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Parenting Young Girls in the Age of Trump: A Guest Essay

IFSF is happy to announce a new series of "Guest" essays, in which friends and associates of IFSF are invited to contribute essays on subjects of their choice. The "Guest" pieces will be a monthly feature.

The first in a series of IFSF guest pieces--'Parenting Young Girls in the Age of Trump'-- is written by a 38-year old woman with a B.S. in Political Science who lives in the Pacific Northwest. A mother of two young girls, she's chosen to remain anonymous because of what she describes as the 'vitriol' surrounding her subject matter, and a desire to protect the privacy of her daughters. She says her "dream job would to be a political commentator on MSNBC."


My 6-year old daughter and I are at the deli counter. Jade is slicing a pound of Black Forest ham, extra thin, just the way my family likes it. As we move through the grocery store my daugher whispers to me, "Mommy, was that a boy or a girl?"

"Oh, I think that's a man who wants to be a woman." So he is living his life like a woman so he can be happy," I say, in a way I think my daughter can comprehend at her age.

She ponders this and then replies, "that's sad for her that she's not happy being a boy."

"It is," I say, as I reflect on her consice, sweet words.

Posted on our fridge is a photo of our friends on their wedding day, both impeccably dressed in matching tuxedos. My 10-year old sees the the new photo and says, "Ah, how cute. Ryan and Austin look so happy on their wedding day!" Growing up as a fith-grader today, knowing that there are men who love men and women who love women is, dare I say, normal. My daughter literally doesn't give it a second thought (after asking me once it is was "legal" and, thankfully I live in a state where I can say, "Yes!"). There is no moral judgement. Just immediate acceptance. I feel privileged to be able to mentor her as she is growing into a loving, kind young lady. 

But I's be a liar if I didn't say  that parenting has become increasingly difficult in the Trump Age; I can't count the number of times I've felt powerless and hopeless in the past 9 months. As the mother of two tender-hearted girls, I've always tried to encourage them to practice kindness and empathy toward everyone, to imagine what it's like to be in another person's shoes. Yet every time I reinforce this positive, inclusive view--a view that should be as natural and normal as breathing--I feel like I'm swimming upstream against a headlong current of hatred and discrimination, so much of which is a result of our President's rhetoric and his administration's policies. I constantly wonder: will these positive, empathetic messages I try to impart to my daughters drown out the madness of Trump's regressive, divisive messages. How much should I insulate them from 'the news'?

I've come to realize in the last few months that my words and actions have a much bigger impact on my girls than anything negative now going on in this upside-down world. And that the best way to protect them from the toxic, belligerent atmosphere now prevailing in this country is to continue providing examples of the opposite--and to trust that this way of parenting will ultimately produce open-hearted, humanistic, loving, adult human beings.

In some strange way, our President has created a teaching platform for parents. I know I've developed a series of mantras my my young daughters that I hold myself up to when Mr. Trump's frequently repellent behaviors rear their nasty little heads. Here are a few:

1.Being a strong, intelligent young woman freely expressing her views, means that you will not allow others to talk down to you, degrade you, or intimidate you. When you're out in the world, always stand up for yourself, but behave in a manner that reflects your integrity.

In a time when women are forced to endure the ever-present 'mansplaining' and misogny in their daily lives, it is bitterly disappointing that our President can behave however he wants and essentially, (save for a little bad press), get away with it. White males have been 'getting away' with bad behavior for years. Whether it's pussy-grabbing locker-room talk or attempting to silence female reporters by continually interrupting them, Trump is simply not respectful of women. So how do I possible reconcile this repugnant behavior with the fact that so many people in our country voted for him (including their grandmother and grandfather) to my girls. I can't rationalize it in my own mind, much less explain it in a way that a 6 and a 10-year old can undertstand...

2. It is important to always tell the truth. I cannot believe anything you say if you choose to lie, even about little things.

The amount of omissions, ever-changing explanations, untruths, alternative fact, deception and fiction that is put out by this administration on a regular basis is obviously meant to mislead the public and create a state of confusion. 

3. It's most important to stand up for those who may be a little eccentric, different, or less powerful. Don't be a bully.

Undoubtedly, the most disheartening moment for me as a parent in the Trump era was the President's comments regarding the Charlottesvile white supremacist's march, when he insisted "there were some nice people on both sides." Shocked and horrified I turned toward my daughter, who was playing Legos nearly, a look of utter confusion on her face. "Mommy, why is Trump defending the bad guys?" There was a rare shrillness in her voice, a sense of urgency, and a pleading look in her eyes asking me to make sense of this craziness, as if to confirm the injustice of it all. Yes the First Amendment protects our right to say what we want and express freely how we feel, but its purpose is not to normalize hateful speech.

4. It is wrong to treat another person differently because of the color of their skin, the God to whom they pray or the person they choose to live. Always treat everyone with respect. Always be polite.

I admit there are times I'm tempted to give up, having to deflect so many of this President's abhorrent words and deeds--mocking a disabled reporter, calling Mexicans rapists and criminals, rescinding DACA, appointing several "alt-right" leaning racists to his cabinet, and most recently, offending most of the world at the UN conference. There often comes a time, usually at the end of the day when I'm tired and finally at a loss for words, when I find myself replying to one of my daughter's questions, "I don't know, sweetie, I just don't know."

But as a mother and a citizen, I've come to see that during this challenging time for our country--when the highest office in the land is absent of true leadership, not to mention a moral compass--I must keep repeating my refrains, my mantras, hoping my children will remember all that I'm trying to instill in them, in spite of it all.


The gas of life

It's the brazenness of absurdity that often gives the absurd its special piquancy, transforming ordinary, common-place absurdity into the kind of gas you'd be well advised not to light a match near.

Artist's, and I include writers here, are often absurd. The surrealists were brazenly absurd, and dada too, for the purposes of art. One can look at a picture of what is obviously a tobacco pipe with the words, this is not a pipe (ceci n'est pa une pipe) written beneath the picture, and get the point. There's a logic to it: yes, something's not right, something's out of place, some order's been disturbed, even reversed--the way you think about things might be disrupted to a place near insanity--but there's not the unpleasant olfactory consequence of being told something brazenly absurd for financial or political gain.

Imagine, then, reading as I read the other day, two stories in The New York Times in which the fumes of absurdity emanated from public servants supposedly working on behalf of the public good, turned noxious, and perhaps, deadly.

These breathtaking stories appeared in The NY Times (Oct. 14, 2017 pA9), one "below the fold" as newspaper people like to say, and one above.

The story below the fold: the nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White to be the White House senior advisor on environmental policy. According to Mrs. White, carbon dioxide emissions are not "pollutant," they are in fact, "the gas of life," and claiming that carbon dioxide emissions are pollutants is "absurd." Renewable energy is "unreliable and parasitic"; furthermore, global warming is "a creed, a faith, a dogma that has little to do with science." She awaits confirmation in the Senate. 

The story above the fold: proposed oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Range, the 19-million acre refuge in northeastern Alaska, headlined "The G.O.P's Latest, Best Chance to Break a Drilling Impasse."


Walker Evans at SFMOMA

I've been thinking a lot lately about limits, the crescendos of major and minor things, what's worth trying to make better and what's just fine the way it is, not try to improve and so on. I mean how much better can you make a grilled cheese sandwich than the grilled cheese at Outerlands? Yet on my way to the museum yesterday I walked past a restaurant on Market with a sign in the window proclaiming it served, the best grilled cheese sandwich in the world. 

Walker Evans didn't begin making art as a photographer, he began as a writer, and continued writing throughout his career. But at some point he must have felt some limit to his writing, that his writing didn't live up to how he thought of himself as an artist and that his photographs did. 

I saw the Walker Evans show on an empty stomach, which seemed the right thing to do, since the art he's best known for making consists of his photographs of poor Alabama farm families in the 1930's. For a time there was a woman who looked almost exactly like Allie Mae Burroughs, the Alabama woman who posed for the Evans photo that's become iconic, looking at the photos with me. I knew she knew what I was thinking--that she looked very much like Allie Mae Burroughs--but she didn't blink, she just kept looking.

There's a hallway leading into the Walker Evans show at SFMOMA of photographs made by photographers back in the days before photography was art--Sander, Atget and a few others. There's also a whole wall of Evans photographs side-by-side with Atget's in which you can see Atget's influence, as if Evans was not only trying to be as good as Atget by seeing what Atget saw but was also trying to see better. 

Perhaps we can't help but think of what makes something major or minor when we look at art, but this kind of looking doesn't necessarily make something major or minor, it's either one or the other all by itself. Whatever truth or beauty one gets from a work of art is unsurpassable, and lives forever in the realm of things that can't be improved.


Writing with ash

Yes, people want to be free, in whatever way the word free might mean to them in particular, but they also want to have a leader they can believe in.

It's as much the job of the artist to investigate regression as it is to promote progress. Memory, after all the great mineshaft of art, is a form of regression. It seems to me that the notion of progress is burning down the centuries as if they were lace curtains hanging on the hearth of some old cottage in the north, just waiting  to turn into flame, but we can't seem to organize ourselves to be able to live without the notion.

I spoke the other day to a writer friend who'd just shown me a poem he'd written. He's a prize-winning poet,a young man with a wife and a 2-year old child.

The poem was dark, sparse, serious, a meditation on the promise of technology of making our lives better and that promise's effect on the human spirit. It demanded to be read twice, and I did. 

Do you want feedback? I asked.

Yes, he said.

I think you have to avoid trying to appear too wise, I said. And that perhaps in your next draft you write from the point of view of a young father.

The first bit of advice had been given to me by an older writer to whom I'd sent a packet of poems years ago; the second bit was my own, made up on the spot while the young poet took notes, already burning down what he'd just written. 


Gabriela Torres Olivares

The stories of the Mexican writer Gabriela Torres Olivares close all the windows and doors, not because she doesn't want you to see out of them but because she'd rather have you look inside.

Nothing that human beings do surprise Torres Olivares, yet her stories are most surprising. She uses every body part to construct her characters and then plays with them until they become more human than her reader could ever have imagined.

When I read her stories I've never read anything like them. Some of her stories are medical examinations of literature itself.

The book is Enfermario. I'm reading it now, I'm reading it many years from now.