Me, too.

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Me, too. I was drugged at a fraternity party my sophomore year of college. I was in denial for a long time, because I remembered so little. But I knew the perpetrator, someone the frat brothers called “cowboy,” and I know how and when I was drugged. I know enough to know what happened.

I think about it so infrequently. But fourteen years later, mother to a young daughter (and pregnant with my second) in a country where sexual violence, a form of gender-based violence, is condoned and endemic, I find myself actively searching for ways to empower her and protect her from it. I teach my daughter the scientifically accurate names of her body parts, and only talk about her body if discussing all of the amazing things it can do. We talk about how to set boundaries and how to say “no” if she doesn’t like something. I never insinuate that she is a little boy’s girlfriend or talk about a kiss between toddlers as if it’s a sexual act. As she gets older, there will be so much more sharing and teaching and learning. My partner and I are committed to instilling her with confidence and a strong sense of self-worth.

The harrowing stories of sexual violence that have surfaced in the last week are deeply disturbing, but hardly surprising. The accounts of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s repeated sexual assaults of women in the industry spanned decades, as did the network of people who enabled and abetted his predatory acts by protecting him or looking away.  Woody Allen’s unacceptable reaction gives us such clear insight into the mentality of those who allowed this to happen.  (But this response is so, so good!)

The hashtag #MeToo went viral Monday as a demonstration of solidarity with others who have survived sexual violence and to show the prevalence of this violence. I stand in absolute solidarity with those who have posted their stories, and I have chosen to share my own.

But while I’ve participated in it, the viral campaign also misses some really important points.  First, gender-based violence is about power and is part and parcel of other systems of violence and oppression, namely, white supremacy.  As a white woman, dismantling gender-based violence means also addressing my white privilege and working to challenge the power structures that support all forms of oppression.  This piece says it well and lists many questions we should be asking men and ourselves.  Second, #MeToo as a viral campaign risks fading as quickly as it began if it is left to be simply a viral campaign without appreciation for the long-time work that has gone into building a thoughtful movement that supports survivors and challenges the systems that allow for gender-based violence.

Both the first and second points are illustrated by the way this viral campaign began:  with a white female actor encouraging others to write “me too” as a status if they had been sexually harassed or assaulted to show the magnitude of the problem.   But the campaign didn’t appreciate that, in fact, black activist Tarana Burke founded the “Me Too” movement over ten years ago to empower women of color to tell their stories of survival and find solidarity.  She is the director of Girls for Gender Equity and has been doing the work and building a movement of those who face intersectional oppression.  “Me Too” must be much, much more than a hashtag to have real social impact, and white women need to check our privilege and use it to make space for those most impacted by gender-based violence.

And remedying sexual violence must be about more than empowering those who have or who are likely to be subjected to sexual violence, because sexual violence will continue without a major cultural shift in the expectations we set for our boys and men.  I can teach my daughter every defense mechanism available to her, but ultimately equipping girls and others who face sexual violence with these tools will do little if men don’t change the way they think about women, the female body, and their own power.

If men take anything from the #MeToo campaign, it should not be shock at the prevalence of sexual violence.  Instead, ask yourselves what you, personally, will do about it.  One of my white male college friends who is a strong ally to women politically and personally posted his support of those who had endured sexual violence.  He then went a step further to acknowledge ways he might have been complicit in allowing this to happen.  He then linked to a blog post written by a woman entitled, “The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture.”  Indeed, often men are introduced to sexist ideas and encouraged to be hyper-masculine from a very early age.  (Parents who talk about their toddler’s “way with the ladies”: looking at you.)  What if parents, teachers, and peers encouraged and rewarded nurturance instead?  Listen to the women in your lives, believe them when they report sexual violence, and challenge yourselves and your male peers to talk and think about women as equals deserving of your respect.

Lots of women I know have posted the words “of course” when they added their voice to the #MeToo conversation. One in four girls experience sexual assault before they are 18. One in four. We have a president who bragged about sexually assaulting women, and a nation willing to vote for him despite knowing this. Pornography and its glorification of rape culture has become so mainstream, and viewing it so accepted as a rite of passage for young men. Instead of implementing inclusive sex education into school curricula, we favor abstinence-only education and place the burden on young girls to adhere to this, because, as many say (and need to stop saying), “boys will be boys.” Instead of recognizing reproductive freedom as a human right that women have to control what happens to our own bodies, we are still fighting for basic access to birth control.  We have a long way to go.

Let’s keep up our strength, support survivors, use white privilege to elevate the voices of women of color and celebrate their leadership in the movement against sexual violence, and educate our men and sons to respect women.

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Goodbye, Hermione

Hermione, our family dog, will go to sleep tomorrow.

This stubborn, sweet, active dog has a personality that made all of us connect with her – she demands attention and our food, greets us with full body wags, and constantly challenges authority. This tough mutt can be gentle, too, and lets us hold her when we are upset or curls up in that perfect space between the couch and one of our bodies, often my mom, in order to connect and get in some good petting after a long day.  
Hermione was a rescue dog my mom and I found on a website in 2005, and we both knew we had to have her. This was during my senior year of college, so of course I bore none of the responsibilities of caring for a dog, but fully supported my mom’s decision to get one and my dad’s decision not to challenge my mom’s decision. Hermione was named after my sister’s character in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, but got lots of attention later thanks to Harry Potter’s friend. She filled my parents’ empty nest at the time, and they loved her quickly, spoiling her in part because training her was so difficult and in part because they showed her love by slipping her steak or pancakes.

For my sister and me, despite living far away, Hermione became part of what it meant to come home. My mom, a teacher, wakes up early and feeds Hermione and works while Hermione lies nearby. Sleeping at my parents means waking to this sequence of morning sound.

Until very recently, into her old age, Hermione would bound up the sand dunes behind our family cottage on Lake Michigan, her muscles straining, my dad throwing a ball down the dune over and over so she could run up and down the dune until she was completely worn out. This is when she was happiest. I love thinking of her sniffing around the porch deck as we watched the sun set over the lake, Hermione’s nails tapping against the wooden planks, briefly sticking her nose in my lap to say hi.

I appreciated Hermione even more when two years ago we introduced her to Mimi, a brand new infant at the time. She knew Mimi was mine, and as Mimi grew, Hermione tolerated all of the pinches and pulls and tumbles. She was the source of some of the greatest pleasure I’ve seen in my kid, introducing Mimi to the magical sensation of touching a furry, warm creature and having that animal respond. Hermione is why one of Mimi’s first words was “dah” and why she now squeals at the prospect of seeing Hermione. For this, I am so grateful.

Now, though, Hermione’s body has succumbed to cancer and she is thin and weak and has lost her enthusiasm for doing much of anything. She hung on just long enough for us to move to Michigan and for me to take her on walks and spend a few days, one with my sister, working from my parents’ patio while Hermione slept at my feet. I thanked her for being so good to us these last 12 years and she let me hug her and then she made eye contact with me. I’m sure she understood my meaning.

Rest in peace, sweet pup. We’ll miss you.

Loving Los Angeles

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Dear Mimi,

Lately I’ve been taking stock of my places and my connection to those places.  I have invariably loved the places I’ve lived – my parent’s home outside of Detroit, college in Ann Arbor, rural Ukraine, New York City, Seattle, New Delhi, Seattle again.  Each exudes a unique energy and each is a part of my identity.

I also love discovering places I could live, and this is even more fun now that we are a little family.  You, your dad, and I found this connection to place and culture in Sevilla when we were there in March (more on this in a future post).  Los Angeles is one of those places for us, too.

I first started loving LA when one of my best friends, Michelle, moved there after college with her guy, Nick.  They had a beautiful wedding on the coast and worked near the beach.  Then your aunt Didi moved to West Hollywood and showed me the charms of Silver Lake and hiking Griffith Park.  Your dad and I visited one January to drive Didi’s car from LA to Seattle after she had moved back east and on that trip fell for the Armenian food and the tacos.  And when I was pregnant with you, we rented a funky, treehouse-like midcentury Airbnb in Silver Lake.  We spent hours wandering around Griffith Observatory and the Getty Museum, and drove up the coast to Santa Barbara for a day.

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LA was the first place we took you on vacation when you were seven months old.  We stayed in Marina Del Rey at our friends Michelle and Nick’s apartment while they were gone and took you to a beach on the Pacific Ocean for the first time – you loved the sand!  It was in LA that we started to learn how to travel with you.  We spent a lot of time trying to feed you and get you to sleep in the apartment, which thankfully was comfortable with a beautiful balcony that we utilized heavily.

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Last month we spent a long weekend in LA to chase the sun after a long, gray Seattle winter, have some family time, and visit Michelle and Nick and their six-month-old son.  We spent our first two nights in Venice, where we were within walking distance to the gritty, gentrifying beach and, in the other direction, to California-posh Abbott Kinney.  I loved taking an early morning walk with you the first day we were there.  We sat down with egg and cheese sandwiches and people-watched at a local breakfast spot and then visited the playground on the beach.  You noticed every bike that whizzed by, every homeless person rising for the day, every dog on a leash.  Later that day we had a fun lunch with Michelle at her nearby Google office.   (You love Michelle and insist that she holds you often.)  We had our favorite Fala Bar falafel that night, and, to your extreme delight, we dipped you in the frigid ocean.  On Saturday morning we got coffee from Blue Bottle on Abbott Kinney and sandwiches from the food truck parked outside.  We chatted with the polished, stylish crowd also waiting for their food.  You pointed to the dogs that walked by, shouting, “DAGH.”  The morning was slow and sunny and happily ended at a flea market where I bought a pair of huaraches to match my mood.

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We spent the rest of the weekend with Michelle and Nick and their (adorable) son at their home in Manhattan Beach.  They had a lemon tree out front – you loved picking up the lemons in the yard! – and a succulent garden and beautiful red poppies out back.  We walked the boardwalk with them and had a cookout and got to spend hours talking and catching up.  The next day was Mother’s Day and Nick’s parents joined us, his mom giving us gorgeous arrangements from her flower and succulent garden.  We all shared a delicious lunch on their back patio, and Michelle and I snuck away to a yoga class before we met you and the guys for dinner.  We all left feeling rejuvenated and relaxed and grateful for the time with wonderful friends in such a beautiful place in the world.

We’ll be back soon.

Love,

Mom

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What About the Children?!!! (And Other Anxiety About Climate Change)

I am so disheartened by this president’s announcement today that he will abandon our Paris Climate Agreement commitments. This post from last month reflects my thoughts today. It includes an email I wrote to my friend Lindsey and her response, published on femails.org.

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Courtney is the mother of a beautiful daughter; and as mothers do, she dreams of who her child will be, how her daughter will live her life, and how much her daughter’s world will have changed from the one she lives in today. Here’s to a femail on the future:  


From: Lindsey
Date: Mon, Apr 15, 2017 at 7:23 PM
Subject: What About the Children?!!! (And Other Anxiety About Climate Change)
To: Courtney

Dear Linds,

Do you ever have the existential fear that our kids or their kids could not have a planet to live on? You are a scientist and a writer and a parent and a deep thinker and a dear friend, so I thought I’d ask you about this.

It has been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe it’s because of Myra or maybe it’s because I feel like our government doesn’t care or maybe it’s because I listen…

View original post 1,316 more words

family adventuring: Lisbon

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Sheikh and I each loved to travel when we met – he had just gotten back from a year in Patagonia and I had lived in Ukraine only two years earlier while volunteering with the Peace Corps. After I finished law school, we spent nine months living in Delhi for his job, learning how to travel together to places I had always dreamed of going: Kathmandu, Mumbai, Rajasthan. We honeymooned in Athens and Santorini six months later.

Our experiences getting tea from a particular chaiwalla in Varanasi or sharing French wine and baguette in Jardins de Luxembourg or getting sick after reaching Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas are memories woven into the fabric of our relationship. Part of our contract is that we will continue to build those memories together. And that we would continue to do so when we had a baby.

And so, Mimi in tow, we took advantage of cheap tickets and some work travel Sheikh has in Germany and flew to Lisbon for the first leg of our family adventure overseas. While the flight wasn’t perfect – halfway through the flight Mimi vomited while nursing so you can imagine the mess and hours of residual stench – we had it way easier than the brave couple traveling with six (yes, SIX) young children. Mimi made lots of friends and we read her “My First Words” book and so that she could point out the cats and dogs and buses and make all the corresponding noises, and she even slept for a couple of hours. We arrived at our Airbnb, climbing the five stories just in time to soak in the view of Lisbon’s rooftops and the river before the sun went down.

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In Lisbon Sheikh and I fell into old travel habits that we soon discovered would require some adjustments to accommodate Mimi’s naptime, bedtime, and jet-lagged wakefulness between the hours of midnight and four a.m. We began with one or two modest goals for the day – see Sao Jorge Castle or eat a traditional Portugese seafood meal – and then we would find coffee and wander and eventually reach our destination. As we navigated the narrow cobblestone streets Mimi pointed at the dogs and trams from her stroller as Sheikh and I marveled at the tile work on nearly every residential building exterior and practiced a lilting “bom dia” as we passed a friendly face. We frequently got Mimi out of her stroller to climb the steps to a cathedral or to chase pigeons in one of many sprawling, quiet city squares. We enjoyed a family espresso date at a café-kiosk full of hip Lisbon couples. This travel-while-parenting thing is definitely for us.

But when Mimi started to show signs of complete exhaustion, it would take hours to get her to sleep. Sheikh and I had decided that we were going to have her nap in her stroller so that we could have some time in the city together while she slept. Our dates café-sitting while Mimi slept in the fresh air proved worth the effort, but not before hours of strolling and bouncing and one particularly desperate moment nursing her on a random stoop.

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The most important things are to have realistic expectations and to be flexible. One night illustrated this perfectly. Mimi had napped late and was in her characteristic high spirits, so we decided to go out for an early family dinner at a market across town and have that Lisbon seafood experience. After hopping out of the cab, we were wandering over to a cathedral to take a look before eating, and I realized Mimi was missing a shoe. Keeping this active toddler in our arms all night was not an option, but as she played (sweetly, happily) in the cathedral square in her socks, it soon became apparent that we needed to get her some proper footwear. So we asked around and fortunately we just so happened to be in a district with lots of kids shops. Unfortunately, we did not find one that carried shoes for another hour. And the shoes we got her were the only pair in the store in her size: white Converse sneakers. When we got back to the market to eat, it was closed.

Hungry and disappointed and feeling the stark contrast between traveling as a couple and traveling with a toddler, I took Mimi back to the cathedral square to run around in her new kicks while Sheikh looked up another place for us to eat.

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A boy about three and his father were kicking a soccer ball impressive distances under the lights in the square, and when I put Mimi down she stopped and stared at them for a minute. She reached for my hand and walked closer, stopping to watch, and then got closer again. The little boy, sweet-faced with a mop of dark curls, stopped and noticed her, walked up to her with the ball and handed it to her. Mimi took it, held it, dropped it, and in quick Portugese the boy explained that she needed to kick the ball, miming the motion. He gave the ball back for her to try. I exchanged an “isn’t this sweet” smile with his dad, and then with several relatives spanning at least three generations I saw were also watching on the sidelines. Mimi tried to kick the ball, it rolled a short distance, and she picked it back up. She stared at the boy who instructed her to drop it and kick it.

She held it until I went over and asked her to let go. The boy kicked the ball to his dad and then looked back at Mimi, who was then in my arms. “Obrigado” I said to the boy and his family. Thank you, and “tchao!” Then Mimi waved to the boy and smiled and the boy, pleased, smiled and waved back. I kissed Mimi’s forehead as we left, quietly thankful for the reminder that for all of the change she has ushered into our lives, she certainly brings me immense amounts of joy.  Sometimes when I least expect it.

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Poems on International Women’s Day

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Dear Mimi,

Poetry has immense power as we read it aloud, let it stray in our mind, hold on to a metaphor or a word or the entire piece.  In honor of feminist solidarity, here are a few written by women, for women.

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Be Nobody’s Darling
by Alice Walker
“Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.
Watch the people succumb
To madness
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.
Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
(Uncool)
Or line the crowded
River beds
With other impetuous
Fools.

Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words
They said.

But be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Qualified to live
Among your dead.”

The Journey
by Mary Oliver

“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.”

Happy Birthday, Mom!

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Today my mom turns 60.  She approaches this milestone age, one where many attempt to redefine who they are and question things they previously hadn’t, with grace and confidence in where she is and unafraid of what lies ahead.

As we come of age we spend so much energy defining ourselves as individuals in an attempt to discover our own truths.  In adulthood, as we become closer to knowing ourselves, we have a clearer view of the forces that have gotten us to where we are and a deeper gratitude for them.  My mom is one such force in my life.

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Here are just a few things I love about her:

I can’t think of anything my mom hasn’t accomplished when she’s decided it was important.  During the 80’s when our family lived in Tokyo, my mom took my sister and I – two toddlers – all over the city.  She started groups and taught a workout class at the Tokyo American Club and entertained with my dad and exposed us to botanical gardens and temples and cemetaries during cherry blossom season.  I remember helping her pass out rice cakes to homeless people living in the subway.  Back in the States, she decided to get her teacher’s certification and excelled in a top-rated program.  As a second grade teacher she raises ducklings with her students and has them put on a play about a fictional child who escaped American slavery.  She spearheaded a district-wide creative writing program and mentored the school’s student council.   She has been active in political campains and PTA and Junior Garden Club and charity work and historic commissions, engaging in her surroundings and getting things done.


Mom is artful at making people feel special.  I grew up with parties and homemade cakes and thoughtful presents on birthdays, and lots of mother-daughter dates no matter the occasion.   She has made a point to visit every place I’ve ever lived for the purpose of learning about my life and pampering me.  This includes trips to rural Ukraine (with Dad) and to tight quarters in Brooklyn (several times).  She talks with people in elevators and on airplanes, engaging people in a way that makes them confortable sharing their life’s histories.  She remembers details and writes handwritten notes.  She hugs easily and compliments quickly.

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She is an awesome Grammy to Mimi.  One recent source of joy is watching my parents become grandparents.  As a grandma, my mom is playful and creative and open-minded.  She was one of the few people to get consistent smiles from Mimi, who loves her Grammy and spontaneously kisses the phone when we Facetime.

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Mom values quality experiences with those she loves and creates traditions that encourage relationship-building.  As a kid her and my dad would take us on “mystery trips” — adventures that included trips to a ball game or a musical or even Disney Land.  Mom always created a sense of importance around our togetherness, whether we were making weekend breakfasts at the cottage or hosting Christmas Eve dinners or taking our anual road trip to Panama City Beach for a family spring break.

Mom and my dad have been in love for nearly four decades.  While her life and his are inextricably linked, she is decidedly her own, very strong-willed, very opinionated person.  Which I almost always love about her.

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She beautifies spaces and appreciates beauty.  She notoriously adds flowers to hotel rooms.  Homecoming after a long flight often includes candlelight and hors d’oeuvres and a fire in the fireplace.  She just designed and decorated a cottage that is straight out of a home design blog.  She loves gorgeous views and historic buildings and beautiful cities.

She asks for what she wants.  A table by the window.  Emotional presence.  Time with her granddaughter.

She seeks adventure and has talked at times of moving to a (well-appointed) mud hut in a temperate climate or to an Airstream on the open road (good luck, Dad!).  She is a wonderful travel partner and we have had lots of memorable trips together to Chicago when I was 13, to Paris ten years ago, to Boston and Martha’s Vineyard, to Whidbey Island.

Mom is curious.  She loves stories and history and music and theater and books and travel.

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In the coming decades I expect Mom will face decisions and change that come with age.  I know that she will embrace this change with the same positive spirit that has always driven her and that has allowed her to build strong relationships, have fun, and stay true to who she is.

I love you, Mom.  Happy 60th!