Viral Anxiety

Anxiety is a funny thing. I know how it can look and how it can can feel. I have tasted it in a few varieties, from the panic attacks that require Ativan and work-at-home days, to a racing heart, to mild reflux. Somehow I am never prepared for the kind that sneaks up, though: anxiety over something I did not know was worrying me.

As I talk with different people about Covid-19, including my own high school students, I realize that the emotional response to a pandemic seems as diverse as the physical response to infection. Some folks are completely freaked out and have become increasingly agoraphobic and paralyzed by mysophobia, so much so that they are likely to need treatment for that when we are at last “freed.” Others, whose lives remain miraculously untouched by the virus, don’t feel frightened, feel like everything will be okay.

Most of us fall somewhere in between.

Most of us, I think, fall somewhere in between, exercising caution in ways we considerable reasonable. Making human mistakes. Hoping for the best. Washing our hands, wearing masks.

So when my husband told me he’d been sleeping all day, when he wasn’t in the bathroom or nursing his headache, my reaction took me by surprise.

I was so angry!

I couldn’t decide where to send my rage first–at the fact that I would now have to deal with everything in our household on my own (you’ll just have to take my word for it that this is A LOT), at the fact that he didn’t refuse to teach his college courses in person, at everything that has ever been difficult in our marriage, or swirling around our weekend plans (now up in the air) to join the extended family for our annual trip to the mountains.

When one day became two and three, I insisted he get tested. He had one test at a drug store at the end of day two, and on day four of his illness, no results in yet, I suggested he might want to go to a doctor to find out what he did have, even if it wasn’t Covid. He had a rapid test in a doctor’s office, and it came back negative. Then the drug store test came back negative, too.

He had a bug.

I would love to celebrate that (I do, I really do!), but all I can think about is how I could not calm down because he was disabled and I was not able to handle that. He slept and slept, and everything that was wrong in my world was exploding, imploding, breaking down. I was breaking down.

I have never been good about illness in the people I love. When my kids are sick, it makes me anxious. I am much better now than when they were little. When my elder child was wee and caught a stomach bug, it took everything I had not to run away from the house. I am not exaggerating. The first time that ever happened, my good friend Estee was there with her daughter Eva for our kids’ first play date, and she helped me through it. A time of firsts. Neither of us has ever forgotten. Nor have I ever stopped being grateful.

Even now, when the kids are 18 and 15, if they get a fever, I worry a bit more than I should. If my husband gets sick and is anything less than stoic, I now know, I am a mess.

My hair is falling out by the fistful. Despite a low-fat, low-calorie, healthy diet of whole foods and regular exercise, my body holds onto weight like it really doesn’t know when it might need this tire around my middle. I take my meds; I meditate. I make things. I go for walks. I color in my coloring books. I even take naps here and there.

Anxiety has hold of me like an invasive plant, tendrils of a root system winding their way through every system in my body.

Like the virus, it attacks, sometimes without warning.

Mom and Dad & Pedagogy

I’ve written about my father before, and as is so often true when writing about someone who is gone, he has taken on a mythic quality. I try not to overdo that; to be fair, my father had some of that while he was alive, too, at least with his children. I’ve written about that, also. I know this is my own youngest-child-only-girl perspective, so if my brothers disagree, that’s entirely fair. It is certainly true that the four of us had each our different relationships with Dad.

My father loved to play with me by rattling off made-up Latin names of flowers and weeds along dirt roads in eastern Long Island, explaining their origin in such detail that it always took me a while to realize that I had fallen for it again. When I began learning Latin in seventh grade, he’d give me phrases to repeat out loud until I noticed “what a goose I am.” One

“He’d give me phrases to repeat”

subject my father really did know was Shakespeare. This wasn’t like the pretend play he did for his own amusement and mine; this was true learned (pronounce that “learn-Ed”) passion for the Elizabethan bard. He earned his PhD and taught for close to thirty years, and his first published novel centered around the production of a play by elderly Jews at a retirement home on New York’s Upper West Side.

You might then imagine his disappointment when, the first time I had to read a Shakespeare play for school, I complained like any other school kid that the text was boring and impossible to decipher. It wasn’t me he was disappointed in, though; it was my teacher. Of course it was boring. It was about 1980. How was some 20th-century kid supposed to sit down with the text of Macbeth and read it cold? And actually get something out of it? She needed to approach the play differently.

My parents listened to operas on the record player in our living room, and I thought it was terrible.

Why not listen to Donna Summer? Or Queen? So my father took me to the opera, where the sets, costumes, and gigantic voices held me in thrall. My mother took me the ballet. My parents talked about court cases in the news and other issues that did not interest me. So my father took me out of school, and we rode the subway downtown to the courthouse to watch a trial. These experiences offered me the most important aspects of my lessons that had been missing—the appeals to the senses that make experiences lived experiences. I have never forgotten the judge asking the man who said his gold chain was stolen why he was eating rice and beans on his stoop at 2 am.

His honor was laughing.

The same was true of Shakespeare plays. What I learned from Dad and eventually from an excellent professor at Hunter College, CUNY, was that these plays were written to be seen. Sure, I had to learn about iambic pentameter. But my favorite lessons in William Shakespeare had to do with who his audiences were, what they did while the plays were being performed, what sort of show they expected, and who was on stage. And what a surprise it was to find that I could follow the action of the play when I was watching and listening to actors!

My parents always drew me in. If I was watching my mother cook or bake, I soon found myself stirring or chopping. I wanted to sew like her, too. And when I went to work with her, I wanted to use all her office supplies, and the ginormous copier that had its own room, and sit behind a desk and look important the way she did. If my father was grading student assignments and needed me to be quiet, he would give me the same assignment to “see what [I] could do with it.”

It’s easy to think about parenting mistakes, flaws, and wish-they-hadn’ts. Lord knows my own kids will be able to list quite a few.

The more time I spend as a teacher of teenagers, though, the more I see how much my mother and father did to make sure I was a well-rounded, functional adult.

I have tried to repeat these lessons in my own home, with my own kids, but it is a different time, in different circumstances, with quite different kids.

I keep trying.

La Grande Dépression (2020): Shanah tovah!

I think that’s where I am. Not a 1929-style market crash–not that such a thing would have an enormous and direct effect on me–but another kind of crash, the sort where heroes that stand between you and the forces of evil die in the eleventh hour, and you imagine maniacal, vengeful, infuriating laughter echoing lightly in the air, around every corner, from every tall, solid edifice where decisions are made. Saying it in French gives it a little too much drama for “typical” little me, I know, but it also softens the words some and makes them tolerable to my ear.

I am not threatening Canada with the impending arrival of my family; the Canadians did not ask us to come. Nor do I imagine there are countries that really would make us more comfortable. There may be, but I do not know, for sure, and as we are Americans, and Jews, to boot, we are likely unwelcome in most of the places I would consider. What do we have to offer? Skills already being provided by their own people, and offspring who need services their countries are likely providing more efficiently than my own. We lack the gumption of our parents and grandparents that came to America determined to make it, no matter how hungry they had to be for a while. They came here, running from the very ideologies that are gaining traction and power here now. People’s rights are in serious jeopardy. Nazis and Nazi sympathizers are taking seats in our government.

The Jewish New Year is a time of reflection, but it is also happy. New year! New beginning! We don’t celebrate it in quite the same way as December 31st revelers do, but the weather tends to be better, at least in my part of the world, and the forward-looking perspective of hope and possibility is similar. Like the winter holiday, though, there’s lots of room for people to go, well, south. And for me, they have. I am lower than I have been in many years. I’m sure some of it is chemical, and I’m taking my black cohosh like a good little old lady, and have a shiny new anti-depressant. I am not feeling any kind of Rosh HaShana anything.

I wish I were.

I am not a believer. I always felt good, though, dressing up and going to synagogue, seeing familiar faces, wishing a happy new year to people. Lipstick can be very good for my bruised ego. Doesn’t work for everyone. I enjoy inspiring words and thoughtful meditations. It’s easy enough, if you are a thinking person, to replace the word “God” and other difficult ideas with more fathomable ones when you want to be contemplative. For me, synagogue is a place of community and connection more than anything else, which is why I have made it my job to make it a place that feels that way for anyone who wants to be there. The High Holidays, as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called, are exciting, because at least in America, that’s when everyone goes.

I can’t get excited about the virtual experience. I know I should try to be a cheerleader for it, but I just can’t. And now I need uplifting more than ever, because all the things I do believe in and value are slipping away, and people are calling them “politics.” I will never understand how or why someone having equal protection under the law (and in action) is political, or how discussing that is political. I do not understand how saying that I have the right to decide what happens to my own body is political. I am not being political; I am being human. What has politics come to mean? Its definition has expanded into territory where it was never meant to be, and now we all hate each other.

I don’t want to talk on the phone any more. I used to enjoy a good blab with a friend, and now, even if I had friends, I wouldn’t want to do that. I barely have the energy to text and message. We all have our own problems, sure. They all feel a little worse right now. Therapists are in such high demand, their waiting lists are closed. We’re locked in. We’re raising a generation that was already losing the ability to communicate by voice and in person with others; now they go to school virtually, and have boyfriends and girlfriends they date on screens. No one touches anyone, and for those of us behaving responsibly, no one smiles, as far as we can tell.

We talk about “the new normal” and joke lightly with neighbors that answering “okay” to the question, “how are you?” is really the best anyone can ask for, isn’t it?

I don’t believe that any of this is the best we could have asked for. You can close your eyes to all kinds of information; we’ve all done it. I don’t blame President Trump for Covid-19. I do blame him and his administration for their response to it, for trying to be politic and downplaying it instead of reacting to it. Because we can look back at Obama’s response to the Ebola virus in western Africa for comparison. (I am not saying President Obama always did everything right; I am saying he protected this country from an epidemic.) Look, the wondrous, history-making, incredibly strong Ruth Bader Ginsberg was 87 years old and quite sick. She hung on despite her illness to the very best of her ability–we all saw her working out with her trainer. She was not going to live forever. I know we will always be blessed by her memory, as will, I hope, her family and friends. But that the rights of so many decent people hang in the balance right now just because she died–that’s wrong. It’s terrible. It’s politics, but it shouldn’t be.

Vaccines against disease are also not in my understanding of politics. To my mind, the work of the CDC should not fit into any definition of politics. Disease Control–it’s right in the name. When you’re depressed, issues get boiled down to simple terms; it’s this or it’s that. My beliefs or your beliefs. We are a country of depressed people–my way or the highway.

We are just here, in our little house on Rosh Hashana, one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, listening to the incessant noise of neighbors’ outdoor chores and chatter. it’s like being lonely when everyone else seems to have a date, or being deep in mourning when everyone else seems fine. How can they?

A Woman, in Her Own Right

Why does anyone ever use the phrase, “in her own right”? It means, actually, in keeping with what is right or just, conforming to some principle or that which is due. But it never seems to me that users mean exactly that.

Elinor Burkett, author of Golda, writes, “Golda Meir acted like a man [she peed standing up?] and wanted to be treated like a man. There is no question that she was a very strong, intelligent leader in her own right.” I did not know Golda Meir personally, so I don’t know if she was transgender, but I’d be willing to bet she wanted to be treated as equal to men. And I am pretty sure that qualities of strength and intelligent leadership aren’t limited to men. So how does Burkett mean “in her own right” in this case?

When Barbara Bush died, writer Karen Belz posted a small article online about the former first lady in which she writes, “And while most people know Barbara Bush for her first lady status, many don’t know that she was considered a strong, determined, and witty woman in her own right.” This line suggests, first, that her husband had these qualities, and I am not sure everyone would agree with that, though it isn’t friendly to speak ill of the dead. But why wouldn’t a first lady have these qualities? Why not assume she does until it is proven otherwise? I won’t even say anything about Melania Trump’s intellect or wit, because she is determined that the American public will not know her. So we can certainly say she’s determined, if nothing else.

The BBC, reporting on the militancy of Winnie Mandela’s activism, posted an article that argued, “Mrs [sic] Madikizela-Mandela was a politician in her own right, and opposed her husband’s [Nelson Mandela’s] move to negotiate an end to apartheid, claiming it would lead to a ‘sell-out’ of black people.” Because her husband was a politician, Winnie can’t be one, too, she is one in her own right. To use a term coined by my husband, this is the height of “ensmallening.” One must be able to describe what a woman does without comparing it to the roles of the men around her. To add “in her own right” forces a comparison where none is necessary.

In each of these examples, of course, it is proper or just and in accordance with principles of equality that the women are who they are claimed to be; they do indeed have those qualities, so it could be argued that the phrase is used correctly. But is that what the writers are implying?

Perhaps an example from the life of an average Jo(sephine) would be useful. Many years ago, when I was young and cute and newly engaged, I met some of my husband’s future colleagues at the university where he was teaching. It was a small social group that met for coffee and some talk in the morning. During this first meeting, I was referred to several times as a sort of prize he had won. I was nervous and probably more sensitive than usual. No harm was meant; they were all older than he and happy for him. He wasn’t lonely anymore, and here was this pretty young thing coming to the small town where nothing ever happened. They were trying to be nice, in their older, sexist, unthinking way. The worst culprit was the woman in the group, but her motivation is the subject of some other essay.

My now-husband of close to twenty years was sensitive to what was happening, bless him. Yes, he thought I was a babe, but he also thought I was interesting, funny, articulate, curious about the world—you know, all those qualities that make a person a tolerable spouse. He wanted to stand up for me. “You know,” he said, “Claudia is a writer in her own right.” So then I answered a few questions about writing and whether I was published. I held back until he and I were alone, and then I told him what I thought of the expression he’d used.

First, I pointed out how rarely we hear “in his own right.” If we’re using the phrase properly, there is no reason not to say it with regard to men as well as women. The example I found of its use to describe a man is guilty of the same crime I’ve already described. About his own son, the great musician and poet Leonard Cohen said, “Adam [Cohen] is a great singer-songwriter in his own right.” The comparison implied in the effort to (supposedly) avoid comparison is demeaning. It reduces the subject to something less than adult, and has the effect on its audience of, “aww, isn’t he/she cute? Trying to be just like _________.”

I was reminded of this the other day when my kid was accusing someone of microaggressions. He was wrong; the person was actually guilty of passive-aggressive actions, but it got me thinking about microaggressions and what they are, exactly. However subtle or even unintentional they are, they show discrimination against some already marginalized group, which is why I’d already learned about them with regard to race and ethnicity. I hadn’t yet given thought to the ways in which microaggressions are built right into our language. There are plenty of languages that have sexist constructions, which is why we now have words such as Latinx to address such inequalities. But in English, where we don’t have masculine and feminine nouns, we’ve had to figure other ways to make women not just “other” but less. Every time someone wants to attach “-ette” or “-ess” to the end of a word, women are infantilized. At my kids’ school, the mascot is a dolphin. The girls’ teams? The “Lady Dolphins,” who wear pink jerseys, even though the school colors are blue and white. In 2019.

Even the word “lady,” in certain contexts, places demands on women that don’t fit with the lives most of us live and suggests demure behavior never asked of men. How can “lady” dolphins possibly play volleyball? They’ll ruin their manicures. Growing up, I read books with characters who were ladies’ maids and ladies-in-waiting. Employment for the politely poor. When I was a child, my father always admonished me to act like a young lady; given his upbringing (in England, by people from Poland), that meant that I needed to be quiet, not boisterous; gentle, not rough; polite and never rude—always please, thank you, excuse me and so on—no elbows on the table or reaching across for something, always tip your bowl away from you (except on Passover), no slurping, or any eating sounds, mouth closed while chewing. Hair tidy and out of the face, dresses are always best for family events of any kind. I am grateful for my good manners every time I eat with a slob, but these are manners that men ought to have, too. My brothers got the same table manners lessons, by the way. And women should never be taught these “rules” as the keys to their happiness, or worse yet, the only way to be female.

Female, I understand. But I’m not sure what it means to be a girl or a woman. These days, we understand that it goes beyond whatever equipment our bodies have. Having a vagina doesn’t guarantee that I will feel like a girl or identify as one. When I was quite young, perhaps a tween, I told my mother that I thought my chromosomes weren’t quite right. Instead of the XX girl formula, I was sure mine looked like this: Xx/y. Why did I think so? Because when I was little, I liked Matchbox cars and GI Joe dolls. I didn’t like wearing dresses (maybe because I was made to), I was hairy, I liked playing rough with my brothers. I have three older brothers, no sisters, and a mother who had no interest in teaching me girly stuff. As little and shy and anxious as I was, I also pushed myself to be what I imagined was a kind of a daredevil on the playground. I was crazily proud of my accomplishments on the swing set. I never doubted that I was a girl; I suppose I felt that I was not a traditional or “girly” girl. And I never have been.

I love pretty things. I like to put on some makeup, and I like to get dressed up for special occasions. But when I am all dolled up, I don’t feel like me, and I don’t feel comfortable; I spend the time thinking about how great it will feel to go home and slip into some sweatpants.

My older child, declared a girl at birth (and before), says he doesn’t feel like a girl, and has therefore determined he’s a boy. To me, this doesn’t quite make sense, or perhaps I don’t understand it because I can’t imagine how that feels. I wonder what he thinks it means to be a girl. He doesn’t seem able to articulate it. I’m not able to, either. And what does it mean to be a boy? How could he possibly know what that feels like? And why this binary? I don’t feel like a girl; therefore, I am a boy. To me, this is not a logical argument coming out of a generation that has done such an amazing job of teaching us that gender and sexuality exist on a spectrum. But humans are full of contradiction, all of us. And my kid, who always picked out the shiny clothes, the flowy stuff, the hats and shirts that said things like “Girls Rule!”, this kid teaches me every day.

Maybe, like me, he noticed that things he accomplished might get dressed in pink, might have an “-ess” stuck on the end. Maybe he noticed that the world is still not a safe place for women and resented it as much as I do. Maybe I made womanhood look undesirable.

What I do understand is this.

Just as long hair and makeup don’t define women any more than does a vagina, supposed feminine word endings and pink shirts don’t do much to say who we are, either. And even if a person belongs to a community that sees men and women as equal but playing different roles, there is still no reason to use language that makes women less than they are—fully human.

Memoir Workshop

What’s Your Story?

If you follow me here, you may know that I have taught writing classes for — let’s just say a lot of — years. This fall, I am offering a six-week memoir workshop in the Hampton Roads area, so if you live in Southeastern Virginia, I hope you’ll sign up. In this workshop we’re going to write about ourselves; not our life stories, but about snapshots of our lived experience. A pivotal moment, a day, an hour, an encounter. The way in which we remember and perceive, and what we might understand about ourselves and the world as a result–that is memoir. All you need is a life and the desire to look more closely at any part of it that you can share with others; memoir seeks to share our experience. Diaries and journals are where we keep our experiences to ourselves. You’ll write, read, discuss. What could be better?

Classes meet for six Thursdays, beginning October 5, from 1:00 to 3:00 pm. We have the beautiful, peaceful, and inspiring space of the Yoga Nook to call our own.

The Yoga Nook
927 Battlefield Blvd N Suite 100-1
Chesapeake, Virginia
The cost for six weeks, which includes reading materials, is $100. You can register by making your payment here.
If you have questions, ask away!

My Child, Also Known As…

When our kids change their names, they are deciding who they are, or trying to figure out who they are. When our kids change their names, it hurts. We chose the name they were given; it was a gift from us to them, usually carefully considered, agonized over, possibly even argued about.

We have traditions and rituals to bestow on our children the name we chose —christenings, baptisms, brit milot, naming ceremonies of all sorts. We invite friends and family, we might even cater a party. Children get named after important relatives, living or dead, depending on tradition and culture. Their names mean something to us.

After we name them, we spend the next ten years watching the tiny person grow into the name we chose. And somehow, they always seem to do just that — grow into the name. When I think about the other names that were on the table for me, according to my parents, it makes me laugh to think of myself as a Jennifer or an Angelica. These names simply do not, could not, fit me.

Maybe we spend a lot of time correcting people’s pronunciation of our kids’ names; maybe we tell people what it means in this language or that, or tell stories about the person for whom the kids were named. The child’s name is part of the family’s unique history and culture.

When kids change their names, they are rejecting all of those things. They are not saying they don’t want to be part of the family; they are saying that those traditions and history and culture are not as important as being true to themselves. They value all that came before them, maybe, but they did not choose the name they’ve been living with. And now they have grown and feel that it doesn’t fit them — the name has become a too-small hat, exerting all kinds of pressure on the brain.

When kids change their names, they are rejecting their parents or their upbringing or “family values” the same way they are doing so when they leave the religious/racial/ethnic fold in which we expected or hoped them to stay. That’s how it feels. But they aren’t doing that, not all of them, anyway; they are establishing their identity for themselves within the family but separate from the identity we defined for them.

Perhaps we did this for ourselves by buying entirely new brands of groceries when we first moved out of our parents’ home, eating sugary cereal or moving to another city. Maybe we accomplished it by taking what we consider to be a more critical and nuanced view of religion and politics. Our children feel a freedom to explore their identities in ways we never dreamed of, and maybe we have to let them do that even if it feels personal, feels like rejection, feels insulting and painful.

When some kids change their names, they consult their parents, discussing the name’s meaning, the person they were named for, including parents in the process and showing respect for all that went into the name given at birth. But some kids don’t consult family at all. It doesn’t occur to them until it’s too late. And that may hurt parents even more.

Some of us are convinced that this name change is temporary, that the kid is just exploring and will come out on the other side of this adolescent experience all the wiser. Some just hope that’s true. Some of us are wrong, and some are right. As long as we are allowed our own feelings about the change, we should be able to make room for our child to experiment. This is what I tell myself as I try, day after day, to call my child by a name I did not choose. I think about how I insisted on being called “Annie” for a small part of my youth, because I did not appreciate my first name as I do now. I remember that one of my brothers wanted to be called “Herman” because he loved The Munsters. I don’t think my parents felt a sting from these passing fancies. Because that’s what they were. We were still very much their children. It is the sense of impending separation and loss created by the change that is so hard to handle. It is the anxiety about what the child’s life will be, factoring in all the issues associated with the name change — gender identification, possibly sexuality, and stupidity, prejudice, and discrimination on the part of others.

I also tell myself to celebrate having raised a child who feels strong enough to explore their identity publicly, to be insistent about their name and what it means to them, to demand acceptance. These are wonderful qualities.

The truth is, none of this is about me. My sense of loss or resentment or sadness is just that — mine.

A Much Harder Place

“We just booked a trip to France!” people-mother-family-father

“Here I am with my bestie, looking out over the San Francisco Bay.”

“Nothing better than drinks with girlfriends in Porto, Portugal!”

Facebook is killing me.

For years now I have looked at people’s photos, at their family outings, travel adventures, even just fun times at home. And I have envied all of it. Not because I believe that every minute of their lives must be happy and perfect, based on the pictures they post. I know that no one’s life is perfect, whatever that means, no matter what it looks like on the outside. You can’t ever know what goes on between two partnered people, and you can’t ever know what it is really like to be in someone else’s family.

I spend a lot of time wishing people knew what it was like to be in my family. It is challenging, to put it mildly. I have two, maybe three nice pictures of the four of us. When we attempt to do typical American family things, it doesn’t usually work out. Someone will always be miserable and ruin it for everyone else. And who wants to take a picture of that? It isn’t possible to explain my family life properly, and any attempt to do so would probably sound whiny and ungrateful. Claudia and her first-world problems. But I am exhausted.

It used to be that my envy also came from a certain financial unease; we couldn’t do some of the things we saw our peers doing, because we simply didn’t have the money. Now the money is a bit less of an issue, though we still need to be careful (I am unemployed).  These days my envy comes from a much harder place. It cannot be fixed by earning more money, establishing financial security.

When I see families plan or go on trips with their young kids or even their adult kids, I know that will never be us. I think how great it would be, when my kids are young adults, to go abroad with them and sit in a bar or cafe somewhere we’ve never been, toasting the joy of discovery and togetherness. But it isn’t going to happen. When you have a child on the autism spectrum, your life can be seriously curtailed. I am sure this isn’t true for everyone, but it is true for us. My son’s diet is so limited, so inflexible, we really could never visit a foreign country. Certain places would be easier than others, of course. If there’s plain pasta, or white rice, or french fries. If not, he won’t eat.  When he is older, he will expand his repertoire somewhat, I’m sure. I can already see hints that his Bread and Jam for Frances lifestyle is wearing. But other things may never change.

My beautiful boy is fascinated by the great wide world and visits all of it regularly on Google Earth. He digs into people’s customs and holidays and traditions with great pleasure. He learns their languages and practices writing some very complicated characters. He watches opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games (almost all are available online) to see the athletes from around the world and to hear whatever tidbits the commentators share about the people and the countries they’re from. He shares newfound information with us and sometimes gets frustrated that we can’t bank all those facts the way he can. He is terrified to board a plane or a boat, and sometimes still gets quite carsick. It has to do with his vestibular system, the body’s sensory system that contributes to spatial orientation and a sense of balance. Sometimes when I try to imagine him on an airplane, I can only picture that disgusting puke scene from The Exorcist. exorcist

Speaking of barf, it’s not just his diet that is resistant to change. Taken out of his safe spaces, without the items he uses daily, he is thrown off and unable to enjoy himself. Last summer we foolishly planned a long road trip, never thinking about how difficult it would be for him to “play it by ear,” to not know where and when the next meal would be and what it would consist of.  On all journeys, staying in the hotel room to watch TV and order (Papa John’s) pizza or going to the hotel’s pool are his favorite things. He is a creature of habit or even ritual. He engages in the same activities day after day, and does them in the same way, at the same time. And he likes it that way; he has no desire to do things differently. Most people, including medical professionals, will tell us that he needs to learn to get out of his comfort zone, and I agree, but only to a certain extent. I push him to do things independently. The smallest things present big challenges. Last night he argued for ten minutes that he would not be able to adjust the water temperature for his shower to his liking. He was positive he wasn’t capable. But he made a loaf of bread all by himself last week. It was delicious.

I also want him to learn the social skills that will allow him to be happy in a neurotypical world. And we push that, too, even though it’s painful, even though “normal” children say terrible things to him or are judgmental or stay away because they think he’s weird.  Taking him out of the spaces where he feels good—good about himself and comfortable—does not seem anything but cruel. It has taken nearly twelve years of raising this child to understand this. And that cruelty extends to the rest of the family, because when my son is unhappy, so is everyone else. There’s no way around it. The older he gets, the more difficult it becomes to deal with these moments. He’s a sweet and sensitive kid, so he cries, but he also shouts profanities at us, threatens suicide, destroys his own belongings and often things that belong to us, damages the house in some way, slams doors, tries to hurt himself, and gives us the finger. He also threatens to become a Republican or a Christian, and he likens his parents to Hitler and Trump, because he knows how insulted we’ll be.

This is terribly unfair to my daughter, who would love to travel, and would have a wonderful time seeing new places, trying new foods, and flying. I feel guilt about denying her things because of her brother, but how do we plan a family trip that excludes one of our kids? The answer is that we don’t. In recent years, my spouse and I have managed two international trips without the kids–both because they were work trips for him. We can’t afford to pay all that for both of us, and we certainly couldn’t afford to bring the kids. And if I didn’t have a sister-in-law within reasonable proximity who was willing to take them, I wouldn’t be going anywhere. I imagine my daughter’s first trip out of the country will happen when she’s in college–I hope she will want to study abroad. And then maybe she’ll make a birthright trip to Israel.

I have wondered before about posting things on social media, and if it is reasonable to think that people should take care not to brag. Who am I to say what anyone should post? I hate negative posts, too–we all have one “friend” whose life seems to be a complete misery, whose every ill, mishap, and misfortune is right there for us to read. I know people who like to post photos of grotesque injuries–not a bruise or a scrape, but swollen, suppurating things that belong nowhere but a medical text. Stitches, bits ripped off. I have blocked such people from my wall.

Years ago, an orthodox rabbi explained some rules of modesty to me in a way that at the time I considered ridiculous. He said a good reason not to hold hands with or (God forbid) kiss your partner in public is that you don’t know how very lonely that might make someone else feel, a passing stranger who is longing for a similar relationship. Now I see that differently. I don’t believe we can expect that people won’t hold hands out of sensitivity to the possible lonely-hearts around them; but it might not hurt, before we post our excitement on Facebook, to consider ways to share it that will hurt just a little less those who don’t have anything to counter it. Because some of us are running out of BandAids.

What a World


So little has changed, yet I feel devastated.  In my personal life and in the concerns outside my small house, the scales have dropped from my eyes.

And they keep dropping.

A friend of mine recently tried to buck me up, telling me that I would find my tribe. But my hope for this grows dimmer each day. Each time I commit to an ism, I find, eventually, that a huge percentage of its members hold a belief I consider reprehensible.

As the new president prepared to take office in the US, and things got uglier and uglier, I began to read. A lot of the pieces I read were editorials and essays by African American women explaining various things such as why they wouldn’t participate in the Women’s March, or why they distrusted mainstream feminism, or why they were frustrated by their participation in online feminist discussion groups. Initially, my reaction to these was just as they predicted, a kind of hey-but-I’m-nice-why-do-you-feel-that-way progressive liberal position. But as I read the knee-jerk ugly responses of white women, I began to see.

And then the Christmas season began, and it was worse for me than usual, probably because of the hateful climate. And I wanted to scream, “please, please leave me alone! I don’t celebrate that holiday, I don’t care about that holiday, and I’m tired of having that holiday shoved down my throat, up my nose, and forced into all my senses!” As a Jew, I know better. I would never, ever do that. Suddenly, I got it. I heard where the African American writers I’d read were coming from when they asked that we just listen instead of responding automatically. And I decided right then that I would become a listener, even if I would never get the chance to have the shoe on my foot, so to speak.

My work seeks to give voice to and raise up those whose opportunities have been limited. (For details on this, check out the Facebook page: I believe wholeheartedly in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. I am an intersectional feminist. I am a bisexual married mother of two, and one of my kids is gender fluid. I am the sister, aunt, and cousin of people of color. Everyone in my home with the exception of me and the dogs is on the autism spectrum. My husband and I have discussed “whiteness” at length. We don’t really consider ourselves so. We’re not foolish; we know what we look like, and we are fully aware of our privilege. But we also know where our privilege ends. And we  know the difference between our world and that of someone who is a gentile.

I wake up every day to news of bomb threats and swastikas. I wake up to news of attacks on gay people, murders of trans women, police brutality of African Americans. Each story is a personal affront; each one cuts me down and makes the day feel just a little more like dragging my feet in loose shoes through mud. I go to synagogue, mostly for the peace of it, and there is always a police officer there for our safety. When I drop kids off for Hebrew school, there is always a police officer there for their safety. I wonder how most people would feel if they had to have the cops at church just to worship freely.


In Norfolk, Virginia

Up until now, I have been able to ignore BLM’s position on Palestine. I never really understood why the movement’s leaders felt they needed to take a position on that issue at all, given the urgency of the issues right here at home, but I could pretty easily wrap my head around why they took a side with the people they see an underdog. Besides, BLM is not my movement; it is one I respect and would like to assist, but it is not one I imagine I have a say in. The other day, though, everything changed for me.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that my feelings about Israel are mixed. To me, Zionism is simply the belief that Israel has the right to exist. Therefore, I suppose I am a Zionist. I don’t believe anyone anywhere has the right to exist at the expense of anyone else, and I would like everyone to live in peace. It turns out, friends, that there is little room in the current feminist movement for the likes of me. The very belief that Israel should be allowed to be gets me labeled oppressor. If the bomb threats and swastikas weren’t enough to open my eyes to the level of antisemitism that’s been simmering away in America, the comment threads on articles regarding this issue took care of it. I was near tears yesterday, reading the poisonous, openly Jew-hating posts from my sisters-in-arms. It was so awful, truly.

And so I have only one ism left me, and it’s the one I’ll stick with. I’m going to call it Claudiaism, because I know what I believe to be right, and I know what I believe to be worth working for. Do not join me.

December Reboot

It’s that time of year, when I admire both tasteful and completely insane Christmas decorations, sniff people’s Christmas trees, hope for cookies, plan Chanukah gifts for my kids, nieces and nephews, and think about moving to Israel. This year, as we plan for Donald Trump’s America (maybe–this whole Russia-interfered-with-our-electoral-process thing is getting interesting), I am feeling the sting just a tad more. Not even that. I misspoke. I am feeling impatient. I am feeling Grinchy. I am in no mood. Why? Because I keep seeing stuff like this:

Also, because of these:

And so, I am re-posting this piece from one year ago, in the hope that maybe more people will read it. Or maybe someone will re-read it, and see it in a new way. Or someone will read it and choose to leave me be. Because as I mentioned earlier, I am feeling Grinchy.

Happy Holidays!

Jews Are Ruining Christmas, Again


Monday was a great day; in the morning I went with my work partner and friend to look at a senior center where we might offer memoir writing classes. Afterward, we went to a pleasant coffee shop to have a drink and talk. Then my friend showed me a great used book store–the kind I like, a real rabbit warren of a place. The only thing missing were creaky, wood floors and bookish tweed-wearing clientele in dark corners. We asked for art books, and the woman running the place, a short, plump woman with grizzled gray hair and an open face, showed us where they were. When I was paying for my books, I got into a conversation with the bookseller that I wish had never happened.

The Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island had changed up its traditional mall Santa photo area, and instead of trees and elves and icicles and candy canes, there was nothing but Santa and a futuristic sort of clam shell, intended to be a glacier, to block out all the shops from the photos.

The comment thread on the article I read was full of angry customers talking about how ridiculous this was, and they were all suggesting in indirect and direct ways that “people” had complained about the traditional set-up, and that’s why this horrific change had taken place. As someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, I’m well aware of who these “people” are they’re talking about. One guy just went ahead and typed, “Keep the Jews out of Christmas!” Clearly, this man does not know too much about his messiah. And that’s really the part of the story I wanted to talk about, because it was funny–about the guy who doesn’t know Jesus was Jewish.

The bookstore woman, who is actively trying to restore a Santa tradition that’s outside her local mall said, “Oh, yes, I read that story too! Just ridiculous.”

We agreed; if you’re going to have a mall Santa, you might as well have the decorations that go with it. But that wasn’t all the bookseller had to say. “People complained,” she said, “you know, people, from…from other religions.”


“Actually, I don’t think so,” I said. “It was just some odd corporate decision to have this sleek, modern Santa setup.” I hoped I was right.

If Christmas weren’t an important holiday economically, I’d be a big fan of getting the whole thing out of the mall, out of my kids’ schools, out of public spaces generally. It’s hard for December revelers to know what it’s like to be so inundated and overwhelmed with a religious holiday not their own. And so very many people don’t treat Christmas as the religious holiday it is, so they don’t know why their nativity scene is a bother. Because they see it as an American holiday rather than a Christian one, they are frustrated by anyone’s no-Christmas-in-public-spaces stance. And if it’s an American holiday, where does that leave American Jews, American Muslims, American Hindus, American Buddhists, and all the rest of us? I like many things about the holiday; some of the music is lovely. I like that it makes my Christian friends happy. I like looking at over-decorated houses. In New York, I always enjoyed walking past the tree sellers and deeply inhaling the sweet pine scent. It always felt even more special somehow if there was snow on the ground. People were cheerful; my office was full of treats homemade and mailed in, and I was invited to parties. I also like to pick special gifts for the Christmas-celebrating folks I love. But at no point do I forget that the holiday celebrates the birth of the Christ child. And that’s why “Merry Christmas” is annoying, even if it’s well-meant.

Try to imagine how you might feel if it seemed the entire world was celebrating a Middle Eastern-style Muslim holiday; everywhere you went, from Target to the drug store, even the vacuum repair shop, the library, school, the office, the walls were decked with Middle Eastern decorations. America is Muslim, and you are the Christian minority. Every time you went shopping for anything, you would have Middle Eastern holiday music in your ears. This music would burst forth from loudspeakers on mosques and masjids all over your city, on the hour. Everywhere you went, people would wish you “Eid e Milad un Nabi!” Sounds interesting, actually. Year after year, though, as you waded through this tsunami of exclusion, you would begin to resent it. You might even say, “what about my holiday?” And then you might inflate a minor holiday on your calendar in an effort to combat your sense of drowning. You could get decorations for your holiday from niche market internet stores and be the lone house on your street decked out in the wrong colors. You would try to make this minor event exciting for your kids so that they felt less excluded, so they could feel good about the traditions from which they come, so they would not feel crappy about not being a part of the culture of their country.

But back to the bookstore. After I suggested that the new mall décor was a corporate decision, the woman behind the counter said, “Probably the Jews.”

I said nothing. What could I have said? “Uh, I’m Jewish”? I took the books I had already paid for (I dropped $47 in that goddam place) and walked out, saying nothing.

I got back into my car, and as I moved down the road, I realized I was in shock. I felt as though a stranger had walked up to me on the street and slapped me in the face hard enough to bring stinging tears to my eyes. I am used to reading anti-Jewish sentiment online, particularly as December approaches. But as much as I am aware of antisemitism, I have rarely had anyone say something so directly hostile to me about Jews. I’ve had people make stupid jokes and comments, and ask poorly worded, ignorant questions. But that is nothing to having someone look right at you and blame you for something–in a voice full of derision.

I have talked to my kids about white privilege, about the issues African American (and other non-white) parents worry about while their children are out and about, things that we do not think about. I have talked about the injustice of that, have tried to make them understand that encountering the world is different for different people. And I think they get it. But only as much as one person can understand someone else’s experience.

There’s no denying that this country has been far better to my people than most other places around the world; one might argue that it is still the safest place on earth for a Jew to live. The time when people put signs in the window telling Jews, Irish, and Blacks not to apply (for the job or apartment) has passed. There’s no sign in the window. Now it’s a secret.

Jewish people live with the secret every day. It doesn’t compare to the experience of a brown-skinned person in America, though. Most Jews (except Jews of color) live safely cradled by their white privilege. They don’t fear that their sons will be shot by the police for no reason. They don’t get followed around stores as though they were criminals. Getting a taxi isn’t a big deal, except at rush hour. They aren’t hypersexualized by the media. They don’t feel a need to live up to some notion of their existence imposed upon them by other people. They aren’t considered lazy or freeloaders or welfare queens or drug addicts. Mostly, Jewish people are ignored, except in December, when American Jews insist on playing up that pesky little festival, Chanukah. We are invisible.

And that’s where the trouble is. Because someone who has a problem with African Americans, or Latinos, or Asians, or Arabs, for instance, will always have a problem with us, too. We are on “the list.”

My husband used to find it very funny that I didn’t think of myself as white. But it is this list that makes me say so. Reasons to hate us are about the same as the reasons to hate the other groups; stereotypes, fears, ignorance, and intolerance are layered on top of one another so that such people walk around in a shell of their own stupidity so thick that knowledge actually just bounces off it. And of course, our presence means lots of annoying and hypocritical “holiday” parties and “holiday” trees and the like. Sometimes someone will mistake me for a white person and say something derogatory about blacks. They think I’m in on the joke, but the truth is, I am the joke.

I have thought before that I would write about being a member of an “invisible minority.” A man wearing a kippah is a man showing the world to what group he belongs. But for most American Jews, there are no outward signs. Unless you believe we all have big noses and bad hair. So people disparage us right to our faces; most would probably not say anything hateful if they knew who they were talking to. This kind of racism scares me because it is in hiding. And it’s terribly hard to fight what you cannot see.


I think she was the assistant principal.

Mrs. Stein’s powdery perfume always settled in my hair for the day so that when I got home from school I could still smell her. She wore gold jewelry, maybe a chain or two. She had fancy hair, coiffed into stepped, rolling hills. She smiled at me a lot. She took me out of class periodically just to hang out with her. I was eight. In her office, where the venetian blinds were always turned halfway closed to keep the room dim, I sat in a grownup upholstered chair, and she played with my hair, sometimes sliding bobby pins in to pin it back. She talked to me about her nieces, whose pictures were on her desk. One girl was blonde, and her name was Claudia, too, and the other, whose name was something else, something with a J, looked so much like me that now I begin to wonder if the woman didn’t have a picture of me on her desk. She spoke to me about a surgery I could have to have my ears tucked back. I couldn’t understand why she thought I needed that—I had tiny ears and they did not stick out, but she was always playing with them, and pushing my hair behind them. I don’t remember anything else about this except feelings—discomfort, fear, a small pleasure at my “chosen” status, the wrongness of her actions, wanting to go back to class, not wanting there to be yet another thing that set me apart from my classmates. I don’t know if more happened that I have chosen to forget.

In the classroom, things were not much better, but they looked different. For most of my elementary school career, I was a minority—always because of my religious upbringing, and most years because of my skin color. Except for Jeffrey—he was white, too. Any time the teacher left the room, Jeffrey got up from his place to come touch me. Eventually, he was chasing me around the room, trying to kiss me, grab my crotch, my behind, while the other kids laughed. I told my mother, and she went into school, guns blazing. My crazy teacher tied Jeffrey to his chair. It didn’t work, though.

In those years, the 1970s, the apartment building where we lived was a red brick block with a column of balconies on each side, near the entrance to FDR Drive at the start of what is called Spanish Harlem. Families with children lived there, and there were always kids playing and yelling and getting their bikes stolen outside. Med students lived there, too. Mount Sinai hospital wasn’t far away, but even closer was Metropolitan, where gun shot victims and drug addicts bled or screamed their way into the ER. My mother told me that when I went in for stitches, the girl next to me had some bad acid or something and had cut up the length of her arms with a razor. It took a while before anyone thought to pull the curtain between us.

There was a playground and a basketball court across the street; the Stanley Isaacs housing project was just a block away. My friends and I always played outside, and a lot of us also went after school to Mrs. L for babysitting. For a little while, there was a boy there who was unusually small for his age. He loved to get me alone in Mrs. L’s bedroom (he hid behind curtains and then popped out at me), so he could touch me. He grabbed at my crotch, mostly. Eventually Mrs. L caught him, and he didn’t come to babysitting anymore. He was so young; I wonder what was going on in his home.

We played everything outside—tag; red light, green light; double Dutch; Matchbox cars; Simon says. One day we were playing catch with a ball or a Frisbee, and it landed in the gutter, so I went to get it. A man in a white car pulled up near me just as I stood, and he started asking me for directions. He had a big, 1970s afro, the weight of all that hair forcing it to droop slightly on both sides. He asked me which way was east, which way was west, that kind of stuff. I thought he was pretty lost or pretty stupid. I was answering all his questions, feeling knowledgeable, but then I noticed his jeans were open, and he was moving his hand up and down on the first grown-up, dark-skinned penis I’d ever seen. I backed away from the car quick. I was six or seven years old.

* * *

The tiny private school I attended in 1981 was British, despite its New York location. The four-floor brick building housed small classrooms that hold these memories. There were coats and scarves on the shelf above me, thrown there willy-nilly so that wooly sleeves and tassels of yarn and silky linings hung down in my face, mussing my hair, adding to the sense of chaos, preventing me from keeping an eye on my assailants. This time there were three boys—Daryl, who I kind of liked, and two others I can’t remember.

Their hands were all over me, moving quickly, trying to grab anything that felt female. There were brown hands inside my school blazer on my sore new breasts; pale, freckled hands up my pleated gray skirt so that my behind felt as if something was crawling on it and it was now in need of a wash, another hand pulling a bit at my underwear. I was thirteen years old and such a jumbled mass of hormones and emotions that I was both aroused and terrified, laughing and screaming stop, wanting the boys to like me and afraid of what they were doing.

When I look at pictures of myself then, I was a nice-looking kid, awkward perhaps, but not unusually so. I was pretty. But, oh, that’s not how I felt! I had long, frizzy brown hair and glasses, the worst glasses. I was in that part of puberty where everything is oily and sweaty and flaky, a permanent zit on my nose under my glasses, protected by a small round Band-Aid. Some days I thought I had a “pretty face” and sometimes I was hideous, but I was always overweight. Despite being quite slim, even skinny, I was on self-inflicted diets all the time. I wanted desperately to feel good about myself.

Before Chemistry class, we waited in the small fourth-floor hallway for the teacher to arrive; she was often a minute or two late because it took her a while to propel her generous proportions up the stairs. Across from the chem lab there was a classroom that was always unlocked and empty at the time. Whenever we waited there for Mrs. Field, a girl was selected. I don’t know if the boys discussed it ahead of time or if it was a spur of the moment thing. They shoved their prey into the empty room and there she was thoroughly “felt up” while the rest of the class waited calmly for the teacher. If chemistry class did not begin, maybe more would have happened.

It was not until I was well into adulthood that I recognized this for what it was—sexual assault. None of us would have ever thought of reporting it or complaining, viewing ourselves as complicit in it, maybe, or not even fully understanding how wrong it was. I remember feeling as though I were popular. I saw that classroom more than once, and sometimes there were as many as five of my male classmates. I had no choice, as I see it now, overpowered by them and their number. But I did giggle. Yes, I did.

* * *

It’s hot in the subway car, and someone has opened the little window that slants inward so we can enjoy the garbage- and urine-soaked breeze from the tunnel. The train’s clack-clack-clack-squeal is so loud I can’t think, and I am thrown forward, gripping the greasy metal “strap” as hard as I can so I don’t land in the lap of the woman in front of me. My left shoulder, weighed down by my backpack, is recovering from the jolt when I notice an unwelcome caress: a hand sliding up my thigh and slowly across my behind. In high school I rode the subway to and from school (go, Peglegs!), and I was assaulted on the train as reliably as my teachers gave homework—just about every day. There was no avoiding the men, because there was no type; they were Wall Street guys in pinstripe suits and wingtips, faces red from the morning’s shave; bike messengers of every race in ripped baggy shorts over their long johns; maintenance workers all in blue, ages twenty to sixty-five; college boys; homeless men–I was up for grabs. Businessmen liked to slide their briefcases up between my legs, lifting them suddenly when it was their stop; some guys just liked to use the crowds as a way to run their hands slimily across my ass. When the train lurched, there were men who liked to melt into me, so I could feel the length of their body against mine, their erection pushing into my back. By the time I was a senior I’d learned to shame them, yelling, “Get your hand off my ass!” Invariably, everyone looked at me like I was the crazy, but I didn’t care. I’ve seen too many women walk off the subway with semen on the back of their clothes to keep quiet.

* * *

Susan and I spread the blanket out on a sunny hill and lay on our backs to enjoy the blue sky and the early summer warmth. We talked and laughed and ate Doritos and maybe cucumber slices to make up for the Doritos, but then I got that feeling, the one that is maybe a New York thing, where you know someone is there who shouldn’t be, or you just become hyperaware. So I looked around, and there was this dude looking at us. He was half-hiding behind a tree, just past the big hunk of bedrock that juts out the top of the hill, but he wasn’t well hidden. He smiled at me and continued to masturbate, leering. So we had to leave. We had to leave. I write this story as a single incident, but really it describes something that happened so often that it has morphed into a generalized memory of a picnic-interrupted-by-jacking-off-stranger.

* * *

Once I chased a guy for three blocks in Greenwich Village because he ran up behind me while I was walking with two friends and shoved his hand under my skirt and into my behind and vulva. I caught up to him too, shouting every obscenity I know, and he turned around and apologized in the way that suggests I was making far too big a deal out of the whole thing. Three showers later I could still feel the imprint of that hand.

* * *

My boyfriend raped me. I know that now, for sure.

He was one of the friends who’d been with me in the Village when I got grabbed. He didn’t chase my attacker with me, or yell, or do anything at all. I never got an answer from him about why. He waited while I took shower after shower and seemed coldly unaffected by the incident.

Really, I’ve known for years that he raped me, but I never looked at it outside of the context of the free fall it was central to. I loved him, I was unhealthily dependent on him, obsessed, even. By 1992, we’d been together too many years, and all was high drama. Arguments, me screaming, he storming off, cheating, not coming back for days, alcohol, non-violent nonsense of all kinds, completely foreign to the quiet, buttoned-up way I’d been raised. One night it got especially heated. I said no.

I said it again. And again. But he didn’t seem to hear me, or didn’t care what I was saying. He put his weight on me so I couldn’t move, and I just stared into the pseudo-Aztec print on the futon until all I could see was thread meshed with thread meshed with thread.

I recognize it now as part of a relentless chain of sexual assaults that began when I was about five years old. It’s a history I am only beginning to examine, one I have always dismissed as not much different from most women, or maybe most women in New York City. I don’t mean that I ignore how fucked up it is that women live with this level of mistreatment as though it’s normal, but that I never thought of myself as having an unusual story, or experiences that had substantially shaped my sexual life in the present. One person after another has touched my body uninvited or dragged me into their own sex show. I have drawn no conclusion, yet; I have no literary bow to tie the ends here.

They are ragged, hanging loose.