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His Own Personal Wall

When I was in graduate school getting my doctorate in mental health, I spent six months working in a locked inpatient psych ward. Some patients hated being locked in, but I was surprised by the number who confided that the locked doors helped them feel safe. When I asked why,  “Mr. X” explained. He was a middle-aged gentleman, always dressed immaculately in a 1920s suit and bow tie. He blinked at my apparent dim-wittedness and answered with the weary patience of an elder educating a youngling: “My dear, those locked doors don’t keep me in; they keep bad people out.”

“Build the wall.”

From the perspective of the medical model — identifying and treating the disease — the intensity of the cure needs to match the intensity of the illness. A nail clipper can cure a hangnail and a bandaid can cure a paper cut — modest interventions for modest problems. In contrast, an aggressive form of cancer might need surgery, chemotherapy, radiation — an extreme treatment to match the urgency of the problem. If Mr. X needed the locked doors of an in-patient mental hospital in order to feel safe, then his level of fear must have been off the charts. 

“I will build a great great wall.”

Those locked doors were Mr. X’s version of Donald Trump’s border wall, but the border wall is more extreme — which means that our president’s level of fear is also more extreme. Fear is contagious and since he was elected, our president has spread fear like fire — adding kindling, stoking the flames, stirring the embers, causing sparks to fly. As fear has been running wild in our country, keep in mind that the “great great wall” isn’t actually about Mexicans or immigrants. It’s about overwhelming, consuming, irrational fear. 

“It’s going to be a serious wall.”

Like the locked ward of a mental institution, the “serious wall” comes at an equally serious cost which goes far beyond money. Both create barriers, narrow our world, limit our view. But at this point the analogy falls apart. As people healed on the psych ward, they experienced the hospital as increasingly confining. Over time, identifying the source of his own irrational fears, Mr. X grew mentally stronger. He worked hard, and eventually felt ready to reenter the world on the other side of the locked doors. As Donald Trump’s border wall is built, unlike Mr. X, the Unites States of America will deprive itself of the opportunity to outgrow its own irrational fears. 

“That wall will go up so fast, your head will spin.”

With the murder of George Floyd, there has been a shift, and the United States is in turmoil. However, for the first time since Donald Trump took office, I see people turning toward each other, uniting instead of dividing. The magnitude of the movement against racism has snowballed, the momentum is fierce, and I feel a new level of hope for change. But apparently, our commander-in-chief doesn’t share my sentiment. Instead, there’s been a spike in his level of fear. In the midst of the protests, a new wall went up so fast my head was spinning — a fence surrounding the White House. 

“A wall protects.”

Is Donald Trump protecting himself from the BLACK LIVES MATTER letters recently painted on the road to the White House, large enough to be seen from space? Is he protecting himself from the many colors of the people he’s supposed to lead? Is he protecting himself from those who are supposed to be compliant as they’re oppressed? Is he protecting himself from the #BlackLivesMatter movement? And if he needs to build his own personal wall for protection, then why is he so very, deeply, extremely frightened?

“I will tell you that the problem our country has is that our leaders are so weak.”

For once, President Trump and I agree.

All identifying information about “Mr. X” has been changed to protect confidentiality.

Except for the quote attributed to “Mr. X”, all quotes are from Donald Trump.

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For Tyre Nichols, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor…

I was around ten years old, and my class was studying the slave trade. Many of us were deeply affected, and I remember having several emotional discussions with my parents as I tried to understand how slavery could have happened. As a white girl, I didn’t understand the extent to which the mindset was still happening. 

Strangely, I remember one art project in vivid detail from that time, over fifty years ago. “Stevie” was considered one of our class’s finest artists. He was great with color, deft with his hands, accurate with measurement, drawn to different textures. This time, he built a ship from wood. He carved out a half-watermelon shape, and lined the edges with a thin slat. He then sawed a flat cover. He attached a flag, and added color and detail to his ship, with the flat cover as his deck.  

The class ended and we gathered to admire Stevie’s beautiful ship. Then he lifted the flat cover so we could see the carved area below deck. He had created stick figures from dark-colored wire and seated them, crowded side by side. He took a thin chain, the width of a light necklace, and looped it around their legs. In contrast to the ship above, he added no light or decoration. 

The entire class, including the teacher, stood speechless. I distinctly remember standing frozen, trying to contain a surge of emotion, feeling a bit dizzy, realizing I had forgotten to breathe. Looking back, that was the moment when I understood that art can evoke oceans, speak volumes, empower action, incite change. I didn’t learn that lesson from a museum or a special exhibit in a professional artist’s studio. My teacher was a skinny, quiet, brown haired child. 

In May, 2020 (during Donald Trump’s presidency), as protests formed all over the United States, I watched an interview with Robert O’Brien, who was Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor. In his tailored suit, his sensible tie, his perfect hair — Robert O’Brien firmly denied the existence of “systemic racism” in the U.S. police forces. Needless to say, Robert O’Brien is white.

Folks, I’m white, too, and I have a request — more like an urgent plea. We white folks need to stop talking and start listening. We need to admit that our lack of understanding stems from our privilege. We have no right to tell Black people what they have and have not experienced. As a white woman, I cannot ever inform anyone of color that racism doesn’t exist. I can ask them, but I cannot tell them. Then I need to listen.

When I say I need to “listen,” I mean listen in a specific way. I need to open myself to different perspectives. I need to accept that regarding racism, I’m always a student, never a teacher. If I realize that I have contributed to any form of racism, then I need to avoid my natural impulse to turn defensive. Instead, I need to embrace my own discomfort, because that discomfort is my guide to improvement. If I’ve made mistakes, I need to own my flaws and do better, then much better, then even better. Change is difficult, and in order to be on the correct side of change, I need to start humble, maybe more humble than I’ve ever been. I need to remember that there’s no loss of self-respect in humility.  

Declaring that racism doesn’t exist only worsens the problem. The United States has a history of several hundred years’ worth of oppression, damage and death due to ongoing systemic racism. Robert O’Brien’s words are outrageous, arrogant, infuriating. More to the point, his aggressive refusal to acknowledge racism is an act of aggressive racism.

Around five decades ago, a 10-year-old child caught the essence of racism in a stunning piece of artwork. In case anyone is misreading my message as being that all white people (or all people of any racial heritage)  are bad, here’s a quick fact check — Stevie was white. In my own way, with my own style, with my own skill set, from my deepest self — I’m going to follow Stevie’s lead. I hope you’ll join me, because in order to walk down a healthier path, We The People need to live up to our name.

RIP Tyre Nichols, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor…


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Stop Calling “Coronavirus” the “Chinese Virus”

From our physical wellbeing to shaking hands — from opening our home to our basic livelihood — from our emotional health to getting a haircut. 

Everything has changed. 

Facing a pandemic, many of us feel an urge to band together. Although isolation is the right course of action, it’s counterintuitive, clashing against our basic instinct to huddle in a pack. Fighting our core instincts — even for the greater good — can cause a surge in anxiety.

Uncertainty adds additional layers of anxiety, opening the emotional field for anger and fear to run wild. As I write, vaccinations are up and running. Still, we don’t know how many are carrying the coronavirus, symptom free, contagious. We don’t know how many will become ill. When someone coughs, we don’t know if they have a garden variety allergy, or if we’ve just been exposed. Of those who get sick, we don’t know who will have a no-big-deal cough, who will spike a high fever, who will struggle to breathe, who will need emergency care. Yes, we’ve learned a lot — but we don’t know a ton. 

As the coronavirus continues to plunge us into turmoil, our natural inclination is to latch onto conclusions to counteract the uncertainty, grasp at targets to unleash our anger, search for others to blame for our fear and our losses. Being all-too-human, we have a bad habit of choosing the wrong conclusion, picking the wrong target, blaming the wrong Other. At that point, our anxiety can push us to turn against each other. Our country remains divisive and with COVID-19 surges ongoing, people continue to thrash and don’t know what to do.

Until the pandemic is under control, here’s what NOT to do: DO NOT take aim and fire at each other. I’ve heard several people (including our ex-president) refer to “The Coronavirus” as “The Asian Virus” or “The Chinese Virus.” Each time, I feel like I’ve stepped into a time warp, back to the early 1980s, when I was seeing my first psych patients, as AIDS hit San Francisco. People referred to AIDS as a “Gay Disease,” homophobia skyrocketed, and the damage was incalculable. Folks, for the love of our country — viruses aren’t Asian or Chinese or gay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States confirmed the first person in our country to test positive for coronavirus is a man in his thirties. Yet, we’re not calling this pandemic “The Male Virus” or “The Thirties Virus.” Why? Because that would be ridiculous. But it’s no more ridiculous than attributing a virus to a specific racial heritage or a particular sexuality. So let’s call it for what it is. Homophobia is homophobia. Racism is racism. A virus is a virus. A surge in coronavirus should never be an excuse for a surge in bigotry. Now of all times, We The People need to live up to our name. 

And for the record — as a healthy coping strategy during this public health crisis, racism is an epic fail. On top of being vile, let’s be clear about the benefits of racism: THERE ARE NO BENEFITS OF RACISM. Aside from being hurtful and damaging, referring to the coronavirus as “The Chinese Virus” will give only a fleeting moment of relief. Then the next wave of emotion will surge, and you’ll need to vent again. Your anger and fear and uncertainty and anxiety will continue to spiral. From a mental health perspective, racism has enormous negative impact but absolutely no positive impact. So — and I’m being as measured as I’m able — CUT IT OUT.

Which leads to the next question — what should we do with our anger? If I’m trying to get through this pandemic with an ounce of dignity, should I rage at an ex-president who doesn’t care one whit about me (female, liberal democrat)? Even more undignified, how can I feel personal outrage toward a virus mindlessly searching for a host environment?

A word of advice from my many years as a therapist — emotions don’t hold much stock in dignity. For the moment, I suggest we all set dignity aside, acknowledge our feelings, and respect (yes, respect) the humanness of our emotions. If you’re mad at the coronavirus or at our ex-president, I don’t blame you one bit. If you’re afraid, you’re having a normal reaction to a scary situation. If you’re buckling under the uncertainty, you’re not alone. The goal isn’t to NOT feel whatever you do feel. The goals are to handle your emotions so that you own the feelings, rather than allowing the feelings to own you — and to channel your emotions in a way that doesn’t cause more harm, maybe even does a bit of good. 

I don’t know how the landscape will look as this pandemic plays itself out. I do know that sooner or not sooner, later or much later, this public health crisis will turn quiet and today will become tomorrow’s yesterday. We’ll open our doors to gather, shed tears over our losses, steady each other as we find our way. Inch by inch, row by row, we’ll regroup, relearn, rebuild. Tentative and strong, we’ll venture into our next new world. Today, as individuals and as a country, let’s set the stage to take those steps together. 

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An Open Milk Carton

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

Martin Luther King, Jr.                                                                                                                                                                         “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963

The Lorraine Motel (where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was shot) has been converted into a Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. A path through the motel guides visitors into an interactive series of exhibits, tracking the Civil Rights Movement.

I entered a room of tables with computer screens, walls covered in photographs of civil rights leaders. A mother held a child in her lap, watching a video. The boy was confused why “the white people were mean to the Black people.” I watched as his mother struggled to help him understand. After a minute, he turned in her lap, face to face, and stated: “Racism is bad and it doesn’t make sense.” The entire room looked at the child, and a quiet solidarity began to form. 

A large area held a bus with only the back few rows open to Black riders. As we waited to board, a teen stepped forward to help an elderly man climb off of the bus. A younger woman gave her seat to an older woman. Two children climbed into their father’s lap, to make room for another adult, a stranger, to share their seat. Together, we chose the seats in the back. Nobody wanted to touch the seats in the front.

Toward the end of the exhibits, I faced a sheet of glass, separating visitors from the balcony where the Rev. Dr. King took the bullet. On either side, rooms 306 and 307 had been preserved to look exactly as they had when he stayed at the motel. A bed. A chair. An open milk carton.

Through the sheet of glass, the balcony was strangely ordinary, simple concrete with railing. Still, it pulsed with an odd energy. Three of us reached the balcony at the same time. We moved together, complete strangers, one much older than I am, one much younger, different racial heritages. We clasped hands. We stood together for a long moment while the line waited patiently. Nobody spoke. The silent pulse reverberated.

I walked outside. I thought about a child’s truth, an ordinary balcony, reaching for the hands of two strangers. I thought of the triangle trade, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Memphis Sanitation Strike. I closed my eyes for an instant, curious which image would appear in the forefront. Crystal clear, I found myself picturing an open milk carton.

Going forward, I’m bringing the image of that milk carton with me — open and unfinished, basic and vital, extraordinary and familiar, history and forever. When I began writing years ago, I never expected to work on an essay inspired by a milk carton. But I’m okay with it, because the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is humbling, heartbreaking, motivating and awe-inspiring in equal parts.

Thank you, Martin Luther King, Jr.                                                                                                                                                          Rest In Peace


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Intimations Of Immortality

In college, I found myself facing an embarrassing problem. 

I was taking a course on English poets, and my professor introduced me to William Wordsworth — “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” The title was a mouthful, and I gathered my courage. Then I began to read and the world fell away. I was swept off my feet by the current, the pulse, the heartbeat. But swept off my feet wasn’t the problem. The difficulty was that every time I read the poem, I broke into tears. 

Of course, this was horrifically unacceptable. But in spite of my finest efforts, I was unable to reroute my appallingly inappropriate reaction. Turning to my friends for help was out of the question. How could I admit that I was crying over my homework? Worse, I had only a few days to get a grip, because my professor would be discussing the poem in our next class and crying was not — repeat NOT — an option. So I barricaded myself in my bedroom and read the poem over and over, desensitizing myself. I made it through the class tearless and my near-miss humiliation remained a secret.

Fast forward four decades. 

My husband and I attended our 40th college reunion. As I walked the familiar paths of campus, I stepped into a time warp. I was a wide-eyed first-year, listening to the president’s welcoming speech, wondering if I’d become the Admissions Committee’s biggest mistake. I was a sophomore, seasoned and mature, strutting with confidence. I was a junior, questioning everything, wondering where I had misplaced the previous year’s self-assurance. I was a senior in graduation regalia, clutching the hands of two close friends as we bolstered each other through our final hours on campus. The reunion weekend was a medley of sounds and sights, each triggering a neuronal domino reaction, synapses shooting sparks. I was eighteen years old, and I was sixty.

Immersed simultaneously in my then and my now, I sat in the balcony for a concert in Woolsey Hall. A small group of “kids” took the stage. During their final year at Yale, they sang together and were now performing at their first official reunion, five years later. Afterwards, a friend joked that we should advise the young ones to sing while they had their voices, because “it won’t last.” We all smiled, remembering ourselves at their age. When the old-and-gray folks suggested that we’d one day be creaky, we’d nod politely. Somehow, those aging relics hadn’t figured out that unlike them, we were immortal.

We gathered for dinner in the Branford Courtyard, surrounded by stone gargoyles. The evening was mild, and we quieted as a reunion organizer took the mic. With an empathic blend of respect and warmth, she read a list of classmates who had died. It took quite a while. By the end, the courtyard was extremely still. Six decades into our lives, we all know that with or without our consent, sooner or not sooner, our names will land on that list. The notion is both knee buckling and strangely okay.

Before our class dinner was served, the Whiffenpoofs (an a cappella singing group) stood in their horseshoe, swaying with their signature song. A curious tenderness filled the courtyard, and my neuronal synapses began to quiver. I closed my eyes and for a quick instant, my hair was thick, shiny, the color of wheat at dusk. My skin glowed smooth, my musculature defined and strong. In that fleeting moment, I was immortal.

Standing in line at the buffet, I overheard someone say that their daughter would begin Yale in the fall. I wondered if she’d read Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality.” Would she cry? Would she stage a mighty intervention against her own tears? In any case, I wish her a wonderful four years. 

It’s her turn to be immortal.

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You don’t mess around with chest pain and shortness of breath, so my father-in-law was rushed by ambulance to the Emergency Room. A week later, still in the hospital, he wasn’t responding to his meds. His lungs continued to deteriorate. His heart grew weaker and his kidneys began to quit. Eating led to nausea. He couldn’t walk, then he couldn’t stand. His body was shutting down. He was 85 years old.

I met Arnold when I was a college sophomore. My boyfriend, years later my husband, introduced me to his parents. I was nervous, sitting silent and wide-eyed on their living room couch. Arnold spoke gently, setting me at ease. He asked the names of my family’s two yappy toy poodles. Blushing, I explained that the smaller (and decidedly more bad tempered) dog was also “Arnold,” named after my brother’s best friend. He said he was flattered to share a name with my family’s noble steed. Several years later when we had become close, I admitted that my brother’s friend was “Jonathan,” that together they had chosen “Arnold” as Jonathan’s nickname because they picked “the funniest name” they knew. We joked about yappy-Arnold for 40 years. 

Now, I loved his name and I loved him and he was dying. 

My husband and I lived in the same city as Arnold, so we had been visiting the hospital every day. I arrived on the morning after Thanksgiving, 2017, Day 7 of Arnold’s hospitalization. As always, we relaxed in our comfortable friendship. Then I noticed his IV was out. I assumed the line was clogged and would be replaced. When he refused his morning pills, I asked what was going on. Avoiding my eyes, he told his nurse that he wanted the oxygen mask off. He had decided to stop treatment. I asked if he understood that without his oral meds and his IV and his oxygen he would die. He spoke gently, knowing his words would cause me pain: “Amy, I’m already dying.” My eyes filled with tears and I nodded. He was right.

A team of physicians, social workers and nurses — professional and compassionate in equal parts — talked to him several times, to make sure his decision was lucid and entirely his own. He was clear and calm. He asked the doctors for a time frame. They believed that when the oxygen mask came off, he’d die in as little as two hours, as much as two days. 

Then my husband’s cell phone rang — Bruce Ramer, Arnold’s closest friend of fifty years. Bruce is a wonderful blend of contradictions: brilliant and scrappy, kind and tough, hilariously irreverent, unfailingly respectful. He announced he was booking a plane ticket to visit and say goodbye. Since Bruce, like Arnold, was in his 80s, my husband assured him that a 2,500-mile dash across the country wasn’t mandatory. Bruce answered  that “a stick of dynamite up my ass” wouldn’t stop him. 

I had become aware of the intensity of the bond between Arnold and Bruce several years before when Bruce’s brother died. Bruce was devastated, and he exchanged several emails with Arnold. Arnold had suffered a mild stroke and asked me to type his messages. Arnold’s last name was “Burk,” but he told me to sign the messages “Arnold Ramer” (Bruce’s last name). I was concerned that he was confused, but Arnold spoke quietly. “Amy, it’s okay, just send it.” I did, and soon a reply came back signed “Bruce Burk.” 

“We’re brothers,” Arnold stated simply.

As the first day of hospice care unfolded, Arnold’s cognition turned fuzzy. He drifted into a hazy zone, hovering between life and death. He felt safe, and knew he was surrounded by people he loved. Entering the second day, he was fading. We hoped Bruce would get to him in time to say goodbye.

While Arnold’s body prepared to turn still, Bruce arrived — blazer, scarf, silver hair, handsome. Bruce is a force of nature, and his presence filled the room. His eyes are extraordinary — not quite hazel, not quite brown, laser sharp. In an intense instant, he scanned each of us, as though gauging our character, our emotional state, our capacity to cope, our love for his dearest friend. His eyes circled the space and rested on Arnold who lay in bed, frail and unfocussed. Bruce’s eyes filled. He brought himself into Arnold’s line of vision and said hello. He reached for his friend’s hand. Arnold opened his eyes. He looked through Bruce, then at him. Several moments passed. Recognition took hold, Arnold smiled, and we watched his mind reignite.

The two men exchanged insults about their gray hair, about how they weren’t glad to see each other, about how much they didn’t love each other. Arnold gently slapped Bruce’s chest. Bruce caught his friend’s hand and brought it to his own heart. They clasped each other and Arnold returned to us. 

He lived two more weeks.

Looking back, I don’t understand what I witnessed. Bruce’s friendship brought Arnold back to life. Call it magic, a miracle, the ties that bind — I don’t know. Maybe I’m not meant to know.

Rest in peace Arnold, and live on Bruce. Your love for your “brother” was…I have no idea what it was. I only know it was wondrous.

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Conversion Therapy Isn’t Therapy

Before I became an author, I was a therapist for almost thirty years. I’m completely confounded by the controversy over conversion therapy (applying pain during same-sex attraction, as an example, supposedly leading to a “conversion” to being straight).  I’m confounded because this practice is so horrifying it defies reason. But for the purposes of (hopefully) putting this issue to bed once and for all, I’m setting aside my horror to write.

Let’s break it down.

The goal of therapy is for patients to heal and live full, healthy lives, by their own definitions of “full” and “healthy”, to the best of their abilities. Important parts of a healthy life are emotions, identity, friends, home, career. And yes, sexuality and gender identity.

So how does therapy work? How can people change by talking to a therapist? Here’s an example. 

When a patient takes unresolved feelings about an important person in his past and superimposes those feelings on the therapist, it’s called transference. For example, if a patient has a mother who was mean to him, then he might start feeling like his therapist is being mean. This gives the patient an opportunity to fully experience a problem from the past, with the therapist, in the safety of the office, and gain a new understanding.

To help the patient, the therapist needs to NOT become mean like the patient’s mom. Instead, the therapist needs to show the patient how he brings his relationship with his mother to other relationships, and how this causes him to relive his unhealthy past again and again. 

The same is true for sexuality and gender identity. Which brings me to conversion therapy. There are several problems here. 

First, torturing patients in the name of “conversion” from anything or to anything — that’s not therapy. That’s using your (the therapist’s) power over the patient to hurt them. Which says something deeply disturbing about your (the therapist’s) character.

Next. Causing physical pain to a patient is a violation, and will be experienced as an assault. Why is it experienced as an assault? Because it is an assault. Which means the therapist has become an assailant (not a transference assailant, an actual assailant).

The next next. As a therapist, we have no kit of doctor tools; we are the kit of doctor tools. It’s every therapist’s responsibility to know what they do well, and when to refer to another therapist. All therapists need to know which patients make them so uncomfortable that they can’t feel empathy. If you are off-the-charts uncomfortable with a patient who is LGBTQ+, then you shouldn’t treat them. (And for the record, I suggest you sort out why the LGBTQ+ community makes you so angry that you want to hurt them, so uncomfortable that you want their LGBTQ-ness to convert, under torture, to cis-ness and straight-ness…which will derail their core identity…which is diametrically opposed to anything therapeutic.) 

The final next: if you were half of the therapist you want to believe you are, then you’d know that Conversion Therapy Doesn’t Work. 

Why doesn’t it work?

Full stop. Think for a moment. However you define yourself on the gender and sexual spectrum, please follow along. 

Trigger Warning: I’m about to flip things up-side-down. 

Suppose you’re a straight man. Try to imagine the effect on you if someone hurt you physically every time you felt attraction to a woman. Would you make a nice, clean leap to becoming gay? Would torture lead to a grand therapeutic epiphany: I’M GAY! I’M FINALLY CURED OF MY EVIL STRAIGHT-NESS! Of course not. 

Why not?

Because that’s not how humans are wired. If you’re straight, then you’re straight. Hurting you will scare you, enrage you, force you to hide your true self. And at that point, things become complicated emotionally. If we can’t be true to ourselves, we try to hide ourselves not only from others, but also from our own selves. Our emotions become twisted and convoluted. This can result in confusion, depression, anxiety, even suicide. 

We have an enormous problem in our country with the lack of understanding and open hostility toward the LGBTQ+ community. We have a long way to go. But we can’t have a reasonable conversation, we can’t open a healthy dialogue, unless conversion therapy is off the table. You may as well sanction water boarding.  

If you’re a therapist and you’re consumed with intense vitriol toward the LGBTQ+ community (or toward anyone), I strongly suggest you turn in your badge and change careers. You shouldn’t be a therapist. And as you should know from your profession, carrying such an intense level of hatred and rage is pathological. 

You need help.


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Congratulations, Mr. Ratburn!

As a mother of three grown children, I’ve fielded some tough questions. 

Why do people act mean?

Can I get a tail for my birthday?

If Mrs. Jones was “all ears” when she heard the news, should we rush her to the doctor?   

When the children’s cartoon Arthur aired Mr. Ratburn’s same-sex marriage (in 2019), several people asked me, How can I explain GAY to my kids? Many parents were anxious, worried, confused how to approach “such a difficult topic” with their young children. Everyone can take a deep breath and settle down. In fact, this isn’t difficult at all. 

This is Joe and Ann.

This is Sylvia and Marie. 

This is Bob and Alan.

When couples visited our home, I introduced them to my children. The kids responded: “Nice to meet you,” shook hands, and that was that. If the parents are matter of fact, then the kids will simply accept it. If the parents create a hyped-up drama, the kids will respond accordingly. They’ll follow your lead. Acceptance or drama —your choice.

As your children grow older, they may have more questions. The most important Rule Of Thumb is to answer what they ask, no more no less. 

Those are two boys! How can they be a couple?

Any two people can be a couple. If they love each other like Mommy and Daddy love each other, then they’re a couple.

Can they make babies and have a family?

Sure. There are lots of ways to make babies and have a family.

(Your children will become overwhelmed with information if you launch into eggs and sperm, fallopian tubes and testes, ejaculation and insemination, surrogacy and adoption. When your kids are ready for specifics, they’ll ask.)

What’s the best kind of couple? Two boys? Two girls? A boy and a girl?

A couple with a lot of love is the best kind of couple.

When the episode aired, I followed the negative reactions to Mr. Ratburn (Arthur’s teacher) and Patrick (an aardvark who owns a chocolate store), and to their marriage. Alabama Public Television banned the episode, which I find jaw-dropping. Some suggested a TRIGGER WARNING — a same-sex marriage RED ALERT — an urgent call to have a PARENTAL UNIT on hand to answer questions.

Actually, I always encourage parents to be available when their kids are watching any television show. Kids have questions, comments, ideas, and these moments provide opportunities for open communication. But there’s no need to hold up a cue card: IS ANYONE SPIRALING INTO ORGAN FAILURE SECONDARY TO MR. RATBURN’S SAME-SEX MARRIAGE? Honestly, your kids are much more likely to have a question about a rat-aardvark marriage than a man-man marriage. 

Like many cartoons, Arthur is filled with Weird — charming Weird and delightful Weird. Animals who dress in clothes, who go to school, who walk on their hind legs, who talk. Yep, plenty of weird. However, regarding the wedding — the couple walking down the aisle, the joy in the room, the exuberant dancing — it’s a marriage, and there’s nothing weird about marriage. Mr. Ratburn and Patrick are deeply in love, committed and devoted. They’re choosing to spend their lives together. 

How wonderful that so many children were invited to share their happiness.

                                                                       *  *  *

If you’re in the process of growing comfortable with LGBTQ+, if you’re open to becoming more accepting, then here are a few posts to help. 

“All Love Is Created Equal”

“Let’s Open The Conversation”


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STEM, Cows, Clay, Tulips

My daughter entered UVM (University of Vermont, Burlington) knowing nobody, not one person in the 10,000 students. She chose UVM for its stop-in-your-tracks animal sciences curriculum, pre-veterinary-medicine, and simultaneously entered the Clay Program with ten other first and second year students. She lived in a dorm reserved for the Arts Initiative (clay, photography, world music, creative writing…). By chance, in the year Ariela began college, the Clay Program was entirely women. One of the members studied psychology. Another would become fascinated with horticulture, sustainability, and eventually learn to fly planes. A third was a scientist. Another studied literature and art. They lived in two suites, bonded by their love of working with clay. From her first moments on campus, Ariela stepped into the community of women she hoped to find.

For the next four years, most of my phone conversations with Ariela took place while she walked to class. At the beginning of her sophomore year, crunching through fallen leaves, trees turning into the reds and golds of fall, she called. “I figured out what’s missing in my life.” She had the arts from clay, she explained, and the sciences from her major. But she longed to read and write, so she added a minor in English. A young woman in STEM, fascinated by animal sciences, in love with the written word, immersed in the arts — that’s Ariela.

A few summers into her UVM journey, she enrolled in the CREAM program — a dairy farm run by students working shifts around the clock, taking care of the farm and the animals. Early one morning, she sent a photo. She sat on the ground holding a gargantuan baby bottle. She was feeding a newborn calf, who nuzzled against her. She had arrived at her shift and found an hours-old infant girl, a healthy 104 pounds, wobbly on its spindly legs. My daughter was transported. 

We spoke on the opening day of her final spring semester, senior year. We struggled to hear each other as she forged her way to class through the icy Vermont winter. I said, “It’s your first day of classes.” She smiled over the phone. “It’s my last first day.”

In that final semester, she enrolled in EQUUS, another UVM Animal Sciences gem, where she joined the team taking care of the horse barn. She signed up for a course to complete her English minor, excited to learn Middle English as she followed Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage. Along with several other classes, she insisted on auditing a course covering equine health issues because it was “too good to miss.” “It’s coming together,” she said in our next phone call. “What’s it?” I asked. “It’s…” she searched for the right words, “…it’s me.” 

Suddenly and not suddenly, her last first day was far behind her, and she faced her last last day.

The family gathered in Burlington for her graduation and she brought us to meet the cows. As we walked through the barn, the huge animals moved forward to greet us. We smoothed their fur, and they gently nuzzled our hands and arms. They seemed to understand that they were ten times our size, and moved carefully as they slimed us with their friendly noses. I never knew that cows love human attention as much as puppies.

Ariela guided us through campus — her dorms, the library, her research lab. Strolling outside a cluster of buildings, we found ourselves next to a small tulip park, a joyful garden of white, yellow, maroon, red, purple. We entered UVM’s greenhouse and were immediately enveloped in the soft humidity. One room held tables and shelves of sweet potatoes. Another area housed many forms of cactus, each sharp and strange and weirdly beautiful. A different room was filled with tropical plants, startling in their waxy brilliance. A museum of living art, a bright surprise around every corner.

We walked outside into the springtime, treading the ground that had been covered with snow just a month before. We followed Ariela’s path, a road both individual and shared. Ariela’s UVM meant cows, Chaucer, microbiology, horses — all comfortably side by side, hand in hand. Her education meant research and tulips, Middle English and clay. And as I followed Ariela’s campus tour, I understood the essence of UVM. Whoever you are, whatever your unique and eccentric internal tapestry looks like — this university invites you to seize the experience, cover it with your fingerprints, make it your own.

Congratulations to Ariela and the UVM class of 2019. May your continuing path be filled with first lasts and last firsts, then and now and always.


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College Admissions Scandal

People have been asking what I think of the latest college admissions scandal, because Yale (my alma mater) had a sports coach who was involved. Of course, I’m saddened (and appalled)  that someone in the Yale community devolved into this mess. During my four years in college, I lived and breathed an atmosphere created by faculty who loved to teach and students who loved to learn. My friends and I, together, travelled the path from “mature” adolescents to young adults and many of those friendships are ongoing today. I’m grateful for all of it.

However, I urge everyone to take a step back from the application feeding frenzy. I strongly suggest we plant our feet firmly and realign our perspectives. Yes, I loved my time at Yale and yes, the education was fantastic and yes, my peers inspired me every day. But as any of my fellow Yalies who have an ounce of integrity will tell you: while Yale gives its students many things, the Secret To Life isn’t one of them. Behaving as though a YES from the admissions committee is worth absolutely any cost, no holds barred, even a piece of your soul…well, it isn’t.

Although I take this scandal extremely seriously (as does the university), Yale isn’t my biggest concern here. One misguided person, who accepted a bribe and lied, doesn’t represent either the belief system or the core integrity of the university. My biggest concern is for the applicants who didn’t get a fair shake, for the families who worked (and struggled) to support, with decency and honor, their children’s efforts to go to college.

And I have another biggest concern. I’m worried about the adolescents taking their first steps into adulthood, whose families paid a crap-ton of money to set up lies, fake photos, dishonest test scores, illegal bribes. I wonder if these parents realized the message they conveyed to their young adult children. 

You’re not good enough. 

I’d rather cheat and lie and bribe than accept you as you are.

Nobody will ever want you unless you cheat on a test, or offer an obscene amount of money, or pretend to be someone you’re not. 

We’ve got money to burn and when we want something, we’re entitled to it, whatever the price. 

I wonder if these parents realized that in this case, the price was the emotional well-being of their children. 

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