Facing Bullies and Ourselves: Lee Hirsch’s Documentary, Bully

Believe all of the hype you’ve been hearing about the movie Bully. I’ve seen it twice and I cried even harder at the second showing I went to, sponsored by the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, Keshet, ADL, Prozdor and a host of other Jewish and secular organizations.

The first time I walked into Bully I thought that zero-tolerance policies about bullying, adult intervention and a teacher or monitor on a school bus could begin to deal with the problem. Lee Hirsch’s documentary systematically punctures a hole in each of those notions. Bullying, it turns out, is deeply rooted, menacing, and wily. But there’s hope too. All it takes is the strength of just one person to point a much-needed spotlight on the subject. As Hirsch has so poignantly, so tragically demonstrated, sometimes it takes the suicide of a precious child and the eloquence of a grieving parent to once and for all show how deadly bullying can become.

After a year of intense filming, Hirsch and his team settled on five story lines to carry the documentary forward. They are all compelling, heart-wrenching stories, but there were a couple of families with whom I especially suffered.

The Longs of Murray County, Georgia lost their 17 year-old son Tyler to bullying. You know the Longs. They’re the parents that sit next to you on Back-to-School night. You talk to them over coffee at a synagogue or church function. And all the while you have no idea the tremendous pain they bore when they found out their son was shoved into a toilet or his clothes were stolen while he was in the locker room shower.

Tina Long found her son hanging in his bedroom closet. The room has been redone and serves as a de facto headquarters for the Long’s anti-bullying activism. Tyler’s ghost lives there too. Not as a haunting apparition, but as motivation for his parents to mourn his death and celebrate his life. “Tyler’s voice will be heard,” says a t-shirt that his father David wears.

Twelve year-old Alex Libby is the hero of the movie. Every single day of his school life, Alex has been tormented for being different. He was born at 26 weeks gestation and his developmental delays still dog him. His social awkwardness has been diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome.

Alex Libby

Alex Libby from the documentary, "Bully"

The Sioux City School District in Iowa as well as Alex’s family gave Hirsch unfettered access to Alex’s daily life. Hirsch’s camera is rolling on the first day of school at East Middle School. Alex endures insults at the stop of the notorious Bus #54. And the camera trails Alex through moment after moment of loneliness, hopelessness and abuse, both physical and emotional. Hirsch is relentless because Alex’s ostracism is relentless. And he didn’t have to do much more than film Alex by the lockers or on the playground to show that East Middle School looks like a prison.

Alex is the oldest of five children and his parents do their best to support their son. The mother in me fantasizes that with a bit more attention and a little more love, Alex could have triumphed. But it’s not that simple. His parents plead for help that is not forthcoming from the school. One assistant principal in particular is so tone deaf when it comes to understanding children that I didn’t know whether to despise her or feel sorry for her. Bullies almost certainly see well-meaning and ineffective adults as plain ridiculous. When it came to witnessing Kim Lockwood make her rounds at East, judging by the gasps I heard, so did the audience. Another assistant principal doesn’t fare much better when she interviews Alex’s tormentors on the bus. When it comes time to interview Alex, Paula Crandall urges him to speak up.

Alex replies: “Well in sixth grade you did nothing about Teddy sitting on my head.”

Crandall responds: “How do you know we didn’t do anything? Did he sit on your head after you talked to me. I did talk to him and he didn’t do that again did he?”

“No,” says Alex, his voice trailing. “But he was still doing other stuff like that.”

At one point the bullying becomes so physical that Hirsch shares his footage with the school, Alex’s parents and the police. I’ve read that Hirsch said that he was able to capture so much on film because all of the children—bullies and bullied—quickly adapted and forgot they were being filmed.

Throughout filming, Hirsch struggled with whether he should intervene when documenting incidents of bullying. In a curriculum guide to the movie produced by Facing History and Ourselves, Hirsch noted,

It was incredibly difficult not to go and rip those kids off of Alex. Had the violence increased, I’m sure there was a point at which I would have had to and would have absolutely stopped it. But the reality is that Alex wanted people to know what happens to him. And all of the kids that were in the film wanted people to know what they go through. Hirsch also pointed out the most of the parents of the bullies signed releases that allowed them to appear in the film.

At the post-film Q&A moderated by Idit Klein of Keshet and BBYO’s high school members, audience members and panelists alike brought up Hillel’s iconic saying that felt particularly relevant after watching Bully. “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

After the film I bumped into another parent I knew from Anna’s school. She was fired up about bringing Bully into each of her children’s schools. And then when she caught her breath, she asked, “But will it really make a difference?”

I don’t know if viewing Bully, even with substantial curriculum support, will have a strong impact on kids. I do know that after reading Facing History’s curriculum guide for the movie and listening to parents testify at Town Hall meetings in the film, many bullies are aided and abetted by their parents’ benign neglect as well as their flat-out role modeling.

There’s a term for bullying that doesn’t leave physical scars—relational bullying. Relational bullying is not the exclusive domain of teenage girls isolating one from the rest of the group. I see it everyday among my peers. In reality, the quest to end bullying begins with us—the grownups. If you haven’t seen Bully  yet, remember that while many of us contribute to the problem, we also carry the solution to halt this tragic epidemic.

Health Care from the Inside Out: Two Sisters, Two Perspectives

The first time I met Suzanne Salamon, she told my fuming mother that at 74, she was virtually a youngster in Suzanne’s geriatric practice in Boston. She also complimented my mother on her pretty green eyes, which forever put her in my mother’s corner.

Even my porcupine mother appreciated that Suzanne is a dream of a doctor – empathetic, smart and humble.

What I didn’t realize at the time of my mother’s first visit to Suzanne is that I knew her personal story through her sister Julie Salamon’s books. I had read Julie’s autobiographical novel “White Lies” about the child of Holocaust survivors whose father found meaningful work as a country doctor in a small Ohio town. Julie’s memoir, “Net of Dreams,” opens with Julie, her mother Lily (Szimi) and step-father visiting Auschwitz where her mother had been interned. Later in the trip, the trio crosses paths with Steven Spielberg who was filming “Schindler’s List” on location in Poland.

Julie, Lily and Suzanne Salamon

The sisters recently teamed up in Boston for the Hadassah-sponsored program, “Health Care from the Inside Out: Two Sisters, Two Perspectives.” Both women have collective wisdom and extended experience on the subject – Suzanne, as associate chief for clinical geriatrics at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Julie, as the author of another book, “Hospital: Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity, Plus Red Tape, Bad Behavior, Money, G-d, and Diversity on Steroids.” The “hospital” of the title is Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, where 67 languages are spoken and up to 705 beds are occupied at any time.

It’s clear that the sisters have early and influential memories of the power and the magic of medicine. Their presentation on the current health-care conundrum was as informative as it was compassionate. But it was also their interaction with each other – and their sweet acknowledgement of their mother, who was in the audience – that made their appearance particularly poignant.

The Salamon sisters’ physician father, Alexander (Sanyi) Salamon, had settled the family in Adams County, Ohio, after a difficult and ultimately false start in New York. The only doctor for miles, Sanyi Salamon’s patients revered him. Like many solo practitioners in rural areas, his office was attached to the house.

The sisters told a story that began late one night with a knock on the door of their family’s house. A couple had just received word that their son had died in Vietnam, and the mother was inconsolable. “I always wondered what my father did aside from tranquilizing the woman,” Suzanne said. Their stoic father never talked about his first wife and young daughter who perished in Dachau, but Suzanne wondered if he mentioned them that night to the woman. “As a mother, I looked at that story differently. As a doctor, that story taught me a lot about empathy.”

The year that Julie was at Maimonides, she observed the tension between the bottom line and patient care. “The business of a hospital comes down to people,” she said. “It’s a continuum of experiences from which emerged a lot of discussion of respect, communication or lack thereof. There are competing pressures to secure reimbursement and spend the right amount of time in a system hurrying them.” She added that the moment a patient is admitted to the hospital, the insurance company is forcing the staff to plan the discharge.

With Medicare reimbursements falling far short of actual costs, many geriatric practices are in debt. The 85 and over population is growing, and short visits for patients in their 80s and 90s are ineffective. There are complicated medical histories to sift through and difficult discussions to make about end-of-life issues, such as designating a health-care proxy, when to start palliative care and whether to insert a feeding tube.

“My job is to bring up tough subjects,” Suzanne said. To that end, she never uses euphemisms with her patients, with the exception of characterizing Alzheimer’s as memory loss. “There’s a lot less secrecy today. It’s been years since I’ve been asked to keep a devastating diagnosis from a patient,” she noted.

I looked around at the mostly senior audience and wondered how many of them had healthcare proxies? How many of them have been willing to hand over power of attorney to an adult child? I thought about the 15-year battle my sister and I recently won with our mother to help her legally with her financial issues and health challenges. Did my tablemates more easily accept help from their adult children?

At Maimonides, Julie observed a patient’s room transformed into a sacred space when the subject was end-of-life issues. Stereotypes about doctors and patients fell away as real people emerged. “Finding moments of grace can be difficult,” Julie said. “But part of what you give to your patients is your humanity,” Suzanne added.

The elder Salamons’ grace and humanity remained intact after Dachau and Auschwitz. And those tributes are in full bloom in their daughters: Suzanne Salamon, the doctor and Julie Salamon, the writer.

No Biking in the House Without a Helmut: Nine Kids, Three Continents, Two Parents, One Family by Melissa Faye Greene

 The subtitle of Melissa Faye Greene’s memoir, out in paperback this week, breezily summarizes the plot. But the narrative slows down into a story that is filled with the joy, the pathos, and the frenzy that comes with a big family bound together by loving-kindness.

Greene has nine children—four of whom are biological and five of whom are adopted. With the exception of the first child that Greene and her husband, Donny Samuel adopted, four out of their five adopted children were born in Ethiopia. But it’s Jesse’s adoption from Bulgaria that builds the scaffolding of Greene’s enchanting memoir No Biking in the House Without a Helmet.

My husband Ken and I talked about adopting several years ago after close friends adopted two sons from Ethiopia. I watched the tapes sent to our friends from the orphanage in Addis Ababa. Each time a new child was introduced on film, I was terrified and excited all over again. Who would my friends choose? At the time these children were the ages of my young kids—beautiful, innocent, sweet—and they broke my heart over and over again.

I can’t give you a good reason why we didn’t adopt. I can give you a million reasons why we should have. We had a lot of love to give and compared to most of the world, an abundance of resources to bestow on a child.  And I felt I was getting better at this parenting thing. As my kids grew older, I could see the bigger picture. I knew that I wasn’t stuck with diapered, runny-nosed, colicky babies forever.

I thought about adoption anew when I interviewed Greene five years ago about her fourth book, the award-winning There Is No Me Without Youa compassionate, vivid account of an orphanage in Addis Ababa and the remarkable foster mother who founded, grew and ruled the place.

In No Biking, Greene begins the book with the hard-won wisdom that expanding her family was not solely about filling an empty nest. Adoption for the Greene-Samuel family was about loving a child, reconfiguring the family to integrate that child into the family, and reveling in a new group dynamic.

Greene writes about four-year old Jesse’s early rages—he was a madman on the flights from Sofia to London to Atlanta. At home he horded food. And if anyone came near his food he threw an earth-quaking tantrum. His language was as mangled as his behavior. Jesse suffered the physical and mental deprivation common in children languishing in run-down Eastern European and Russian orphanages. Greene waited for Jesse to come around, and more poignantly, waited to have an affirmative answer to the question that haunts many adoptive parents: Do I love him yet?

Jesse blossomed into a charming if mischievous little boy.  And within his new family, he took the lead in welcoming his sister Helen, who was the first to be adopted from Ethiopia. Greene and her husband are committed Jews who are aware that Jewish identities were never one-size-fits-all for their children. Rather the potential and the desire to be Jews were nurtured in each of them. In the case of Jesse and Helen, early on brother and sister bonded when Jesse served as Helen’s impromptu mikveh guide.

Greene writes that with the exception of his circumcision under anesthesia, Jesse had loved converting to Judaism. “Now in the backseat of the car, he excitedly prepared Helen for her visit to the mikveh. ‘The blue-green water will cover all your body and make you Jewish,’ he enthused.”

Soon after Solomon and then biological brothers Daniel and Yosef were also adopted from Ethiopia. The question of conversion was trickier for Daniel and Yosef who were eight and eleven and had been raised as Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. But the boys eventually came into their own as Jews and chose to be bar mitzvahed.

My urge to adopt was recently reawakened as I wandered around the mall and came upon a gallery of photographs of kids waiting to be adopted. The pictures were captioned with just a first name and a biographical line like: “I draw exceptionally well. I want to be a superhero.” One girl with the lovely, hopeful, yet somehow fragile name of Destiny wanted to be a teacher.

That day in the mall I wanted to take every one of those kids home with me. But as Greene so wisely observes, adoption is not a good response to a humanitarian crisis. “Adoption is the appropriate response to only one situation: the need of a child for a new family, combined with a family’s desire for a new child.”

As difficult as it is to contemplate, I think I have my answer to why we never adopted a child. But I’m in awe of families like my friends’ and Melissa Fay Greene’s who truly forge bonds, never falling into the trap of serving as a way station or a group home or becoming one of those families who “collect” orphans.

And I pray that Destiny and her cohort soon meet the loving parents they deserve to have.




Confessions of a Scary Mommy

A couple of weeks ago my friend Sam complimented me when he said I articulated an 11th commandment for him in one of my columns: Honor thy Daughter and Son. I hope I don’t disappoint Sam this week with the 360-degree turn I take in confessing that I was a scary mommy when my children were younger.

In fact, I’m having vivid flashbacks to the days when I counted the hours until Ken came home from work or a babysitter relieved me for a solo trip to the grocery store. That’s because I just read Confessions of a Scary Mommy: An Honest and Irreverent Look at Motherhood – the Good, the Bad and the Scary by Jill Smokler.

The book is an offshoot of Smokler’s popular blog of the same name. She has not only chronicled her faux pas, her indignities and ultimately her intense loving moments with her three small children, she has also created an on-line community for women to anonymously post their grievous maternal sins.

What catharsis to read that I’m not the only one who gave my baby Benadryl so I could survive a three-hour flight to Florida. Yes, I too irrationally worried throughout my second pregnancy that I couldn’t possibly love another baby as much as I loved my little girl. And then I freaked out that the second little girl I was so sure I was having was actually a little boy.

Even after all of these years, it’s comforting to know that I wasn’t the only woman who was scared to have a boy. But then something even crazier occurred after Adam was born; I was completely smitten with him. Ken had to practically wrestle my baby boy from my arms when it came time for his circumcision. I was so distraught over what was about to happen to Adam that I stayed upstairs in the fetal position until the deed was done.

Like Smokler, I was never a baby person. I occasionally babysat in high school to earn pocket money and surreptitiously read the dog-eared copy of “The Joy of Sex” or “Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Sex” that seemed to be in every house. In college I never thought about my future children or anyone’s actual children. And in my 20s, when my girlfriends cooed over babies being strolled down the street or holding court from a high chair in a restaurant, I just rolled my eyes.

It’s a good thing that for the vast majority of us the instinct to reproduce is innate. It’s also a good thing that it’s impossible to understand how difficult and frustrating parenthood is until you’re actually a parent. And it’s an even better thing that an intense feeling of love will sweep you away when your child falls asleep in your arms.

But in between the ridiculous and the sublime, Smokler humorously catalogs the big stuff and the not so big stuff that can drive a mother to the edge of her sanity. For example, there are the vacations. Sure, it’s easy to romanticize the days when we played the license plate game on long car rides. Remember magnetic checkers? Well, if you think really hard, I’ll bet you remember that all of that good, simple fun got boring pretty quickly.

Sure, it’s easy to be judgmental about installing DVD players in cars. But until you’ve been lost in Canada for hours and hours with two fidgety kids, you have no right to chastise me for secretly thanking a higher power that we had DVDs and a player with us. What’s that? Children should be able to entertain themselves? You’re probably one of those mothers who tried to take away her baby’s pacifier at six months. Believe me, it all works out in the end. No kid uses a pacifier once the braces go on. I was relieved to learn that I wasn’t the only exhausted mother who, once upon a time, gave her kids chicken nuggets too many times in a week. I was also relieved that I wasn’t the first woman to be jealous of her nanny. The kids adored her, and she folded laundry like she worked for the Gap. It was a nightmare.

But what tripped me up for so many years were the birthday parties. Smokler has a chapter dedicated to the Birthday Party Wars. Who comes up with the most creative theme? Orders the most memorable cake? Or, worst, bakes the best cake themselves. I remember for Anna’s third birthday, I had sand pails and shovels personalized with every kid’s name. Adorable. Original. Except chaos ensued when the kids grabbed the nearest pail because none of them could read.

So yes, I was once a scary mommy. (I probably still am). But the truth is, even though those days of early motherhood were sometimes unbearably long, the ensuing years have gone by all too quickly. That’s the confession of a scary mommy who wished she had a little more wisdom and understanding when she started out.

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice: A Memoir by Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams’s new memoir begins with this stark, bleached declaration: “I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died.” The mother had bequeathed to the daughter six journals that all turned out to be blank. Not a shadow of a word on any of those pages — pages that Williams describes as “paper tombstones.” Pages that also signal an act of defiance in Mormon culture where “women are expected to do two things: keep a journal and bear children. Both gestures are a participatory bow to the past and future.”

This poetic memoir continues the work Williams, a naturalist and Utah writer, began in “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,’’ which interweaved the story of her mother’s unsuccessful battle with cancer with a record-shattering rise of the Great Salt Lake and its destructive effect on a nearby bird refuge.

In “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice,’’ Williams explores her mother’s identity — woman, wife, mother, and Mormon — as she continues to honor her memory along with that of the string of women in her family who were stricken by breast cancer. In its 54 sections, one for each year of Williams’s and her mother’s lives, she recounts tales from her mother’s life and from her own in a lyrical and elliptical meditation on women, nature, family, and history.

It’s tempting to think of her mother’s legacy, the untouched journals, as tabulae rasae, blank slates. But Williams brings the literal translation of the Latin phrase to the forefront by inferring that her mother’s unwritten journals are erased slates — there are traces of feelings and dreams and wishes emphasized by William’s italics and capitalization of the word journal. “My Mother’s Journals are words wafting above the page.’’

Williams’s writing pays careful, crisp homage to her family who are “loyal citizens known as ‘downwinders’ ” — people who lived down wind of the Nevada nuclear test site, thus exposed to the radiation that resulted in her mother’s cancer. A year after her mother’s death in 1987, Williams protested at the site where atomic bombs were still being detonated in the desert. Her act of civil disobedience parallels her mother’s subversive act of leaving blank pages behind. The silences, the truths of women’s lives carry the power of an atom, she suggests. Williams quotes the poet Muriel Rukeyser’s famous lines: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

Williams traces the personal and artistic influences in her life. “My Mother’s Journals are a creation myth,” declares Williams. Diane Tempest’s empty diaries inspire her daughter to metaphorically fill them with a creation story of her own voice. Her mother’s blank pages offer wide-open spaces for an “unruly imagination” — an imagination that continuously invents stories and shapes memory. She considers her mother’s originality and the work of artists like John Cage and Gustave Courbet and activists like Wangari Maathai. Blank pages beckon Williams to reflect on her life as a daughter, a wife, an activist, and a teacher.

Toward the end of her memoir, Williams makes an exhaustive list of wondrous, exciting possibilities for the blank pages that include clean sheets, white flags of surrender, a white tablecloth not yet set, a scrim, a stage, reviews never written.

The blank pages of Diane Tempest’s journals are full of tacit praise and gleaming admiration for her daughter’s literary gifts — gifts that Williams further understands when she opens her mother’s journals and reads “emptiness, [that] translated to longing, that same hunger and thirst, Mother translated to me. I will rewrite this story, create my own story on the pages of my mother’s journals.”

And so she has written her story, her mother’s story, the story of her clan of one-breasted women by triumphing over the empty page every day.

This review was published in the April 12, 2012 edition of the Boston Globe

The Sunday Rumpus List: A Jubana Mother Gives Advice to her Tragically Gringa Daughter by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Published April 15th, 2012  ·  www.rumpus.net. filed under rumpus original

Neck Up.

If a man touches your tetas you will lose control and then lose everything.

Touch your cookie only to clean it. And do not clean it for too long.

Never talk to a man who has a tattoo.

Marry a Jewish boy.

Marry a professional Jewish boy.

If you use tampons you will lose your virginity.

If you wash your hair on the first day of your period you will be infertile.

If you want a baby girl, have an orgasm before your husband. If you want a boy, do not have an orgasm.

Give birth without drugs, that way you can have a big meal right after you give birth and you won’t feel sick to your stomach.

Do not scream in labor. Be a lady.

Do not leave your children with anyone except family.

Do not bring up your children to be gringos.

Do not paint your toenails red. Only chusma girls have red toenails.

Chusma girls also wear ankle bracelets and snap their gum.

Wear high heels—they make your legs look prettier.

Never wear sneakers.

Wear slippers with a heel at home. Your husband will like that.

Grow your hair long. Brush your hair a lot so that you don’t have bolones.

Wax your eyebrows every two weeks.

Swing your culo slightly when you walk down the street so that you are appealing yet still a lady.

Do not wear sleeveless shirts. Chusmas wear sleeveless shirts.

Do not knot your shirt so your bariga shows. Only chusmas show their barigas.

Pray that your husband has a long life.

Do not marry again when you’re old. You do not want to get stuck taking care of some old man you hardly know.

Pray that your children will take care of you.

Fast on Mondays and Thursdays if you want your wishes to come true. The gates of heaven are open on those days because the Torah is read in the Call.

Do not mix meat with milk.

Do not eat puerco and do not eat like a puerca.

Watch your weight. Men do not like gordas.

Get an education. You may need it if your husband turns out to be like your father who doesn’t make enough money and then you have to go to work.

Open your own checking account.

Make sure the department store credit cards are in your name only.

Make sure the house is also in your name.

Give your children everything.

Save something for yourself and don’t tell anyone.

*A Juban is a person who is both Jewish and Cuban

Judy Bolton-Fasman is writing a family memoir called 1735 ASYLUM AVENUE. (It’s the address of the house in which she grew up. Really). Judy is an award-winning columnist on family

The Weight Watcher

This month’s issue of Vogue features an essay by a mother who put her 6- year-old daughter on a Weight Watchers-style diet. My first reaction was: The Horror. The Horror. But not for the reasons you think.

I could easily make the same gaffe; I write about my children almost every week. But I read them every column in which they appear. In keeping with our agreement, I’ve killed a few columns at their request. Forbidden topics with regard to my children include dating, puberty and grades. Oh, and weight was never on the table.

Before judging Dara-Lynn Weiss even more harshly, I read her bad mommy confessional. It begins with Weiss firmly telling a well-meaning friend that her daughter Bea has already eaten her quota of the day’s calories, and she can’t have the Salad Niçoise the woman offers. Did I mention that Bea is still hungry? That she’s always hungry on her diet. But Bea’s pediatrician became concerned when Bea landed in the 99th percentile for weight. What looked like baby fat to her mother was clinically considered obesity.

Bea’s weight was not just about aesthetics for her mother. Weiss cites some very real and sobering statistics about childhood obesity. Overweight kids are courting high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes. There’s also the emotional fallout of looking and feeling different than your peers that leads to low self-esteem and depression. Weiss took her daughter to a reputable doctor who designed an age-appropriate diet. That doctor has since then, corrected Weiss’s rigid portrayal and execution of “the green light red light” diet. I’m sure the doctor never intended for Weiss to hold up her hand like a cop and forbid Bea to eat anything that wasn’t on the diet. But like all parents, Weiss got frustrated. Bea felt deprived. Sometimes Weiss would scream at her daughter to stop eating so much junk. Who am I to judge? As Weiss points out, “Everyone supports the mission, but no one seems to approve of my methods.” I get it. After all, I’m the woman who left her daughter at the side of the road because I was so frazzled and fedup with her one night. But my daughter is almost 18, and Bea just turned 7. And my daughter approved that column. She even thought it was funny and shared it with her friends.

And yet amid the negative attention, Weiss makes some good points. For example, if Bea “attempted to walk through the door of [her school] with an almond in her pocket, she’d practically be swarmed by a SWAT team. But who is protecting the obese kids when 350- calorie cupcakes are handed out to the entire class on every kid’s birthday?”

I came back to some of Weiss’ points when I read an alarming article in The New York Times Magazine about “precious puberty” in which our girls are maturing at earlier ages. There are myriad contributing factors, with environmental ones high on the list. For a time, I ran my own quirky branch of the Environmental Protection Agency, purging plastic water bottles and containers, getting hysterical about pesticides and scouring Whole Foods for kosher organic chicken.

Weight was once considered to be one of the causes of precocious puberty. Pediatric endocrinologists believed in the critical-weight theory of puberty –once a girl’s body reaches a certain mass, then puberty begins. But that theory has recently shifted to something called the critical-fat theory of puberty. The idea is that fat tissue, not weight itself, sets off early maturity. More specifically, girls who are overweight have higher levels of a hormone called leptin, which can lead to early puberty. Leptin sets off a cycle that can elevate estrogen levels and affect insulin resistance, causing girls to have more fat tissue.

There’s also that vague bubble of stress floating over a girl’s life. The de rigueur research on the subject points to the salutary affects of growing up in a two-parent household. I’m also fascinated by evolutionary biology and the assertion that reproducing earlier is the result of a stressful childhood – the body’s default response to coping with a difficult life.

Evolutionary psychology aside, our girls’ bodies and psyches are so complicated, so vulnerable. There’s always low selfesteem and negative body image lurking in the background, waiting to pounce. How can parents protect their daughters?

The snarky answer is not to write about a child’s struggles with weight in a national magazine. But Weiss’ article is the exception rather than the rule. Among the best advice that I’ve read on the subject of blooming early, applies to raising girls in general. Focus on your daughter’s physical and emotional health, rather than playing food cop or attempting to slow her development. Treat your daughters appropriately for the age they are, not the age they look or want to be.

While it may seem obvious, be patient and give your daughter a heavy dose of perspective. And please, please respect her privacy. By the way, Bea lost 16 pounds and grew two inches in a year. Not that that’s anybody’s business.

Better Living Through Chemistry: My Happiness Project

Color me jaded, but when I first came across The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin it sounded kitschy to me. Nevertheless, a couple of years ago I was curious enough to follow Rubin’s Facebook postings, most of which exhorted me to work on my happiness every day. A simple attitude adjustment, like telling yourself that you were happy, was the first step towards true contentment. Not really convinced, but I kept on keeping on.

I tried to lighten up for a time and absorb some of Rubin’s tips for chasing away the blues by picturing a new landscape, or taking in the following advice for combating boredom:

Take the perspective of a journalist or scientist. Really study what’s around you. What are people wearing, what do the interiors of buildings look like, what noises do you hear? If you bring your analytical powers to bear, you can make almost anything interesting. (Perhaps this is a key to the success of some modern art.)

No can do. I don’t have the patience. And Rubin’s subtitle serves as a telling abridgement— Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. I have to say, none of things sound like fun to me.

The Happiness Project was born on a cross-town bus ride in Manhattan when Rubin was in a funk. Then it hit her: she was going through the motions of living rather than actually living. It seems like a deceptively simple epiphany. But step back, take a deep breath, turn off the internal chatter running through your brain, and take in your surroundings. Fully live in the moment. Not so easy when a child is not doing well in school or an aging parent is losing her memory.

Let me tell you about my own complicated happiness story. I’ll begin at the end. A few weeks ago I was driving the daily loop that encompasses the 15 miles between my children’s schools. Quite suddenly it hit me that I was happy. Not a euphoric kind of happiness, but simmering contentment instead of an acid angst dwelling in the proverbial pit in my stomach.

Not so remarkable until I tell you what happened to me a decade ago. Yes, I have two great kids.  I have a loving husband whom I adore. There is a mortgage on our lovely home, a Volvo in our driveway. And then the life that I carefully built with Ken came apart for no apparent reason. In layperson’s parlance I had a nervous breakdown. My depression and panic were off the charts. I’d been through this many times, but over the years I’d always managed to climb out of the pit.

This time it was different. The psychological pain wasn’t going away. I began going to weekly psychiatric appointments with Dr. G. For two months I debated, mostly with myself during those sessions, about signing on for an anti-depressant. One day Dr. G asked me if I would take insulin if I had diabetes. When I said that I would, he followed up with another question. Would I take medication to correct a serotonin imbalance? And so my personal happiness project began.

At first I grudgingly took the medication to function. The stigma be damned! Then I gladly took the medication to have a better life. So what if I traded twenty pounds for my happiness, and yes, my sanity. I got the better end of that bargain. Underlying my decision to fill that Prozac prescription was an obligation to do everything I could to be the best for my family. Anti-depressants are not a cure-all, but in conjunction with counseling they have worked wonders for me. That said; please don’t try this at home. Self-medication is dangerous and sometimes deadly.

I share my story to tell you that depression and anxiety can happen to anyone at any time. I share my story to tell you that working out at the gym or reading up on tips to boost your happiness can’t wholly address serious medical conditions like depression and panic disorder. Mostly, I’ve decided to go public to tell you that there is medicine and therapy and, yes, love out there.

Gretchen Rubin’s book is a fun guide to de-cluttering or cleaning out your closets But there’s nothing wrong with you if a best-selling paperback, meant to provide organizing tips leavened with a little perspective, does not lead you to your personal nirvana. I don’t care how many copies of The Happiness Project have been sold. It’s not a guide to expansive living, the Physician’s Desk Reference or a cure-all. And by the way, I’m much happier since I “unfriended” Gretchen Rubin on Facebook.


Isy Mekler’s Forest of Giving

It’s spring. It’s Passover. The days are longer. The trees are blooming. And in these past few months new trees – giving trees inspired by Shel Silverstein’s iconic book “The Giving Tree” – have grown out of Isy Mekler’s bar mitzvah project.

Isy, a seventh grader at Solomon Schechter Day School of Boston, was determined to emphasize the mitzvah in his bar mitzvah. Along the way he assembled a museum quality exhibit, excelled as a fundraiser for a national literacy program called Reach Out and Read and received a Make a Difference Award from the John F. Kennedy Library, where he was the only student who spoke at the ceremony.

Isy Mekler with his Giving TreesIsy’s Giving Tree Project started as an English class assignment to write a fan letter to an author whose book was life-changing for the student. Although Shel Silverstein died in 1999, Isy memorialized him, praising the late author and illustrator for helping him understand life a little better through the tree’s unselfish giving.

“When I read your book ‘The Giving Tree,’ I thought it was absurd that a tree could be happy after stripping itself of everything it had. The tree gave away all its apples. The tree gave away all of the branches it had, and its trunk. But the tree was still glad that it could keep giving. …Now I understand how divine it feels to give.”

Isy wanted to “give” his love of reading to other kids. But he realized that such joy is not easy to come by for children who can’t afford to buy books or don’t have access to well-stocked libraries in their schools. He was also well aware that a meaningful commitment to literacy meant giving everything he had in the form of time and heart and love.

And then, there were the trees. Isy designed trees for artists to paint or illustrate that were composed of two quarter-inch thick hardboard panels that slid into each other to create a three-dimensional tree. Each tree measured 19.5 inches in height and 15 inches in width.

By the time the prototype for the trees arrived from Colombia – Isy’s family is originally from Colombia and his grandmother there oversaw the manufacturing and delivery – Isy had written to more than 300 artists, 28 of whom committed to painting or illustrating a tree to support kids and literacy. In addition, fine art glass artist Dale Chihuly donated seven signed copies of his books to Isy’s project, and illustrator Karla Gudeon donated a giclée print called “Big Tree.”

When Isy became a bar mitzvah last November, the participating artists had completed the trees in time to be used as table centerpieces for his celebration. Some of the trees incorporate explicitly Jewish themes. Tikva Adler, a North Carolina-based artist, painted her interpretation of an Eytz Chayim, the Tree of Life. Adler elaborated that creating art was akin to experiencing “prayer or meditation because it brings my awareness fully into the present moment.”

Joy Chertow, Isy’s art teacher at Solomon Schechter, created a weeping willow tree using wire. Isy noted that Chertow was the only artist who changed the shape of the tree. He pointed out, “When seen from above, Joy’s tree is more oblong and the wire seems to be swinging with a non-present wind.”

Raquel Rub, a Peruvian-Jewish artist who makes her home in Miami, painted her artistic interpretation of “Creation.” In a recent e-mail, Rub explained that when she visited Israel, she was moved by: “Four sites in Israel where I was inspired by Creation. In Hebron, I visited the burial sites of the patriarchs. In Tiberias, I took a boat ride on Lake Tiberias. In Jerusalem, we remember where the Temple stood. Tzfat is the mystical city. Together, these four places reminded me of the elements earth, water, fire and air to make the piece you now have called ‘Creation.’”

Illustrator and children’s book author, Aaron Becker, was so impressed with Isy’s commitment to service that he designed a tree based on his upcoming children’s book called “Journey,” which is set, in part, in a forest. The material was a natural fit for Becker, whose tree Isy admired for its air of mystery and “the beautiful shadowing and the soft glow of the lanterns.”

In his acceptance speech at the JFK Library, Isy said that his father “was the driving force that inspired me to enjoy reading.” He also noted, “I want to provide other kids with this wonderful gift, and I want to make a difference.”

And Isy continues to make a difference in the waiting room of a Roslindale clinic where he volunteers to read to the young patients twice a month.

Isy Mekler’s Giving Tree Project will be on display at the Danforth Museum in Framingham from April 15 to August 15 as part of the museum’s literacy initiative. After the exhibit, the trees will be auctioned, with all proceeds going to Reach Out and Read.

I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl: Kelle Groom’s Memoir in Paperback by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Kelle Groom—my friend and mentor—sees her best-selling memoir come out in paperback today. It’s a luminous book in which Kelle performs the delicate dance of being both lyrical and gritty without a misstep. The central event in the book is her unflinching account of giving birth to her son when she was 20, unmarried, unmoored and heavily drinking. Her aunt and uncle, childless and still young enough to raise a child, adopted her son when he was four days old. My friend held him twice and never saw him again. She still hears his cries as he was bundled up and taken away.

Kelle is a prize-winning poet and the title of her book—I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl—is both hopeful and elegiac in its reference to the blue dress  she wore as a flower girl. She was six when she walked down the aisle strewing rose petals. I was six too when I was the flower girl at my uncle’s wedding. I was all tulle and scratchy netting in a dress that turned me into a preternaturally aqua-colored cupcake. Anna was a flower girl when she was five. She wore a long rose dress with patent leather Mary Janes and fancy white socks that peeked out from the hem as she methodically scattered petals before my sister the bride. Kelle knows the tender soul of a flower girl.

After reading Kelle’s book and tiptoeing my way through the rush of my own memories, I believe that Kelle wrote her way to something that Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement”—a holy appreciation for a moment in time. In my case, it was a holy appreciation for motherhood. When Anna got some good news recently, she was so happy she jumped on my back without thinking. We were both surprised when I gave her a piggyback ride. It had been a half dozen or so years since I last tromped around the house with her on my back.

I’m not nostalgic for diapers or mashed bananas. But I miss lifting my children and feeling their beating hearts against mine. I miss their shoes that once fit in the palm of my hand. I’ve stashed away one of Anna’s onesies—the one a friend made exuberantly announcing Anna’s name, date of birth and weight in red and purple waterproof marker.

I met Kelle six years ago in a writing workshop in Provincetown. She presented a chapter from her memoir in which she was casting about for a definitive way to link the Superfund site in the Massachusetts mill town where her only child Tommy lived with the leukemia he developed at 9 months of age. He died in 1982 when Kelle and I were 21. I had just graduated from college and was paralyzed with anxiety about what would happen to me without the familiar scaffolding of a school routine. I couldn’t imagine being anyone’s mother let alone experiencing the aching, exquisite love I’d come to have for my children still to be born more than a decade later.

A few years ago I found my college journals in the shaggy, pink bedroom of my girlhood. I cringe when I remember that I hoped someone would discover remarkable poignancy in my self-conscious and self-important teenage angst. I wonder if Anna keeps a journal. I wonder when I stopped knowing everything about her.

When she wasn’t serving drinks at a bar or dusting the shelves at a health food store, Kelle often drank herself into a black oblivion in the early ’80s. Yet she never stopped writing poetry. I moved to New York and wrote bad fiction. When Kelle and I went out to dinner last year to celebrate the initial sale of her memoir, she had not had a drink in 26 years. At the time, I wish I had known that we had met within days of the 28th anniversary of her son’s death. I’d like to think that when we talked about Tommy that night it felt as deep as a yahrtzheit—the anniversary of loved one’s death—for Kelle.

At the end of the book, Kelle sees her son in 8mm films that she has made into DVDs. She writes that she was afraid that these reels of film from her aunt and uncle  would crumble before they were digitized. She was afraid she would crumble if she got to view them. But they survived to and went digital. And Kelle  watched her son celebrate his first and last birthday from beginning to end in a hospital room. He will be dead in two months.

Kelle has shown me that the peace of motherhood is a restless one. She wears the ocean in the shape of motherhood. Every woman does. I’ve come to a teary acceptance of tears and joy in my own mothering.  Anna is a young woman but I’m still thrilled—radically amazed, really—when she puts her head on my shoulder and calls me Mommy.