Well, it’s been a little over a year since Michael and I started talking about it, and now it’s really happening: we are moving to Oregon this week.  The movers are coming on Tuesday to load up all of our stuff, and we will hit the road on Wednesday, arriving in Portland next Saturday.

We talked about moving away from California several years ago, but it just seemed too daunting – and we had fewer kids then!  It turns out that it is an extremely daunting undertaking after all, and sometimes I can’t believe we’re doing it.  YOLO, and all that.

It’s been quite an emotional roller coaster. Sifting through over a decade worth of accumulated stuff, deciding what to part with and what to pack, has been physically and mentally exhausting.  Figuring out all the logistics of uprooting our big bad family, watching the kids struggle with their emotions, and saying goodbye to the people and places that we love and are so familiar has been so bittersweet.  Sometimes  have moments of panic when I think, “What the fuck are we doing?  Are we doing the right thing, uprooting everyone and leaving all of this behind?”  It’s exciting and scary as hell.

Kevin moved out a week ago.  For the time being, he is right up the street, and he’s been stopping by every day to hang out for a while, which has been so nice, and he texts me every day – sometimes we have these great texting conversations at night after he gets off work.  So I’m very grateful for that connection with him.  When we leave in a couple of days and end up 1,000 miles away from him, I think it will really hit me then, and I don’t guess it will be easy.  He is going to try to get some time off work and go up and spend Thanksgiving with us.

We signed a lease on a house outside of Portland, so we’ll be there until we decide where we want to settle permanently and buy a house.  I’m lusting after some space; it would be heavenly to have an acre or two – not out in the sticks, but I’m tired of being so close to my neighbors that I can hear them fart.

It’s surreal to walk through this house, with its rooms half empty and boxes stacked ten deep and halfway to the ceiling in the living room.  I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived in this house, and it’s so full of memories.  When we moved into this house, Kevin had just turned 8, Joey was 2, the twins were 6 months old, and I thought this would be our forever home.  Three of my kids were born right here in the house, and all of them have spent all or most of their childhoods here, and one of them reached adulthood.  We lived through Michael having cancer in this house, lots of marital ups and downs, having a child with a disability, more birthdays and Christmases and Halloween costumes than I can count.  So much that has shaped us in ways we probably don’t even realize.

I’ll take my memories with me.

Here’s to new adventures.


Fade to Black

In the process of packing up the house in anticipation of our move, I’ve unearthed boxes that have been stowed in the

July 1, 1999 blurb in the local paper

July 1, 1999 blurb in the local paper

farthest, darkest corners of the garage.  Boxes that haven’t been opened in more than 17 years.  The boxes contained things that belonged to my first husband – who, as I’ve written before, died of a drug overdose in a stranger’s front yard in June, 1999.  A lot of photos, including his old school photos dating back to early grade school.  Collector coins his dad foisted on him every year for Christmas.  A video tape of his first (and only) skydive.  An old blanket.  Old cards.  Books from his childhood.  Old schoolwork.  His wallet, which was on his person when he died.  Belongings found in his truck after his death.  Our wedding rings.

I boxed this stuff up after he died, and wrote on the boxes: “KELLY’S STUFF – SAVE FOR KEVIN.”  Kevin was two when his dad died, and I believed that it was important to save mementos for Kevin because Kevin would want them someday.  I assumed he would long for some connection to the man who contributed half of his DNA.

The last photo ever taken of Kevin and Kelly.  May, 1999, about a month before he died.

The last photo ever taken of Kevin and Kelly. May, 1999, about a month before he died.

As it turns out, though, Kevin has no interest in any of this stuff.  He has no memories of his biological father, and he mostly feels contempt for him, knowing that he was a wife-beater, a liar, an unapologetic manipulator, alcoholic, and drug addict who couldn’t or wouldn’t get his shit together, even for his baby son.  It’s true that I’m responsible for Kevin’s perception of his father, but it’s all based on pure truth, and if I have any regrets about being brutally honest with Kevin about Kelly, those regrets have only to do with how it has possibly shaped Kevin’s self-perception, and not with anything I may owe to Kelly’s memory.  I didn’t set out to poison Kelly against his dead father, but I always answered his questions with total honesty, and by the time he was an adolescent, he had a pretty clear picture of what life was like for me and for us when Kelly was alive.

After all these years, I still carry around bitterness and pain and anger towards Kelly for everything he did.  I don’t dwell on it, but the hard kernel of it in my heart swells when memories come to the surface.  I struggle to dredge up any happy memories (though I have no doubt there were happy times; it’s just that what good there was was way overshadowed by the ugliness that went on for so many years).

So, I don’t want his old stuff.  Kevin doesn’t want it.  And it occurred to me today as I tossed most of it into our rented dumpster (with the exception of the coins and the books, which are going to Goodwill) that there really isn’t anyone left who cares about these old mementos.  Kelly’s biological mother is long dead, his dad is dead, and his one living brother has made not even the tiniest shred of effort to know or connect with Kevin – his nephew! the one child of his dead brother! – in the more than 17 years since Kelly died (which tells me that he also doesn’t care).  The one living person who might care would be Kelly’s step-mother, but she’s got plenty of mementos already, and anyway, she cut me out of her life years ago.  So into the dumpster Kelly’s stuff went.

Maybe it reveals me as cold.  On some level, it strikes me as sad that a person lived for 33 years and died, and his memory is fading to black.  But mostly, I feel like, well, this is what happens when you live like a son of a bitch, leaving destruction in your wake.


For the Love of Books and Friends

img_5095Friday night I said an emotional and bittersweet goodbye to my book club.  We met for dinner, and they gave me a sendoff I wasn’t quite expecting, presenting me with the book journal that documents every book we’ve read together (136 books!), and which Julia has been keeping for the group for many years, another small journal in which they had each written a heartfelt message to me about a special memory they have of our group, and a ridiculously large gift card to Powell’s bookstore in Portland (a book lover’s wet dream; it’s the world’s largest independent bookstore, and takes up an entire city block).

A little over thirteen years ago, a handful of us moms started a little book club as an outcropping of the MOMS Club we belonged to.  Our first book was Memoirs of a Geisha, and our first discussion took place on the playground at a local park while our kids played.  I had only two kids back then, and Joey was just a baby.  It wasn’t long before we started meeting at each other’s houses in the evenings, without kids, and with food and drink.  I’ve been allowed to be the coordinator of the group for all these years because I’m a control freak, which these ladies kindly refer to as my “organization skills”  Many women have come and gone over the years, but three of us are original members, several have been in the group for ten years or more, and several more for five years or more.  There are stay-at-home moms, teachers, an accountant, an actuary, an attorney, a real estate agent, among others, and we come from diverse backgrounds and run the gamut on religious beliefs, political leanings, and parenting philosophies.  Despite all the differences – or maybe because of them – we’ve remained a strong core group.  There has never been a month without a book, without a discussion, or without a volunteer to host the discussion.  Several years ago we started a tradition of having a holiday dinner in December in lieu of a book discussion, with a gift exchange of – what else? – books.

My friend Laurel, sums up our group perfectly: we went from passing around nursing babies to passing around reading glasses.

Every book we’ve read – even the ones that sucked – generated a good discussion.  We followed published questions to guide our discussions, but we invariably sidetracked into discussions about our own lives and experiences.  And isn’t that the true magic of books – that they provide such rich opportunities to not only escape from real life, but to see other perspectives and experiences and reflect on our own?  My daughter Daisy has often asked me why we call it a “book club” when it should be called a “life club.”

I am so grateful to have been a part of such a dynamic group of women and readers.  I will miss them.




Homeschooling Curricula: Try, Ditch, Repeat

So, I’ve been wanting to document our progression through various homeschooling curricula, thinking it might be useful to someone out there.  The biggest thing I’ve learned about homeschooling, by far, is that it is such a process of trial and error.  If there’s any family out there who began with a certain method or program or curriculum and stuck with it year after year, then I’d say they’re either extremely fortunate to have hit pay dirt right out of the gate, or they’re foolishly inflexible.

When I began homeschooling Lilah two years ago, everything was really a shot in the dark for me.  All I had to go on as far as choosing curricula for her was the recommendations of people I knew who had homeschooled, and the charter school we were enrolled with at that time – which charter school was also a choice I made purely on recommendation.  Recommendations, I have figured out, though, are only a jumping off point.  Just because a program works well for some kids or some families, and just because that program may get a lot of 5-star reviews from people who review such things, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a good fit for every kid and every family.

Towards the end of my first year of homeschooling, I bought Cathy Duffy’s 102 Top Picks for Homeschooling Curriculum.  Cathy Duffy is known as a homeschooling guru, and her specialty is writing comprehensive reviews of homeschooling curricula.  Although she clearly has a bias in favor of Christian homeschooling and curricula, she does at least make note in her reviews of whether a program is Christian, Christian-friendly, or secular.  When I read her book of Top Picks, I rejoiced in having it all laid out for me.  It helped me figure out my own educational philosophy and goals, what kind of learners my girls are, and curricula that would (in theory, anyway) fit all of that.  I went into the next school year, when I added the twins to the mix, excited and fully prepared to have a smooth and productive school year, having painstakingly chosen curricula that would (supposedly) be a perfect fit for us.

It was only a matter of a couple of months, however, before most of the programs and materials I had so carefully purchased on Cathy Duffy’s recommendations, were ditched in frustration.  Everyone was miserable and frustrated and not really making much academic progress, so I did something a little drastic and put most of the stuff away and decided to take a little bit of an unschooling approach.  Everyone was happier, but it created stress in a different way because now I was asking myself, “Am I an unschooler now?  What does that mean?  Am I unschooling the right way?”  Also, by the end of the year, the girls had really made very little progress in math, and that worried me (because, as I’ve said, I tend to operate on an “If I died tomorrow and Michael had to put them back in public school …” basis).  So I felt like this school year, we needed to find some kind of balance where we (and by “we,” I mean “I”) would not be applying labels to ourselves or trying to live up to those labels, we would be more structured in our approach with the simple goal of growing and making progress, but the girls would still be active participants in deciding on a weekly routine and in taking responsibility for their own learning.

So far, almost two months in, the school year is going well.  It’s more hectic than ever now that I’m also homeschooling Finn and Scarlett, but I feel like we’ve settled into a routine that works for us and have found some programs that we’re happy with.

So, without further ado, here’s a rundown of what we’ve used, and how these programs have worked for us:


Singapore Math: This math program was the first I used, or tried to use, with Lilah, on the recommendation of a friend.  It’s a very highly rated math curriculum, based on how math is taught in Singapore, a country that apparently scores really high in math in global standardized testing.  It’s definitely a “rigorous” curriculum.  We ran into problems right away with it, though, because Lilah was already struggling with math (in part because of being dyslexic, which I didn’t know at the time).  Also, it was frustrating for me because it wasn’t the way I learned math, so it was very difficult for me to understand a lot of the lessons, let alone to teach them to Lilah.  For purposes of homeschooling, I think this could be a really good program for a kid who is already strong in math, and it could be a good choice for a young child who is just learning math (in other words, who hasn’t already learned math a different way).  However, it’s not such a great choice, despite its ratings, for a kid who struggles with math, because the rigor and intensity can be overwhelming and lead to feelings of defeat.  I also think, overall, that it’s a difficult program to adopt after a child has already been learning math according to a different method or program.  In the end, this was not a good fit for us.

Math-U-See: This math program utilizes manipulatives and visuals to make math more concrete and multi-sensory, and the lessons are all on DVDs that are purchased with the different levels of the program.  I actually liked this program for the most part.  I loved that the lessons are taught by a teacher by way of video.  My girls didn’t like it, however, because the video lessons can be rather long, and the program is very worksheet-based.  So: boring.  It ended up being one more thing for them to drag their feet about, and I don’t see the value of remaining committed to a program that’s causing more frustration than payoff.  Also, although Math-U-See is a secular math curriculum, it comes from a Christian-based company, and there are occasional Christian references thrown into the lessons.  Not a huge deal, but irritating to anyone not interested in faith-based education.

Life of Fred:  This math program is very different from most other math programs out there in that it’s story-based.  There are no formal lessons; instead, each lesson is incorporated into an ongoing story about a five-year-old math genius named Fred, the premise being that kids learn math better and easier by seeing how it applies to real-life situations.  At the end of each chapter is a list of word problems for the student to solve, using what has been explained in the story.  The story is entertaining, and my girls were very excited about it at first because it was such a complete switching of gears.  After awhile, though, the novelty wore off, especially for Lilah, for whom the “lessons” were just too abstract, being sort of hidden within a story.  Even for Daisy and Annabelle, who generally do pretty well in math (although neither is very fond of it), it grew confusing after a time, because it was often hard to connect the word problems to the story.  Like Singapore Math, I think this program may work better if it’s used from the outset of learning math, and like Math-U-See, there are Christian references sprinkled here and there.  We stuck with Life of Fred for the remainder of the school year last year, but at the end of the school year I didn’t feel that any of the girls had made very much progress in math at all, and that worried me.

CTC Math: This is what we are using now, and I love it!  So do the girls!  There are no textbooks or materials to buy; it’s simply a subscription to video lessons online.  There are no worksheets, either.  Each lesson is short and sweet, which I think is absolutely essential in order to hold the student’s attention and foster success.  When lessons are too long, kids get bored and distracted, and less is absorbed and retained.  In the video lessons, there is no teacher standing in front of a whiteboard (like in Math-U-See); it’s a cool dude with an Aussie accent talking, but all you see is computer graphics demonstrating what he’s talking about.  Each lesson is on average about ten minutes long, and then there is a set of questions to answer/problems to solve.  Paper and pencil may be used, but the final answer is entered online and feedback is given immediately for each answer.  Parents set the “passing” percentage, which allows the student to move on to the next lesson/level, and each lesson builds on concepts taught and mastered in previous lessons.  If the passing percentage is not met, the student can rewatch the lesson as many times as necessary, and try more problems, until the concept is mastered.  It seems to cut out a lot of the fluff, so lessons go pretty quickly.   It’s not unusual for my girls to complete four or five lessons each day, and that takes less than an hour.  Daisy and Annabelle did not have a good handle, I felt, on sixth-grade math at the beginning of the year, but with this program, they’ve both mastered sixth-grade math already and are now doing pre-algebra.  It takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of me, because I’m not teaching them math, the program is, which is a relief, because math has never been my strong suit.  They’re learning it on their own and working at whatever pace they want to.  So far, they’re all pretty motivated – I haven’t had to hassle any of them at all to do math.  I know this could all change, of course, but right now I will say that this is the best math program we’ve found.

Touch Math: I’m using the pre-k level with Scarlett right now, very informally (I’ve also tried it with Finn, but it hasn’t gone so well, mainly because it’s so difficult to convince him to sit at a table and do any sort of work with me.)  For now, it’s a good program for Scarlett to get her comfortable with number recognition, counting, one-to-one correspondence, and simple addition and subtraction, but I doubt we’ll stick with it for the long term.  I’d like to get her started on the kindergarten level of CTC Math next year.


Imagine my surprise when I Googled “Best Homeschooling Science Programs” and discovered that it is actually necessary to specify “Best Secular Homeschooling Science Programs.”  I’m not kidding.  If you don’t specify secular, the default search results for homeschooling science programs are Christian-based and Christian-informed.

Elemental Science:  This is an award-winning science curriculum that has levels from preschool through high school.  It’s very much in line with a classical or literature-based education philosophy.  You purchase the core textbooks, and then there are a plethora of third-party books that must be purchased (through Amazon or other sources).  We used Biology for the Grammar Stage for a while last year but ended up not liking it much.  My girls were bored with it, and I was disappointed because it didn’t really go into much depth on the topics; each week we seemed to just skim the surface of things.  That said, I think this is a really good program, and the problems we had with it were probably simply because I chose a level that was too young for them.  I can’t say what kind of engagement and challenge the more advanced levels provide because we didn’t use any (although I did purchase Earth Science and Astronomy for the Logic Stage, but never used it; we may give it a try next year).

R.E.A.L. Science Odyssey:  We are using Biology 2 this year and loving it!  I am so impressed with this program.  It is very comprehensive, very engaging, and very hands-on.  Every week there is a reading portion, a practical lab, a microscope lab, capped off with “Show What You Know,” which can be administered like a quiz if that floats your boat, but I like to sit down with the girls and just verbally go over the questions and discuss what we learned over the week.  There are a good amount of materials that have to be purchased to do all the labs (including, among other things, a good microscope, and preserved frogs; we have three dead frogs sitting in a box waiting to be dissected).  The Student Workbook, which serves as a textbook and has all the lab report forms, etc., is HUGE, and a lot of material is covered, but it’s not dry or boring at all.  We are all really enjoying it, and learning a lot.  The only criticism I have, if you can call it a criticism, is that Biology 2, the level we are doing this year, is as high as this program goes.  They don’t offer anything beyond middle school-level science, and I wish they did.


Growing With Grammar; Soaring With Spelling; Winning With Writing:  I used these with Lilah the first year I homeschooled her.  It’s an okay program.  Nothing super impressive about it; it’s your basic grammar/spelling/writing curriculum.  A little dry, and less than engaging, so, in the long run, I don’t know that it really utilizes anything special that makes it all meaningful for the student.

Essentials in Writing: I used this with all three girls for a while last year.  It utilizes video lessons and workbooks.  None of us cared for it.  The guy who teaches the video lessons isn’t that great, the lessons are sprinkled with biblical references, and in the end, it’s just another program that teaches diagramming sentences (and really, what is the point of this?), etc.  Didn’t care for it.

Spelling You See: Produced by the same folks who offer Math-U-See, this spelling curriculum has an interesting method of teaching spelling.  Each week the student reads an entry that is a couple of paragraphs long.  Within the entry are a number of words that are highlighted in different colors, and those are the spelling words for the week.  The same entry is read on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and the spelling words copied by the student and the segments of each spelling word color coded in highlighter according to certain spelling rules, and on Friday, the student writes the spelling words from dictation.  It’s an interesting concept, but it was sort of like slow torture.  The twins were completely bored with it, and Lilah struggled.  She could copy the words perfectly day after day, but when it came to writing them from dictation, it all fell apart.  I really am grateful to this program, actually, for being the catalyst that brought me to the realization that Lilah’s struggles were attributed to something which turned out to be dyslexia/dysgraphia.  In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that having kids memorize spelling words, testing them on those words, and then moving on to a new list of spelling words, is not really a very good way to teach spelling, so we ditched this program a couple of months into the school year.  We actually don’t use a spelling program anymore (except Lilah, with whom I’m using a program that addresses dyslexia; more about that below).  I think the best way for kids to learn how to spell once they’ve got the fundamentals down is just by writing and reading.

Writing Strands: This is what we’re using now, and the jury is still out on this one.  The philosophy behind this one is that kids learn to write well by learning how to follow instructions and by actual writing, rather than by learning to diagram sentences, recognize parts of speech and sentence types, etc.  That’s what appealed to me about this program: the hands-on learn by doing part, but the girls and I are finding it to be a little slow going and boring.  I’m not sure we’ll stick with it.

I’ve heard great things about Brave Writer, but now is not a great time for us to take on a whole different program since we’re undertaking a big move in a few weeks that will necessitate putting school on temporary hiatus.  I may give Brave Writer a try once we’re settled in our new digs, or I may look for a creative writing class that the girls can take with other homeschoolers.

So, writing is actually the one subject that I haven’t yet found a good fit for.  I think I’m a pretty decent writer, but teaching how to write well is a challenge, and I feel like writing well is so important in life, but it’s also hard to come by.  So, the search goes on.


Barton Reading: Barton is pretty much the gold standard in dyslexia circles.  It’s an Orton-Gillingham based program, which I will not even try to explain (but you can read about it here), but it’s really an excellent approach to teaching reading and spelling not only to dyslexic students, but really to anyone, because it breaks words down into their parts and gives students to tools to understand why words are built the way they are, and how letters interact with each other to form different sounds.  I used Barton with Lilah for several months and found it to be very effective.  However, it’s also very expensive and very time-intensive, as each lesson requires the teacher/parent to watch instructional videos that teach how to teach each lesson.  A few months back, we switched to:

All About Reading/All About Spelling: While this program, unlike Barton, was not developed, nor is it marketed, specifically with dyslexia in mind, it is an Orton-Gillingham based program, so it is an excellent program to use with dyslexic students.  I like it much better than Barton because it’s far less expensive, it incorporates more fun activities so it’s less dry, and it’s a scripted, ready to teach out of the box program, requiring no special instruction for the teacher/parent.  Unlike Barton, too, AAR/AAS teaches reading and spelling separately, which I like.  As I said, I think the Orton-Gillingham approach is a superior way to teach any child reading and spelling, so I’m also using the preschool level with Scarlett now, and she loves it.


We haven’t used a formal program until this year.  The first year I had Lilah at home, we studied California history using California History For Kids, which is an excellent book full of information and activities.

Last year, the girls and I read together A Young People’s History of the United States, also excellent (I highly recommend this book).  It was geat reading that led to a lot of deep discussions of both historical and modern social issues, and throughout the year we detoured into further reading elsewhere on certain topics (like the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving), as well as watching documentaries.  I felt like we covered a lot of good ground in U.S. History.

Trail Guide to U.S. Geography: This is what we are using this year, and I am pretty impressed with it.  We are spending the year touring the United States by region, beginning with New England and working our way south and west, covering two states each week.  The program is pretty comprehensive and multi-level; I love that all three girls are covering the same material each week, but at different levels (the twins are more advanced and so their assignments are written for middle school level, while Lilah’s is elementary school level).  For each state, the girls do mapping as well as research on various characteristics of the state and notable people from that state (so there is a bit of history incorporated as well).  The girls have learned to use a desk atlas and to read maps, which is cool.  To make it even more fun, we try to cook a dish or two each week from the states we learned about that week.  Next year we’ll move on to Trail Guide to World Geography.


Handwriting Without Tears: This is an excellent program that teaches printing and cursive writing.  The three older girls are using it for cursive for the second year running (they all learned basic cursive when they were still in school, but I appreciate the practice they get with this), and Scarlett is learning to print with this program.

Touch, Type, Read and Spell: This is a program that teaches touch typing, and it’s also supposed to improve spelling as the student learns proper keyboarding.  My girls use this program totally independently, and I can see the value with regard to keyboarding.  The twins are already pretty good spellers, and Lilah’s spelling difficulties are being addressed in another way, so I’m not sure if this program is useful to us in that particular way.

Tinker Crate: This is just a subscription that provides a new science/engineering project once a month.  My girls love it!

Raddish Kids:  This is another subscription I signed up for, and this one is about food and cooking.  Once a month a box is delivered to us that contains themed recipes (for instance, our August box was inspired by the Rio Olympics and had recipes for Brazillian dishes), a shopping list, a culinary lesson, and dinner table activities.  We look forward to receiving our box every month!


So, there you have it.  I feel like we are having a pretty great year of learning and growth this year, but it’s a lot, and it’s all on me.  While I am happy with the materials and programs we are using, I really am hoping that once we settle in Oregon, where there is apparently a much stronger secular homeschooling network, I can find a co-op to involve ourselves in or classes the kids can take with other homeschooled kids.  Finding a strong homeschooling network is the final frontier for us.



Colin Kaepernick, Racism, and the Nature of Protest

I don’t give a shit about football, and I never even heard of Colin Kaepernick before a few days ago when Facebook exploded with posts and links to articles about his sitting out the national anthem preceding a game last week.  Much of what I’ve read has been couched in outrage and hostility towards Kaepernick.  Words and phrases like “inappropriate,” “offensive,” and “disrespectful” pepper these missives.  Donald Trump (you know, the guy who is running for President – a position that is supposed to understand and honor the Constitution?) has suggested that Kaepernick leave the country if he doesn’t like it here.

I am completely dumbfounded by these particular sentiments.  What, exactly, is protest supposed to look like?  Is it supposed to be polite?  What would “appropriate” and “respectful” protest look like?  What would an acceptable form of protest be?

By its very nature, protest is supposed to speak volumes.  It’s supposed to piss people off.  It’s supposed to rattle cages.  It’s supposed to challenge the masses, rock the boat, and call into question the status quo.  Protest is supposed to get people’s attention.  That’s the whole point.

Did Kaepernick harm anyone?  Did he engage in unlawful behavior in his protest?  No.  He quietly sat down, that’s all.  Did this act upset people?  Yes, because it flies in the face of an arrogant brand of patriotism that borders on religion.  To some, love of country demands not only from oneself the observation of all the adopted rituals and worship of the adopted symbols, but that everyone else do the same.  It’s groupthink at its best.

I’m not even going to get into the fact that American patriotism is supposed to mean that if you value the freedoms afforded by being American, then you don’t vilify someone for exercising those very freedoms – you know, like the First Amendment.

So a lot of people don’t like the method by which Kaepernick chose to protest.  Refusing to stand for the national anthem (which is a form of protest not original to Kaepernick, and which song – originally a poem – was born of a bigoted slave owner) is, apparently, profoundly disrespectful to the United States of America and everything she stands for (as if the USA were a living, flesh and blood, feeling entity, and not a collection of many, many individual living, flesh and blood, feeling people, including Kaepernick), to the freedoms we hold dear (refer to previous paragraph), and to the US military (that’s a stretch, but okay … however, let us not forget then, that the US military is comprised of many, many black people who are subject to the very racism and injustice that Kaepernick is protesting).  Don’t we need to ask ourselves in the face of this what exactly America stands for?  And whether America is living up to those ideals?  Does a country that endorses racial profiling and the mass criminalization and incarceration of people of color live up to the ideals of freedom and liberty for all?  Does a country that doesn’t hold its law enforcement officers accountable for the unjustified killings of black people over and over and over live up to the ideal of equality among all of its citizens?  No, I don’t think so.

With regard to his action being disrespectful to the country, I have to confess that I agree – his sitting down for the national anthem is disrespectful to the country.  But guess what – that’s the point.  He stated pretty succinctly when asked that he will not show respect for a country that shows so little respect for people of color.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

So, yeah, I think he’s getting his message across loud and clear.  The only people who aren’t hearing him are those who aren’t listening because they’re too busy being focused on their own indignation.

And this is why racism is still alive and kicking here in this great country.  Because too often, the voices crying out in protest, in pain, in fear, in frustration, are stifled by opposing cries of indignation.  Say #blacklivesmatter, and the masses are at the ready with their #allivesmatter.  Rants about the horrors of another unarmed black person being shot and killed by police are met with rants defending cops.  Decrying the mass incarceration of black and brown skinned people is met with counter-cries about black and brown skinned people’s lack of respect for the law and common decency.  It doesn’t matter how the protest is made; it never seems to be acceptable.

Now that I’ve been educated about the Star Spangled Banner, I’m not sure I’ll be standing up for it when the occasion arises.  And I will educate my kids about both sides – its history, the symbol of patriotism it represents to many, and the oppression and bigotry it represents to many others – and let them decide for themselves how to approach it.

As for Colin Kaepernick, he expected the backlash.  We Americans are nothing if not predictable.


Homeschooling: Lessons From the Trenches

It’s hard to believe, but we are already embarking on our fourth week of the school year.  This is my third year homeschooling, but only my first year homeschooling five kids (counting Scarlett, which I do since she follows me around all day saying, “Mommy, will you do school with me now?  Mommy, can we do school now?”).  I remember back when I was new to this homeschooling gig and only homeschooling one kid, and thinking, “Wow, I have no idea how anyone manages to homeschool multiple kids at different ages and learning levels.”  But here I am, doing exactly that, and let me tell you: it’s pretty much as hairy as I imagined it must be.  Don’t be fooled by my Instagram photos; they capture but a slice of our homeschooling life.  Between those photos are sweat, tears, a little yelling, and plenty of angst.  It has truly become a full-time job for me, and although it’s not all easy and fun, I do feel like it’s the right thing for my kids at this point in time.

I want to write a post about the specific programs we’ve tried and ditched and what we’re using now, but that will have to be a separate post, and who knows when I’ll get around to writing it.  Right now, I just want to document where we are on this road – you know, for solidarity with those of you who are traveling a similar road and maybe are looking for something beyond the typical homeschooling blogs that show sun-dappled children creating magical art in obvious harmony with the universe.

So, first, let me say that I don’t do grade-specific homeschooling.  My big thing is meeting my kids where they are, and going from there.  Grade levels are arbitrary, and I think they tend to do a disservice to kids by setting up an assembly line environment of learning, where every kid is expected to progress at a prescribed pace.  That’s not what I want for my kids.  Unfortunately, the three older girls – but mostly the twins – have been sufficiently brainwashed by public school that they are having a hard time letting go of the whole grade level thing.  Annabelle, especially, insists that she’s in seventh grade; it seems very important to her to hold on to this status.  (Frankly, if I died today and Michael put them back in public school, I don’t feel like Annabelle or Daisy would be quite ready for seventh grade; as I’ve mentioned before, they have a late September birthday and started kindergarten before they were 5, something I regret.)

Although I am not wed to grade levels, they are always floating somewhere on the edge of my consciousness, because I do operate on that whole “If I died today and Michael put them back in public school” mentality.  So, although I very much try to meet them where they are and help them progress and grow from there, I do worry about whether they are “keeping up.”  Which is a total mind-fuck.  But, hey, so is motherhood.

Anyway, I feel like last year we slacked a little too much.  I don’t want my kids to be miserable learners; I don’t want it to feel coerced to them.  I dream about being that homeschooling family with the sun-dappled children creating magical art in obvious harmony with the universe.  I gave them a lot of say last year in how we would do things, and I backed off on what I would require them to do.  In some ways it was good; it reduced the stress and pressure for all of us somewhat.  It allowed them to take charge of their own learning to a degree.  But in truth, there are just some kids who will do as little as possible because that’s their nature (and I’m not naming names, but one of their names rhymes with Bannabelle, and the other isn’t Kevin, Joey, Daisy, Finn, or Scarlett).  At the end of the school year, I had mixed feelings about what we accomplished, and I went into this school year wanting very much to push them a little harder while still attempting to make it fun and engaging.  I want to keep them curious, not burn them out.  It’s a difficult balance to strike.

Here’s where probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned comes in.  I stumbled on a blog post a while ago while I was killing time on the web – I wish I had saved it, but I didn’t, and can’t seem to find it now, so I apologize for not being able to give credit where credit is due – that said something like “Stop trying to be so committed to labels.”  It was a post about homeschooling, and the author talked about how our kids don’t actually give a shit if they are being unschooled, radically unschooled, schooled in the Classical or Charlotte Mason method, or whatever.  It’s we homeschooling parents who get so caught up in labels and methods (and outside of homeschooling, this tendency to want to be committed to some label/ideology exists in parenting itself).  It’s all well and fine to follow our hearts and educate, and indeed parent, our kids in the way we feel best serves them, but when we get so caught up in labels, it tends to create a few problems:

  • It sets up a situation in which we then worry about if we’re doing it the right way;
  • It sets up a situation in which it’s easy to pass judgment on other parents who are doing it differently than we are, because obviously, they’re not doing it the right way;
  • It tends to close us off from families who do it differently, so we deprive ourselves of opportunities to see how diverse the homeschooling world is – just as it should be.

This was a revelation to me because I think I was expending a whole lot of energy trying to convert myself to a label or homeschooling ideology, and it was just creating more stress and worry for me about whether I was doing homeschooling the right way.  Guess what?  There is no right way.  This has taken a lot of pressure off of me, praise Zeus.

Another lesson that has repeatedly been reinforced for me is flexibility.  If something isn’t working, I have to be willing to make changes.  Obviously, consistency is important, but remaining committed to a particular method or program that isn’t bringing forth positive results is counterproductive.

Anyway.  So I ramped up the expectations a bit this year.  The girls and I still regularly confer about how it’s all going, and we tweak things as we go, and while things are far from perfect, I feel pretty good about what we’re doing.

Homeschooling Finn has been tough.  I pulled him out of school last January because things had become so overwhelmingly negative in first grade, and it was exacerbating his negative behaviors, negatively impacting his self-esteem, and creating a horrendous amount of stress for me.  I thought I could turn things around with him fairly swiftly with, you know, love.  That didn’t work.  I think he was a little confused and bewildered for a while after we pulled him – although he was very unhappy at school, he didn’t understand why suddenly he was no longer going to school.  He was very, very resistant to sitting down with me and doing any sort of work.  His negative behaviors didn’t lessen.  His negative behaviors mainly consist of tantrums; he is easily upset and has little ability to control his emotions, so he tends to throw tantrums at the slightest frustration or upset.  I asked the advice of other parents who homeschool kids with Ds, and was advised by many of them to just “deschool” for a while – meaning, just back completely off from anything having to do with “school” and let him decompress for a while.  I must confess that that was hard for me to do because I felt like in letting him just play all day, I wasn’t doing my job as a homeschooling parent.  But I let him be for a long time – pretty much the rest of the school year.

Now, I’m trying to have somewhat of a routine with him.  We work on the fundamentals: reading, math (and by math, I mean number recognition, counting, one-to-one correspondence), and printing.  He is still often resistant, and very distractable, so it’s difficult to keep him on task for more than a few minutes at a time.  So we work in five or ten-minute increments throughout the day.  I worry a lot, because he has lost so much ground, and I’m not even sure if I can truly help him grow and learn to his best ability, but at least I know that he’s in an environment in which he’s loved and valued and cared for, and any movement forward is progress, right?

As I said, Scarlett is right there in the fray with us.  She’s so ripe for learning, it makes my teeth hurt.  So I’m working on the fundamentals with her, too, and it’s really a joy to watch her soak it all in so enthusiastically.

I hope to get to that other post soon.  For now, peace out.



Summer Intensive

Summer break was a flurry of activity, and my head is still spinning.

Joey finished his final season of Little League, which was very bittersweet.  I am already suffering from acute nostalgia about that, knowing that Fall Ball starts up soon, and we won’t be out there in the bleachers watching him play.

Joey and Annabelle also took part in their final show (The Music Man) with the local children’s theater, which took its final bows after 34 years.  Also very bittersweet.

We kicked off birthday season:

Scarlett turned 4 in June –


Joey turned 14 in July –


Finn turned 8 in July –


Michael turned 50 in August, and we have several more birthdays coming up.

Also in July, we celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary.


No words of wisdom; we’ve certainly had our ups and downs.  Several couples we’ve known for ages have split up recently, and I find myself wondering about other people’s breaking points.  We’ve come through some really, really difficult, miserable shit, and I feel like we’ve come out better and stronger, but I’m enough of a realist (and cynic) to not be all Pollyanna-ish about it.  It takes a lot to keep a marriage together, and it takes a lot to call it quits.  I’m sad for everyone who goes through a breakup, because it sucks for everyone involved, even if it’s hopefully a step in the direction of happiness.

Anyway.  We spent the first half of summer break getting the house ready to put up for sale.  That meant some repairs and improvements, lots of purging, cleaning, and packing stuff away.  That literally took a good several weeks.  We finally officially put the house up for sale early in July.  We signed the listing agreement, and one Sunday morning I left to go grocery shopping, and when I arrived back home, the For Sale sign was up in our yard, and I promptly started crying.  I wasn’t expecting it to have that effect on me, but damn.  So many memories here, and even though we want this change, it’s going to be hard to say goodbye.

The next few weeks were spent in a constant state of stress (which has not let up), while we have tried to keep the house perpetually clean (do you have any idea how impossible that is with this many people living under one roof?), and have had numerous open houses and showings.  Every time our realtor has called to say that someone wants to see the house, we spend a couple of hours madly dashing around cleaning, tidying, stowing, and then we have to get everyone out of the house for a while.

There has still been shuttling the kids to their stuff – dance, guitar lessons, horseback riding – and trying to throw in a few pool days, beach days, etc. so that the kids’ summer didn’t completely suck.

Well, it paid off, because as of last weekend, we have a buyer.  After a couple of days of negotiation, we have a contract, and it looks like we’ll be moving to Oregon in late September or early October.  Shit’s gettin’ real.

Meanwhile, the kids are almost done with their first week back at school.  Joey insisted on enrolling in high school here, even though it’s temporary, so that’s what he’s doing.  I’m homeschooling five kids now, and I’d like to tell you all about it, but I’m too fucking tired.  But I do have lots of thoughts about it.  I’m glad we’re doing it – so glad to be out of the public school hell – but homeschooling is hard, yo.

Oh, and Kevin has decided not to come with us to Oregon.  He was offered a very affordable room to rent at a friend’s house, and he was actually supposed to move out this week, but it’s been delayed a bit, but he’ll be moving out in the next few weeks and finishing school here.  He’s decided to pursue a degree in film and television, so we’ll see where that takes him.  Lots of emotions about him leaving the nest, and us leaving to be so far away from him.

And that’s all I’ve got for now.


Book Review: Grace Without God by Katherine Ozment

u34+1F!EVWH7ngw7NLVXIcKIKW2pmYA+Gl!w8rbMsYH!BRIAG5OUet9tcq9F2XjffXkZsjELHH1dotzfe59Az2vNK7LiZyZN+sBWsKtMX1WWsW1OYzkgsRAdZgmVYczuGrace Without God

by Katherine Ozment

I was asked to read and review this book by TLC Book Tours.tlc-logo-resized

The book’s genesis, apparently, was a particular night some years ago during which the author and her young son witnessed a religious procession through their neighborhood.  Her son asked her what the people walking up the street holding candles were doing, and she explained to him that it was a religious ritual.

“Why don’t we do that?” he asked.

“Because we’re not Greek Orthodox,” I said.

“Then what are we?”


“We’re nothing,” I said.

Ozment’s response to her son’s question unsettled her so much, that she spent the next few years searching for a better answer.  She interviewed dozens of people, including scientists, scholars, and religious leaders, searching for her own meaning to life (it seemed to me) absent religion.

I will confess that, as an atheist and former “believer,” I had a lot of difficulty relating to this book.  Ozment mostly seems to lament her loss of religion, and to operate under the assumption that those who don’t have religion are missing something essential and sacred – which begs the question: why did she give up religion then?  She spends a great deal of the book discussing all the benefits and positives that religion bestows upon people and society, and very little discussing the very real harm that religion and religious belief brings to individuals and society.  I kept getting the sense that she lost her religion very much like someone misplaces their keys – it seems that she feels that there is a real need for religion, or at least some substitute for religion, and she would be happy if only she could find hers again.

My own letting go of my religious beliefs was a process of reflection that took awhile, but once I did let go, I only felt liberated and at peace.  I’ve never felt like something is missing, and I’ve never felt that I am somehow cheating my kids by not raising them with religion or faith.  I actually feel quite the opposite: that to grow up without the shackles of religion and faith, to have the freedom to decide one’s own purpose, is a gift.  I suppose there are agnostics and atheists who struggle with feelings of loss and searching similar to Ozment, but all of the “Nones” I know have come to understand, exactly by letting go of religion, that, yes, traditions, family stories, morals and values, community, and identity do exist apart from religion, and perhaps more richly so.

It saddens me that Ozment told her son that “We’re nothing.”  It was undoubtedly a knee-jerk response to a question she wasn’t prepared for, but certainly not belonging to a religion, or not believing there is a god, does not make one “nothing.”  In any case, even telling her son that they’re “nothing” didn’t have to be so unsettling; it could have simply been the springboard for further conversation with her son about what they are, or better yet, how her son has the freedom to decide for himself what he is and what he will be.

While I think Grace Without God is well-intended and well-written, I’m just not sure what the need for it is.


A Big Long Post About Vaginas and Stuff

I came across this article, and reading it was actually an emotional experience for me.  Pelvic Organ Prolapse, like so many other women’s health issues, is a topic that is rarely talked about openly, even though the vast majority of women will experience some degree of POP if they live to a ripe enough age.  We should be talking about it.  Talking about health issues unique to women carries such stigma, still, and feelings of shame and embarrassment.  Maybe it will never be a topic for polite conversation, but  women should at the very least know that they are not alone, and they should feel empowered enough to seek appropriate medical care.

I haven’t touched on my own recovery from surgery for a while, but I’m going to share here where I’m at, and how I got here.

So, I’m four months out from pelvic reconstructive surgery.  My surgery entailed:

  • Vaginal hysterectomy (uterus only; I still have my ovaries)
  • Sacrocolpopexy (basically, anchoring the structure of the vagina to the tailbone, since it’s no longer held up by a uterus); here’s a graphic of that: obgyn-sacralcolpopexy
  • Bladder neck suspension; here’s a graphic of that:


  • Extensive vaginal repairs – meaning reinforcing weakened muscles and tissue with grafts.

This was major surgery, and my recovery, as I wrote as I was going through it, was no walk in the park.  There was pain, there was a catheter for a while, there was a UTI on top of that, there was the fact that I came down with pneumonia a couple of weeks after surgery (which, obviously, is not typical, but it made my recovery that much harder).  And all of that compounded by the fact that I was very much unsupported during that time; my husband took as much time away from work as he could, but he has a solo law practice to run, which he couldn’t abandon.  It was very difficult, and I wish we had had help and support, but we didn’t.  It took a good six weeks or more before the constant fatigue diminished, and I was doing things I probably shouldn’t have been doing so soon after surgery out of necessity.

Anyway, my point is that this is major surgery.  It’s not a minor procedure that one recovers from in a few days, or even a week or two.

Four months out, I’m doing great.  I feel great, I’m back to all of my regular activities, and it appears that the surgery was a success.  The main thing that led me to seek medical help was urinary incontinence, and I am happy to report that that has been completely resolved.  I can cough, sneeze, and laugh without crossing my legs, and I have no leakage.  I can power walk a couple of miles a day, up and down hills, and arrive home as dry as when I left home (before surgery, I would soak a Poise pad on my walks).  I can sneeze while power walking (it’s happened), and it’s no problem.  I don’t exaggerate when I say that it’s been life-changing.  Totally liberating.  I’m still seeing my uro-gynecologist every few weeks for follow-ups, which I very much appreciate, and I’m still seeing a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor rehab.

How did I get here?

Childbirth is the culprit in my case, as it is for many women.  I first noticed stress incontinence after I had the twins.  I remember going to a birthday party with Kevin and Joey for one of their friends at one of those inflatable jump places, and I got into one of the jumpers with the kids – as I had done at dozens of birthday parties before – only this time, when I jumped, I peed.  It wasn’t a huge deal at first, but over the years after that, and with each subsequent pregnancy, it got worse.  I probably didn’t start wearing panty liners 24-hours a day until after Finn was born.  After Scarlett was born, panty liners weren’t enough, and I had to start wearing Poise pads all the time.

When Scarlett was a baby, I talked to my regular gynecologist about it at a well-woman checkup, and she referred me to a urologist.  He was an ass.  Did a cursory exam, announced that I just needed a sling put in, and was just very condescending.  (I’ve never liked the fact that by and large, female health is overseen by male doctors.  I feel like, if you’re going to claim to understand vaginas, you should have one.)  In any case, I learned that it would require an overnight hospital stay, and since I was nursing, I decided it wasn’t urgent.  So I put it off for a couple of years.

After Scarlett weaned, I decided to take my body back.  All the pregnancies and births and so many years of nursing had taken a toll, and, vain as it may be, I wanted to feel good about myself again (well, not that I’ve ever been free of body image issues and insecurities, even before I had kids).  So last year I got new boobs and a tummy tuck, and a year later I still maintain that it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself – no regrets at all.  The other thing I wanted fixed was my incontinence, and around the time I was getting my new boobs and tummy, I started seeing a uro-gynecologist (this is different from a gynecologist, and different from a urologist; it’s a very specialized area of practice, and this is the specialist that women with POP and/or incontinence issues should see).  Over the course of several months, I underwent ultrasounds, various exams, a urodynamics test, and a week of keeping careful track of fluid intake and output.  I was diagnosed with a Stage 2 prolapse – which actually isn’t terrible.  There are women whose cervix actually hangs out of their vagina, their prolapse is that severe.  There are women whose bladder has fallen through the supporting muscles and protrudes outside their body.  There are women who can’t poop without pushing it out manually through their vagina (this is called “splinting.”)  Grossed out?  Imagine what it’s like to live with that.  Lucky for me, mine wasn’t nearly that bad – I just wet myself all the time.

Anyway.  My doctor had me try various pessaries (which are really medical grade versions of this).  They didn’t help.  She finally recommended surgery, and here I am, a success story.

Anyway, back to that article.  I’m really glad that a couple of popular, mainstream women’s publications (the article also appeared in Cosmopolitan) are talking about something that people don’t want to talk about.  I wish, however, that there was a more balanced exploration of the causes of pelvic organ prolapse.  First of all, although vaginal birth is probably the leading cause of POP, there are numerous other causes: pregnancy itself, especially when certain activities are undertaken while pregnant, like running or regular lifting; menopause; hysterectomy; chronic coughing; regular physical exercise that involves putting downward pressure on the pelvic floor, like running and jumping; and improper lifting.  I had a PT appointment yesterday and the therapist, a trained dancer who has treated a lot of dancers, said that it’s pretty common for young dancers who have never had kids to have stress incontinence.  So basically, engaging in any activities, especially regularly or repeatedly, that places stress on the pelvic floor puts women at risk for developing pelvic organ prolapse.  A great deal of this could be lessened or eliminated if girls were educated from a young age about their pelvic floor muscles and how to protect them.  The solution is not to abstain from activities, but to know how to properly engage in those activities while protecting one’s pelvic floor.

But back to vaginal birth.  I really dislike the implication that women’s bodies are inherently defective, and that pushing babies out through our vaginas (as all mammals do) is problematic in and of itself.  I’m no doctor or scientist, but it seems logical to me that what we really need to examine are the birth practices that are the norm.  I would venture a guess that the highly managed birth practices that take place in most hospitals are NOT conducive to preserving women’s pelvic floors.  Directed pushing, and pushing while in a supine position are not optimal; the former places unnecessary stress on all kinds of body parts (I got a hernia from giving birth to Kevin, and I have no doubt it was a direct result of directed pushing), and the latter works against gravity.  But it’s convenient for the doctors, so there’s that.  Prolonged pushing I would guess is also a factor, and one that could be often avoided by allowing birth to take place in whatever position feels best for the woman.  Often prolonged pushing (and c-section) result from a mal-positioned baby, which also can often be remedied by allowing the mother to be upright and moving around, or on all fours, or squatting.  I hate to think that there is a belief that c-sections are the answer, because they’re not.  C-sections are also major surgery that carry all the risks of any surgery, and they are certainly no guarantee against eventual prolapse anyway.  It seems to me that this brings into focus the need to move away from birth practices that serve hospitals and doctors, instead of those that actually serve women.

I just want to encourage anyone reading this who is quietly suffering from stress incontinence or any of the other symptoms and results of pelvic organ prolapse, talk to your doctor.  Refuse to be blown off.  Insist on a referral to a uro-gyn, or at the very least, a physical therapist specializing in pelvic floor health/rehab.  And read up on how to protect your pelvic floor in the first place.


Take the Floor

Pelvic Exercises

Girls Gone Strong


On “Finding Dory,” “Me Before You,” and Portrayals of Disability

Finding-Dory-Disney-pixar-2016I went to see Finding Dory yesterday.  Because I had already read a handful of blog and Facebook posts expressing negative feelings about portrayals of disability in the film, I went into the movie theater wary.  I’ve also read so much positive reception about the movie – and especially its handling of disability – that I was also eager to see it.  I sort of wish I had seen it cold – that is, without having read or heard anything about it beforehand, so that I could truly make up my own mind without being influenced by anyone else’s perceptions.

In any case, here are my thoughts, but first a brief summary:  Dory, a blue tang who was featured in 2003 blockbuster, Finding Nemo, mainly as comic relief, has some disorder that causes her to have short-term memory loss.  Finding Dory is the story of how she became separated from her parents when she was young, finally realizes years later that she once had parents who loved her very much, and goes in search of them.  Nemo and Marlin from Finding Nemo are supporting characters in this story, as well as a host of other characters, but Dory is the star.

I loved the movie.  To borrow from the lexicon of the day, it got me right in the feels.  There were numerous parts that made me tear up, and one part in particular where I had tears streaming down my cheeks and I was literally biting my tongue to keep from sobbing out loud.  Maybe it’s just me; despite my rough exterior, I’m a marshmallow on the inside.

My thoughts on the problematic parts of the story (that I’ve read about, anyway):

There is a scene in which Dory wants to join a “school” of other fish for a field trip, and she is encouraged to find something else to do, because her disability makes it too difficult for the teacher to look after her.  Yes, this scene is heart wrenching for any parent who has faced similar situations of exclusion built on excuses with their own child in school and other settings – which I have, of course, with Finn.  I think this scene did a good job of showing what that kind of exclusion looks like, and in the end, Dory does join the class, because inclusion can work when there is a willingness on everyone’s part.

Within that segment, there is a scene in which Dory gets knocked out, and the other “kids” groan when they realize she’s not dead.  I don’t know … I suppose much could be made of this, but I didn’t get the sense that anyone actually wanted Dory dead, it was more like kids using something in poor taste to try to be funny, which kids actually do.  I mean, in the end, everyone is rooting for Dory, so clearly none of them really hoped she was dead.

There is a whale shark named Destiny who is so nearsighted that she’s constantly banging into walls, and it’s delivered in a way to get laughs.  Being a severely nearsighted person myself (my prescription is -7), I guess I’ve never thought of being nearsighted as a disability.  To be nearsighted is so common that seeing a person with glasses barely registers as different from seeing a person without glasses.  So this part of the story really didn’t bother me, and I think it’s okay to laugh at ourselves and at the pitfalls of being flawed creatures to some extent.  Throughout the movie, Destiny is helped by a Beluga whale (who has suffered a head injury) who navigates for her and tries to help her avoid banging into things, so I actually think there’s a very positive message there about helping and supporting one another.

Perhaps the most glaring offense in the movie is the portrayal of Gerald, a sea lion who … I don’t know what his “condition” is supposed to be.  Because I had read something before seeing the movie about Gerald being “obviously” intellectually disabled, I saw him with that bias (which is why I wish I had seen the movie cold; I wonder how I would have perceived him without that influence).  His eyes are somewhat askew, he doesn’t speak, and he carries a child’s pail – all of which could be perceived as embodying crude and offensive stereotypes of intellectual disability.  I get it, and it did bother me somewhat, but I’m guessing not as much as it bothered some other people.  It’s possible to perceive him merely as “goofy,” put in the movie solely as comic relief.  His purpose in the story (and he’s really a minuscule part of the story) seems to be to provide the pail, which is needed to transport Marlin and Nemo from the outside of a Marine Institute to the inside (they’re searching for Dory).  I’m sure the needed pail could have turned up in any number of ways, but Gerald the intellectually disabled/goofy/drunk/I don’t know sea lion was chosen as the vehicle.  And yes, he is excluded and pushed off of a favored rock by two bigger, “normal” sea lions, but again, this type of exclusion actually happens in the real world, so why not portray it in a kid’s movie?  Maybe it gives kids a chance to see that exclusion and think about if it’s good or bad.  Also, I got the sense that the two bigger sea lions wouldn’t have let anyone else on their rock, not necessarily just Gerald.

On the other hand, if Gerald is intended to be intellectually disabled, or even if most people do perceive him that way, then yes, that’s offensive.

Overall, I think the writers did a wonderful job in their approach to disability.  The overriding message is one of inclusion and acceptance; I absolutely love the fact that never in the story is there an attempt to “fix” Dory.  Instead, her limitations are acknowledged and accepted as part of the wonderful, unique person – er, fish – she is, even if various other fish are sometimes annoyed with her (which is pretty true to life).

The theme of “family” also resonated with me.  The story illuminates the fact that “family” isn’t necessarily about who you’re related to by blood, it’s about who accepts, loves, supports you and sticks by you.  That is one of the driving forces in my life, so that message was very meaningful to me.

me-before-you-posterI wanted to also talk a bit about Me Before You.  I have not seen the movie, although I want to very much and definitely will at some point, but I did read the book and loved it.  I wrote about it here.  It seems that there has been a great deal of controversy about the movie and its portrayal of disability – particularly quadriplegia.  The movie is apparently perceived by many as deeply offensive and ableist, mainly in that (SPOILER ALERT) the quadriplegic character commits suicide.  What I have read is that many people feel that this perpetuates the idea that disabled, and particularly paralyzed, people are depressed, can’t live fulfilling lives, and who could blame them for wanting to kill themselves?

What I don’t understand is why there is all this outrage about the movie, but there was virtually none about the book – which was a bestseller, so it was widely read.  My understanding is that the movie doesn’t stray from the story presented in the book (although I’m sure the book offers a lot more detail and insight into the minds and hearts of the characters, as books generally do have that advantage over movies).  In other words, the movie doesn’t tell a story that the book didn’t already tell, so why the outrage now?

I never felt that the book presented a general picture of disability or quadriplegia.  I didn’t read it and think, “Oh, this is what it’s like to be disabled.”  Instead, what I read was , “This is what this particular kind of disability felt like to this particular character, given his particular worldview and circumstances.”  In the book, Will Traynor is an ambitious, physically active man who gets most of his fulfillment from undertaking dangerous and extremely physically challenging activities, like sky diving and mountain climbing.  There are people like that.  When he becomes paralyzed by a freak accident, that aspect of his life is gone.  To act like one under those circumstances wouldn’t have some MAJOR mental and emotional issues to deal with is foolish and disingenuous, and in my mind, it sets forth a notion that to suffer depression as a result of becoming disabled is a character flaw.  One must be stoic and positive, immediately and always, after all.  Why can’t we talk about disability honestly, and acknowledge that there are things we hope never happen to us or those we love, while still advocating for inclusion, access, and compassion?

In any case, in the book, Will decides to end his life not solely because he can no longer participate in the physical activities that once gave him so much fulfillment, but also because he is now plagued by health problems which are only going to worsen over time.  His physical suffering will increase until he finally dies, most likely from a secondary condition to his quadriplegia.

So, I very much read this as a story that advocates for self-determination and autonomy and dignity – not for seeing disabled people as feeling that their lives aren’t worth living. And I honestly felt that kudos should go to JoJo Moyes for creating a character with such notable limitations who is the love interest in the story.  Louisa, after all, falls deeply in love with Will, and spends most of the book trying to convince him to live (supporting the idea that, in fact, a disabled life is worth living).  Moyes also presents a good balance about quadriplegia and quality of life in the book when Louisa talks to numerous quadriplegic and paraplegic people on a message board, many of whom tell her how fulfilling their lives are.

Again, I haven’t seen the movie yet.  Perhaps the movie doesn’t go as deep into those issues as the book does, I don’t know.  Perhaps the real offense of the movie is casting a non-disabled actor as a disabled character.  Hollywood certainly has a great deal of work to do when it comes to inclusion: too often, non-disabled actors are cast as disabled, straight are cast as gay, and the list goes on.  Marginalized groups are certainly under- and mis-represented in film.

In the end, I am left wondering lately if in our sincere efforts to be advocates and allies, we sometimes go a little too far and look for things to be offended by in everything around us.  I’m not suggesting that we don’t go beyond the obvious and blatant, but there has to be a balance, wherein we support and lobby for equity, equality, inclusion, compassion, and access for all, without losing our sense of humor, or ourselves to cynicism.  If you look hard enough, you can find something that offends you anywhere and everywhere.  And then you’re left not being allowed to actually enjoy anything.


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