My stand-off with a red fox across a small meadow should have been the highlight of my evening bike ride, but it wasn’t.
My highlight was holding a walnut that had fallen from a tree onto a road. I picked it up after my encounter with the fox.
The fox stood very still in his tracks as I walked my bike a few feet closer to get a better look at the beautiful animal. I got my opportunity as he inspected me just as I inspected him. He then decided he didn’t like what it saw and turned to trot into the woods.
I got back on my bike and pedaled a few more miles when my tire hit something and skidded a bit. I stopped to determine what had almost caused my accident.
It was a round walnut still in its green husk.
A walnut tree provided shade over the house where I lived as a child so young that my memories are scattered and limited. I remember spending a great deal of time in the yard with the tree, a wood fence that was built by horizontal, rather than vertical, pieces of wood and a picnic table.
I would sit under that tree pulling apart walnut husks to reveal the nuts buried beneath while I waited for my father to make his short walk home from his office building.
Years later, I learned that my mother had completely different memories of that time. She dreaded the walnuts falling as they were not gems to be uncovered, as my brother and I thought, but were instead dirty objects that left stains upon whomever and whatever touched them. I don’t remember the stains at all.
What I do remember is the beautiful antique furniture in our home that my parents said was made of walnut.
I also remember that my parents had an annual holiday tradition of offering an unending supply of nuts, still in their shells, with a nutcracker. That bowl always contained walnuts.
Those walnuts bore little resemblance to the black ones that had left my hands caked in a dirt and grime, but they did serve as a reminder.
Sometimes we have to look beyond what we initially observe – the inconvenience and messiness that most people carry with them – to discover all they have to offer. Sometimes, the greatest rewards come when we permit ourselves to take on situations that require us to get our hands dirty. And almost all of the time, people and situations aren’t all good or all bad but simply an untidy mix of both.
Our responsibility as people is to train ourselves to always look for the good.
The boxes were big – really really big/ And there was one for my brother and one for me. They were among the first gifts to appear under our Christmas tree, and my brother and I couldn’t have been more excited.
We were ten and twelve years old that year – old enough to know that our parents were practical and extremely unlikely to splurge on anything expensive AND impractical. But we were ten and twelve years old that year – young enough to be hopeful and confident that the boxes were too big to actually hold anything practical.
We were wrong.
On Christmas morning, we both tore into the large boxes, which simply revealed what we had known in our hearts all along: our parents were extremely practical.
Inside each large box was a puffy winter coat. To us, the boxes might as well have held nothing at all. My brother and I were both devastated. Our mom had actually wrapped winter coats in beautiful packages with elaborate bows as though the gifts were incredibly special.
As an adult, I can appreciate the presents and that my parents wanted to ensure our warmth. But as a child, I felt like I had been fooled. Sometimes I feel like I’m still being fooled or, just as often, I’m fooling myself.
I still jump to conclusions based on the appearance of a box without knowing what’s inside. For example, I was recently discussing the backpack program, in which food is sent home with students who may not have enough to eat over a weekend. For some reason, the discussion turned to a specific neighborhood, and I said, “Why waste time in that neighborhood, shouldn’t they should focus on neighborhoods where children are really hungry?”
The neighborhood in question has large homes with spacious, well-manicured lawns.
“Because there are hungry children in some of those homes,” I was told. When I started to argue, I was put in my place. “Some families bought those houses in hopes that the value would grow. At the time, they didn’t have enough money to furnish them. Now, their houses are worth considerably less than they owe, and they are struggling just to make the bare minimum payment. They have no furniture and often can’t afford food. There are hungry children in side those big, empty houses.”
And I realized those houses are like pretty boxes. We think we know what is inside, but we are often wrong.
This week is Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, and I hope everyone will take some time to think about boxes: empty ones and ones we can fill up with food for hungry families. This year, our help is needed more than ever. SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits have been cut, and nonprofit organizations are receiving less support from the government than in previous years. That means our hungry and homeless are depending on community members.
Let’s fill up those empty boxes.
My junior high social studies teacher, Mr. Bice, once stated, “The two most important jobs in the world don’t require a license: being a parent and being a citizen.”
No truer words were ever said.
Being a parent and being a citizen both require a great deal of responsibility: the responsibility to be knowledgeable and educated; the responsibility to hold others accountable and the responsibility to behave in a way that we want our children to behave.
Even though most American say they are fed up with our elected officials in Washington, I can’t say we are being particularly responsible citizens. And if members of the House of Representatives were in school rather than in Congress, the principal would already have made phone calls to their parents.
Unfortunately, the American public hasn’t been acting like good parents either.
Good parents don’t tolerate bullying and name calling.
Good parents don’t tolerate individuals putting their own wants and desires above those of others.
And most of all, good parents don’t teach their children that money and power are more important than being caring, compassionate and trustworthy.
But that is exactly what is happening. We are letting Corporate America buy politicians and public opinion. Take, for example, Citizens United, which legalized the concept that corporations have the same rights as people. That’s like the school’s giving their business partners the same status as parents.
Unfortunately, too many people equate money with power and power with being important. If we want to change politics, we have to change that perception. I don’t know why that is so difficult as I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that most important people in my life never bought my respect. They earned it by giving their time to help others. They earned it by giving up something they wanted so someone else who needed it more. And they earned it by making choices that weren’t self serving.
None of that requires money, but it does require a sense of being powerful.
There are those who would argue that we lose power when we give something away. But I, for one, am not buying that. I’m not buying it at all. I’m more than willing to give my vote to someone who stands up for what I believe and not for what they think will meet their own desires.
In November 1995, I attended a conference in Phoenix, Arizona that also provided the opportunity for a mini-vacation. A friend and I arrived several days early so we could relax and do some sightseeing.
At the top of our list was a day trip to the Grand Canyon, but the day we arrived in Arizona all the national headlines warned that the federal government was going to shut down.
It did. And every national park was closed except for the Grand Canyon. Apparently, the Arizona governor wanted to keep tourism alive and battled to let the state take over park operations. My friend and I decided we shouldn’t wait to see what happened. We decided to make the trek as soon as possible and left early in the morning to make the unhurried journey north.
It was a very unhurried journey.
We wandered through Jerome and wondered at the beauty of Sedona.
We arrived at the Grand Canyon in late afternoon. There was no one at the entrance, so we didn’t have to pay a fee. Instead, we quickly found parking and made our way to the edge of the canyon. Two men from France joined us as we snapped photos, including our feet hanging over the edge. And then we watched the sunset with splashes of pink and gold over the red rock.
That is probably the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen.
The next day, we woke to news that Grand Canyon National Park had officially been closed.
Sometimes, timing is everything.
And that always makes me smile.
Day 88: The Grand Canyon.
Day 87: Unanswered Prayers Day 86: Apples Fresh from the Orchard Day 85: Being Human Day 84: Captain Underpants Day 83: The Diary of Anne Frank Day 82: In Cold Blood Day 81: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry Day 80: The Outsiders Day 79: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Day 78: The First Amendment Day 77: People Who Touch Our Lives Day 76: The Rewards of Parenting Day 75: Improvements Day 74: Family Traditions Day 73: Learning From Our Mistakes Day 72: Live Music Day 71: Sleeping In Day 70: Grover Day 69: A Good Hair Day Day 68: A Sense of Community Day 67: Kindness Day 66: Living in a Place You Love Day 65: Gifts from the Heart Day 64: The Arrival of Fall Day 63: To Kill a Mockingbird Day 62: Green Lights Day 61: My Canine Friends Day 60: Differences Day 59: A New Box of Crayons Day 58: Bookworms Day 57: Being Oblivious Day 56: Three-day Weekends Day 55: A Cat Purring Day 54: Being a Unique Individual Day 53: Children’s Artwork Day 52: Lefties Day 51: The Neighborhood Deer Day 50: Campfires Day 49: Childhood Crushes Day 48: The Words “Miss You” Day 47: Birthday Stories Day 46: Nature’s Hold on Us Day 45: Play-Doh Day 44: First Day of School Pictures Day 43: Calvin and Hobbes Day 42: Appreciative Readers Day 41: Marilyn Monroe’s Best Quote Day 40: Being Silly Day 39: Being Happy Exactly Where You Are Day 38: Proud Grandparents Day 37: Chocolate Chip Cookies Day 36: Challenging Experiences that Make Great Stories Day 35: You Can’t Always Get What You Want Day 34: Accepting the Fog Day 33: I See the Moon Day 32: The Stonehenge Scene from This is Spinal Tap Day 31: Perspective Day 30: Unlikely Friendships Day 29: Good Samaritans Day 28: Am I a Man or Am I a Muppet? Day 27: Shadows Day 26: Bike Riding on Country Roads Day 25: When Harry Met Sally Day 24: Hibiscus Day 23: The Ice Cream Truck Day 22: The Wonderful World of Disney Day 21: Puppy love Day 20 Personal Theme Songs Day 19: Summer Clouds Day 18: Bartholomew Cubbin’s Victory Day 17: A Royal Birth Day 16: Creative Kids Day 15: The Scent of Honeysuckle Day 14: Clip of Kevin Kline Exploring His Masculinity Day 13: Random Text Messages from My Daughter Day 12: Round Bales of Hay Day 11: Water Fountains for Dogs Day 10: The Rainier Beer Motorcycle Commercial Day 9: Four-Leaf Clovers Day 8: Great Teachers We Still Remember Day 7: Finding the missing sock Day 6: Children’s books that teach life-long lessons Day 5: The Perfect Photo at the Perfect Moment Day 4: Jumping in Puddles Day 3: The Ride Downhill after the Struggle Uphill Day 2: Old Photographs Day 1: The Martians on Sesame Street
My parents not only allowed me to read banned and challenged books, they actually encouraged it.
And look how I turned out.
I have a (fairly) open mind.
I don’t think people of a particular economic status or a particular religion are any better than anyone else.
I don’t believe you can judge other people or their circumstances.
I think that talking about tough and sometimes uncomfortable subjects always does more good than pretending they don’t exist.
And I encourage my own children to read banned and challenged books.
Even worse, I’m actually promoting Banned Books Week during this last full week of September, a time that frightens some people more than the last week of October.
That’s because some people are scared that their children, other children and even other adults might be exposed to books that challenge the way they think and their values. Some are even afraid their children might learn something new – usually about sex, or drugs or violence or mental illness.
And they are probably right.
When I was in sixth grade, the school administration decided to break students into different groups depending on our reading ability. I don’t remember any books my reading group was assigned. I do remember that on certain days, students in my group were allowed to read whatever we wanted.
And the book that everyone wanted to read that year was Forever by Judy Blume,
I have the distinct memory of a group of girls sitting on a pile of mattresses stacked in the corner of the school gym while a girl named Karen read passages out loud. I also remember being a bit shocked but also amazed. I had read hundreds of books, but that was the first time I had ever read a book that discussed sex.
I wasn’t sure what to think of that, and apparently the other girls didn’t either. The book didn’t condemn sex, but neither did it glamorize it. Instead, it laid out potential consequences and made all of us think.
Maybe that is what most scares people who promote censorship: thinking.
They fear that people will think rather than simply behave or believe as they are told.
Apparently, there’s a lot of fear in the United States.
According to the American Library Association, over the past ten years, more than 5,000 books have been challenged for the following reasons:
- 1,577 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
- 1,291 challenges due to “offensive language”;
- 989 challenges due to materials deemed “unsuited to age group”;
- 619 challenged due to “violence”‘ and
- 361 challenges due to “homosexuality.”
An additional 291 were challenged due to their “religious viewpoint,” and 119 because they were “anti-family.” (Some works are often challenged on more than one ground.)
Some of my favorite books are on the list of the most commonly banned or challenged books of the 21st Century:
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Now a few of my daughter’s favorite books are regularly appearing on the annual “most challenged” lists. including The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Looking for Alaska by John Green.
But here’s the thing protesters don’t get: when my daughter is reading such books, she wants to talk to me about them, and the resulting discussions are incredibly rich. They provide an opportunity to talk about values and beliefs in a non-threatening way.
And those are discussions we’d never have if the books were banned.
I certainly don’t like every book my daughter reads or every idea that is presented in them. In fact, there are some I prefer she didn’t read.
But that doesn’t mean I have the right to say the author’s words don’t count or aren’t meaningful. Doing that is stepping into very scary territory.
Just ask anyone who witnessed the Holocaust.
I want more for our next generation, and because of that, I encourage everyone to go to a library, a bookstore (whether in a building or on the internet) or their own bookshelf this week.
And I want everyone to pick out, read and enjoy a banned book.
Dear Mr. Jeffries,
Congratulations on recently making headlines with your strategy of only selling clothes to those whom you define as cool, pretty and thin: http://www.businessinsider.com/abercrombie-wants-thin-customers-2013-5#ixzz2SoRlwYlN.
You’ve certainly grabbed a lot of attention and clearly made your point.
As you said, “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
You have every right to your opinion and your business strategy. But here’s what you apparently don’t get: most of us (people who will never set foot in your store) don’t really care whom you define as cool, and we don’t care that you won’t sell us your over-priced clothes. We see you in the same light that we saw the “cool kids” in high school.
We didn’t actually think they were all that cool. Instead, we thought they were self-absorbed and incredibly superficial.
You (as they did) base coolness on appearance, access to money and whom you associate with. Ironically, the only people who hang out with your are also people who only care about superficial appearances.
There’s no depth. There’s no empathy or compassion for others. And there’s no understanding that life is so much bigger than your very small and limited materialistic world.
In the real world, where everyone else lives, life is so much more than what size you wear, how much you paid for your clothes or all the places where your wealth will take you.
It’s about knowing that you can never count on your looks for anything and building upon your other strengths instead.
It’s about walking into a room and being appreciated for what you can contribute to the conversation rather than for what clothes you wear.
And it’s about supporting others rather than rubbing disadvantages in their faces.
Enjoy your fortune while it lasts, Mr. Jeffries, but be warned.
I’ve got two children who won’t ever buy clothes in your store.
I know their current buying habits are of no interest to you (because neither fits your definition of cool), but I think you should know who they are.
They are both very smart and don’t care whether you or anyone else thinks they are popular or cool. They just care that they are happy and making the world a better place.
Such aspirations have never required buying and wearing a certain brand of clothes.
So watch out, Mr. Jeffries. My children represent the next generation of consumers, and they have loud voices.
I had to double-check my calendar this morning to assure myself that it was actually 2013 and I hadn’t been sucked into a time warp.
I hadn’t been.
Instead, I was sucked into reading news articles about a school assembly featuring an abstinence-only proponent whose only educational credential is a Psychology Degree from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.
I can’t emphasize enough how inappropriate the assembly was.
Almost 20 years ago, when I was working in the field of sex education, experts had already proven that abstinence-only and shame-based tactics don’t work. And promoting a particular religious philosophy in a public school is simply prohibited.
But self-righteous people, who believe they actually know what God is thinking, seem to find a way around these issues.
The speaker, Pam Stenzel, and her sponsors, a religious group called Believe in West Virginia, say her speech wasn’t faith-based. Instead they say it was just a warning about the dangers of sex before marriage.
Those few words should have been enough to keep this woman out of the public schools.
A real sex educator doesn’t pretend that a wedding ring can protect people from a sexually transmitted disease, an unplanned pregnancy or heartache.
A real sex educator doesn’t outright dismiss homosexuals, who are still fighting for the right to even be married.
And a real sex educator doesn’t condemn, judge or shame.
Instead, a real sex educator gives facts – not statistics that have been manipulated to fit a certain dogma.
A real sex educator will agree that sex is the only human behavior that has the potential to create life or to threaten a life. The educator’s job is to help individuals make decisions to prevent unwanted consequences.
And a real sex educator will spend time talking about healthy relationships and about treating others with respect – not condemnation.
Years ago, I was that person, and I will never forget making a presentation about AIDS and HIV in a middle school classroom. As I interacted with the students, the teacher, who was obviously not happy I was there, took out his Bible and placed it open on his desk. He pretended to read, and I pretended to ignore him.
A year later, I had the same assignment and found myself in the same classroom. But instead of taking out his Bible, the teacher made a point of welcoming me and telling his students they should listen. He then privately told me that “a really good person” from his church had been diagnosed with AIDS. Instead of noting that a lot of “really good people” had been diagnosed with AIDS, I was just grateful that he had become a bit more open and less judgmental.
Now, I am hoping the same for all those involved in permitting the recent school assembly at George Washington High School.
I’m rarely at a loss for words, yet I had nothing to say last week when my daughter asked me the simple question “why?”
Instead of answering, I stood silent as a single tear rolled down my cheek.
I’d been there previously, but my daughter hadn’t. She’s been studying the Holocaust in school, so I thought she was mature enough to fully appreciate the exhibits and the message.
For the most part, she was, and we took our time going from floor to floor as the timeline of events leading up to the Holocaust unfolded. Then we got to the floor with evidence of the Holocaust and all its atrocities.
We stood inside one of the small, bare and unheated railroad cars that transported up to 100 people to the concentration camps. We stuck our heads into one of the actual bunks from Auschwitz. And we stood next to piles and piles of shoes that were taken from prisoners right before they were gassed.
But nothing affected my daughter more than a photograph of braids in a larger pile of hair the Nazis had collected. (They stuffed mattresses with the hair collected at concentration camps.)
The photo and her reaction struck me too. They reminded me of how incredibly precious my daughter is, and how incredibly precious all the daughters that died in the Holocaust were.
And because of that, I just couldn’t answer her question “why?”
How can you explain to an 11 year-old girl that some people need to point fingers and find someone to blame for difficult times? She lives in a world where that happens on a daily basis. People find it simpler to blame a person or a group of people than they to understand that situations are complicated and are rarely the fault of one person or group.
How can you explain to an 11 year-old girl that some people will simply accept what they read, see or hear when that message justifies their own belief system? She lives in a world where people spew “facts” that are completely inaccurate just because they were presented as the truth.
How can you explain to an 11 year-old girl that some people place their material possessions and personal bank accounts above the health and safety of others? She lives in a world in which people complain that their tax dollars are being used to help those in need.
How can you explain to an 11 year-old girl that some people are comforted by the belief that there is only one legitimate faith. She lives in a world were so-called Christians condemn other religions while claiming ownership of a morality.
How can you explain to an 11 year-old girl that people are comfortable condemning those with different political beliefs and world views? She lives in a world when people use nasty words to define anyone who thinks differently than they do.
And how can explain to an 11 year-old girl that people who loved each other were killed simply for who they loved? She lives in a world where people still claim that some love is an abomination and sinful.
Any explanation I could provide as to why the Holocaust occurred would simply reflect a world in which she lives. And I didn’t want to scare her.
Instead, I scared myself. And no matter how many tears I cry about the Holocaust, I know they aren’t enough to stop the hate that still exists in the world.
During my freshman year of college, female students were on high alert. A predator had taken advantage of unlocked doors to rape at least two co-eds in their own dorm rooms. Flyers with a composite drawing of the suspect along with warnings and safety reminders were hung up all over campus.
I think the guy was eventually caught, but I honestly don’t remember.
What I do remember is that, for a while, most female students were careful about locking their doors and not walking alone after dark. While those precautions should have been and should continue to be common practice, our fears were somewhat misplaced.
Instead of worrying about a stranger jumping out of the shadows to attack us, we should have been alert to those we already knew.
No one ever taught me that, but I learned the lesson anyway. Unfortunately, I learned it too late.
I was already a college graduate when I was invited to a law school party that started like any other. That didn’t last long.
At other parties, I didn’t fall down after one beer. At other parties, male acquaintances with whom I had absolutely no romantic interest didn’t complain, “that’s not how it was supposed to work” when I talked to other male party goers. And at other parties, I didn’t leave with huge chunks of time missing even though very little alcohol was consumed.
I will never know exactly what happened that night. I’ve gotten bits and pieces from friends but, to be honest, I never really wanted to know. For a long time, I was ashamed and believed that I had done something wrong.
Only years later, when I learned about Rohypnol and other date rape drugs, did I piece together what probably happened. And even then, I had no proof that anything happened at all.
Statistics show that such an incident isn’t uncommon. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) estimates that about 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone the victims knows. Half of all victims do not define the incident as rape because ” there is no obvious physical injury and alcohol was involved.” The NIJ also reports that “approximately 27.5% of college women reported experiences that met the legal criteria for rape.”
What they usually don’t do is report these incidents as crimes.
That’s because rape often doesn’t look like the crime many of us were taught to avoid.
Rape is not just a crime of violent sex offenders who stalk women in dark alleys. It is not just a crime of deranged individuals who can’t control their violent urges and express them through rape. Instead, it is often a crime committed by men or boys with great reputations who, for whatever reason, are seeking to meet their needs by controlling women. And because these men are often respected professionals, athletes or students, they often get away with their behavior.
A former emergency room nurse told me a story about caring for a young woman who had been raped on campus by a student athlete. The university offered to pay the victim’s tuition if she didn’t press charges or go public. She never pursued the crime, but she never went back to school either.
A social worker tells the story of a woman who drank too much and was picked up by a police officer, who, instead of giving her a ticket, chose to rape her instead. She never pressed charges for obvious reasons.
This week, a colleague showed me the photo of a young woman holding a sign that says ” I need feminism because my university teaches how to avoid getting raped rather than don’t rape.” I posted the photo on Facebook, and it immediately got reaction, including those who wanted to emphasize that young women should be taught to take safety precautions.
I couldn’t agree more. But I can’t say that putting all the responsibility on women is fair or appropriate. Universities, and society as a whole, must send a constant and consistent message about the definition of rape and that it is a crime regardless of the circumstances and people involved.
That’s not happening. Instead, the message seems to be that these things sometimes happen when alcohol is involved or when women lead a man on. The message also seems to be that some men are just too important to hold accountable.
And so, I agree with the young woman in the photo.
There will always be individuals who push the limits. The rest of us have the responsibility to push back.