are assuming that Yale’s obnoxious, racist ex-dean is white. Actually, the racist remarks targeted the white population, and were posted by a woman who is Asian. I’m outraged, as I should be. But I’m also inviting Prince William, Prince Charles and Tommy Bryant to take a moment with me and


to think about racism. As a citizen of the United States, I don’t know one person of any heritage — except white — who has never been the target of multiple, even ongoing, actions and words rooted in bigotry. I’m white, and once when I was walking through San Francisco, a man spat on me. Another time, a different man purposefully slammed into me. (I was startled, but unhurt.) Both spoke words I didn’t understand, but later found out were derogatory slurs for “white”. There have been other incidents, but they’re rare enough that they’re not a part of my internal fabric, which makes me extremely privileged.

Privileged or not, this dean’s comments were wrong and harmful. Her mindset was rooted in the same dangerous mentality as all racism —  Us vs. Them, Superior vs. Inferior, Hatred vs. Acceptance, Inclusion vs. Inequality. We all — everyone of every color — need to be aware of the assumptions we carry, and their potential for racism. Still, I want to go beyond my legitimately angry response and


because this issue is much larger than I am. My specific brand of outrage is, in itself, a privileged reaction, because this dean and her comments had no power to harm me. However, I don’t want to shrug it off because empathy is a key part of fighting racism. This incident gives me a small taste of what a Black man might feel when he walks down the sidewalk in broad daylight, thinking about his presentation to his company, and suddenly realizes that every white pedestrian is watching him, seemingly with fear. It’s a spoonful of what a Korean-American woman (born and raised in the USA) might feel when a stranger suddenly starts yelling that she’s responsible for the “Chinese Flu.” It’s what a Latino high school student might feel when they tell a friend they scored 800s on their SATs, and later find out a rumor is spreading that they must have cheated, because, well, y’know those Latinos — academic, not so much. It’s what a Middle Eastern college student, an American citizen, might feel when someone sees their backpack (heavy with poetry books) and freezes, as though listening for a ticking bomb.

Yes, this particular instance of anti-white racism was terrible, and I respect my own reaction. At the same time, I have to acknowledge the privilege of having experienced so few incidents in my lifetime as the target of racism. No, it does not make this person’s bigotry okay, and my being white doesn’t make my outrage any less valid. But in order to respect the full impact of racism, if someone ever points out that I’ve made a mistake, I need to listen carefully before I speak. I need to catch myself before I shout my knee-jerk denial, or enlist a friend to shout it for me. I need to remain open to the other person’s perspective, believe their experience, validate them as a full person. I need to own my assumptions, and be willing to recalibrate my mindset, even if it’s painful. 

Before we (Prince Charles, Prince William, Tommy Bryant and I) declare ourselves “very much not a racist,” we need to take a deep breath and 


1 Comment

Filed under Black Lives Matter, Meghan Markle, Prince Harry, racism

Literature Transports You

Mark Angney, a high school English teacher, died of COVID-19 in January, 2021. I met Mark in the summer of 1974, when I was fifteen. Our lives overlapped for six weeks, the duration of Phillips Academy Andover’s summer session. I chose a literature class called “Growing Up In America.”

I had never met a teacher like Mark. He was…there’s no other word for it…cool. His blond hair grazed his shoulders. He walked to an inner beat, wearing khaki shorts and t-shirts. Even though he was excessively old (late 20s), he became an immediate focus of our adolescent fascination. As the summer progressed, we tracked his movements on campus. Sightings usually included his wife and young daughter, who became objects of intrigue as well. Mark wore his love for his family like a badge of honor.

We quickly learned that our teacher had an etched-in-stone list of absolute truths. Semicolons were “powerful.” Too many commas were “lazy.” A great work of literature was a “big mother miracle.” “However” and “although” were upstanding, while “y’know” was beneath human dignity (which became a class joke, since the forbidden word peppered our speech).

Mark continually gauged the gaps in our knowledge and whenever needed, he grabbed a stick of chalk and outlined on the blackboard a lesson in the subjunctive, the difference between major and minor characters, the correct spelling of onomatopoeia. He guided us through the basics of critical reading from A (“Try to remember the names of the characters.”) to Z (“Were you drawn into the story? Why? How?”). Mark taught with a charged focus, an intellectual agility, that matched the shooting-sparks style of adolescent thinking. 

About two weeks into the summer, when Mark graded our initial batch of papers, we discovered more absolute truths. “Very” and “a lot” were crossed out with an annoyed red slash. Sentences should never, under any circumstance, begin with “And.” At our daily mid-morning break, a group of us huddled, counting our transgressions. Although amused at the astronomical total, I understood Mark’s message. When I wrote, everything mattered, even an And. I took in stride the many red marks on my paper, motivated to learn. However, I was surprised that Mark’s comments at the end covered a full page. He highlighted specific words, used grammar to enhance meaning. He encouraged me to trade a passel of tepid adjectives for one strong verb. He showed me how to adjust the structure of a sentence to reinforce its meaning. He demonstrated the interweaving of sound and sense. He introduced me to the difference between mapping out a conclusion, and raising an issue as an open question, inviting the reader to explore on their own. He viewed the writer as responsible for bringing the reader into the writing not only as an observer, but also as an active agent. Until that summer, I had applied these concepts to the literature assigned by my English teachers; I had never, not for a fleeting moment, thought of these ideas as relevant to my own writing.

One day, we read in class an excerpt from a book involving a father/son relationship, trauma and forgiveness. As always, a lively discussion followed. My eyes darted around the room, but I didn’t participate. I was deeply moved, filled with such profound sadness that my only goal was NOT to cry. I held myself icy still, trying to freeze my tears at their source, while ideas ricocheted around the room. When the class ended, I was the last to leave and as I walked past Mark, he spoke quietly. “The way you read — literature transports you. That’s good. You’ll want to hold onto that. Don’t let yourself grow out of it.” To my absolute horror, my tears broke the surface. Mark led me back into the classroom. I didn’t need to explain that crying in front of my peers was utterly, unacceptably, cringingly mortifying. He waited patiently while I regained my composure. For the rest of the day, I felt strangely steady. I had accidentally blown my cover, revealed my weird and embarrassing reaction to literature — and my teacher thought it was good. Of course, Mark was wrong…but I wondered if somehow he was right.

Mark’s vibrancy was such a palpable force that I’m struggling, decades later, to accept his death. If making a difference, one classroom at a time, constitutes a full life — then I can’t imagine a greater success story. I like to think that Mark’s heaven holds a library filled with big mother miracles, chairs soft as clouds, shelves soaring beyond the stars. 

Mark, y’know, you were right. I never grew out of it. And thank you.

Mark Angney

January 5, 1945 – January 20, 2021


Filed under Uncategorized

Death Of A Pet

A.J. was a cat, Bombay, black, sleek. He and his mom, Juande (pronounced Wanda) joined our family when he was a few months old. Juande was a best-in-show winner, past her prime. A.J. was one of her offspring born with the “wrong” features (although my family agreed his too-pointy face was perfect). The man who bred cats  (“Harvey”) was glad to unload his over-the-hill beauty queen and her un-showable son.

When we picked up our new pets, Harvey explained that he’d send us Juande’s Best In Show certificate only after he received notification that A.J. had been “fixed.” We brought our cats to the vet for their shots, took care of A.J., and forgot to request our certificate. Harvey, who was ethical and responsible, contacted our veterinarian when he hadn’t heard from us. The vet assured him that our cats were well cared for and that A.J. wouldn’t be having kids any time soon. Harvey sent proof of our family’s one and only pageant winner. We were all amused, and congratulated Juande. She gazed at us in complete non-comprehension and fell asleep. 

A.J. was goofy. He ran in exuberant circles. His life’s mission was to hunt and ingest all things plastic. He darted out the front door at every opportunity and explored our garden, happily batting at flowers, chewing and spitting out leaves, chasing shadows. When A.J. and Juande weren’t playing with their houseful of humans, they happily scampered around, jumped on pillows, pounced and wrestled. Tired out, they groomed each other then fell asleep, their paws intertwined. On colder nights, they crawled under the covers with us, their little heads peeking out side by side.

The love among pets and their humans is like none other. In relationships involving only people, love is transporting and wondrous in its layered complexity. With A.J. and Juande, the uncomplicated purity of our shared love took my breath away. 

Then A.J. became ill with kidney disease. Treatment failed. He was suffering, and nothing eased his pain. I held him as the doctor put him to sleep, then eased him unconscious, then stopped his heart. He died gently, curled in my arms. 

The uncomplicated purity of my grief matched the uncomplicated purity of our love, and the same was true for Juande. I became her new A.J. She followed me around the house. She slept in my lap during the day. When she wanted to play, she pounced, careful to avoid biting or scratching. At night, she wrapped her paws around my hands and curled against me. As a writer, I work at home and unless I held her constantly, she cried. 

After a year, like many people who lose a loved one, she became more independent. She began to sleep on her favorite blanket, with or without me nearby. She stopped crying when she wasn’t in my arms. Every morning after she ate, she ran in exuberant circles around our living room before settling down to nap. 

One day, to my surprise, I found Juande chewing and spitting out a plastic bag, acting like her quirk-ball son. I liberated the bag and she began vigorously licking my hand, grooming me with an intensity I hadn’t seen since she groomed A.J. We looked at each other.

“I know,” I whispered, “I miss him, too.” She fell asleep purring. I opened my laptop, and began writing this essay.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Chasm And The Continuum

Obnoxious, intrusive, frightening, harassing, assaultive — sexual misconduct takes place on a continuum. An obnoxious remark and a rape are obviously not the same, but they share the same continuum. As Andrew Cuomo and Matt Gaetz stand (and cringe and punch and flail) in the spotlight, a gap (more like a crater) separates their perceptions from the perceptions of their accusers. The interplay between that chasm and the continuum weaves through each incident of sexual misconduct.

Andrew Cuomo — Governor of New York, accused of sexual harassment — stood in front of the cameras and said “I’m sorry” for “whatever pain I caused anyone.” He added that he felt “awful,” “embarrassed,” and that his mistakes were “unintentional.” He also asserted  that kissing is no big deal, that it’s how he greets all humans, that he had no clue he was hurting people. As he spoke, the chasm between his experience and his accusers’ viewpoints became glaringly, disturbingly, increasingly wide and deep.

Gov. Cuomo stated several times that he regrets making women feel “uncomfortable.” But let’s call it for what it is. Uncomfortable is trying on a pair of shoes a size too small, or meeting your fiancé’s great aunt who announces that your hips are too skinny to bear children properly, or being offered a bison burger at a dinner party and explaining that you’re vegan. Uncomfortable is nowhere near how demeaned, unsafe and often enraged people feel facing sexual harassment. 

From the other end of the political spectrum and at a different point on the continuum, Matt Gaetz (a member of Congress) is facing allegations of having sexual relations with a 17-year-old, of sex trafficking, and stories have emerged of his bragging about his conquests (including nude photos) to his Congress-colleagues. So far, Mr. Gaetz has expressed no regrets and appears sorry for nothing. He has been loud and brash in his outrage at the allegations.

In contrast to Matt Gaetz, Andrew Cuomo has tried (more like visibly struggled) to hit a humble note, saying he’ll “be the better for this experience.” I hope so, but “being-the-better” is only the beginning. The cultural undercurrents (and tidal waves) that led to #MeToo and #TimesUp are alive and well and kicking people in the teeth. There’s no easy fix for a chasm that’s centuries-deep and a continuum that’s millions-of-incidents-long. So instead of balancing on the ledge and shouting across the gorge, I’m stepping in. From the depths of the chasm, I’m offering this short post from the less-violent-but-still-damaging end of the continuum.

A while ago, on a popular social media site, a middle-aged man wrote a brief anecdote that he clearly thought was amusing. Years before, he and another male friend were walking, and noticed a woman’s breasts. The post briefly described how the two gentlemen stopped for a moment of silence, gazing in reverential awe at this stranger’s chest. The comments following the post suggested that at least some agreed that his story was funny.

Seemingly simple, deceptively complex. 

From age fourteen until my hair turned gray, strangers (always men) stared at me. Sometimes they approached and tried to initiate conversations, inviting me to join them for coffee or dinner or a certain aerobic activity. Sometimes they leered, rating my level of attractiveness, expecting me to be pleased at what they considered to be a compliment. Sometimes they whispered, huddled in a pair or a group. Sometimes they gazed in a moment of gentlemanly silence. Whatever they did, it was at best obnoxious, at worst scary, always threatening. (And I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’ve never been assaulted.) This didn’t happen because I was a creature of such celestial beauty that the angels burst into chorus whenever I appeared. It didn’t happen because I always wore mini-skirts (never owned one) and spike heels (never could walk in them). It didn’t happen because of any of the go-to excuses (you’re so pretty – you dressed provocatively) people offer to shift blame onto the survivor. It didn’t happen because I was special or remarkable in any way. It happened because I’m female. 

Perspective #1: My friend and I weren’t threatening. We were admiring her breasts in a respectful manner. She didn’t even know we were looking at her.

Perspective #2: She knew. And what you experienced as admiring and respectful may have felt quite different to her.

No matter how subtle this man and his friend thought they were as they stared at the woman’s breasts, I can guarantee that she was instantly aware. How do I know? Because almost all women on the planet, regardless of how conventionally attractive they are, deal with unwanted intrusions so often, from so young, that we’re trained to know. We have to know for our own safety, because too often, these situations escalate.

Perspective #1: We were just looking. Don’t you think maybe you’re overreacting?

Perspective #2: Rule of thumb: be wary of any sentence that begins “We were just….” And nope, I’m not overreacting. Welcome to the continuum, from the other side of the chasm.

When I faced similar situations in my younger days, I was immediately watching carefully, trying not to let the man know I was watching, in case he misinterpreted my attention as a sign of interest. I was gauging his build in relation to my own, in case I needed to defend myself physically. I immediately experienced him as a potential threat.

Perspective #1: This is harmless fun, a bonding moment with my buddy.

Perspective #2: Do you mean harmless and fun for you and your gentlemanly buddy, or for the woman? While you and your friend are happily bonding, she’s probably trying to figure out how to protect herself from an intrusion that might escalate into a threat. 

I’d assess the people around me, where I might turn for help if I needed it. I’d be aware of every building on the street, an office I might enter for safety, a restaurant with too many witnesses.

Perspective #1: If the neighborhood wasn’t safe, why’d you put yourself in danger by being there? If the neighborhood was safe, what were you so worried about?

Perspective #2: Your first question is an example of blaming the survivor. Regarding your second question — a common misconception is that sexual assaults take place only in dark alleys, by masked strangers, holding rusty shivs, surrounded by abandoned buildings. 

Whenever I walked alone, I was automatically alert, wearing a don’t-even-try scowl. In spite of my death-stare, some men crashed through the boundary. Sometimes they were overtly threatening. Sometimes they took my arm to stop me from walking away. Sometimes they invited me for lunch at a restaurant they owned, for drinks at their night club, to the theater, a concert, a movie. Every time, the answer was no No NO. Many of these unwanted overtures began with a moment of silent gazing. 

Perspective #1: You must have been doing something, sending unspoken encouraging signals, that invited men to approach you. And your scowl — no offense, but you don’t sound like a nice person.

Perspective #2: Sending encouraging signals — absolutely not — unless you categorize WWF (Walking While Female) as an encouraging signal. As for my scowl, apparently we define Not-A-Nice-Person quite differently. “No Offense” duly noted.

Even if the situation began and ended with gentlemanly reverence, I was painfully aware that I was being sexualized by strangers when I was going to the corner store for a carton of milk, or meeting a friend for lunch, or picking up my kid from school.

Perspective #1: You need a sense of humor. You’re taking everything too seriously. 

Perspective #2: Possibly — but not regarding this issue. Still, don’t take my word for it. Ask Andrew Cuomo and Matt Gaetz. I’m confident that at this point in their lives, considering the trouble they’re in, both would agree with their accusers (and with me) on at least one point: this issue is serious.

Finally, take a quick moment to calculate the number of underlying currents, social norms and cultural mores I challenged or violated by writing this post. 

Perspective #1: Yeah, right, whatever. Can I go now?

Perspective #2: Sure.   

Or you can pause, gauge where you stand on the continuum, and take a step toward the other side of the chasm. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Passover During Plague

We’re entering our second Passover during the coronavirus pandemic. The story of Passover, told through a Seder, is about the emancipation of the Jews, and celebrates the freedom of all people. It’s a voice against persecution, and a celebration of the human spirit. The story includes plagues: blood, frogs, bugs, wild animals, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of firstborns. That’s ten.

Today, We The People have our own cluster of plagues: the coronavirus — isolation — white supremacy — hatred and rage targeting Asians and Pacific Islanders — violence against #BlackLivesMatter — families living in such unimaginable desperation that they send their children to flood our borders — voter suppression — homelessness — poverty — educational inequality — hunger — an environment and climate that people have stretched to the point of breaking — lack of mental and physical health care — oppression and violence toward the LGBTQ+ community — sexual harassment and assault — school shootings — gun violence. That’s more than ten, and the list goes on. 

As a psychologist of 20+ years and as a person of 60+ years, I’ve witnessed the astonishing human capacity to heal from terrible injury. I’ve also seen the astonishing human capacity to cause those terrible injuries. Our country is at a crucial juncture. Too many have lost their moorings, swept up in currents of power at the expense of decency, driven by rage rather than by common sense. They don’t realize that their own corruption is another plague, causing damage not only to others, but to themselves as well.  

I look forward to the day when COVID-19 is under control, and my home can return to being a comfortable and safe place to host a Seder. Until then, I’m inviting each and all, every religion, to join together from our separate places, uniting against our plagues. 

Next Year In Jerusalem.

Leave a comment

Filed under Passover, Uncategorized