The Inherent Worth And Dignity Of Every Person

Susan B. Anthony went to my church.

I went to the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY when I was growing up. Susan B. Anthony went there, too. Not at the same time, of course. Not even the same building, which was constructed long after her death. But the same congregation. I grew up seeing her noble profile in the portrait that hung in the church lobby.

Susan B. Anthony organized women to fight for their right to full participation in American democracy. She was beaten. She was belittled. She was jailed.

She prevailed. She didn’t live to see it but she prevailed.

I wonder if she ever thought about giving up. If she ever considered cashing in her privilege as a white northerner of some means and walking away from it all to live a life of ease. Just give up fighting for the rights that so many people didn’t seem to care about acquiring.

The thought of surrendering crossed my mind last night when I learned that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died and the Republican-led Senate is prepared to rush a replacement into her seat on the Supreme Court. The battle is all but lost and I should just stop fighting for the rights so many people seem prepared to relinquish.

See, I’m fine. My family is fine. I’m not lacking for rights or privileges. My kids aren’t underserved. My husband is a successful white man. We have resources and options. We won’t suffer in the corporate oligarchy our country is on track to become. I could walk away from any fight I want and not lose a damn thing in the process. I don’t have to care about other people.

But here’s what Susan B. Anthony and I both learned at at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester: the first principle of our religion is respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. She never forgot that and neither can I. I am called by faith to care about other people.

I don’t know what exactly to do next but I do know which two groups have blazed the trail we must follow in this next phase of the American experiment: those who fought for all kinds of civil rights and labor organizers. They were all beaten, belittled, and jailed like Susan B. Anthony was but they all prevailed eventually. Their history is our guidebook for the future.

Book Review: ‘The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes’ by Elissa R. Stone and ‘The Comeback’ by Ella Berman

For more about what I read and mini-reviews of books, follow me on Instagram at WhatRebekahReads!

I don’t think anyone can deny that there is something facsinating about looking int the lives of the rich and famous. Even the most sophisticated intellectual has seduced by tabloid headlines or documentaries about popular culture figures.

That’s why the The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Stone & The Comeback by Ella Berman, which are both about the far side of the fame machine were both so appealing. The look behind the curtain of Hollywood is irresistible and always satisfying.

That’s not to say that these are happy stories. They aren’t. Both books deal with the ascent of the most fragile of famous creatures: teen girls being packaged for mass consumption.

The Comeback is the story of a young actress named Grace who was created by Hollywood, by one powerful man in particular, then broke down at the peak of her career. The plot sounds like a long-form redemption story you would find in a magazine but it gets to so much more. It’s about the way young people are turned into products by the show business industry. How their humanity is diminished and their whole beings become the property of the people who rely on their very existence to make money. Berman gives us a character who is desperate to reclaim herself from her Hollywood juggernaut past while never being sure if she wants to exit the industry or not.

The Unraveling Of Cassidy Holmes is an inside look at the 90s phenomenon of girl groups. Told in the present after Cassidy’s death and in the past during her rise, the book tells the story of Gloss, a group that started organically enough but morphed into a pop product once the music industry got involved. It manages to be character driven while also exploring the minutia of the process of creating a pop culture phenomenon.

What Cassidy Holmes doesn’t do is convey any joy. The story of how Cassidy Holmes came to join a singing group, become a worldwide star, develop complicated relationship with her bandmates, and navigate Hollywood is strangely bereft of any sense of why she is doing it. Whereas Grace in The Comeback has the desire to be in movies and loves the creative process, Cassidy lacks that motivation. The atmospherics of the story all work but throughout it, I kept asking myself why is Cassidy even here? What did she want from this? Does she love music? Love of music usually pervades stories like this – think Almost Famous or Daisy Jones And The Six – but music is notably missing from this story. Tours, videos, costumes, and meetings take the place of actual music.

And maybe that is why these books are ultimately so very sad: they are both about the industry, not the art.

Presidential Cruelty

As I type this, the Republican Party is beginning the third night of their convention. I’m no Republican but I’m not usually averse to watching political spectacles no matter who is putting them on. Well, I wasn’t averse to it until 2016.

These days, I can’t watch Republicans speak, and I particularly can’t watch Donald Trump speak. I don’t have the emotional strength to sit and listen to the cruelty he passes out with both hands.

I’m not being a snowflake here. I don’t shy away from constructive criticism and I don’t mind honest disagreements about ideas or programs. But that’s not what the Trumpian discourse is. He’s just a mean old man surrounded by other mean people and all they do is stand around being as mean as possible. Trump is the ringmaster of a circus of cruelty and watching anything he produces is like signing myself up to be verbally abused.

No, thank you.

During the Democratic Convention last week the party was bending over backwards to show what a nice guy Joe Biden is. It was actually pretty corny the way they were portraying this grinning older man as the nicest uncle who ever pulled a quarter out from behind your ear. In a normal political cycle we all would have been rolling our cynical eyes at all of it. But in 2020? Damn, y’all. It was just such a relief to spend a few hours where everyone was working their tails off to say nice things for two hours per night.

Imagine four years of the politics of nice. Can you even?

I, like so many of you, am tired from hearing my beliefs belittled in the public square. I’m beaten down from the effort it takes to keep speaking out about what I think is right when at every turn there is a bully in a pulpit calling my entire ideology fake news. Twitter used to be fun but now it’s the place I go when I want to be called a “libtard” or worse. The chattering class is the jeering class and the jeering is mean and petty and small. It’s also exhausting, just as it’s meant to be.

And that’s why I’m not listening to the Republicans tonight. They have shown me who they are and I don’t want to spend my time on them. Trump and his flying monkey followers have been trying and trying to smash our collective emotional resistance so we will eventually just give up and let them do what they want. And maybe if we listened to them all the time we would.

But this is still America and in America, the off button on the remote still works. I would rather sit in silence than listen to the litany of presidential cruelty coming from the RNC.

Photo By Nicolas Pinault, Voice of America – Day 4 of the 2016 RNC in Photos; Full-resolution photo, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55113089

School In The Time of Corona

School starts in less than a week here. It’s all going to be online and there are some tech issues that are already driving parents batty and – no joke – the Board of Ed literally voted on the bell schedule this afternoon. Teachers are going into their third day of in-service planning for the year and they didn’t know the bell schedules until a text alert hit all our phones 20 minutes ago.

To say this year is going to be weird as hell does a disservice to weird shit.

Since the spring, I have been calling for punk rock parenting where we all agree to just tear down all the expectations and assumptions we made before the very act of leaving the house was a high risk plan. These are the days to let the screen time flow like milk and honey and maybe not care so much if your kids take up swearing.

Now that school starting, it’s time to get into feminist punk rock parenting. What’s that, you ask? That’s where you dismantle the old systems and build them back with an intersectional intentionality. Or, to put it in simply, fuuuuuuuck grades. And benchmarking. And test scores. And all that stuff that the system has been trying to impose on young brains for generations.

Half of education is spent checking to see if kids learned stuff and then quantifying that data to present to someone else. That someone else – a school system, a government agency, what have you – does not know your child. In fact, they can’t identify your child inside the mass of data they are wallowing in. They like aggregates and those aggregates are NOT GOOD FOR INDIVIDUALS. And in this inequitable learning environment, they’re junk data anyway. Too many variables in the delivery of curriculum. You cant aggregate that which is disparate.

So buh-bye data. Hello parent-informed individual educational goals. Figure out what you want your kids to get out of this school year and concentrate on that part of it all.

Yes, there are basic things kids are supposed to learn at a particular time and you should probably pay attention to that. I really do want my daughter to exit third grade knowing how to do multiplication. But there are other things that will be just as important, such as her emotional maturation and well-being that no benchmarking test will ever measure. I, however, in my new role as full-time-volunteer paraeducator to her can measure it and that will be my focus for the year.

Do I care what her test scores will look like? Nah.

Will a college admissions officer ever look at her 3rd grade test scores? Also, nah.

Let’s use this moment in education to change how we look at measuring what children learn. Let’s stop trying to standardize everything for these unique and special little people. Let’s make school about learning and growing instead of grading. We have the opportunity so let’s seize it.

Dafuq You Been, Feminist?

Y’all. This pandemic is hard. It’s hard on everyone.

I’m like the rest of you, walking around in a fog of Zoom login info and virtual learning schedules and trying to remember what seemed so great about baking bread once upon a time. I stare out the same windows onto the same view hour after hour and wonder why I can’t stop doomscrolling long enough to phonebank for the Biden campaign.

OK, that one has an easy answer. I hate everything about talking on the phone and making even one call requires a day of pep talks. Phone banking is not in my nature. I’ll just send Joe some more money or something.

The thing is I WANT to be the person I was before life shut down. I like being a human who can do something other than read escapist fiction and sometimes do a load of laundry. I want to have Big Thoughts about Big Issues. I hoped that the stress if the shutdown would relent and I could get my cognitive faculties back by now. However, since public health efforts are failing, I need to seek mental health help for myself.

I have ADHD, which is not really a revelation. I’m open about it. I also have depression. I had to quit ADHD meds to take depression meds a few years ago. Luckily, ADHD and depression can all be happening in the same part of the brain so the depression meds helped with focus and I was all good.

Until the pandemic. Then my ability to focus left along with any hope of seeing live theatre or sending the kids back to school. Gone. Buh-bye!

It only took me five months of wandering through the mental cobwebs to make the phone call (see above about phone calls) to get an appointment to talk drug cocktails with a mental health pro. I’m hopeful that she and I can coax my brain back into a higher state of functioning and I can do the high-level things I like again, like writing and activism.

Hell, I might even bake some bread.

So I’m back. Or almost back. Or at least I have a map that will lead me to back someday. And that is good enough for this week.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

Book Review: The Grace Year By Kim Liggett

I love a good book about a misogynist religious dystopia. For real. It’s one of my favorite genres. I think it’s because I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was about 13 and it made an indelible impression on me.

I also love speculative fiction where people have magical powers. That’s why the description of The Grace Year by Kim Liggett first caught my eye. It’s a story about a highly religious society that sent their 16 year old girls into the wilderness for a year to release their magic before returning to get married.

Dystopia, misogyny, religion, and magic all in one book? What’s not to love about that?

Turns out I loved nearly everything about the book. I blazed through it in under 24 hours then got sad because it was over.

The book takes place in a primitive world that has vaguely Scandinavian overtones. The closed-off society the protagonist Tierney James lives in follows a religion with a Christian vibe, but more Puritan than Evangelical. Women who disobey are often sentenced to death. Women who do obey can become wives when they turn 16. Or, if they’re not chosen as brides, they go become laborers or are cast out to become prostitutes in the encampment outside of the walls of the main society.

But first, the girls must be dispatched to an island to release their magic in a year-long ordeal that is shrouded in secrecy. Women never speak of their grace years so the girls only know that they are being sent away and may not survive to return.

That’s all I can tell you about this story without spoiling the rest of the book.

From the outset or the story, Tierney is a likable character who is buffeted by the forces of her society. Each time she thinks she can wrest back some control of her life, she is dragged back to heel by someone or something stronger than she is. She’s easy to root for and readers will enjoy her earnest desire to not make her fellow female exiles her rivals. For all her good intentions, she isn’t a Mary Sue who’s too sweet for the circumstances. Tierney is no optimist and she knows when to cut her losses and look out for number one.

Tierney’s grace year experience manages not to drag into tediousness, even as she has to literally struggle to stay alive in a hostile environment. Liggett manages to convey the urgency of the fight against the wilderness without lingering over the minutia of the skills for survival.

The supporting characters have depth and complexity as well, leaving all the relationships in the book equally deep and satisfying to experience.

One element of this book that struck a chord in me was the idea that change is a legacy process that happens over generations, handed from mother to daughter. Liggett doesn’t tell the story of a revolution here, however satisfying it might have been to see Tierney burn it all down. While the ending is indisputably hopeful, it is also an ending only of Tierney’s grace year story, not the end of the change for the world she inhabits.

This is the kind of book, which like The Handmaid’s Tale, could shape a young woman’s view of the world and literature. Read it yourself and share it with younger readers as well.

Book Review: Pelosi by Molly Ball

Pelosi by Molly Ball

First, I need to share a couple of points just for full transparency. My husband is acquainted with the author of this book and he and I were able to join a Zoom book launch party when it first came out.

But the fact that I drank wine on my couch while Molly Ball answered questions about her writing process isn’t the reason I loved this Pelosi; it’s because it confirmed everything I have believed to be true about Nancy Pelosi and I am JUST SO GLAD someone is laying it all out in plain language.

It’s impossible to follow Congress and not have a sense of Pelosi’s history. Ball takes readers back to Baltimore and the Democratic machine her family ran in the city of Nancy D’Allesandro’s childhood. She was witness to both the overt power of her father’s political offices and her mother’s more discreet behind-the-scenes operations as a Democratic party organizer.

Both of those experiences informed how Pelosi would rise through Democratic politics to become the most powerful woman in American history.

She used the backroom networking skills she learned from her mother and put them to work as a fundraiser for Democrats in California. That took her on a road to hyper-local politics (the board of a library) to state politics (California Party chair) to Congress, just like her father before her.

Pelosi entered politics in spite of being a woman, not because of it. She wasn’t there to stake out power for the sake proving that women can thrive in the boys club of Washington. She had a constituency to serve and that was always her focus. But she also never forgot that being a woman made her “other” in the Capitol and making sure her colleagues didn’t dismiss her was a constant struggle. She recalled being at a dinner with several other Representatives and all the men in the room were discussing their wives experiences with childbirth. They all chuckled and shared stories and never once asked the women at the table – all of whom had given birth themselves – to weigh in. Pelosi tolerated that in social situations much better than in Committee or on the Floor of the House, where she never backed down.

The Pelosi this book describes is very much like the image of Pelosi I have always carried. I observed her from the vantage point of an advocacy professional in the early Obama years and I admired how deftly she managed her caucus during the crafting of the Affordable Care Act. She was negotiating a bill with a lot of competing priorities in a highly charged political environment. It was a challenge for any leader but this challenge was made more difficult by the loss of a bargaining chip: earmarks. Congressional leaders used to be able to buy votes from Members by promising funding for pet projects back at home. That practice fell out of favor after years of being called nothing but pork, which left Pelosi shepherding a bill through Congress without any way to reward her members for taking tough votes.

But, unlike Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan who would follow her in leadership, Ball describes all the ways that Pelosi had spent her career forging personal relationships with the Democrats in the House. They all could speak her her attention to their needs, her capacity to listen, her assistance at fundraising, and the hand-written cards she sent for birthdays, marriages, and deaths. Those relationships were what positioned Pelosi to manage the ups and downs of a nascent law that was as despised as it was needed.

Ball points out that Pelosi’s successes and skills only became truly evident when they were compared to the disastrous Speakerships of her two successors. Boehner and Ryan fought against intransigent Tea Party insurgents and Trumpist separatists. Over and over again, they barely got bills passed and usually only managed passage by offering concessions to Democrats so that Pelosi would deliver the votes in the final hours. Seldom has a minority leader been able to get as much as Pelosi could get for her own priorities.

The book takes us through the first two years of the Trump presidency and Pelosi’s re-asscention to the Speaker’s chair. By now, her strength and calm are familiar hallmarks in an otherwise chaotic Washington. We all think of Pelosi in her red coat, stalking out of the White House as Trump seethes or of her standing in a room of men, the only woman to breach the halls of power. Where in past years, her effectiveness was questions, now there is little dispute that she may be the greatest Congressional leader of a generation.

This is the book to read if you have ever wondered why Democrats keep turning back to this tiny, elegant woman for leadership, if you have ever been tempted to underestimate her, or if you have ever wondered what it takes to thrive in the cutthroat atmosphere of Congress. I highly recommend it, just as I have always highly praised Pelosi herself.

Book Review: Too Much And Never Enough: How My Family Created The World’s Most Dangerous Man by Mary L. Trump

Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man by Mary L. Trump

I’ve read a lot of political books over the past few years so I have a feel for what to expect. Usually, authors of these profiles come to praise Caesar or to bury him. Mary Trump is really doing neither. In Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, the niece of Donald Trump, who has been largely estranged from her uncle for decades, doesn’t have anything good to say about him but neither is she doing a hatchet job on Trump the man or Trump the president. It seems like what she really wants to do is explain why he is the way he is.

In so doing, she has written a terribly sad family history.

Mary Trump is is the second child of Donald Trump’s late brother Freddy. She grew up within bike-riding distance of her grandparents house, which was the hub of all things Trump before Donald took Manhattan. As a child, she spent plenty of time there, observing her extended family in all their cold, striving glory. This book is her story of what it was like being in the Trump inner circle and what it was like being forced out of the family as well.

I think we all knew that the level of dysfunction in the Trump family would be noteworthy. You can’t log onto Twitter without seeing someone speculating about how little Fred Trump Sr. loved his kids and how desperate for approval the living Trumps are today. Mary Trump has two levels of expertise in discussing the real nitty-gritty of that. Not only did she bear witness to her grandfather’s stranglehold on the professional and emotional lives of her parents, aunts, and uncles but she later went on to study clinical psychology. She can retroactively diagnose the behaviors she saw.

She doesn’t shy away from diagnosing her grandfather as a sociopath. She flat out says he had no real emotional life and his only goals were wealth and success. She details how he expected his boy children to model themselves after him and woe betide the son who couldn’t live up to those expectations. His girl children he largely left to the care of their mother, whom he left uncared for despite her chronic health problems. The only thing he ever tended with any attention was his property development and management business.

I won’t rehash the events of the book but I will say Mary Trump’s recollections are proof positive that cold, detached parenting leads to children with warped senses of self. Most of the Trump siblings have terrible self esteem issues. (The author’s father never felt like a success and he died at 42 due to health problems related to his alcoholism.) Not Donald, though. His self esteem was artificially inflated by his father’s calculated decision to use him as the spokeperson for their shared business ventures. Fred Trump Sr. knew his son’s only real skill was getting media attention but he pretended to everyone that Donald was also good at actual business. He created the myth of Donald the Dealmaker.

The fact that Donald can’t deal-make his way out of a paper bag was irrelevant. The myth took on a life of its own and grew so large that we all ended up with an attention-seeking, approval-addicted, bumbling fool of a failure in the White House.

The book, which is a slim 225 pages, isn’t salacious. This isn’t a walk down tabloid memory lane. Mary Trump is very careful to tell only the stories she knows from experience or from reliable sources, such as her own mother. She does an outstanding job of protecting the privacy of her other family members. Even when she mentions relatives she only discusses them within the context of the story she is telling. She doesn’t speculate and she doesn’t gossip. She only refers to the big scandals of the family to give the reader a sense of time; we can tell where we are in history by the name of the wife Donald brings to holiday dinners.

This book reminded me of a book I read about Rosemary Kennedy, the Kennedy sister who was cognitively disabled from birth and was eventually shattered by a lobotomy. Joe Kennedy was arguably as bad a father as Fred Trump Sr. but he had a sense of service to the world that the Trumps never embraced. He encouraged military service in his children, even though it eventually killed some of them, and pushed others to political service on an outward platform of helping individuals. His daughters were charitable in their own right, such as Eunice Kennedy Shriver founding the Special Olympics.

Basically, as fucked up as the Kennedys were, some good came from their existence in the world. So far, the progeny of Fred Trump Sr. have only existed to enrich themselves and sow discord among others.

Too Much and Never Enough is a good book and worth reading if you want to understand why Donald Trump thought he deserved to be president. If only it was also a manual for getting him out of the White House.

It Is Time To Riot

There have been so many moments in recent history when we all ask “Why aren’t there riots in the street to protest this?”

The answer was always that we all have too much too lose by stopping what we’re doing to riot. We stood to lose our jobs and our employer sponsored-health care. We stood to lose childcare and social standing. We stood to lose financial security and freedom. 

But now many of us don’t stand to lose those things. We have lost them to a global pandemic. And as we are forced to come to terms with all we have lost – our security, our income, our health, members of our families and communities – as we do that, he drumbeat of racism and political and corporate abuse of workers carries on. 

We can see with our own eyes that corporations, the wealthy, the government, and the police will not help us in our time of need. In fact, they may knowingly and willfully do us harm.  We are the ones being asked to change everything while they change nothing. Not one thing. 

We may have foolishly, optimistically hoped that this moment of global crisis would have spurred the ruling elites in America to dip into their coffers of wealth and power and extend a helping hand to the laboring class that supports them. But instead of seeing even a glimmer of that, we saw a cop place his knee on the neck of a man and crush the life out of him. 

We have nothing left to lose and everything to protest. 

People are in the streets finally because the betrayal from those to whom we entrusted our health, safety, and security is finally just too much. They have demonstrated once and for all that they are beyond redemption. We no longer feel obligated to protect their property because they are not protecting us. 

In fact, we see all to clearly that they are the ones from whom we need protection. 

The man passing a counterfeit $20 bill is not the cause of of all that is wrong in America. He is what happens when all the real $20 bills are in the pockets of the mega-rich, stockholders, and political elites who feel no obligation to redistribute a single cent to those left starving in the wake of a plague. 

Americans are not willing to blame the wrong people any more. At last, we are blaming the ones at fault. 

It didn’t have to come to this. Activists and advocates have begged for change. Lobbied for change. Sung for change. Written for change. Danced for change. Made art for change. Marched for change. The change never came. 

The advent of the coronavirus is our reckoning. When we faced a universal crisis that demanded change for the survival of the species, the silence from those who control American resources was all the answer we got. 

Now they get torches and pitchforks and angry mobs. 

Photo by Rosa Pineda – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90812924

Stronger Together: Parents Need To Team Up For Better Workplaces

Did I just quote Hillary Clinton’s 2016 slogan? Yes, I did. Because Hillary is smart.

In 2016, Hillary didn’t predict that we’d be entering our third month of a pandemic and that the economy would be in free fall, but if she had, she would have said we are stronger if we address the issues together.

In particular, parents should band together to figure out how to get workplaces better aligned with their needs.

Looking back on my last office job, I recall a time that a childless coworker complained that another coworker had to leave in the middle of something to go pick up a child from daycare. What the childless coworker didn’t fully grasp was that the daycare was going to close. The child had to be removed from the premises because the premises were shutting down for the night. Daycare isn’t like a parking meter where you pop a quarter in and extend the time. The parent didn’t have a choice about picking up the child.

Someone explained that to the childless person and their complaining stopped. All it took was a quick clarification.

In the current environment for schools, daycares, and after-school care, we are in that situation. They are closed. Our children have been removed from the premises. Outside childcare is not an option for millions of families right now. Someone needs to explain that to the folks at work.

Correction: someoneS need to explain that to folks at work.

Working parents need to connect with other parents in their workplaces to talk about what’s going on with school and childcare. And parents need to work as a team to request that management make accommodations to their hours so that children can be cared for and so adults can do their work. The logistics of work need to change and parents are in a position to ask for those changes.

This is where the “stronger together” thing comes in; one parent asking their boss for a favor is a weak baragining position. A committee of parents presenting a proposal on behalf of all the parents in the company is stronger and likelier to lead to a favorable outcome.

If you think this sounds like collective bargaining and the ground work for a union, you’re right! I would love it if this situation led to workers unionizing to negotiate non-traditional scheduling and better work/family balance. But let’s not move too fast. We’ll scare the capitalists and they’ll say no before anyone even asks a question.

For now, it is in everyone’s best interest to establish new work patterns that allow for economic security as well as security for families who need to care for young children. I can’t speak to how that will work in different workplaces and different communities but I do know that there won’t be changes unless parents, as a group, come forward to ask for them.

Connect with your colleagues and start on the path to a more family friendly workplace. You will be stronger together.

Photo credit: Hillary for America – https://www.facebook.com/RhodeIslandforHillary/photos, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63937611