Month: March 2015

Teaching our Kids about Women who Kick Ass: *Rad American Women A – Z*

Every once in a while a children’s book comes out that gives me the urge to run to my nearest bookstore and buy a dozen copies, so that I can hand one to every child in my life. When I first encountered Rad American Women A – Z, I had precisely this urge. Until I sat down with my son at bedtime and read these stories of women athletes, artists and activists and activists, I hadn’t realized how deeply satisfying it was to talk my son about issues that matter. Within our first fifteen minutes of engaging with the book, we talked about sexism, beauty norms, and slavery.

Written by Kate Schatz and illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl, Rad American Women profiles a historic North American woman for each letter of the alphabet. It features names that many of us will easily recognize (Carol Burnett, FloJo, Patti Smith) as well as names that were new to me (Lucy Parsons, the Grimke sisters) In short, it presents compelling woman role models (something all of our children need), and introduces conversations about inclusion and representation. I’m so grateful to have had a chance to talk to Kate, the book’s author, about her vision for this book.

Page18JB: When I introduced this book to my six-year-old son, his immediate response was “Aw, why no men?” We’ve had a number of conversations about sexism and gender, but I had a hard time finding the right words to explain why it’s important to document and recognize women’s history. Do you have any advice?

Kate: First of all, I absolutely love that you read it with your 6-yr old son. This book is for girls, yes, but it’s absolutely for boys too. And I love that he asked that, because it inspires dialogue, and that’s just what we want this book to do. Yes, the questions that children ask may be challenging for us—as parents, caregivers, teachers, etc—to answer, but it’s so incredibly crucial that we do the work to answer these questions. And it’s so crucial that kids even get to ask. In the introduction to the book I made a point to address the importance of finding inspiration in all kinds of people, even the ones who don’t look like you. So to some degree, the answer to your son’s question is there: “These women are American heroes, and they’re part of all of our histories. We can find inspiration in the stories of all people, no matter who they are.”

Beyond that, though, my advice to parents, etc, faced with this kind of question, is to encourage the questioner to begin paying attention to how gender is and isn’t represented. A great place to start for young people might be money—look through a stack of bills and talk about whose face is on them. What do you notice? Why might there not be any girls? Why might it be nice to have a girl on money? The WomenOn20s campaign is taking off right now, and there’s a fantastic video that addresses this exact topic.

I’m also the mother of a son, but he’s 19 months old, so we haven’t had these talks yet.  My daughter gets it, and recently, upon learning that her dad is a feminist too (“Really daddy? You’re a feminist too?” “Yup!”) she spread her arms wide, threw back her head, and proclaimed “MY PARENTS ARE FEMINISTS!!!” I’m excited for the challenge of raising my boy, and teaching him how to navigate the tricky terrain of gender and gender expectations, because it is absolutely complex and crazy for boys too.

Page20JB: One thing that has surprised me about this book is that reading it with my son has been incredibly conversational. The other night, we didn’t start bedtime until 9 so I told him we could read three of the entries from Rad Women. Three pages later, I looked at the clock and it was ten-thirty. For us, reading it has been an ongoing project that’s really different from reading a typical story book or chapter book. We have to pause for conversations about Big Things like rules, slavery, and integrity. I’m wondering how you imagined children and their families would engage with the text.

Kate: I love hearing this! So great, and I think one of the wonderful and unique things about the book are the myriad ways that you can approach and experience it. I don’t necessarily imagine that people will read the whole thing, start to finish, if they’re reading it to a young person. I mean, they certainly can! But if you’re reading to a child, it is very likely that you’ll be stopping along the way to discuss. My daughter and I have been doing a letter per night, and aren’t going in order. She likes to flip through, look at the images, and then choose a woman to read about.

Page8JB: Another thing that surprised me was that the entries inspired conversations about racism, classism, and ableism just as much as sexism. For instance, only three sentences into the letter A (Angela Davis), I paused to answer a whole lot of questions about afros, and wound up discussing their historical significance and cultural beauty norms, etc. The book feels very naturally intersectional, but I wonder what process you might have gone through to achieve that.

Kate: First of all, your son sounds like an amazingly curious and awesome kiddo. I love that he’s asking these questions—imagine if all children were allowed exposure to these complicated issues at an early age, and were then allowed to ask questions. And yes, I define the KKK in the first sentence of the book. In a bio about Angela Davis no less. Race, class, ability, sexuality—it’s all in there, because it’s all connected. I recently encountered a woman in a bookstore who was buying several copies and she told me “I can’t wait to teach my niece about intersectionality!” And I was like YES.

As the writer, the intersectionality part came easy, at least in terms of addressing it. I was lucky to get my feminist schooling in the Women’s (now Feminist) Studies department at UC Santa Cruz, and vividly remember my first quarter, where I was thrilled to take a class with Bettina Aptheker whose lectures never ignored the connections between race, class, gender, and ability. Now as for how to break all that down in 300 words that a kid can read and process—that was the challenge.  I tried to approach it all in an open and honest manner: how would I explain this to my kid? Often the simplest explanation is best. How do you explain the KKK? Well, they were a group of racist white men. How do you explain that Bessie Coleman couldn’t enroll in aviation school? You say they wouldn’t accept a black woman. I also had help from my fantastic editors, Michelle Tea and Elaine Katzenberger, along with many friends who read along the way.

Page42JB: Something that my son has loved about the book is the way the women often appear with an object or in a pose that reveals what they were famous for. My son likes to stare at each picture for a while and then guess. I got to explain to him what a typewriter was, and he guessed that maybe Lucy Parsons was famous for “being fancy”. The bold style of the images is such a perfect match that it seems inevitable, but I’m curious at what point different stylistic decisions were made–how did the look of the book evolve?

Kate: Miriam and I agreed that we wanted the images to be as dynamic and varied as possible—we didn’t want just portraits, but we also didn’t want everyone to be in motion. We wanted a mix. We looked at many images of each woman, and Miriam selected ones to base the paper-cuts off of. We added the objects for some to help readers connect to what the woman did—microscope, tennis racket, guitar, etc—and to add more texture and variety. Once we decided to collaborate, Miriam was off and running, and would text me pictures of the paper-cuts as she created them. That was thrilling! I loved getting texts and seeing these amazing pieces of art, and I was always, always struck by how well she’s able to capture the spirit and energy of each woman.

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JB: Do you have an entry you are particularly fond of, maybe one that you hope readers notice or pay special attention to?

Kate: Well, X of course. That’s a special one because it’s so different from the others, and it’s a place for readers to kind of pause and think. It was emotional to write, for sure—I definitely cried while crafting that one, both because it made me think of the thousands of women whose contributions remain invisible, but also because of the hopeful aspect of the entry, as it looks to the future. My hope is that it expands the reader’s perception of the book and all its meanings by personalizing it. That entry is a favorite for many people—I know Miriam’s 8 year old daughter reads it over and over, and my daughter loves to look at the images, pointing out which ones are “her” and which ones are “me.” I especially love that she’s never ridden a skateboard, but she still chooses that image as one that’s “her”!

You can purchase your copy of Rad American Women A – Z from City Lights Press, or ask your local bookseller.

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How Best to Love a Body

bannanaI stepped into winter in jeans that fit perfectly. They did not require a belt, but they had just the right amount of give. These jeans were, in fact, the best fitting pair of pants I’ve ever owned.

Now, on the other side of winter, these jeans are uncomfortably tight. In fact, all of my pants that once had give are now uncomfortably tight. And so it’s time to address the situation and choose a strategy. But I get stuck, tangled in the fine line that separates self-care and self-deprivation. Sometimes it seems less like a line and more like a web.

The way I see it now, I have three options:

Option 1: Buy new pants. I ask myself if this would be the most self-loving choice. After all, I’m pushing forty. I can’t hang onto my current pant size forever. Twice already in my life I’ve had to pack away clothes I know will never again fit me. I expect this will happen again and again and again if I am lucky enough to live to be old. So the answer might have been, yes, self-love = new pants, if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been neglecting nutrition. Over the winter I’ve fallen deeper and deeper into the rut of pasta and bread. When I gaze into my refrigerator, I pack a lunch of what I have, and often this simply looks like two tamales, a hard-boiled egg, and some crackers. Nothing green, or orange, or red. With this in mind, I’m not ready to give up on my pants just yet.

Option 2: Give up things. Two years ago I gave up gluten and dairy and then spent a long summer living in the mountains. In the photos I look lean and tan, and I remember how my ailments stopped ailing me. I consider cutting wheat and dairy out of my diet today, and I think also about what it would mean to eat no sugar. As in none. Not just no pastries, no candy, but also no Thai food, no ketchup, no honey in tea. I don’t think of myself as someone with a sweet tooth, and yet I get the feeling that this would be a revolution for my body. My appetite would be ruled by hunger, not cravings.

And so I’ve been weighing this option, and watching myself eat. I’ve been noticing how I do things like eat extra helpings at dinner to make up for the fact that I’m not sitting down. Or I notice how after lunch I still feel frantically hungry, but that if I keep eating I slip into a  food coma. These observations have led me to my third option.

Option 3: Eat mindfully. In preparation for maybe giving up sugar, I’ve been eating less sugar. In preparation for maybe giving up dairy and gluten, I’ve been eating less dairy and gluten.

The other day, on the back of a cereal box, I finally paid attention to that healthy plate graphic which I think has replaced the old graphic of the food pyramid. I rarely pay mind to the government’s suggestions for my health–I like to think that I’m too savvy for that, or at least too much of a hippy–and so this was the first time I really looked at it. Half of the plate was staked out for fruits and vegetables, a quarter of it for grains, quarter for proteins.

Half of the plate was for fruits and vegetables. Michelle Obama is totally right. What the hell have I been doing?

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I read somewhere recently that you crave what you eat, meaning that your body adjusts to your eating habits and adapts its demands accordingly. And so I’ve been making every meal with that Michelle Obama plate in mind, trying to work towards 50%, trying to train my cravings. Though I’ve never been fond of bananas, I’ve been trying to talk myself into them. They seem like a kind thing to put into my body at ten a.m.—better than Cliff bar or a donut.

Oh, a banana, I tell myself as if it’s the kind of thing I’ve always liked. And then I think about how maybe it will help me feel full without feeling heavy, how it will move through my system leaving behind only energy and potassium. Oh, a banana, I tell myself with every bite, and I’m starting to believe myself that I like it.

A Body Alone

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“Stop taking the progesterone,” Dr. Xiao commanded me during our first meeting. Dr. Xiao was an acupuncturist and herbalist who lived sixty miles away from me, and who had a reputation for helping her patients solve mysterious fertility problems. After six unsuccessful inseminations and four failed months on progesterone supplements, I had finally decided that needles and herbs were worth a shot.

Dr. Xiao had a round, freckled face and wore her long black hair in a braid. She had put on a pair of black reading glasses to examine the thick stack of fertility charts I had handed her, all of them crinkled and some of them tea-stained. As she glanced at each one, I felt a small sense of accomplishment, as if all of the months of logging my temperature finally counted for something. Dr. Xiao held up my most recent chart and pointed to the line that indicated the second half of my cycle. “You have plenty of days here,” she explained. “Progesterone not helping you.” She moved her finger to the mid-point of the chart, the sudden line that signaled ovulation. “We work to make this stronger,” she said. “I want to see sharper rise.”

I had mentioned from the beginning that my partner and I performed six inseminations using donor sperm, and wondered if she understood that we were lesbians. I braced myself for questions, but either Dr. Xiao understood exactly what was going on, or she didn’t care. Perhaps the lines on my chart told the only story she needed.

“Don’t inseminate for three months,” she instructed. “Don’t spend your money. Give me time to do my work.”

For Dr. Xiao I kept my clothes on, but rolled up my sleeves and my pant legs. I lay down on her table, closed my eyes, and pretended to relax. Her office smelled like dark herbs and sounded like rushing water. She stuck needles in my wrists, my ankles and my feet. Sometimes she stuck my ears, and sometimes she stuck between my eyes. Always, the last thing she did was place a call bell beneath my right hand. “You call me if anything not right,” she instructed.

When she left she closed the door behind her, and I would feel how the needles were shifting things around, opening veins, rerouting blood, stretching my nerves. I knew people who claimed to love acupuncture, who said that the needles relaxed them, that they fell asleep on the table and left the office feeling restored. I was not one of those people. Sometimes an ache would move up and down my leg. Sometimes a particular needle felt especially sore, and then the pain would pass. Sometimes my stomach turned. Sometimes a great wave of discomfort would travel through my body. The discomfort was never great enough that I considered ringing the call bell. I treated these feelings as the magic doing its work. But what drove me crazy was the waiting. Sometimes Dr. Xiao returned and removed my needles after only twenty minutes, but more often she left me there for so long that I could no longer track time. I would hear a door open and close, hear her footsteps in the hallway, and think that she was finally coming to release me only to hear her enter another room and talk in muffled tones to a different patient. My stomach growled in hunger. I had to pee. I thought of the piles of student papers waiting in my office sixty miles away. Often I wondered if she might have possibly forgotten about me, if perhaps I should ring the call bell to remind her I was waiting.  I never did. When she finally returned, she set about her work of removing each needle and asking me how I felt. “Good,” I always answered.

At the end of the first visit, Dr. Xiao sent me home with a bag of brown powder and instructions for making tea. “Once your temperature rises, you stop,” she commanded. “No more tea. You come back; I give you different tea for next phase.”

I did as I was told. I took comfort in the tinctures, in drinking each cup until the liquid was cold, and there was a sludge of spent herbs at the bottom.  I imagined my ovaries heeding the instruction these herbs provided, my eggs rearranging themselves. They were getting ready in the dark, like bulbs beneath the ground.

I took comfort also in Dr. Xiao’s view of things. She seemed to treat conception as an indefinite process, a thing that would take many tries and involve many failures. There would be no instant gratification. So far, she was the only doctor who seemed to respect the complexity of our bodies. Dr. Norman and Dr. Katz had protocols, the same for every patient. Dr. Xiao had herbs, a knowledge of meridians, and ideas about my chart.

By the time we inseminated again, our seventh try this time, I had driven alone to Seattle and back seven times. I tried to make luck out of this number—superstition was available to me everywhere—but what I felt more than anything was lonely. After every visit to Dr. Xiao’s office, I walked down the street and dined alone at a small Thai restaurant where I was often the only customer. As I pushed brown rice across my plate, I recognized and eerie feeling that had marked my life in different eras, one that I first noticed as a freshman in college. Every weekend my dorm roommate went home overnight to visit her parents and I happily claimed our shared space as my own. But though I enjoyed the solitude, I often felt like my own shadow waking, eating, and dressing with no one to bear witness. Often as I did my own dishes I sang this line from a Throwing Muses song: a kitchen is a place where you  prepare….and clean up. It seemed like a throwaway line, and yet it spoke to me,  calling attention to the strangeness of doing something only to undo it, to make a special meal, only to have to do all of the dishes and put them away. Which was, in a way, what my life had now became. All that effort into preparing my body every month, over and over, only to bleed it away.

Try number seven ended in blood. Try number eight ended in blood. Try number nine ended in blood.

Try number ten was the last try we had, the only remaining vial of the stockpile of sperm we had purchased, the last of the samples our selected donor had left at the clinic before moving on to the next phase of his life.

Note: This is the second installment of my #memoirmondays series, where I post a scene from my memoir-in-progress. I don’t promise to move chronologically or reveal the whole story, but you can read the first installment here.

When Our Children Struggle to Breathe

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It’s one in the morning, and my two-year-old son has finally returned to sleep after two hours of crying and struggling to breathe. I listen to his breathing; I track it. After twenty minutes with the nebulizer he’s finally found a smoother rhythm, but it’s shallow and ragged—he hems audibly between each inhalation. My own body has adapted to his; I can’t breathe deeply enough. Each time he coughs, my own lungs tickle.

I wonder if it would be okay for me to fall asleep here next to him, if I can trust the design of his body, or the design of my instincts to wake me if his breathing worsens.

At four am, I wake halfway. I note that he is struggling, but the heaviness of sleep draws me back in. I doze until he wakes wheezing and then crying in frustration.

Many times tonight I’ve considered taking Stump to the E.R., but Kellie’s still in the Mojave Desert, and Smoke is sleeping soundly in the next room. I’d either have to drag him along, or find someone to keep vigil on our couch. There’s a list in my head of people I could call in the middle of the night, but I wonder who sleeps with their phone by the bed, and who would answer the call.

Also, by now I know what means to bring a wheezing toddler to the ER. I’ve done it when Smoke was the same age that Stump is now. I know what they’d do. They’d move us into an empty room and make us wait. They’d hand me a children’s gown and I’d have to strip him of his warm clothing. They’d give him a nebulizer treatment and force-feed him a dose of prednisone.

I’ve got my own nebulizer here at home. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment at 8:45. I know what signs to look for: cold hands, blue lips. I make a deal with myself that I will stay awake and bear witness. I will call for an ambulance if his lips turn blue. But still, it seems to me that if his breathing got any thinner, well then he’d barely be breathing at all.

Stump stops crying for a moment and leans into me. “Peabody Sherman?” he whispers.

I wipe snot from his face with my sleeve. “You want to watch Mr. Peabody and Sherman?” I ask.

“Yes,” he answers, nodding.

fnd_mc_mrpeabodyshermanIt is four in the morning and we are watching Mr. Peabody and Sherman while the nebulizer runs. Stump sits quietly, transfixed, his mouth around the mouthpiece, plumes of medicine vanishing each time he inhales. The machine is as loud as a hair dryer, and I’ve got the TV volume turned up to compensate. I expect that any moment Smoke will emerge from his room, rub at his eyes, and join us on the couch. If this happens, if Smoke starts his day at four am, then my tomorrow will really be a mess. But somehow, even through there’s one thin door between this noise and his room, Smoke sleeps through it. I’m amazed by this, just as I am amazed that Stump’s tears have stopped, that he’s willing to sit still, willing to take his medicine, that he seems to have learned that there’s relief inside that nebulizer chamber.

I remember how it was to be a child with asthma. I remember lying on the couch all day with one hand curled around my inhaler. I remember tracking hours, waiting for the relief of my next puff. I remember coming to recognize the heft of a new inhaler vs. the lightness of a spent one. I remember sometimes waking in the night from dreams where I could not catch my breath to discover that I truly could not catch my breath. I remember how sometimes the inhaler relaxed my airways just enough to ease the panic, but still I panted and wheezed.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that my mother confessed to me how nervous my asthma had made her, how she would stay up at night listening to my breathing. She told me this before Stump was born, and before Smoke had developed asthma, but the depth of her worry made sense to me, and I hoped I might be spared the same experience.

But sometimes, inevitably, those things we wish won’t happen happen and we are surprisingly prepared.

My experience of parenting so far has been this: every night I go to bed hoping I might sleep well, and I dread the sleepless nights of teething, the ear infections, the vomiting. When I think about these nights, and I know they will arrive, I worry for my future sleepless self. How will I stay awake when I’m already so fucking tired?

But my worry provides the momentum to move us forward into morning, when his breathing will improve just a little, when the doctor will listen with her stethoscope and tell me that his breathing sounds labored, but clear.