Professional Writer and Editor
The following essay has been retained for publication in Mothering magazine.
Here’s the situation: It’s late evening and we’re arriving back home from a long trip. The “we” in this case is me, my wife of five years, my 17-year-old stepdaughter, and my 12-year-old stepson, whose name is Lewis. We’ve been in the car for most of the day, we’re tired, and we’re all either hungry or too full of the wrong types of food. The overall result is four people with short fuses.
As we tumble out of the car, I notice that Lewis isn’t bringing in any of his stuff with him, so I remind him that everyone has to help unload the car. He turns around and does indeed start grabbing several items to carry in, but his movements are abrupt and tense. He’s clearly angry, and even though he is doing exactly what I requested, he quickly unleashes a verbal torrent of fury at me over the injustice of my request. “Why do I always have to carry everything in?! It’s not fair! How would you like it if you had someone badgering you all the time?!”
This is when the crucial moment occurs. How should I respond? Do I let him know right then and there that his behavior is disrespectful and will not be tolerated? Or do I somehow find the strength to ignore my own short fuse and just keep my mouth shut?
I’ll say from the start that every situation is different and every child is different, so I’m not one to argue for blanket responses or solutions. However, every parent knows that certain themes show up again and again in various guises. I’ve heard from Lewis on several occasions how unfair it is that he has to do this chore or that one, but he goes ahead and does the chore while he’s filing his grievance.
The important lesson I’ve learned, after many frustrating encounters, is that I never regret keeping my mouth shut in response. And while I can’t say that opening my mouth has always been the wrong thing to do, there are any number of occasions when the results of responding to his outbursts have been far from satisfying.
There is clearly a valid rationale for reprimanding a child who throws a fit when asked to do the simplest of household chores. We all want to help our children learn to navigate the turbulent sea of intense emotions, so that they find ways to avoid yelling and screaming every time something unpleasant stands in their path. There are also different types of yelling and screaming. It’s one thing for a child to react angrily and say, “This is unfair, and I don’t like it,” but it’s something else for the child to lash out at you like you’re an evil dungeon master whose sole aim in life is to torment children.
No one likes to be around behavior like this. Such selfish and self-centered outbursts are immature and disrespectful, plain and simple. So, it certainly follows that many parents choose not to keep silent when a child acts this way.
Indeed, that was my response at first. The problem was that as my reprimands piled up, I couldn’t tell that they were serving any purpose. For one thing, Lewis’s outbursts would make me angry. My reprimands may have been justified in some ways, but they were often done in anger. If you want a child to learn to express anger responsibly, does it help to snap at them about it? Isn’t that a bit like slapping or spanking a child in order to teach them not to hit others?
On top of that, every time I choose the path of scolding, the whole affair just becomes more drawn out and ugly. If I respond to his outburst, everything escalates. My own weaknesses come into play. For one thing, I’m repeatedly and naïvely surprised when he comes right back at me with more verbal abuse. It’s as if I fully expect him to instantly see my point of view, respond apologetically, and say “You’re right. I’m sorry that I yelled at you. I’ll do this chore without complaining, and I’ll try to learn to avoid behaving like this in future.”
Of course he’s not going to say that, but my criticism of him was made with the assumption that he should respond in that way. I’m unhappy with his initial outburst, but then I just set him up to continue responding in ways that only make me more angry. We both walk away from the encounter with sore feelings, more bad history, and thus, higher stakes the next time something like this occurs.
One of the bits of wisdom I received from my mother was this: If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something—anything—different. It’s an example of common sense that isn’t always so common. So, I eventually decided to try just keeping my mouth shut when Lewis would complain loudly about doing this or that around the house.
It wasn’t easy to do, but I had to admit that I liked the results. He would rant and rave about the injustice of it all, do the chore, and then it was over. No extended arguments, no escalating anger within me, and no lingering bitter taste in both of our mouths. Plus, it allowed Lewis to blow off some steam without getting into more trouble.
Who among us can really remember what it was like to be a child and see the world as a child sees it? We can have all kinds of recollections about childhood, and even intense memories of the feelings we experienced, but we’re no longer children, and it’s no simple matter to regain the child’s perspective on the world.
Children gradually become conscious of themselves and of their situations. At first, they are cared for entirely by others, but slowly they start to handle some things on their own, gaining independence incrementally as the years pass. It must be difficult for them once they reach the age when they are old enough to make some substantial contributions to the general welfare of the household, but are still not old enough to move out on their own. We give them some freedom and power, but we impose many restrictions and curtail their options. There are good reasons for parents to establish limits, but do we too often demand that our children perform this balancing act with grace, even though they’ve had no opportunity to rehearse?
As adults, we have had plenty of time to rehearse, yet we don’t always perform with grace ourselves. No one witnessing my response to one of Lewis’s outbursts would describe me as calm and collected. As I have learned to stay silent on certain occasions when Lewis throws a fit, one of the big questions that comes to me is this: Why is it so incredibly difficult for me to remain mute, if that’s what I want to do?
I could argue that my response comes from a strong urge to help Lewis learn to grow up, but it’s too easy to see through that smokescreen. I do love him and want to do everything I can to help him enjoy a full and healthy life, but those desires would never cause me to respond so intensely and so quickly. I have to admit that my response is a reflex. I feel attacked. I’m offended by his behavior and want to strike back. When someone yells at you and accuses you of being a terrible person, it only follows that you find offense at this.
But if that person yelling at you is only 12 years old, doesn’t that change things? Doesn’t it make sense for an adult to resist taking too much offense when a child flies off the handle? In these situations, parents have their own balancing act. We have to take children seriously, while at the same time acknowledging that they are still children. I don’t want to dismiss Lewis’s anger, but I really don’t have to take it so personally either. He’s just trying to grow up in the best way that he can, and sometimes the most loving thing I can do for him is just get out of the way.
The following piece was written about the world premiere of a musical by the Bloomington Playwrights Project.
What is your vision of Paradise? If you hesitate in answering that question, perhaps I can make a suggestion. Let’s start with the setting: a small town on the Italian Riviera, where the stunningly turquoise water gently laps the beaches just outside your pensione. Mountains hug the coast, and the sunlight brings forth colors so bright and vivid that you’d swear you’ve stepped into some Renaissance master’s landscape. Each day you feast on luscious fresh figs; plump grapes; juicy, red tomatoes under fresh mozzarella and basil leaves and seasoned with olive oil; olives of every shape, size, and flavor; prosciutto sliced so thinly that you can never resist just one more slice; and always some freshly baked bread—of course if you’re not getting enough olive oil in your diet otherwise, you may want some focaccia, the Italian bread made with ample amounts of this heavenly oil. Now keep in mind, this is only the antipasto, which comes before the pasta, before the main dish, before the dessert—but not before the wine. Between meals, you swim in the ocean, lie on the beach, or stroll about, soaking in the lush scenery and becoming intoxicated by the scents of gardenia, wild rose, arugula, thyme, wild basil, and more that waft through the air.
Once you’ve gotten the setting fixed clearly in your head, add this to it: you’re falling in love for the first time in your life. What more could anyone ask for in life?
Ah, but there’s the rub. This is life and not Paradise. So we need to add some important elements that are missing. Let’s make you a 15-year-old boy, trying to come to grips with puberty and with a mother who wants to have extended, highly detailed talks with you and your sisters together about “God’s precious gift of passion.” Your mother uses this phrase when referring to sex because she and your father are American Calvinist missionaries sent to save the lost youth of Switzerland, but your family is in Italy because you vacation there every summer, and your parents try to save the lost souls there as well, your British girlfriend and her parents being prime targets. Plus, you are supposed to be doing the same—using your rarified state of piety to help these wayward people find Jesus. Furthermore, having been indoctrinated since birth, your parents’ fundamentalist, born-again theology is simply the air you breathe, but at 15, you’re beginning to see some cracks in the foundations. Your parents constantly point out how others use the sins of the flesh to fill the spiritual holes inside themselves, but here in this sensuous setting where everything calls out to be tasted and touched, you guiltily revel in the forbidden pleasures of your first glass of champagne and—your first kiss!
Take all of this, set it to music, and you have Portofino, a musical comedy that wrestles with theology, puberty, cultural clashes, family dysfunctions, and of course, “God’s precious gift of passion,” and leaves you laughing and humming and thinking in its wake. Adapted from the novel of the same title by Frank Schaeffer, the play follows Calvin Becker through one summer’s vacation at Portofino, Italy in the 1960’s with his parents and two sisters. Ralph Becker —Calvin’s dad—is a bible-thumping minister with the ever-so-slight failing of somewhat frequently falling into maniacal rages. Calvin’s mom, Elsa, can pray at you so hard you feel like hunted prey, and his older sister, Janet, a devout follower of the faith, is a force to be reckoned with as she makes every effort to keep Calvin on the straight and narrow path which he so dangerously strays from. Add to this mix a British family, whose daughter, Jennifer has stolen Calvin’s heart, a German family, and the Italians native to the town, and you have a wonderful assortment of colorful characters that produce endless potential for hilarity.
But don’t be misled by the medium, some serious themes run under the songs and comedy. Mr. Schaeffer, who collaborated on the play’s book with Frank Gruber and composer Mark Wilder, says “Calvin is actually questioning a lot. He is serious about some big issues, the sovereignty of God for one thing. As he ponders this question the musical really gets into some serious theological terrain.” Mark Wilder agrees, pointing out that there “are a number of introspective moments in the musical.” Calvin Becker may sing about champagne bubbles, wondering if God knows where they all go, but this is part of his efforts at various points in the play to come to grips with seemingly contradictory elements of Calvinist theology: If God has predestined all that happens (as in the timing of each champagne bubble’s movement), then what meaning is there in the idea of our making choices? What is the point of trying to do anything? For Calvin, what is the point of making any attempt to follow his parents’ strict guidelines, if he is simply predestined to fall prey to the wonderful pleasures before him just waiting for his embrace?
Nevertheless, the operative word here is FUN! The play is a romp, and according to Mr. Schaeffer and Mr. Wilder, it was also just as much fun to create. Upon reading the novel, Mr. Wilder was struck by how visual and theatrical it was, and that it already had all of the required elements of a good musical: “humor, love stories, adventure, danger, a well-known title, a unique world-view, and most importantly, larger themes.” Though he has worked on numerous adaptations, this was his first time to work directly with the novelist who wrote the work being adapted. With Mr. Schaeffer, Mr. Wilder, and Mr. Gruber spread out over the country, much of the work was done over the phone and through e-mail. Mr. Wilder notes that “without e-mail, we might never have arrived at our process. Each of us took passes at the script and then e-mailed the file to the others for their pass. No one is even sure who wrote what anymore.” Mr. Schaeffer loved the collaboration process, and says, “I never have had so much pure FUN!”
Up to now, the play
has been through some private readings and industry showcases in New York,
but has never been fully performed. This means that people attending
the Bloomington Playwrights Project production will be seeing the world
premiere! Being a film director as well as a novelist allows Mr.
Schaeffer to put the film and theatrical worlds in bold relief: “To be
honest I liked the musical crowd a lot better than the Hollywood set.
Musical folks do it for love and they are real pros. In Hollywood
people want fame and money FAST! That's fine but it was a lot more
fun working with singers and actors and composers who did not have the
star mentality. Musicals are all about sweat and work and low pay.
You have to love it.” Take note Bloomington, you have a special opportunity
to witness the opening of an excellent play that’s destined (predestined?)
for bigger stages later on—and you get to laugh and be wonderfully entertained
in the process. Don’t miss it!
"Thanks so much for the lovely piece you wrote."
The following essay promotes the importance of universities.
The question “Of what advantage is a college to the community?” first appeared at Indiana University as the opening to the inaugural speech given by its first president, Andrew Wylie, in 1829—almost two hundred years ago. The question remains with us because it demands a response over and over again. Some obvious answers, such as gainful employment, quickly come to mind. A university the size of IU has a huge economic impact on a town the size of Bloomington. All kinds of people in this community depend on the university for income, healthcare insurance, and many other financial benefits. If we extend our focus beyond the town to the state and the nation, we see that the university contributes to the community by training people for a multitude of important careers. Our teachers, our doctors, our computer technicians—the list goes on and on of the vast spectrum of occupations that begin with a college degree. Furthermore, in addition to providing the foundation for entry into many fields, universities conduct the research which assures that our knowledge in these fields continues to expand.
We could stop here. These simple responses firmly establish the advantage of a college to the community. We could stay within these obvious answers and elaborate on them, providing impressive statistics of community employment, inspiring stories of successful careers, and dramatic results of breakthroughs in research. All of this has weight and validity. Few people would argue with these claims. But we shouldn’t stop here—we should look further for less obvious, but perhaps more important answers. When we make this effort, we see that above and around the tangible and the concrete, the university functions in the community as an invaluable means of transmitting culture, and more specifically, of transmitting vision.
Some people, in this time of culture wars, would immediately comment that the community actually finds no advantage in some specific elements of culture that universities often transmit. Without dismissing their argument, we should ask them to step back and consider a broader perspective. We may encounter, for example, vehement disagreement about which works of literature prove worthy of study—but look at the conversation itself. Universities generate hotbeds of dialogue, of engagement, of the messy and agonizing effort to put opposing ideas into the crucible of debate and then to see if, through some form of philosophical alchemy, a new truth or a broader understanding can emerge. Universities do transmit ideas about which books merit acceptance into the canon, but they also transmit a much grander idea—the idea of a dialogue, governed by reason, that seeks to uncover greater knowledge.
This effort to uncover greater knowledge rests upon the notion that we do not know some things. Such a statement may sound like a simple truism, but the acknowledgement of ignorance has profound implications and an exalted history. Socrates, whose dictum, “Know thyself,” stands as a cornerstone of the human quest for knowledge, professed his own ignorance in an effort to teach others that the awareness of ignorance marked the beginning of wisdom, the beginning of the pursuit of knowledge. Students flock to universities implicitly acknowledging that they need to learn, and they perennially show an eagerness to expand their understanding. Eminent scholars continually explore uncharted terrain because they seek to know that which they still do not know; otherwise, their research efforts would lose all meaning. Universities act as massive testaments to the fact of ignorance and the possibility of knowledge, and they insist that we can and should increase our understanding of ourselves and our world. Ignorance of ourselves and our world traps us and holds us back; knowledge liberates us and moves us forward—that guiding vision animates the mission of every university. It emanates outward and permeates the entire community.
Not simply an abstract concept, this vision operates as a dynamic force that has a powerful impact on our lives. Whether we spend years there or never set foot on one college campus, the presence of universities encourages us to continue learning throughout our lives by any means we can. Universities stand in our communities as monuments heralding a sublime vision. They also provide employment, career training, and the amazing fruits of research, but their greatest “advantage to our community” may occur when they push us, encourage us, and inspire us to free ourselves from ignorance, and they do this by transmitting a vision of the liberating power of knowledge.
following essay promotes the passage of a city ordinance in Bloomington, Indiana
concerning a living wage for city workers.
The living wage ordinance is a call to action
What role should the broader community play in assisting the least fortunate among us? This well-worn question remains remarkably vital, and the current dialogue in Bloomington about the proposed living wage ordinance forces us to confront it. The impassioned disagreement about the ordinance itself has perhaps distracted many people from noticing a virtual consensus on one point: that we should provide more help to people who live in poverty.
Even if we do not all agree about the best way to provide additional assistance, no one denies that we should do more for people who work full-time and yet still do not earn enough income to provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter for their families. Our agreement on this point holds significance, because the debate’s resolution should rest upon the idea of finding ways to help people.
My evidence for this claim of consensus comes from the simple observations, first, that living wage proponents clearly think we should do more for those in need, and second, that opponents unanimously repeat the refrain that the living wage is not the correct way to provide additional help. While opponents want to use existing methods of economic assistance to increase aid instead of using the living wage to do so, they acknowledge the need to do more.
However, we have no current option for increasing aid, other than the adoption of a living wage. Proponents have worked diligently for years to make this type of assistance a reality for the people who need it. They have held public meetings, circulated petitions, and spent many Saturday mornings behind a table at the Farmers’ Market in the Showers parking lot, offering everyone a chance to ask questions or state opinions. A great deal of work has gone into getting us to the point where some of the working poor in this community may soon get a significant boost.
In stark contrast, the opponents of the living wage ordinance cannot point to any concrete alternative such effort. Though they argue for helping people in other ways, they have not articulated, promoted, and brought before us any other specific plan of action. As a result, we do not presently face a choice between two competing plans for providing additional assistance to the working poor. Either we adopt the living wage ordinance or we continue doing nothing more than we do at present. Since everyone agrees that our current efforts fall short of our goal, the option of doing nothing more cannot suffice.
One argument against the living wage asserts that the targeted recipients will not actually gain an advantage from the changes, due to a loss in government benefits and an increase in taxes. But the logic used here implies that people earning low wages should not attempt to work their way up the wage scale. Surely, no one truly wants that outcome.
Given that people seeking to climb out of poverty almost always must do so gradually, how can it be wrong to help them take the next step? Keeping our focus on finding ways to help people means starting right now with the passage of the living wage ordinance and continuing with additional help as needed. It does not mean rejecting an approach that clearly offers tangible hope for the working poor.
Our consensus that as a community we have a duty to assist those in need means we must recognize the living wage ordinance as a call to action. In a community that has the overall wealth that we have in Bloomington, the existence of poverty stands as a direct challenge to those of us who have plenty. No one presents the living wage ordinance as the complete solution to poverty, but it offers us a bold step forward. We can and should show leadership and vision by embracing this crucial opportunity to make the living wage a reality in Bloomington.
Mark your calendars now, because the festivals of September have something that will appeal to everyone. The month begins with the 25th Annual 4th Street Festival of the Arts and Crafts. On September 1 and 2, the Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend, the area around 4th and Grant will be filled with artists and craftspeople showing their wares. If you think this is just another typical crafts fair, think again. This festival has repeatedly been listed among the best arts and crafts fairs nationally. Artists want to come here because they enjoy the general atmosphere and Bloomingtonians don’t just look—they also buy. This means that hundreds of people from all over the country apply for booth space and just over a hundred are selected by jury to be here. We’re getting the cream of the crop. The fair runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. This is a great opportunity to do your Christmas shopping early, because you’ll find things here you can’t find anywhere else.
On the following Saturday, September 8, put on your dancing shoes and get ready for Downtown’s “Welcome Back” to IU students--Hoosierfest. Music will be performed on Kirkwood Avenue between Grant and Indiana—the gateway between Downtown Bloomington and the IU campus—starting around 3:00 p.m. and going until 11 p.m. Hoosierfest is a great way to show students some of what Downtown has to offer. What’s more, admission is only $5 for hours of great music!
Then you’ll have ten days to rest before the Lotus Festival, which opens Wednesday, September 19 and runs through Sunday, September 23. And rest you should, because keeping up with all that this five-day extravaganza offers is no simple task. The Lotus Festival is a Downtowner’s dream—an amazing smorgasbord of intriguing musical acts performing at 10 venues that are all within walking distance of each other in the downtown area. If you ever listen to The Thistle and Shamrock with Fiona Ritchie on WFIU, then you’ll be excited to learn that the festival is bringing her here to stage a show at the Buskirk-Chumley with three Celtic bands. The festival is also returning to the Convention Center this year to make use of the Center’s capacity to handle large crowds. This is truly an event that has something for everyone.
The festival is brought to you by the Lotus Educational and Arts Foundation, which also brings musicians to Bloomington year round for the Lotus Concert Series (if you recently saw Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at the Buskirk-Chumley in August, thank Lotus), and, in the spring, gives us Lotus Blossoms. Lotus Blossoms is five days of outreach into Bloomington institutions. This past spring this involved taking musicians into schools, nursing homes, and community centers like Girls, Inc., the Banneker Center, and the public library, where they not only performed, but also educated and engaged the audiences concerning their music and culture. Added to this were evening concerts at the Buskirk-Chumley. A number of parents commented that, although their kids had to drag them to the concerts, they left delighted that they had come.
It was about a twenty-minute walk to her hospital from the nearest train station. Any train station that isn't under ground is likely to be the hub of the neighborhood's commercial activity. The first half of the walk was down a street that was lined with all types of stores. There were electronics stores, clothing stores, coffee shops, convenience stores, jewelry stores, candy shops, drugstores, bookstores, fresh produce and fresh fish markets, bakeries, restaurants, probably a McDonald's or a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and more that I can't remember right now. In a few places there were also street vendors selling various types of Japanese food, hot and ready to eat. The street itself was narrow and not used by cars, but it was always crowded with people. I generally tend to avoid these streets and would have avoided this one if it had not had one unusual characteristic—a roof.
I'm not sure how best to describe it because I never examined it carefully. The buildings themselves were nothing fancy. They were about two or three stories tall and somehow they were connected over the street. So there was some sense of being in a mall, of being enclosed, until you came to a side street and then the pouring rain was just a step away. All of the stores were completely open to the street; that is, there were no doors to go through. In fact, many of them had some of their merchandise displayed on the street, an aspect that served to blur the sense of where the store stopped and the street began.
Perhaps it has become
cliché for observers of Japan to remark about the jarring juxtaposition
of the old, if not the ancient, and the contemporary. (If not, I’ll
do my part to help the process along.) This was certainly one the
feelings that I experienced on the many times I walked down this street.
The sounds and the smells and the sights, particularly around the fish
or some of the other food, combined to give a feeling of a market from
another century. Then I would come to an electronics store and watch
an American baseball game for a few minutes on one of the TVs.
10. Jerry Seinfeld performed there last
year and David Sedaris is coming
And the number one reason
why the IU Auditorium really rocks is
The following two pieces come from a proposal for work on a travel guidebook.
San Francisco truly offers you the world, but that presents a problem—how to choose from the kaleidoscopic assortment of options. If you find yourself gazing up at a deep blue sky and soaking in the sparkling rays of the sun while you hang on tightly to the handle of a fabled cable car, don’t worry that you’re not being dazzled by the spectacular views available no where else other than on the top deck of the ferry to Sausalito. If you’re savoring a crunchy almond biscotti with your espresso in an open-air café in North Beach and listening to several different languages being spoken by the colorful characters all around you, don’t get upset that you’re not sipping green tea as you contemplate the Zen qualities of the Japanese Tea Gardens in Golden Gate Park. Just keep repeating to yourself, “It’s OK. I can come back. I don’t have to do it all my first trip.”
Flavor, as in the taste of warm bread pudding with whisky sauce—something you’ll want to have more than once, especially since no two places make it the same way and each will claim that theirs is the best. Flavor, as in the infectious quality of the superb jazz played in club after club in the French Quarter—bad musicians are not allowed inside the city limits. Flavor, as in the elaborate wrought-iron fences that frame the yards in front of the stunningly designed old homes of the Garden District—no, they’re not museums; yes, people do actually get to call these places home. Flavor, as in the amazing choices found in the antique shops in the Quarter—here you can count on finding just the right gift for that special someone who seems to have everything. Flavor, as in the endless opportunities to indulge in excellent cuisine—don’t come to New Orleans if you’re not hungry.