Monday, September 11, 2017

Betsy DeVos Surprises No One

"Welcome Banners" greeted arriving frosh at UMaine Orono
this fall. Think more education is needed?
It appears that just as the members of the Class of 2021 unload their mini fridges, desk lamps and extra long bed sheets into freshmen dorms, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will unleash the latest salvo in the ongoing imbroglio about sexual assault on campus.

            Specifically, DeVos plans to revoke Obama-era guidelines and raise the burden of proof in university administrative hearings on sexual misconduct from the “preponderance of the evidence” standard to the more rigorous “more likely than not.” This should surprise no one: DeVos is a major donor to a national group lobbying for such change. And while it remains to be seen whether this swing of the pendulum will better protect the due process rights of the accused (there’s no question it will make it harder for victims to prove injury and easier for rapists to elude punishment) here’s what it absolutely won’t do: prevent sexual assault.

            That would require … well, education. Conversation. Awkward conversation. Frank, difficult, pull-no-punches conversation. Something a tad more sophisticated than this-is-where-babies-come-from and slightly less clinical than this-is-how-you-use-a-condom.  Where we talk less about biology and more about healthy relationships. Respect, for oneself and others. Honesty. Communication. Love. In other words: all the antidotes to violence.

            These are conversations educators and parents have failed to provide and young adults are hungry to have. For all the hand-wringing about the epidemic of sexual assaults sweeping campuses, we have done precious little to get out in front of the issue. According to a recent report from Making Caring Common, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 70 percent of the 18-25 year olds surveyed wish they’d received more information from their parents about the emotional aspects of a romantic relationship; 65 percent wish they could have discussed it in school.

            “My students can talk about love forever,” said one high school teacher from the Harvard study who includes a section on romantic love in his English class. “They’re much more present, thoughtful and available to themselves when they talk about love.”

            As a young adult author, I’m well aware that love and sex and relationships are where my readers live. And as a visiting author in schools, I’ve been impressed not only by students’ energy for engaging in honest conversation about sex and consent but also their insights. I’ve listened to a 14-year old girl explain how the so-called “rape culture” oppresses boys by making them feel like losers if they’re virgins. I’ve had an entire row of boys in football jerseys assert that consent is not possible if your partner has been drinking. I’ve watched boys and girls successfully navigate a fraught discussion of “Who’s responsible?” if both parties are drunk.

            Yet regardless of their desire and capacity for these important conversations, we adults fail to find the space for them. Sex ed in our country is woefully inadequate: fewer than half the states require it, and among those only 20 require that it be “medically, factually or technically accurate.” Without a national curriculum for sex ed, that portion of health class focuses on disaster prevention: in other words, avoiding pregnancy and STDs. And to top it off, those assigned to deliver these facts-of-life in an ethical vacuum are woefully unprepared.

            “Untrained, unsupported or unqualified teachers are seeking to guide young people in one of the most consequential, subtle, wonderful, treacherous areas of their lives,” the Harvard researchers assert. Yet from our department of “education,” we see no initiatives to remedy this.

            Sadly, it’s no better at home. I have been astonished by my peers’ squeamishness when it comes to discussing the realities of the sexual culture our young people navigate. When Peggy Orenstein’s excellent, unflinching book, Girls and Sex, came out last year, I told everyone I knew to read it … with their daughters. My suggestion was mostly met with reluctant excuses.

            “Ooh, I know I should but … do I really want to know?” more than a few parents replied.

            Yes, you do. We remain ignorant at our daughters’ … and sons’ … peril. Among the more chilling revelations in Orenstein’s book: the prevalence and accessibility of pornography. An estimated 40 percent of children ages ten to seventeen have been exposed to internet porn (many accidently) and by the time they reach college an estimated 90 percent of men and a third of women have viewed porn online.

            What’s more, Orenstein reports, porn is where many young people go to learn about sex. Not the basic biology of reproduction or facts about birth control: they turn to porn for the how-to, for that head scratching moment when someone refers to something they’ve never heard of.

            So, yes: our young people are turning to a 97-billion dollar industry that overwhelmingly depicts violent, degrading sex acts against women for information about sexual relationships. Combine that knowledge (and resultant expectations) with a booze-fueled hookup culture and you can see where the statistic that one in five women are sexually assaulted on campus is coming from.

            What do we do? The previous administration believed withholding federal funds from colleges and universities that are falling down on the job of punishing rapists is one solution. The Trump administration appears poised to rescind that policy as well as increase the standard of proof for victims. But both approaches are after-the-fact and do nothing to prevent rape.

            Colleges, meanwhile, have beefed up sexual assault prevention programming. It’s a standard part of freshmen orientation these days, along with campus events about consent and bystander intervention, and various walks. Slut Walks and Mile-in-her-Shoes Walks and Race to Zero Walks. These high-visibility shows of support for victims probably have some benefit.

            But if we’re going to change the culture of sexuality and consent on campus it’s not enough to walk some walk: we have to talk the talk. It’s not enough to punish the guilty and support the injured: we need to address the conditions which are contributing to sexual violence.

            We need to have those awkward, honest conversations with young people sooner rather than later. Because long before they arrive on campus they are sexually aware, if not sexually active, beings. And they are hungry to talk about these things.

            Let’s help them find that space.

            Note: This blog is an expanded, revised version of an opinion piece which ran in the September 10, 2017 Sunday Press Herald “Maine Voices” section. Click here to access.

            Further note: On my website, click on Wrecked Resources for a list of national and Maine-based groups who are working hard to further this “awkward conversation” and help educate young people.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

One Honest Guy

So, here’s my Jim Comey story. I think it’s important because it gives a little window into the type of young man he was. I have no reason to believe he’s changed.

First, a little background: forty years ago, before I became one of those liberal “elites” who attended a northeastern college, worked as a purveyor of “fake news” (what some might call a journalist) and became a card-carrying Democrat who voted for Mike Dukakis, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I was a good Catholic girl growing up in Allendale, New Jersey.

A Republican bastion, the Allendale of my youth was small-town, patriotic, completely white and overwhelmingly Christian. Only 25 miles from New York, you couldn’t get a bagel in Allendale back in the 60s. At Christmas, we would pile into the station wagon (the type with faux-wood side panels) at night to check out the lights on everyone’s houses, counting on one hand the “unlit” homes. Eggs and milk were delivered to your door; the Holiday Observers (local dads in straw hats) came knocking for contributions to offset the costs of the annual parades and fireworks displays, and every night when I said my prayers I would end with, “And Dear God, please don’t let it rain on the Fourth of July.”

That’s because the Fourth of July was the best day of the entire year in Allendale. But I digress ….

We were groovy, Vatican II Catholics. We did home masses with friends where, for the Eucharist, a young priest would rip a loaf of Italian bread into pieces, heap it on a plate, and pass it around while someone’s mom played the guitar and sang a Cat Steven’s song. The Church I was raised in was less about rules and more about community. It had everything to do with post-mass Sunday brunches with hordes of other kids and families and very little to do with the Baltimore Catechism. And when I was a teen, it had to do with retreats.

These were weekend-long sleepovers where scores of Catholic youth from various parishes came together to have fun and talk about Jesus. It was definitely the kinder, gentler version of Catholicism: lots of discussion about compassion and charity; not so much about sin and damnation. You barely slept, you ate TONS of high-carb foods, drank GALLONS of sugary beverages (we called it Bug Juice), sang, hugged, and made dozens of new best friends overnight. All sorts of friends. I French-kissed a boy for the first time at a Catholic retreat (a cute Italian fellow from Hasbrouck Heights) if that gives you some sense of what these things were like.

By junior year in high school I was old enough to attend SEARCH, which was a Catholic retreat for older students. I piled into a car with five others from my high school, Northern Highlands Regional. One was a senior named Jim Comey.

I knew Jim the way you know a popular boy a year ahead of you: from an admiring distance. He was a class officer, a standout basketball player, and an academic star. He had a ton of friends … all fun, talented and cool … and a reputation for being funny. I don’t remember the conversation on the drive to retreat, and once there I lost track of Jim. These things were huge, and they encouraged students to separate from their hometown groups.

I didn’t see him again until the closing mass, which is where this story (finally) has a point.

A closing SEARCH mass is a bit of a show. Parents and family are invited, filling metal seats in the back of an auditorium. A priest conducts mass in the front, while at his feet, on the floor, sit all of the freshly-minted SEARCHers. We generally have our arms around each other. Everyone is exhausted and sugar-hyped. Most of the girls are crying because they are about to separate from the best friends they have ever made in their entire lives (in only 36 hours!) Into this highly emotional, hormonal mix add: one microphone. This is where the priest invites everyone to “share,” what the weekend has meant. After you speak, he drapes a largish wooden cross, strung with leather, around your neck.

Well. You can imagine. Those who weren’t teary before are positively sobbing at the mike. I remember standing there myself, intending to be stoic and utterly dissolving into a weeping mess. I might have said something to the effect of, “I love you all! I love Jesus!” before glancing at the back of the room to my parents’ shocked expressions. (Years later they confessed to me that it felt like their daughter had just been initiated into a cult.) When I resumed my position on the floor, I realize I was within earshot and eyeshot of Jim and his friend from our high school, Joe (who also happened to be the President of the Senior Class.)

You know that face Director Comey makes when he’s testifying? He’s speaking emphatically, and almost looks a little (okay, a lot) angry? That was the face Jim was making as he spoke into Joe’s ear. Joe was urging him to go up to the mike … and Jim was having none of it.

Absolutely. None. Of. It.

“Give me a break!” I heard him hiss. “You don’t love these people! You scarcely know them. In a week, you won’t be speaking to any of them. They are appealing to your emotions, not your mind. It’s ridiculous!”

At the time I remember being shocked and thinking Jim Comey was the biggest grouch I had ever met. I couldn’t believe that in the midst of this massive lovefest he was intellectualizing. As it turns out, in that entire auditorium filled with young people, and in the company of one of his closest friends who encouraged him otherwise, Jim was the only person to refuse the microphone.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty amazing.

SEARCH was no cult; it was actually pretty harmless. And Jim was right: it only took a few days for the fervor to wear off and all of us to forget each other’s names and slide right back into our old lives and comfortable worlds.

But here’s what that experience revealed to me about the young Jim Comey: he was impervious to peer pressure. Even when it came from institutions he believed in (his church) and people he trusted (his friend, Joe.) It’s easy to say no to our enemies and to reject ideas we disagree with: much harder when the thing that doesn’t ring true is familiar and safe.

Here’s the other thing it revealed: he trusts his inner moral compass. He relies on intellect to weigh right and wrong; he strives to be dispassionate when confronted by the mob. And while you might not like him for it, or even agree with his conclusions: his decisions come from an honest place. Jim Comey embodies integrity.

Today, millions of people are going to stop what they are doing to hear what Jim Comey has to say about his interactions with Donald Trump. His comments may … or may not … be significant. My guess is they will be far less dramatic and far more carefully parsed and legalistic than anticipated.

But they will be honest.

I’m not the only one in Allendale who feels this way about Jim. Here’s a piece USA Today did with others who know him:

Monday, May 8, 2017

13 Reasons Why: Netflix Version

I hadn’t planned to watch the Netflix version of Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why.

First: I’d read the book ten years ago, and pretty much hold to my novelist-bias that the book is always better than the “film.” Second: 13 hours is a looong time, and when there’s over-the-top excellence like This is Us to fill one’s screen-time allotment, why waste precious moments over a re-baked story? Third, I knew I’d feel compelled to read the book again, and frankly, there’s too much incredible new YA fiction out there right now (think: The Hate U Give) to spend time revisiting 13 Reasons.

Then, The Daughter, a Millennial, called. She’d read the book as a teen, started watching the Netflix series, and was hungry to discuss. Miniseries are our thing, and we like nothing better than a mother-daughter binge on some good but also some baaaaaaad television. Think: Friday Night Lights (good) North and South, Books 1 and 2 (bad) North and South, Book Three (beyond bad please don’t judge me). She also lives/works in a city away from home, and I’m a sucker for a connection like a common show to discuss. It’s one reason why I became a Game of Thrones fan: my son, who lives (far away) in Los Angeles, got me hooked. Monday Morning Thrones Rehashing became our thing.

Anyway, despite my many reservations I took the 13 Reasons plunge and sometime around 1:00 a.m. this morning came up for air. 

Here’s what I’d say:

This series is graphic, disturbing and depressing, but appropriately so.  It does not glamorize suicide. In fact, Hannah’s suicide scene is so heart wrenchingly lonely and awful, and her parents’ grief when they discover her so brutal, that I’d argue it’s a suicide deterrent.

It deviates in significant ways from the novel, which I’m guessing is partly to add content for thirteen episodes but also to add some great plot twists. And while stretching the story to fill those 13 hours did feel tedious at times (like Tony in the series, we want to shout at the nervous, hesitant Clay, “Just listen to the damn tapes so we can advance the plot!”) I liked the additions.

With the exception of Hannah’s parents, the adult characters are monstrous. Kids are left with no mentors, no good examples, no place to turn. I get that’s the way the teenage mind might process the world, but not only is it an overused YA trope: it’s not realistic. Some parents don’t suck; some adults listen and care. To create such unremittingly awful adults without one brush stroke of complexity is an artistic failure.

In contrast: the teens in the series are also awful, but complex. Even Justin, who is arguably the catalyst for everything that goes wrong in Hannah’s life, is alternately charming/pathetic/cruel/adorable. Granted, the ultimate teen monster in the series, Bryce, is a cardboard-cutout of an entitled villain, but the rest of this hateful bunch is well-developed.

I think the most important achievement here is the realistic depiction of Teen Mob Mentality and resultant cruelty. Certain kids are in control in high school, and they generally are the ones leading the teams or living in the houses where the fun parties are hosted or wearing the stylish clothes or launching the first-strike barbed comments. You live in fear of being their target or, conversely, being made invisible by these people. You’ll abandon compassion and resort to cruelty yourself in order to find your place in this world.  And while most of us survive this experience, albeit scarred, a few, like the very sensitive Hannah Baker, don’t.

Which is ultimately why I think this is a good series for teens and adults to watch and discuss together. Hannah Baker is not mentally ill. There is nothing “organic” driving her despair and plunge into darkness. Her classmates (with the exception maybe of Bryce) are not sociopaths. Everything that leads this character to suicide is circumstantial and preventable. At any turn, a little kindness could have made a difference.

That’s worth talking about. And well worth the 13 hours.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Maine Reading Roundup and the Lupine Awards

Each year the Youth Services Section of the Maine Library Association presents the Lupine Awards. They are given to a living author or illustrator who is a Maine resident, or who has created a work whose focus is on Maine. Miss Rumphius, the character created by beloved Maine author and artist Barbara Cooney, was the inspiration for the Lupine Awards.

The awards are given at the spring Reading Roundup conference, which is hands down one of my favorite "literary" events in Maine. That's because it's a gathering of LIBRARIANS, and let's face it: if you're a writer, especially a kidlit writer, your two best friends are Independent Booksellers and School Librarians. Not only are these people fun, but ... they are so well read! They are also the bridge between your books and your readers, so, yeah. We love them.

I have many "favorite" librarians in Maine, but Jill Hooper, of Freeport Middle School, is one of my absolute faves. She is creative and fun and such a great advocate for kids and books! She also lives one town over from me and we often grocery shop at the same time, which means engaging in fun "Have you read this?" conversations in the cheese section while our kids try to get us out of there. Anyway, Jill was my "guide" at this year's Reading Roundup, which naturally meant: selfie!
Say "Cheese!"
In addition to award presentations and workshops (you can learn a lot at Reading Roundup!) there is always a keynote speaker and this year we had the amazing John Schumacher, aka "Mr. Schu." What can I say about this guy? He's a Reading Ambassador, an Xtreme Librarian, and possibly the most entertaining, indefatigable speaker I've ever heard. Most importantly, he preaches The Good News of Literacy, and is a relentless cheerleader for great books and for kids. I was thrilled to get a picture with the famous Mr. Schu:
Me and "Mr. Schu"
If you don't already follow Mr. Schu's blog, I suggest you check it out. He's also on Twitter.

So after Mr. Schu and workshops and lunch it was: award time! I was thrilled to receive the Lupine Honor for Wrecked, but even more thrilled to share the day and the stage with Ryan Higgins, who received the Lupine Picture Book Honor for Hotel Bruce; Ashley Bryan, who received the Lupine Picture Book Award for Freedom Over Me (which also won a Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor this year!); and Melissa Sweet, who not only received the Lupine Award for Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White  (a New York Times Bestseller!) but also the Katahdin Lifetime Achievement Award.
Left to right: me, Ryan Higgins, Melissa Sweet, Ashley Bryan.

I left Reading Roundup this year feeling so incredibly blessed to be part of the children's writing community in Maine. Not only because of the depth of the talent pool (seriously: throw a rock and hit an award-winning kidlit writer around here) but the support. Everyone is so Kind. Helpful. Inspiring. It's a wonderful place to create art and stories and we are so fortunate to call Maine home.

Here are a few more pictures from the day. Thank you, Maine Librarians!
Before everything got rolling, "Mr. Schu" and Ashley Bryan had a chance to chat.
I got a picture with Ashley Bryan!
These beautiful plates are made by Maine artist Toby Rosenberg.
Wrecked has a sticker!

Standing ovation at the Augusta Civic Center when Ashley Bryan received his award.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Feminism for the Way We Are Today

My only regret about Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World, edited by Kelly Jensen, is that it’s coming out just shy of my daughter’s road trip to Washington. She and a pack of college friends set off this weekend for the Women’s March, and I wish they had a copy to read aloud to each other on the multi-hour drive. This excellent collection of essays, interviews, and illustrations by a whole host of creative people, would no doubt make them laugh, make them cry, but most importantly: get some awesome conversations started.

It’s not a book my own mother would ever have given to me, and I think it’s important to explore why, especially at this juncture in our nation’s story, when a man who jokes about sexual assault, supports defunding Planned Parenthood, mocks the disabled, and goes after Civil Right’s heroes on Twitter is about to ascend our highest office. When so many women voted for such a man. And when so many young women … who don’t think twice about their myriad opportunities to play sports or their right to vote (even for Donald Trump) or head companies (like Hewlett Packard) or run for President, thanks to the outspoken, fearless women who fought for those rights …   are reluctant to think of themselves as feminists.

I think I can understand why. I grew up in a home where feminism, while not quite a dirty word, was a suspect term.

I won’t elaborate on the reasons … it involves a story which is not mine to tell … but my mother had a whole lot invested in embracing traditional, 50-s era values. Ironing while watching the soaps, cookie baking, child-rearing, preparing mouth-watering dinners for her tired man when he came home from work at the end of the day, scrubbing her house until it gleamed … these were her priorities. Frankly: she did it all well and took great satisfaction in that work and her goals. Both my parents were devoted to each other and to creating a family.

But while she was juggling babies and cloth diapers and all that cleaning, the 60’s and 70’s raged. I remember watching John F. Kennedy’s funeral cortege on the black and white television, the coffin draped with an American flag. (I was very young and reportedly asked, “Why did they bury him in a watermelon?”) I remember the evening news death counts of U.S. troops in Vietnam. I remember thinking the “big kids” who went to our local high school and had long hair and beards drove too fast. Cities were burning, both in protest and by landlords eager to collect the insurance on dilapidated buildings, college students were getting shot at Kent State, black kids were linking arms and getting their heads bashed in by cops bearing batons.

To my (very young) parents, it must have felt like a fraught time to raise a child, and my mom circled her little family wagon with an insistent vision more akin to The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet than what was happening on the evening news. It was a vision that required constant vigilance, and did not allow for radically different ways of being or seeing. Anything that shook things up was threatening, and the so-called “feminists?” The Gloria Steinems and Betty Friedans of the world? They were man-hating, loud-mouthed bra burners. They threatened a status quo to which my parents aspired.

But there’s more to it. I think my mom’s aversion to feminism had much to do with a sense that their club didn’t need … or want … members like her. She was a Spanish girl from the city who didn’t go to college. She never left the house without her makeup. She prided herself on her cooking. She’s Catholic. And if she had a sneaking suspicion that the leaders of the feminist movement were white girls who attended elite Seven Sisters colleges and went on to marry Ivy League lawyers while making cracks about women who stayed home to bake cookies and “stand by” their men … well. She would have been right.  So to this day, my assertive, smart mother who never hesitated to speak her mind, who sent her daughters to college, who balanced the family checkbook and managed the finances, and who, after she raised her kids, worked in an office and became the assistant to the President of a Fortune 500 Company, would never, ever, call herself a feminist.

If only she’d had this book. The opening pages of Here We Are breaks open the whole notion of what a feminist is:

Feminists come in every shape, size, form, and background. What unites feminists is the belief that every person – regardless of gender, class, education, race, sexuality, or ability – deserves equality. This is a movement about embracing differences and encouraging change that benefits all facets of society. This is a movement about listening as much as it is about speaking up.

Who could argue with that?

What I love about Here We Are is that is shows that feminism’s tent is HUGE. (Yes: let’s take back that word.) It has room for mothers and room for women who choose to not raise children. It has room for couples who marry and couples who don’t and people who prefer to remain un-coupled. It has room for girls who speak their truth and don’t aspire to be “sweet” (Courtney Summers, author of All the Rage, has a terrific essay here about writing so-called unlikeable characters.) It has room for a curriculum which includes artists and writers and musicians of all genders and ethnicities (Nova Ren Suma has a heart-breaking essay in this collection about Reading Worthy Women.) Here We Are shows us a feminism which is expansive and inclusive and as a result, liberating. For everyone.

It also demonstrates how feminism has evolved. The beginning of Here We Are defines the various “waves” of feminism, all of which were necessary for their time. And while I’m reluctant to call the depiction of the movement here a kinder, gentler version of 60s-era feminism, it does reflect a natural growth which was always about basic values of fairness and equality. It’s a movement that has made great strides but doesn’t rest. It’s a movement which is finally mature enough to legitimize all women’s work and all women’s choices, paid or unpaid, professional or home-based. And it includes men. As it turns out, the most important feminist in my life has been my husband, who bought me my first copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and who, when I met him at age 23, was the caregiver for his disabled mother.

Near the end of the book, the editor poses the question: Why do people dislike feminism? The answer:

For people who have power in society, being questioned about that power or being forced to examine their biases or prejudices incites fear. … Feminism begs all people to think about the social, political, cultural, and economic power we have based on our sex, education, gender and a whole host of other statuses we may or may not choose to have.

My daughter graduates from college in two weeks. Right after that she moves to the city and begins her first job along a career path she is incredibly excited about. In addition to linens and furniture and all the “stuff” she’ll need to set up an apartment, she’s bringing the new mixer she got for Christmas because, like her grandmother, she loves to bake.  She’ll also be bringing this book.

Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World is published by Algonquin Young Readers. It was originally planned for release on 2/28 but you can preorder it on Amazon and receive it by late January.