"Virtue signalling" versus "This is my life"

I go pick up my six-year-old son from kindergarten and he says a big kid from another class chased him and hit him repeatedly on the playground. Then he says another kid is calling him a racial slur.

I delicately ask the teacher if there have been any issues, and she explodes at me. "I don't want to hear it! I know for a fact that if there is any conflict, then your son started it. I don't care what anyone saw or what he says. He did something first. I know that. It's the way he is. It's in his background." 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I should have known not to bring anything up with this teacher. The other teacher swears my son is no more rambunctious than any of the other boys. She says they're all difficult. But mine is the only one not considered "white" by the standards of the country where we live.

He hides behind the shelves in the kindergarten boot room, eyes wide and mouth trembling. That night we have the discussion I've been dreading. Sex? Are you kidding? Imagine being afraid of discussing the birds and the bees!

Parents of black boys in America know this discussion though and I wonder if they dread it as much as I have. It goes like this: "I know it isn't fair, but for your own protection, you must never ever hit back. They will judge you more harshly because of the color of your skin and eyes." 

Again. this is kindergarten.

After the kids are in bed, I get online. It's work but it also involves blogging and discussing issues with people around the world. One of those issues is the ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries entering the US. And someone throws the accusation of "virtue signalling" at me because I express support for refugees who are affected by the ban. 

Initially I didn't even know what the epithet meant, I've been out of the country so long. But I looked it up and the gist of it is that I'm white so there is no way I could really be against racism and Islamophobia. I just say I am in order to "signal" how "virtuous" I am in an attempt to avoid anti-white backlash. So goes the logic of smug white commentators.

The absurdity of the past two weeks is staggering. I pride myself on being able to engage "the other side" with compassion but, dear goddess, how do you communicate across this canyon? 

If I tried to explain my day to the "virtue signalling" slinger, I might as well be speaking Urdu. 

I don't claim to know what it is like to be Black or Muslim in America. But I do have this little window into the issue of race because of the fluke of weird Czech attitudes toward ethnicity. I get enough of a window to know that I'm not experiencing the full extent of it by far.

And here's what my week is like:  

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

A gay lawyer friend and I helped a disabled immigrant with housing and paperwork the other night. After all, he was one of only a handful of people who stayed on a tough job with us one time. Then I go downhill skiing and I steer primarily by the sound of skis scraping on either side of me. I miss the days when I had a guide for blind skiers.

Then I come home and my good friend born in Syria who I've known for fifteen years and who ten years ago married an American and moved there is worried about whether or not she'll ever see the rest of her family again. (Oh, and her family is Christian, as are more than 20 percent of Syrians). I wish I could hug her long distance. I wish I could do anything but feel helpless.

I plan to go for a weekend to the home of the transgender friend with kids who I didn't used to know is trans. I have a short and pleasant Facebook conversation with a colleague I once went through a war zone with, who is also a Muslim and a former refugee. I'm glad to know he and his family are safe and well. Then I go out in subzero temperatures to feed animals and water overwintering plants in the urban homesteading that keeps our carbon footprint low.

When I say I am against racism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry and when I say I care about humanitarian and environmental issues, I'm only standing up for myself, my friends and my family just as you would if the storm troopers were at your door. 

Now I hear that there are protests in airports against the immigration ban for people from those seven countries which have lots of Muslims but oddly not nearly as many terrorists as the countries not banned. There are crowds of people standing on guard while Muslims pray in US airports.

I'm glad there is this outpouring of support for people who have had it rough for many years and who have generally suffered through it in silence and alone, trying to be nicer and less physical than everyone else, even while they were attacked, so that they wouldn't be labeled as "aggressive Muslims."  

I can't help but remember a trip back to the US five years ago. I was standing in an interminable security line with my kids--then no more than toddlers. I finally reached the point at which we were to enter the machines and checks and I noticed a family standing near by outside the line.

"We'll miss the flight," the woman said quietly but I heard. I am legally blind but I also made out the scarf around her head, wrapped in that way that I know usually means a Muslim. Her husband and two small children stood pressed near her, but he said nothing. All of their faces were a deep golden brown, likely with Middle Eastern or South Asian background.

I thought I understood. They had been held up and knew they didn't have time to stand in the line. Many other people would have begged to be allowed to cut in line, and with small children most would have been allowed. But they were too terrified to draw attention to themselves. 

I made a quick decision and stopped inching forward. Then I beckoned to them to join the line. The man's head jerked up and I thought he must be amazed, even though I couldn't see his expression well. The woman pushed him forward a little and the slid into the line in front of my kids. I heard a rumble behind me, coughs and someone pushed me roughly from behind. There were some coughs but nothing overt, yet.

My heart hammered in my throat. I am not a coward about most things but I have had plenty of reason to be afraid of public judgment and crowd disapproval. I whipped around, ready to defend myself and thrust my white cane, which I carry in confusing environments like airports, even though I can walk without it out to the side and demanded of the people behind me in line, "Have you got something to say?" 

The crowd stilled and I turned back around, the back of my neck and head burning as if their gaze could light me on fire. Still I felt a thrill inside. I had managed it. The Muslim family moved off quickly with only mumbled thanks. I gained no public approval or virtuous status that day. I did gain a bit more courage to act on my conscience, even when I may be publicly judged however.

This isn't "virtue signalling." This is my life. These are my people. You slander and malign them or you threaten to take away our basic rights, you ban people of another minority faith even if it isn't the exact same one as mine or you mock someone who shares a profession AND disability status with me, and you are much more likely to see my not-so-virtuous side. 

The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

Surviving the new reality

Rain drums on the roof as I write. I am on enforced rest. Doctor's orders. I could cry for joy over the rest, except that the eye surgeon has forbidden me to express intense emotions. 

But you get the idea. I don't feel sick but I'm supposed to stay inside, keep warm, not work much and be at peace. I know, I wish I could spread it around a little too.

The only downside of this is a feeling of vulnerability that comes with the isolation.  I hesitate to venture out much, even on-line. I am a bit breakable and the world has suddenly become doubly harsh.

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

I saw a post from an old work colleague about attacks against people of color in the US. I wrote in a quick reply of support and bittersweet humor. And instead of solidarity, my old office-mate lashed out at me, labeling me an "sheltered white expat." 

I instantly had the urge to fight back. I'm not one who takes things lying down or turns the other cheek. Sure, I'm white and I know better than many white people what privileges and protections that entails. I am highly aware when I meet police officers that I am wearing the backpack of white privilege--then and many other times. I also know that when any country is in the grip of fear that there is an understandable anger toward emigres--those who left, no matter how good their reasons. 

On the other hand, I'm also a person with a significant physical disability. I'm up against the wall in this too. My children are not white and they are newly naturalized citizens. Will we ever be able to go back to visit my home and family again? That is not an idle question in these post-election days. We are also in a country (the Czech Republic) that Donald Trump has pledged to put a military base in. We are isolated for the moment, but far from off the hook. 

Still, I bit my lip and said none of that. I know well the furious emotions raging in my colleague's post. I replied only to express more simple and direct support for her. I told her I am an ally and I understand her words. She and another friend continued to express anger and rejection toward me. There was no reconciliation. 

I am worried.

I'm saddened to lose a connection to someone I enjoy simply due to these terrible times. But I am even more worried by what this negative interaction among allies means for our people--the people of our country, citizens and non-citizens, all cultures and all backgrounds. We're stuck in this together, after all. 

My home county in Oregon reportedly voted 67 percent for Trump. There are people I call friends who did and likely even a few only moderately distant relatives. And if I cannot meet a friend who agrees with me in support and solidarity, if we are so divided that I am the enemy even when I am not across the political divide, how... oh gods, how will we live with those who really do hate and choose a hateful leader? 

Let's take a moment to forget that Trump even exists. 

Sigh. Now doesn't that feel better? 

But wait a minute. There's a problem. We've made Trump disappear but we haven't made the many people who vehemently support him disappear. Sure, we can say they are a minority, as few as 20 percent of the nation and not even most of the voters. But they are enough and we have to live with them, Trump or no Trump.

I have always felt this because of where I grew up, far from the cosmopolitan and high-thinking coasts. I love visiting Portland, Seattle, New York or Francisco for precisely this reason. Our bubble of acceptance and freedom feels so good. 

But we forget that this is not all of the nation at our peril. We ignore rage at our peril. We belittle politically incorrect antagonism at our peril. We've seen that now.

I know it is hard to think about surviving the next four years. But we will... most of us at least. And here is how I propose to do it:

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

  • If there is a registry for Muslims, get on it. I'll be a Muslim on paper.  If we're all on the list, the list will have no teeth.
  • Talk to Trump supporters. Really talk and listen. Listen to what motivates them, what they are upset about. Share your thoughts with respect and without contempt.  They are people and most people are susceptible to change, even if slow change.
  • Promote facts, everywhere, over and over again. The media will not help, so we have to do it. Talk about facts, post them, remember them, make lists. Don't let up about climate change.
  • Explain white privilege, primarily if you're white. Explain it again and again and again until you're sick of it and then explain it to more people. There is no way we're as sick of explaining it as Black, Hispanic and Native American people are.
  • Talk to the person no one is talking to at a gathering. Invite the disabled colleague or classmate to whatever. Connect. 
  • Make your circle bigger. Whatever it is you can give easily, put it in. Got a neighbor with younger kids who could use some of your nicer used clothes? Got extra veggies from the garden? Got wood or materials or whatever? Buy less, trade more, reuse more. Gain your security from community.
  • Take care of your own basic needs with as little resources as possible. Reduce plastics and fossil fuels in whatever ways you can. And remember you'll do more and better if you're rested, healthy and fed. Don't wait to be taken care of. Stand strong, think ahead, link arms.

My hope is with you. 

Inside the house of the model parent

"You're such an amazing mother! Your kids are so lucky!"

I couldn't believe my ears. And then I felt awful inside. Not only am I a bad parent, I'm a liar. Either that or I'm only "inspirational" because I'm legally blind but not a real "good mother."

That's how it feels when people tell me I'm a wonderful mother because I know what it really looks like at our house. I do something--one little thing--well and people are so impressed. But I know how much hair pulling, screaming and yelling, fighting with my husband and so forth it took to get that one thing done. And I know about the piles of laundry, the dirty dishes and the cobwebs that have fossil layers.

The parenting feat that attracted this latest gush of praise was the time I managed to put together a cooperative reward chart for the family that ended in homemade pizza. Not exactly super mom. More like lesson one from a parenting book. 

But I also know that looking from the outside it might well look pretty impressive. Things like that look impressive to me when other people do them. So, I'm going to let you peek inside this particular "model parent" moment.

Here's how it REALLY happened.

Problem 1: My husband and I are really out of shape. This is primarily caused by stress, jobs, kids, the demands of society, our kids' school and so forth. He has high blood pressure and I'm developing joint problems. 

Problem 2: We want our kids to learn responsibility. Our kids want to have animals but take no responsibility for them. The parents are tired of doing all the work and the remembering.

Solution: I made a chart that looks like a board game. At the start of it there were four stick figures. That's us. At the end, there was a crude picture of a pizza in a square pan (i.e. homemade, not going out). In between, there were about thirty little colored squares. The deal was that every time my seven-year-old daughter fed the cat in the morning without being reminded our little family star moved forward one place, every time my five-year-old son fed the ducks in the afternoon with only one reminder the star moved another place and every time a parent did an agreed-upon daily workout it moved forward. That's a total of four possible moves per day. 

It took us well over two weeks. Not a perfect score by a long shot. Mama and Papa got less than seven hours of sleep a night, any night they got up early to exercise. There was cat food all over the back veranda at least six times. Everyone forgot the ducks at least two nights, but they did live. They just ate the cabbages instead of getting fed, so the cabbage from the garden is full of holes.

But we got there.

The day of the pizza arrived. It started with a fight between Mama and Papa about who had to go to the store to buy the salami Papa had forgotten to buy because Mama had forgotten his second reminder. The fight lasted 45 minutes and was loud and stressful. I cried in front of the kids again.

Then in order to fit making homemade pizza into the preparations for lunch, cooking for the week ahead and the harvest feast with friends planned for Sunday, I was chained to the kitchen stove for the entire Saturday. This, of course, made me a bit grumpy. I mostly spent the morning, trying to cook and clean while telling the kids to go outside and generally not doing quality time.

The kids hit and kicked each other, got time-out, ran away from time-out, got a reasoning talk about conflict resolution, unwillingly role-played talking out their needs, banged on the piano, hung onto my legs, got into the pantry and tried to eat cookies right before lunch while knocking two glass spice jars off the shelf, got sent outside again... and again.

Photo by Ember Farnam

Photo by Ember Farnam

I hoped to make the pizza with the children, but the seven-year-old was invited to a birthday party that afternoon. So, I planned to do it with just the five-year-old. But then the five-year-old collapsed on the floor screaming and crying for no discernible reason, while I was finishing up the dough. Trying to be a good mother, I put the dough aside, washed my hands and carried him upstairs, kicking and screaming.

We settled down in his bed to read three story books and by the end of the reading he was drifting off to sleep. He doesn't usually sleep in the afternoon but I was rejoicing inside. This would avoid the inevitable meltdown when the seven-year-old departed with Papa for the birthday party while he was left at home with me.

I returned to the pizza making.

The seven-year-old party goer went outside and started to screech with feigned glee directly under the window of the sleeping five-year-old. 

Mama came unglued. 

I force-marched the seven-year-old into the play room and ordered her to lay down on the couch and sleep, or else. I wasn't going to threaten to not let her go to the birthday party because 1. that would be punishing me as I was hugely looking forward to some peace and 2. this was the first non-parent initiated birthday party invitation she'd ever gotten and I never got even one such in my childhood, so going to the party was just law. 

The five-year-old woke up and came downstairs crying after only sleeping for five minutes, because he had been woken up. I put him back in bed.

And went back to rolling out the pizza.

The seven-year-old came out of the playroom. I made angry silent motions at her with a raised fist and she went back in and shut the door... hard.

The five-year-old came down the stairs shrieking that his sister gets to play and go to a party and it isn't fair. Then he ran into the stair railing from sheer exhaustion and bruised his knee.

I washed the flour off my hands again and took him back upstairs again. He continued to shriek. I put him in bed and left with him still shrieking. 

The seven-year-old ran out of the playroom and made it outside before I could do anything. The five-year-old continued to shriek. I got the dough rolled out and started to cut up things to go on it. 

After listening to shrieking from upstairs for ten minutes, I went upstairs and yelled at the five year old. Then I was consumed with guilt because yelling doesn't help and even so he was being punished for what--essentially--the seven-year-old had done. I let him come downstairs and be tired. 

The seven-year-old went to the birthday party, the five-year-old's neighbor friend showed up in time to cut the resulting tantrum short. I went to the store and got the salami. I finished the pizza. I had no bonding moment making pizza with my children. The kitchen was an utter disaster with dishes and half-eaten lunches piled on every available surface and flour in small drifts on the floor.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

But the pizza was hot out of the oven when the seven-year-old returned home from the short afternoon party. There's that perfect parenting moment you were envisioning when I first mentioned the chart and the pizza. 

But it only lasted about ten seconds, barely long enough for me to take the potholders off my hands. Then the five-year-old came running in reporting that some neighbors were having an outdoor yard party and they said he could have a hot dog. He no longer wanted pizza.

Papa came up with the idea that we would take one pan of pizza to the neighbors and the kids could share it there with the neighbor kids. So, I took the pizza over to the neighbors with the kids.

The two moms organizing the party gave me grim, unfriendly looks when we approached. Then they told me this was their party and they hadn't really wanted a bunch of people, regardless of offering my son a hot dog. I offered to take my kids home. They feigned indifference. I started herding my kids out of their yard despite the beginnings of a double tantrum. But one of the moms questioned why I was making the kids leave as if she hadn't just shamed me for coming and the other gave my kids juice. I couldn't very well spill the juice, wrestle two screaming children out of there over the host's protests (feigned or not) and carry the giant pan of pizza at the same time, so I left both pizza and children and went home.

I ate the other pizza alone with my husband and thought grim thoughts about perfect parenting.

That, my friends, is the true story of my super mom moment. For me, the lesson is to be careful what I assume about the parenting of others. Perhaps the little yard party put on by my grumpy neighbors was the fruit of hours of frustration and frantic juggling too. That might explain a few things.