Old Yeller

 Logging on to my computer the other day, I couldn’t help but notice the headline blaring across the top of the page: “Is Yelling Worse Than Hitting?” My response to this was both immediate and visceral: Dear god, I certainly hope so—there’s no way I could hit as hard as I can yell. It was with a bit of trepidation, then, that I finally clicked open the link, where I saw, to my immense relief, that I needn’t have worried at all: according to the article in question yelling is indeed much worse than hitting. Imagine my confusion then when the very same article went on to suggest several ways that parents could avoid yelling, my favorite two being 1) Try not to be around stressful people and situations (like, perhaps, your children?), and 2) whenever the urge to yell overtakes you try retreating to a quiet room and lighting a soothing candle instead. (Since the urge to yell usually overtakes me when one of my children is doing something like chasing the other one around the living room with a steak knife, suggestion number two would probably not be in anyone’s best interest, and in fact would undoubtably lead to a spate of articles with headlines like: “Are Puncture Wounds Worse Than Mental Scars?”)

When did yelling get such a bad rap, anyway? As far as I’m concerned, yelling has it all over spanking. For one thing, with yelling you don’t even have to be within arm’s reach for it to be effective; on the contrary, the farther away the yell-ee is from the yell-or, the more effective it seems to be. (Nothing says I’m serious like a reprimand delivered from two houses away.) And then there’s the fact that yelling gives you a much broader range of nuances to choose from: from the casual stop riding on the dog yell, to the more strident stop peeing on the dog yell, all the way up to the frantic don’t put that in your mouth–it came out of the dog yell.

In fact, one of the best things about yelling is that you don’t even have to raise your voice to do it: every child knows that the most frightening yell of all is the silent one, the one where your mother simply mouths just you wait at you while she is on the phone.

Of course, to give the authors of the article credit, I’m sure that there are plenty of households out there where the parents don’t really yell at all, just like I am sure that there are plenty where they never watch anything but educational TV, never eat any food that is not triple-certified organic, and never make any decisions without first holding a family meeting. And I’m sure that these families are very, very happy—even if it is in a Stepford kind of way. My question for them, though, is this: what happens when all those poor un-yelled at children finally go and live in the real world? How do they deal with their first boss, their first room-mate—even their first spouse? Do they just dissolve into a puddle of tears at the first raised decibel?

At least with my children I know that whatever unreasonable boss, psycho room-mate, or Jerry Springer-worthy spouse the world throws at them, they’ll be O.K. Even now, at the tender ages of four and eight, they could probably go to a PETA convention wearing full-length fur coats and emerge completely unscathed. Heck, they could probably wear PETA t-shirts to a cockfight and be none the worse for wear.

Now if only I could find a way to make them immune to siblings and steak knives they’d be set for life.

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Cage Match, Revisited

Today is my son, Clyde’s, 16th birthday.  This is a column I originally published when he was five.  (Note the dated jokes about George Bush and Dell computers.)  Spoiler alert: neither of my predictions for Clementine and Clyde’s future career paths came true.  Thank god.

I’ve always wondered if the little tics you have when you are a child give any indication as to what kind of career you will have when you grow up. Take my stepfather, for example: from a very young age he showed an unusual interest in both sweeping and making secret recordings of people using the toilet, and he grew up to be crazy. Okay, so maybe that’s not such a good example, but just imagine a five-year-old Thomas Edison driving his parents absolutely crazy with all of his early inventions, or Mademoiselle Curie’s favorite toy being her junior chemistry set. Who knows, maybe even George Bush made a habit of invading neighboring kids’ yards and liberating their unusually large toy reserves. It’s possible.

Of course, the real reason for me having such a strong interest in this question is none other than my very own five-year old son, Clyde, and the rather “interesting” personal habits that are are all his own. When he was younger these habits involved things like wiping his butt and blowing his nose with the same piece of toilet paper—in that order. Naturally, this made me think that any future career he had would involve him saying things like “would you like fries with that?” and “I’d like to tell you about a special offer from Dell.” Lately, however, he has begun to show talents of another sort, talents that I hope may yet lead him down an entirely different, albeit not quite as respectable, career path: fight promoter.

Everything Clyde touches starts a fight. His silverware at dinnertime, the pair of socks he has been told to put on, even the worms he finds when I am planting in the yard. Nothing is safe from his Don King-like machinations; when it comes to organizing a throw down he is Tina Turner in Beyond the Thunderdome, except that he is also that creepy little guy who’s always saying, “who rules Bartertown?”

With Clyde, though, it’s not just the fights themselves, but rather the nature of the fights that makes me think he has a future in the sports world. Like all the best fight promoters, Clyde knows that there is more to orchestrating a fight than just throwing a couple of combatants into a ring: instinctively he seems to understand that the best fights involve not just man against man (or, in Clyde’s case, fork against spoon), but rather are little Morality plays where Good can finally triumph over Evil. That’s why, in Clyde’s rumbles, the potato masher (Good) always wins out over the ice cream scoop (Evil), and even the lowly (but still Good) butter knife can carry the day against the supremely Evil corkscrew.

Of course, the thing that really makes me think that Clyde will grow up to be a fight promoter, and not just a fight instigator, are his audiences. Who can forget the big showdown between the slotted serving spoon (Good) and the melon-baller (Evil)? Certainly not all the soupspoons and teaspoons, who turned out en masse to cheer their brethren on. (And certainly not the rest of us, who ate our cereal with forks for days and days.)

You’d think then, what with Clyde’s career path seemingly laid out before him, that I’d be entirely sold on the idea of your childhood interests determining your future career–-but actually, I’m not. I can’t be, because that would then mean that my nine-year old daughter, Clementine, whose current favorite hobby is cutting out little tiny pieces of paper and leaving them in piles all over the house, will someday grow up to be a performance artist. Or, like my stepfather, crazy. Although, I have to say that, of the two choices, I’m definitely hoping for the latter.

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Sign, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs

 

There was one summer when I was in college that I worked as a painter for the university. For the most part this meant repainting and patching over a bajillion thumbtack holes in dorm rooms, but occasionally we would also paint a common area like a hallway or stairwell. When that happened there was one guy on our crew who always liked to be the one to write and hang up the “Wet Paint” signs—and the rest of us would let him, because his “Wet Paint” signs were always way more successful than ours. This was probably due to the fact that our signs simply said “Wet Paint,” whereas his signs said, “Tell a man that there are billions of stars in the Universe and he will believe you without question. Tell the same man there is wet paint and he has to touch it and find out for himself. WET PAINT.” Yeah, our paint got touched a lot less with the wordier sign.

Of course, I don’t know if those longer signs really worked better just because they were long. I’d like to think that was the reason, though, because if long signs really can cause someone to stop and think then I’m going to start plastering my house with them. Or at least every part of my house that contains a teenager. (The washing machine and dishwasher are safe, obviously.) My signs will say things along the lines of, “Why would you believe, unquestioningly, that GMOs are bad for you, but will not accept the notion that milk left out on the counter overnight will go bad?”

Or better yet: “Why do you believe there is a worldwide conspiracy afoot to control the internet, but cannot understand that you can go online and check your grades at any time?” Also, “So Bigfoot and Slenderman are real, but skunks (the kind that come into the house and eat the cat food when you leave the back door open), are not?”

Who knows? Perhaps we are all just hard-wired to make things more complicated than they need to be, and like with every other emotion, teenagers are just the same as us, but more so. Or perhaps belief in the things we can’t change (the government is watching our every move) is easier to accept than belief in the things we can (if you keep smoking it will kill you.) Whatever the reason is, I wish there was a way to harness a teenager’s complete and unquestioning belief in absolute utter nonsense into a similar belief in things that are actually true. Things like, “doing your homework will improve your grades” and “the best way to find something that is lost is to get out of bed and look for it.”

Maybe, though, it’s not the message that is the problem—it’s the delivery. A wise man once said, “A lie will travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its pants on;” a more modern retelling would be, “A lie will have three different subreddits while the truth still has a myspace.” Maybe I just need to find a way give “Wet towels will mildew under your bed” the same following as “Drinking Mountain Dew Red will turn you into an alpha male.”

Of course, there is always the possibility that if I train myself to start thinking like a teenager—if I train myself to communicate only in memes, for instance—that I will then become the thing I’m trying to study, and no longer remember (or believe) whatever wisdom I originally wanted to impart. (Maybe memes are like a really slow version of The Ring: watch enough of them and you acquire the curse. Only, instead of dying, you become incredibly gullible.)

In the end I’m sure that what will actually happen is that I’ll just do it the same way my parents did when I was a teenager—and as I’m sure their parents did as well: give it time. After all, adolescence isn’t a permanent condition. And, to tell the truth, sometimes it’s kind of fun watching people touching the wet paint.

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Don’t Worry, Be Annoying

 

“Really?” my son, Clyde, asked me, his voice thick with disbelief, “you’re reading that now?”

I glanced down at the book in question: Violent Ends, a novel about a school shooting written from seventeen different perspectives. “What?” I replied. “It’s an interesting subject.”

“It’s only interesting because there’s been like five threatening notes about it at my school! You’re not supposed to be interested; you’re supposed to be worried.”

“Can’t I be both?”

“Are you?” he asked with a glare.

“Well,” I hedged. “I could be. You wouldn’t know.”

“Except I do. Because it’s you.” And then he shook his head and walked away, not in the I-hate-you-and-you’re-ruining-my life kind of way, but rather in the what-am-I-supposed-to-do-with-a-mom-like-you kind of way. (And yes, I can tell the difference.)

The thing is, he was right. I wasn’t worried. But then again neither was he: he just wanted to tease me about my potentially insensitive choice of reading material. How do I know he wasn’t worried? Because this is the same kid who once texted me on his walk home from elementary school to tell me that “a man just gave me some candy and now I’m all sleeeeepy.” (I laughed when I got it, and then ran outside to look down the street: he was waiting for me with a huge smile on his face.)

Am I saying that I never had a moment’s worry about him being abducted when he was younger? No. The same way I am not now saying I never worry about him being caught in violence at school (or anywhere else, for that matter.) Being a parent means that you are in a constant state of worry: about school shootings, global warming, the collapse of the economy, the gradual erosion of civil rights. It is, as someone once described it, like having a horror movie playing in your head all of the time: that’s how much and how often you think about all the terrible things that can happen to your child. It is such a constant that, at the end of the day, the only real wish you have remaining is that somehow everything will work out in such a way that you are lucky enough to be the one who dies first.

So yeah, I worry.

But I’m not a worrier. My worry doesn’t define me, and it doesn’t define my relationship with my kids. And it doesn’t define my relationship with your kids, either. Meaning that, just as I’m convinced that my kids are generally pretty awesome people, I think yours probably are, too. And for that matter, so are you. Yep: call me Pollyanna, but I genuinely believe that most people are good. And, after nearly fifty years of boots-on-the-ground style research, I’m happy to report that my theory has held up admirably well. (Remember: I said most, not all.)

Which explains why I have felt comfortable sending Clyde to school despite the notes: I know that, overwhelmingly, the people he is sitting next to in class are good. (I would even venture to say that the person or persons who are writing the notes are good, too—just confused and a little sad.)

It is entirely possible, of course, that I am wrong about this. It is entirely possible that there is a sociopath in out midst, someone who is not at all good (or, for that matter, evil, because they do not have the capacity to tell the difference between the two), and that person is waiting out there, biding their time before they cause serious harm. But in that case there is nothing I can do about it anyway, and so worrying about such an event happening is even less helpful.

So yeah, I’m going to keep sending my kid to school. Where he will (hopefully) be sitting next to your kids. And in the meantime, I’m not going to worry about anything—other than which annoying book I’m going to read in front of him next, that is.

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Lying Liars Who Lie

 

When my children were younger, I didn’t really mind so much when they would lie to me. After all, lying is a skill just like anything else, and the only way we get better at the things that require skill is the same way we get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. I think that (if we’re being honest about lying), most people feel the same way. It’s the reason why we find all those YouTube videos of toddlers blaming the cat for their misadventures with the Sharpie to be adorable rather than infuriating. Aw look, we all say, they’re so little they can’t even lie properly. How cute.

Of course, I (and every other parent) becomes significantly less amused when, ten years down the road that mischievous toddler turns into a surly teenager, and their lies remain just as inept. Because at that point their lies are no longer bad because they lack the skills to do it well (years and years of sometimes successful lying have finally given them those talents), but rather because they lack the desire. A toddler lies poorly because they are too ignorant to do it well; a teenager lies poorly because they think you are too ignorant to be worth the trouble to do it better. And that, even more than the lie itself, is what is so infuriating.

And also explains why our country’s current administration is so infuriating to so many usually apolitical people.

The great Judge Judy once famously said, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining,” meaning that the lie itself was insult enough: don’t insult me a second time by not even bothering to make it a good lie. Over the years the plaintiffs that appeared in her court (or at least the viewers watching them) learned that lying to Judge Judy was the quickest way you could lose a case: she trained her courtroom to know that about her. Just as we, as parents, hopefully trained our children to understand that the lie was always going to be punished worse than the crime—I’m sure I’m not the only parent who has ever choked back a bitter lecture about drinking simply because I got the midnight call for rescue from the offending party, and not the police.

The question then becomes, how do we train the President (and the President’s surrogates) not to lie—or rather, not to lie so badly? Because every time we get distracted by just how bad some of them are at lying, we are taking our eyes off of the big picture (what they’re lying about), and being distracted (yet again) by the darting red laser pointer of the lie itself.

I propose that we train them the same way we train our children: we ignore it. Not that we ignore the transgression, but rather, that we ignore the lie that accompanies it. When your toddler insists that “the cat” was the one who drew all over the walls with marker, you don’t fire up Wikipedia to prove to them that, lacking opposable thumbs, a cat would never have been able to open the marker, let alone wield it. You don’t “fact-check” their conspiracy theories about who might have “stolen” their homework. (Or at least you shouldn’t.)You proceed as if the lie had never happened. And you work to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

Because it’s important that it doesn’t happen again. (Change “cat” to “Obama” and “marker” to “Russia” and I think you’ll see where I’m going here.)

Look, to be honest, I don’t know if it’s even possible, at this point, to change the behavior of a septuagenarian. In all likelihood, it isn’t. But it is still possible to change our reaction. It is still possible to punish the crime, and ignore the feeble attempt at a cover-up that accompanies it. All we have to do is keep our eyes on that prize.

And away from that oh-so-infuriating laser pointer.

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Permanent

 

Scrolling through the news recently, I came across a picture of a man at a town hall meeting. He was in the audience, but turned away from the speaker so that he could shout at an unseen person behind him. You could tell he was shouting because his mouth was open wide, as were his eyes and even his nostrils: everything about his posture screamed anger. The caption simply read, “Man shouts ‘whore’ at town hall.”

What immediately struck me about this picture was how eerily similar it was to a picture I had grown up seeing in history books: that of Hazel Bryan screaming at Elizabeth Eckford as Elizabeth is escorted away from Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. Elizabeth was one of the Little Rock Nine, the group of students who first integrated Central High in 1957. Hazel was also a student there. They were both very young, although in the picture they both look much older, a combination of the seriousness of the situation and the fact that they are dressed very nicely. In that picture, Hazel is frozen in time. We look at the 1950s fashions and we assume, correctly, that everyone else in the photo has grown and changed—some have even died, given that the picture will be sixty years old come this September—but as for Hazel, she stays the same in our minds. S he is the embodiment of an evil, repressive system. Cold. Unfeeling. Unchanging.

It’s not true, of course. She was only fifteen at the time, and within five years she would go behind her family’s back to track down Elizabeth and apologize to her, but that apology wasn’t recorded the way the insult was: it disappeared as soon as the words were said. The photograph still outranks it, and always will. And that is something that Hazel will always have to live with.

As will the man in the town hall photo.

I wonder, sometimes, about the people who are caught out like that, whether in a photograph or a screen shot of hateful comments they’ve spewed via text or social media. I’d like to think that those moments represented them at their very worst, and, like Hazel, they will spend the rest of their lives trying to atone. But then again, I’d like to believe that people, by nature, are basically good.

And maybe they are. Maybe that man yelling “Whore!” so loudly that you could almost feel the spittle was just letting the local brothel keeper (a lovely lady whose name slipped his mind at that moment) know that it was her turn to speak on the issue of local businesses donating to the yearly holiday decorations budget. Or maybe he has Tourette’s.

Or maybe he was just using the word he knew best, the word that has been historically used to silence women when they have had the temerity to speak out, especially when they speak out for themselves. The same way that Hazel was using the word she knew best to silence Elizabeth.

Are the two situations really that similar? Intersectionality would suggest that they both are, and are not (a sort of of a Schrodinger’s Cat of discrimination). And anyway, the point is not so much how much the victims suffered, but rather how much damage the perpetrators ended up doing to themselves.

When they were younger I tried to impress upon my children that a word spoken could never be recalled: “You can’t unring a bell,” I’d tell them. That even if the person you offend ends up forgiving you, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll ever manage to forgive yourself. Some weapons hurt the wielder more than the intended victim. And sometimes, the scars they leave are permanent.

Just ask Hazel Bryan.

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Who Put the “Fun” in “Fundraising”?

 

There is an old saying that describes war as “long periods of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror.” Replace the word “boredom” with “fundraising” and you will also have the perfect description of nearly every after school activity ever invented. I realize, of course, that this is news to no one—no one but me, that is. You’d think that after twenty years of being a mother this would not be the case, but apparently having my daughter, Clementine, as a first child has given me a false impression of what I was in for when it came to school and school events.

Clementine never participated in after school activities, probably because her favorite thing to do after school was to leave it. And so the fundraising requests from her school stopped about the same time she left kindergarten. (Or maybe she just helpfully “lost” all of them the same way she “lost” every other piece of paper that was ever supposed to come home with her, including school pictures, field trip permission forms, and notices that her school lunch account was horrendously overdrawn. The only way I ever found out about that last one was after she mentioned being served a cheese sandwich for the fifth day in a row.)

But then along came her brother Clyde.

Clyde participates. In everything. He is the first to raise his hand in answer to the question of “what did you do this summer?” (And as he gets older, he is often the only person to raise his hand at that question.) He will read his thesis statement out loud when the teacher asks for volunteers. And he will willingly (and happily) join every extracurricular activity that comes his way. And then just as happily offer up my services when it comes to the fundraising. And, of course, it always comes to the fundraising.

Look, I know that schools are terribly underfunded, and that they really do need the money we raise for them just to buy the basics. And I also know that even though my family in particular might not need the financial help, by participating in the fundraising activity along with everyone else we are helping to remove the stigma for those who do. I get that. But still, even knowing those things, and even after fully understanding the various forces at work, I am always left with one thought: please, not another fundraiser.

It gets to the point that after a while I don’t even know—or care—what the money is being raised for. New shoes for the basketball team? Fine. New wing for the library? Great. Rainy day fund in case the entire band gets kidnapped by a drug cartel and we need to pay their ransom demands? Awesome.

Even worse, though, is that not only do I not know where the money is going, I also don’t know how much was even raised. Because it’s not like all fundraising is created equal. That frozen cookie dough fundraiser probably pulls in a pittance next to the homemade tamale one, the same way “kiss the pig” day probably runs circles around “hat day” (at least until they figure out a way to incorporate a screen and a netflix account into a hat).

One day, I know, there will come a time when all of this fundraising is a thing of the past, and I will look back fondly on all of those hours spent at car washes, and yard sales, and tamale parties, and trying to sell people the Worst Wrapping Paper in the World®. But then again, probably not, because the reason it will all be a thing of the past for me is that my kids will have outgrown it—your kids will still be hitting me up on the reg.

Because, just like that other old saying goes: death, taxes, and fundraising are nothing if not inevitable.

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Daisy Duke 4Ever!

 

Recently, while I was attending my second protest of the year (the second of many, probably) I noticed something I had not seen at the first: two young men standing off to the side with their faces covered. One was holding an American flag, and the other the flag of the Confederate States. (I don’t think they knew that those two flags were still not on speaking terms). When pictures of the two men appeared online, the majority of the comments, of course, were negative. People called them cowards, and racists, and much worse. Except for one commentator. She stuck up for them (or at least for the boy with the Stars and Bars), and suggested that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t a racist at all. Maybe he was just a YUGE fan of The Dukes of Hazzard.

Well, the internet being what it is, it wasn’t long before the identity of the masked Bo and Luke fan was revealed, which then led to the revelation of the identity of his defender: a woman about twenty-five years older than him who just happened to share his last name.

In other words, his mom.

Because of course, even when the entire world is against you, and even when the entire world is utterly right to be that way, there will always be your mom.

I remember once, when my daughter Clementine was twelve, getting a phone call from one of her teachers about a word she’d typed on the giant classroom screen for all to see. (This word is actually one of my favorite words to type as well, much to the apparent chagrin of autocorrect, which seems to think I’m trying—and failing—to type ‘duck’ fifty times a day. It’s gotten to the point where I wonder if aotocorect thinks that perhaps I am an ornithologist.) Anyway, even if the word in question hadn’t been one of my own personal favorites, it still would have been my job to defend Clementine’s public expression of it—at least a little bit. “Maybe it was a commentary on the current social situation…?” I hedged. “Maybe,” came the response. “Regardless, she’s still getting detention.”

And she did. Because she deserved it. And yet, it was still my job to (kind of) stick up for her. But that didn’t stop me from wishing that I hadn’t had to.

I’d like to think that Cooter’s mom feels the same way. That she read the comments and thought, “My god, I do love that boy but he sure does get up to some nonsense these days. I hadn’t even realized he’d left the basement.” And then she went online and defended him.

Look: there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that these are trying times. In the very near future there are probably going to be lots of instances of moms having to defend the actions of their children, even when they don’t quite agree with or understand those actions—on both sides. And, remarkably, that’s just what they’ll do, because the vows of “in sickness and health” you take when you get married have nothing on the vows of “in dumbassery and wisdom” that you (mentally) take when you become a mom. As I have stated many times over the years (mostly in mutters under my breath), there simply is no way to divorce your children.

Of course, I may have this whole thing wrong. Maybe this guy’s mom is also a dumbass, and her defense of him was genuine. Maybe he was carrying a symbol of white supremacy because that’s the way she raised him. It’s a possibility, albeit a depressing one. Which is why I’m going to stick with my original theory. Because, when given the option of choosing between two different explanations, I’m going to choose the one that contains love.

Every. Damn. Time.

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Which Side Are You On?

There’s always been a kind of fame that comes from being the first to do something. First man on the moon. First Black President. First female President (some day). Even, (alas) first Orange President. And, in the same way, there has also always been a certain kind of fame that comes from being the last to do something. The last US helicopter to fly out of Saigon. The last state to end segregation. The last band to have a myspace page. Oftentimes—especially when the “thing” is something no one should be proud of, the “fame” of being the last is more akin to notoriety. Think about it: no person, city or state wants to be remembered as the last to do the right thing. Case in point: no one has ever suggested that Arizona add “last state to approve MLK Day” as a selling point in our promotional brochures. By the same token, being the first to do the right thing is something to brag about. For example, Flagstaff proudly proclaims itself to be the first “Dark Sky” city, and it is right to be proud of that.

Of course, it wasn’t an easy fight. A town that lived (and still does live) on tourism wasn’t an easy town to convince to dim the lights, especially in an era dominated by the idea of “the more neon, the better.” Small business owners gnashed their teeth and wrung their hands over the prospect of losing the signs that made their businesses stand out amongst all of the (equally overly-lit) competition. It was the end, they said, of Flagstaff business. Except of course, it wasn’t.

Then came the smoking ordinance. Flagstaff was the first city in Arizona to ban smoking in public places, including restaurants and bars. Again, the death knell was sounded. The letters to the editor poured in (this was before Facebook), lamenting the end of Flagstaff small business. No one, the letter writers asserted, would ever stop have lunch in this town again. Why would they, they sneered, when they could just keep driving another thirty, fifty, or seventy miles and have a lunch that included a satisfying smoke at the conclusion of their meal? (Or rather, more to the point, at the conclusion of everyone else’s meal around them.) Who would ever want to go see a show in Flagstaff when you couldn’t prove you had been out the night before just by smelling your clothes? Flagstaff, they claimed, was through. Except, of course, it wasn’t. Again.

Thirty years from now we are going to look back at the fight for a living wage and it will be the same. We are going to tell our grandchildren about the days when people were convinced that their right to pay low wages outweighed other peoples’ rights to live with dignity, and they will give us exactly the same look as our children do now when we tell them about the time everyone thought their right to smoke outweighed other peoples’ rights to breathe. And that look will be, “What, were you all crazy?”

Personally, my response will be the same: “No, not all of us.” I’ll be able to tell my grandkids that I did what I could to help support a living wage. I’ll be able to tell them that I, for one, continued to support well-run local businesses, even if if that meant I had to pay a little more while doing it. I’ll be able to tell them that instead of being bitter and resentful that a higher minimum wage meant less of a financial gap between me and the people “below” me, I was sincerely happy other people would now have a chance to experience financial security.

In other words, I’ll be able to tell them that when it came down to it, I was on the right side of history. Truly, it’ll be my best claim to fame ever.

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Safety First

 

When my kids were younger, my second greatest fear was that they would grow up to become bullies: first when they were in school, and then later, in other parts of their life. Surprisingly, it does not then follow that my first greatest fear was that they would instead grow up to become victims. (Trust me: after having lived with each of them for only a few years it became all too obvious to me that two such delightfully disobedient children would never be on the receiving end of bullying.) No, my first greatest fear, actually, was that they would grow up to become bystanders—a role that, to me, is even more heinous than that of the bully.

The bully, at least, derives some sort of benefit from their actions. They are (it can only be assumed), taking these actions to make their life, at least in their own perception, better. The end result of a successful bullying campaign for them might mean increased social status, greater respect (albeit fear-based), and a reduced chance that they will ever be bullied themselves. It makes sense, in a twisted way, that someone would want to be a bully.

A bystander, on the other hand, receives nothing but the certainty that nothing will ever change.

Maybe that’s what some bystanders like. Maybe they’re so happy to not be a victim themselves that it doesn’t bother them to see it happen to other people. The cynical part of me—the part that thinks people are inherently bad—tends to go for this explanation. The hopeful part of me, however—the part that knows that people are almost always good—thinks that they are just afraid.

The ironic thing, of course, is that there are always way more bystanders than either bullies or victims. And that if we just stood together then there really wouldn’t be anything to be afraid of.

That’s why I was so happy to learn about the Safety Pin Campaign. The Safety Pin Campaign arose out of the ashes of the last election, when people who had historically felt marginalized and vulnerable began to express their fears about what this “brave new world” meant for them. More specifically, about what it meant for their safety. The idea is that since people can’t go around every day wearing t-shirts that proclaim their allegiance to equality and respect (outside of a college campus, that is), they can instead wear a safety pin, indicating to those around them that they are a “safe space.”

Some guy harassing you on the bus because you wear a hijab? Come sit next to me. Some lady yelling at you at the movies because you’re holding hands with your boyfriend? Come get in my line at the concession stand instead. The idea is to communicate that you are “safe” without drawing any more attention to the bully than necessary, because bullies are like fire, and attention is the oxygen without which they can’t function. (Actually, I’m not quite sure that works as a metaphor, since, truth be told, none of us can function without oxygen. It just seems a little nicer to picture bullies as a fire that has been brought under control rather than someone who has been ejected from the airlock and is slowly suffocating in the depths of space. Although…)

I know, in the grand scheme of things, that wearing a safety pin is A Small Thing®. But when you think about it, so are some of the things that hurt us: the dismissive look, the muttered comment, the few extra (and unnecessary) inches taken in the subway car. If, as we all know, small actions can hurt, then why can’t they help as well?

True, one single safety pin might not be enough to help save anyone. But if you link enough of them together, then you’ve got yourself a nice suit of chain mail. And even bullies are smart enough to know to avoid a knight in shining armor.

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