Wam! Pow! The Power of Hard Power

Why doesn’t the Mob run LA in the same way it does New York?  My New York-born grandfather Jack Goulding, Pulitzer-winning editor at the LA Times, thought he sniffed out the story.

He told his children, and his children told me, that long, long ago, when New Yorkers first came to LA – cramming along Brooklyn Avenue in what is now Boyle Heights – many wanted to bring the crime structure of New York with them.

People politics - badda bing, badda boom.

But when the Mob sent some of “their guys” out west, they were greeted at the train station by plain-clothes men. Wearing brass knuckles.

My grandfather said the mobsters were beaten within an inch of their life, and then put right back on the next train east, bleeding and unconscious. They were sent as physical postcards for their bosses that read: this is what will happen if the Mob comes to Los Angeles.

And the American Mob, as it is known, never came to Los Angeles.

I thought of this story this week when reading about the nauseating rape stories dominating my Facebook feed. One is the rape of a Stanford student, and the other is the gang rape of a Brazilian teenager. Both women were unconscious during the assault(s). The Stanford rapist was given a light sentence of six months, which his father called, “A steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.”

That sentence fills me with a rage that knows no bounds, but also one that, perhaps most tellingly, does know bounds. And that is the problem. Women have historically lack and still lack a power mechanism that keeps our physical (and financial and emotional) safety intact. My subconscious thinks, “What can we really do, anyway?” We don’t have any brass knuckles. We have soft power – we have the law, and education, and religion, and righteousness. Which all prove worthless in terms of protection.

In what world is it acceptable that Brock Turner’s father walks down the street unencumbered and unafraid while publicly stating that the forced penetration of an unconscious student was merely “action”? Stipulating that his son has the right to do that, that his son does not deserve punishment for that, and – perhaps most alarmingly – that it was fun? (That was the same tone of the Brazilian rapist’s post, “They left her kneaded like dough, get it? Haha.”)

Why is he not afraid someone will find him in a dark alley, and give him 20 minutes of “action”? And let his ass (literally) know what that feels like?

I’ve always been a flower child. I never thought I’d write like this. But something happened after I had a kid - mainly, my level of human empathy went way up,  while the number of fucks I give plummeted to about zero.  

I am outraged that I live in a world in which men mock female sexuality and female power. And I am heartbroken that no one seems to suffer from this like women do. Is that what 1970's revolutionaries meant by, “Any means necessary?” Is “action” the only language that men like that understand? Do men have to be left amassado to get what this is?

If so, maybe we should hire Mickey and Jimmy. Or Pauly and Mikey. Or whoever those LA tough men were, in the Eisenhower years. Wam! Pow! seemed to have worked. In LA, the Samoans run the docks. 


Lights! Lights!

We host a great music program called Baby DJ School here at our home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Created by the incredible Natalie Weiss, her class teaches the elementals of music - like beat, and pitch - through her own original, catchy songs. A lot of the songs use repetition (hi, age-appropriate learning strategy!), like asking the babies to clap continuously or say lines like "Pitch! Pitch!"

This morning, Natalie put on a beautiful electric lights show for the babies. It was red and green: high contrast (good for infant eyes!) yet seasonal and fun (good for parents' eyes!). While we weren't necessarily having an electric day - it was gloomy, my mother is still recovering from her cancer treatments, and some New Yorkers wonder if NYC is next ISIS target, after Paris - but when Natalie speckled neon lights all over our white walls, our living room became magical.

Cae was transfixed, and I was surprised. "How easy this is," I thought.

"How easy it is to choose joy." 

It's cold outside, and the world is still in mourning. But Christmas is coming, and it's a happy time. With Natalie's choice to bathe us in red and green, I felt like twirling around the living room, joining Cae in singing, "Lights! Lights!"


On Being Like Mary

Mary is many things to many people. Visions of her apparitions are wildly different, and depending on one’s denomination – and one’s politics – interpretations of her vary greatly. For some, she is exalted as obedient to God’s will, as full of grace, and as immaculate. This is the vision of her as God’s regal intercessor, the majestic Blessed Mother. For others, she is the subaltern, reminding us to see and seek social justice in unexpected places. In this vision, she is a scared teen mother without resources, an outcast unsure of how society will treat her, much less her mysterious and questionable son. 

I've thought of her as all of these things over my faith journey. But this Christmas, large with child myself, I’m meditating on Mary as brave. 

All things considered, Mary was a woman who, accompanied by only her husband, withstood unmedicated labor contractions on the back of a donkey as they traversed bumpy desert roads in the freezing winter night. Not only was this couple young, poor, and alone, their fate was to give birth next to animals, and as animals do - on hay, in a manger.  

This was a rough and raw birth with no fetal monitors, no epidural. No lactation consultant. 

Joseph was profoundly important here, and his role often goes unnoticed. Without giving his partner his support and presence, the Christ child might not have been. Mary might have, as many women do even today, died in childbirth, leaving the Son of God alone, helpless, and hungry. Joseph committed to helping Mary in the process, even though the child wasn’t physically his. And that’s bravery. 

As the clock of my pregnancy ticks full term this Saturday, I also hope to show the bravery and faith in God that Mary and Joseph did. I'm not going into a manger, but am going into the wild wonder of birth, and the unknown. My husband and I live far away from our families, and with insulin-dependent gestational diabetes, questions and worries about whether a long birth will render the baby hypoglycemic, about the health of the placenta, and other issues can get overwhelming. It can be scary, even with fetal monitors. 

But perhaps that’s where the Christmas message lies: claiming the gift of self-love and guidance.  Giving the big stuff over to God, and re-organizing our spiritual houses around discipline, grace, and trust. 

To do so, what if we saw all the mothers giving birth this season as Marys? Not as consumers with visions of onesies dancing in their heads, but with people with enough bravery and grit to show up to themselves, to their lives, and to God? To go beyond being the Big Lady who can’t do much beyond sleep, eat, and groan with Braxton-Hicks contractions - who can’t travel to celebrate and give gifts to family - and know ourselves instead as holy?

This means following our own internal north stars into the birth and into the light, into all that Mary can and does mean: blessed among women, yet challenged at the same time. 

Having children is hard enough, but the U.S.’ disgraceful maternity laws, having children is incredibly hard for too many American women. Many women giving birth this holiday season are working on their feet, only to return to work less than a week after the baby is born, because they can’t afford the time off. They can’t breastfeed their children because they can’t afford a maternity leave: that is what our economy gives these brave women, and it’s shameful. Metaphorically speaking, stewards of the next generation are not only giving birth but continuing to raise their child in the equivalent of a manger.  

Yet, something higher than us pulls us to embark bravely on this labor of love anyway. As On Being columnist Courtney E. Martin reminded us a few weeks back with her column 
You Began in Love (or Someone Once Wiped Your Ass Over and Over Again), every human life starts with immense love. In giving birth and raising children, we are all nurturing our own princes and princesses of peace, conceived in immaculately human ways. 

In doing this, what we’re making room for in our lives is the child, but also Love itself. And, by rhetorical extension, God. 

Love of self, love of God, and love of other. That holy trinity of residencies. 

One of my favorite Advent songs is People Look East. As the lyrics say, 

People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way

Elmer's Glue

Much is made these days of what I call endocrinal psychology, of how hormones and other biochemical indicators affect the behavior of social groups. It's a hot topic in journalistic, psychological, and business circles.  Learning personnel and communications management is the core material of MBA programming, and people pay upwards of $150,000 to learn this. But in spending time with my sister in law and her ten year-month old baby this weekend, I witnessed that something deep and instinctual within women already knows that elusive end of the MBA arc, which is how to read people. In some wild endocrinal twist of fate, women know exactly when another human being - who, mind you cannot even talk - wants to sleep, play, eat, be cuddled, be changed, be bathed, or just chill out. Calming down an infant is a special magic all to itself, and women do this every hour of every day. Women can read the un-readable elements of the human face, and that has contributed mightily (if silently) to our survival as a species.

Listening to the quiet triumph of my niece having taken to her naptime, I saw that women are this Elmer's Glue holding the world together.  In every space in which people gather - boardrooms, living rooms, kitchens, dining rooms - a woman has either organized, cleaned, or given emotional order to the space. Without stitches, or cut-outs, or pastings, or scotch tape, women hold the air up. Hold houses together, and hold the world together. Pots and pans in place, and the world around, churning.

We give natural order to rooms in the home. Just imagine what we could do in Board rooms!