Let's Talk About Sex

BLOG-Let's Talk About ItI was never one to talk about my sex life. I thought discussing sex was distasteful. Where did I get that notion?

According to the New York Times article, Let’s Talk About Your Sex, I’m not alone. Even couples therapists don’t talk about sex.

Or at least, they didn’t until recently. And shockingly, couples therapists aren’t required to have any training in sex.

But there are provocative voices emerging in the field of couples therapy and the questions these therapists are asking and the ideas they are probing are gaining my attention.

A few months back, in a blog post titled, Your Brain and Love, I recommended Stan Tatkin’s book, Wired for Love. The premise of the book is that if you understand your partner's brain and attachment style, you can defuse conflict and build a secure relationship.

I am now reading Hold Me Tight, by Sue Johnson. She is the developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy and believes we are emotionally attached to and dependent on our partners in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing, soothing and protection.

Both books emphasize safety, loyalty and attachment as the foundations for intimacy.

But the New York Times article also mentions therapist, Ester Perel, who I wrote about in a blog post called, Desire and Marriage: A Pardox? She believes that the current conversation around intimacy and sex are limiting, that while an affair can be an act of betrayal it can also be about expansion and growth.

Dr. Nelson, the author of The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity, is also noted.

Both Ester Perel and Dr. Nelson believe that a marriage is not over after an affair. They are broadening the conversation, not speaking in absolutes, asking important questions. They are curious, studying.

In regards to an affair, Ester Perel speaks about being an investigator as opposed to a detective. A detective wants to know where and when and with who. An investigator wants to get to the meaning of the affair.

The New York Times article attempts to position Sue Johnson against Perel and Nelson and I’m wondering why we feel the need to turn their ideas into opposing ones, a battle of it’s either this or that.

Why can’t we look at their ideas as this and that?

All of the therapists mentioned above are adding to the conversation about what it means to partner with someone you love. They are changing the dialogue, challenging old rules and supporting new ways of being in relationship.  Some of their beliefs (like how an affair can draw a couple out of deadness or that your couple bubble comes first, even before your own children) can feel frightening or downright outrageous.

But they are talking, stretching our beliefs, and I admire that.

Not too long ago sex wasn’t taught in school. People feared that talking about sexuality would encourage kids to have sex prematurely. But some were having sex anyway so why not educate them, give them information that could prevent them from contracting a disease or getting pregnant.

Dr. Nelson trains therapists to ask a couple about sex in the first session. “If you’re not talking about sex, you’re perpetuating the idea that they shouldn’t be.”

So in an effort to move out of darkness and into possibility, I agree, Let’s talk about sex.

Let the Children Play

BLOG-PLAYWhen I was in kindergarten, my school day ended at noon. My teacher played the piano and my class sang along. She read out loud to us, The Carrot Seed and Are You My Mother?

In all fairness, I do remember a pencil can in the middle of our communal table and echoing the words to a Dick and Jane book.

But mostly, I remember Green Trees. Yes, that’s right our playing field had a name. And I recall, vividly, a seesaw and running and playing tag.

Twenty years later, things were different.

My son’s kindergarten day ended at 3:00. He was not yet 5, but the first thing his teacher told me at his parent conference in November was, “He still wants to play.” She said this as if this was a bad thing and that something had to be done if my son was to succeed at all.

Being an NYU student who was majoring in education, I ignored her. Well, that’s not exactly true. I talked about her endlessly to anyone who would listen, wondering why someone who obviously knew nothing about children or education was allowed to teach.

The year before, when my son was 4, his teacher raved at our parent conference about how he had a glowing imagination. She reported that he could brilliantly story tell, recall details from stories he’d been told and had a flare for description. And most importantly, he had a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face.

So you can imagine my surprise when his kindergarten teacher did not feel the same way about his development and wanted him to sit still longer and pay attention better.

This child of mine had learned to tie his shoes the previous summer while he was still 4; but when I showed up in April to help out in his classroom, his teacher looked at me, pointed to my son’s untied shoe laces and said, “It’s time he learn to tie his shoes.”

Why had my son played (pun intended) like he couldn’t tie his shoes throughout most of the year?

And what else had he pretended he couldn’t do?

According to Let the Kids Learn Through Play, a New York Times piece, academic teaching in kindergarten can backfire. It can cause unnecessary stress and spoil a child’s desire to learn.

Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist, spent his career studying how the human brain develops and says that most kids younger than 8 are better suited for exploration than they are for didactic explanation.

Formal education at an early age will not foster people who can discover and innovate; and in fact, may result in children earning lower grades than children who had the opportunity to learn through play.

My grandson is now learning to read and it’s as if this generation of teachers and educational policy makers still did not get the memo:

Children learn through play.

It is essential for their development, not to mention their happiness and overall well-being.


What Are We Doing to Our Children?

  BLOG- WINDOW2My 13 year-old nephew told me that his classroom is in a basement. No windows.

He doesn’t have gym, music or art.

He gets to school at 7am and returns home after 5pm.

As a teacher, I find this heartbreaking.

As a person, I find it inhuman.

This past weekend a piece in the New York Times, Best, Brightest and Saddest, reported that between May 2009 and January 2010, five teenagers in Palo Alto committed suicide by stepping in front of a train.

The article discusses the stresses (advanced placement classes, perfect SAT scores and exceptional grade point averages) that push teenagers to overachieve.

Teenagers often don’t get enough sleep and depression is on the rise.

Two weeks ago, on a Saturday night, my daughter, a junior in high school, came to me in tears. She was scheduled to take a practice SAT the following morning. She’d already taken countless tests.

My daughter wakes up at 6:45 every school day and commutes for over an hour in traffic. She comes home from school around 8pm after she’s completed soccer practice, or worked with her SAT tutor or gone to a friend’s house to study. She goes to sleep around midnight, which she claims is early in comparison to her friends. Over the weekend, she has hours of homework.

It made sense that she was stressed out.

“I’m so tired,” my daughter said, clearly upset. “And I have to wake up at 6:30 tomorrow morning to take the SAT again.”

Parenting requires we use our best judgment and the terrifying truth is that we’re not always going to be right.

But in recognizing that my daughter had reached her limit, that she needed empathy and support, I said, “Don’t take it.”

But I was unsure.

Was I teaching my daughter to expect less of herself?

Was I teaching her bad values?

I went with my gut.

Education has always been important to me and my children are aware of that. In fact, my older children like to tease me that I wouldn’t let them miss a day of school when they were young unless they were bleeding from their eyeballs and had 104 degree fever.

The thing is that even though education is an important value to me, teaching my daughter to value her well being, more than a test score, felt right.

Even still, I was relieved to see that in the NY Times article mentioned above a psychiatrist, Adam Strassberg, agreed that limiting the number of times a student takes the SAT is one way to reduce student stress.

The article points to a new awareness, “Want the best for your child, not for your child to be the best.”

Draw, Sing, Dance, Shout from the Rooftops: Je Suis Charlie

BLOG- Je Suis CharlieI’m writing this post because I can. I have that right.

And yet, I have to admit, I’m scared.

I’m scared to google: Charlie Hebdo.

I’m scared to go to a kosher supermarket, a synagogue, a yeshivah.

I’m not scared to the point where I won’t actually do those things; but I do them with forethought.

For months after 9/11 the only way into Manhattan was by subway. As the Q train sped across the Brooklyn Bridge, I put my hands over my face, my head in my lap and prayed. My friend, Susan, took one look at me and said, “I don’t believe what I’m seeing. Are you crazy? What do you think is going to happen?”

I didn’t know.

What I did know was that on the morning of 9/11, while phone lines were still intact, I called my husband, hysterical. I told him I was watching TV and that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I said the building was going to go down. Even as the words came out of my mouth, I didn’t really believe what I was saying. My husband told me I was being ridiculous, that the building would not go down.

But it did.

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical weekly newsmagazine named after the American Peanuts character, Charlie Brown. The magazine is known for its provocative cartoons mocking political leaders and religious extremism.

All extremism- Catholic, Jewish, Muslim.

“Charlie” is pro-freedom and believes that the best cartoons make people laugh and think.

Extremists don’t want people thinking independently. Education is like kryptonite to extremists. (See: Teach Children and Change the World.)

Twin Pencils It’s true that Charlie Hebdo cartoons have been inciting havoc for years, and after seeing images, I agree that some are racy and even disrespectful; but in a free society, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to look. You can boycott or protest- you can write, draw, dance, march, sing your opposing point of view; but you can’t murder.

Voltaire, a French philosopher and advocate for freedom of religion and freedom of expression said, “I hate what you are saying, but I shall fight so that you are able to say it.”

Friday night, at our Shabbat dinner table, my family talked about the killings at Charlie Hebdo, we talked about the murders at the kosher supermarket and we talked about the march in Paris for solidarity.

I brought up that in response to the supermarket incident, a women commented online, “Why should anyone have sympathy for a group that thinks that regular food out of the regular grocery store is unfit to eat.”

Thankfully, someone wrote back, “That is an incredibly racist and ignorant comment.”

But the questions we are left to grapple with are:

How do we deal with such hatred and naivety?

And how do we fight terrorism while protecting our civil liberties?

Before the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, the magazine was in financial trouble and did not have a huge following. Weekly, the magazine printed 60,000 copies with less than half being sold. But since the massacre, one million copies of the first issue were planned. It was then increased to three and later five million copies. In the end, seven million copies were printed. Ironically, just like with the film The Interview, terrorists have called worldwide attention to, and spurred interest in, subjects that might have gone less noticed.

And as a result of their heinous crimes, we have joined together, and in that solidarity there is commitment and strength. Who knows what will change, or if anything will change at all; but every small act matters, and if the terrorists hadn’t attacked Charlie Hebdo, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post, mostly, because my dedication to freedom of speech wouldn’t have been on my mind; but also because if I didn’t address my own fears in writing this, terrorism would be working.

While I’m not as brave as the editor at Charlie Hebdo who said after an attack in 2011, “I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees,” I embrace his sentiment, and this post is my banner, my contribution to the fight.

I am freedom.

I am Charlie.

Je Suis Charlie

Teach Children and Change the World

BLOG-EDUCATION On October 9, 2012 the Pakistani Taliban shot 15 year old Malala Yousafzai in the head. She was on her school bus.

On April 14, 2014 Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist organization, kidnapped 276 female students in Nigeria.

On December 15, 2014 the Pakistani Taliban killed 141 people (132 of them children) in a school in Peshawar.

Terrorists understand that education corrodes extremism.

Terrorists understand that education is the most powerful force to transform society.

That’s why they keep attacking schools and school children.

It is unthinkable and utterly disturbing.

In a New York Times piece, What’s So Scary About Smart Girls? Nicholas Kristof writes, “When terrorists in Nigeria organized a secret attack last month, they didn’t target an army barracks, a police department or a drone base. No, Boko Haram militants attacked what is even scarier to a fanatic: a girl’s school. That’s what extremists do. They target educated girls, their worst nightmare.”

In a more recent essay, Kristof states, “I’ve concluded that education may be the single best way to help people help themselves.”

So what’s my point?

Is it that…

A. American leaders should know this too and should invest more in education both domestically and overseas?

B. Individuals will find power in getting educated?

C. Parents must educate their children?

D. All of the above.

Malala Yousafzai miraculously survived and is now an activist who speaks on the rights of children. She brought worldwide attention to the mission: BRING BACK OUR GIRLS after the kidnappings in Nigeria.

Sometimes, I feel helpless because it seems there is little I can do.

But in an effort to be a part, albeit a small part, of the solution, I support Room to Read, an organization that envisions a world in which all children can pursue a quality education, reach their full potential and contribute to their community and the world.

It has been said that the most influential of all educational factors is the conversation in a child’s home.

What’s the conversation at your house?

Doodle Power

Doodle-How Schools Kill Creativity  If you google most popular TED Talks the first one listed is Ken Robinson’s: How Schools Kill Creativity (2006).

I was fortunate enough to go to Isadore Newman School in New Orleans, where creativity was valued. In fourth grade, I had the opportunity to sit on a carpet with my classmates and sing Langston Hughes poetry while our teacher played the guitar; and in fifth grade, my homework was to bake homemade bread when our class studied the Pioneers.

Newman recognized something in me; and so while my friends in other classes memorized multiplication facts, I designed the classroom bulletin board. At the time this method of teaching was quite progressive. It was before Howard Gardner wrote, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983.) In his book, Gardner proposes that intelligence should not be measured by a single ability but should be differentiated into specific, primarily sensory, modalities: musical, visual, verbal, logical, bodily, interpersonal, intrapersonal.

My experiences at Newman affected me greatly and as a fourth and fifth grade teacher, I wanted to educate in a similar way, a way I believed was essential. At NYU and  then at Bank Street College, where I received my graduate degree, I learned about educating the whole child; providing meaningful experiences, and a variety of materials, in order to create an environment in which children could learn to their full potential.

But at school in New Orleans, I didn’t understand why I got to skip math in order to practice my balance beam routine. I thought I was getting away with something, beating the system. The staff at Newman understood that in order to educate me, and others like me, it would require something more than sitting in a chair for eight hours straight, staring at the blackboard. I would need to dance, draw, sing.

In sixth grade, however, in science, I received the first and only "D" I ever got on my report card. My parents went ballistic, and grounded me. Wanting to leave my room, I promised to work hard and pull up my grade.

One day, my science teacher lectured about clouds: cumulus, stratus, cirrus, nimbus. I sat in the front row and doodled. My teacher was generally a nice man, and probably a proponent of progressive education, but given my report card grade, the squiggly drawings on my notebook aggravated him; and he ordered me to put the sketches away. It was one thing to value the arts in a classroom but doodling?

I was humiliated in front of my class, not only because he’d scolded me; but because I really had been listening, and hated that he thought I hadn’t been. I wanted to show him that he was wrong, that I could doodle and pay attention, in fact maybe even better attention than if I hadn’t been doodling. And I did. I showed him. I got a 92 on the next science test. But it wasn’t until last week, almost 40 years after the day I doodled in class, that I found scientific research to back me up.

After I watched Ken Robinson’s TED Talk, How Schools Kill Creativity, I wanted to tell others to watch it. (The TED tagline is Ideas Worth Spreading.) In trying to summarize the content of the video, I could barely retrieve a single detail other than what the title inferred, and this upset me. Why was my retention so poor?

Inadvertently, a few days later, I stumbled on Sunni Brown’s video on Doodling. Doodlers, Unite! Brown says that studies show sketching and doodling improve comprehension and creativity. Further browsing led me to a site on graphic note taking, which is basically another name for doodling.

I know I need to write things down, see them, in order to remember them. I’m not an auditory person: in one ear, out the other, as the saying goes. But once I take pen in hand, and can see the words or pictures on a page, the images are etched in my mind, the details stored. But I'd forgotten, or at least minimized, how essential this was to me as a learner.

So, I listened to How Schools Kill Creativity again; but this time, I doodled as I listened and graphic note taking, it turns out, is a great tool. The difference in my comprehension was incredible. I had no problem recounting how Ken Robinson is a creativity expert who is challenging the way we educate our children, reminding us that schools need to nurture, rather than undermine, creativity, and to acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.

I tried graphic note taking while I watched Brene Brown’s TED Talk- The Price of Invulnerability. (I highly recommend her talk- The Power of Vulnerability as well.)

The Price of Invulnerability

I joke now that I could recite these talks, verbatim.

The power in doodling is just one of many ideas worth spreading.

Mommy, When Did You Turn Jewish?

I wrote the essay below after visiting Israel in 2005. It was published in North American Review, January/February 2008.

I stared at black-and-white photographs at the Holocaust Museum in Israel the week Jewish settlers were forced to leave their homes in Gaza. I was overcome by sadness as I read how Jews felt connected to Germany, their motherland, and yet were required to leave during the Holocaust. I pictured myself in either one of these situations and felt frightened.

I thought back to a conversation I had with Mark just after we married. He was 24 at the time and asked, “So are you an American first or a Jew?” I was 18 years old and not yet prepared to answer this question of identity. Mark argued that we had to consider ourselves Jews before anything else because our future safety was precarious. I told him that he was ridiculous to think that anything like the Holocaust could ever happen again. But given my age and limited experience, I had little understanding of intolerance or my role in educating future generations.

I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and attended Sunday School at the reformed synagogue that my family belonged to. My earliest memory takes place in my kindergarten class where we discussed our concept of God. I internalized someone large, omnipresent, and male. In my heart, I believed God listened to my prayers and could answer them. My ideas about religion and my relationship with God stemmed from love, not fear.

In sixth grade, my Sunday School teacher taught us about the Holocaust. She told us that six million Jews had perished. In order to grasp just how much that was, she asked us to make tally marks on loose-leaf paper. Each mark represented a Jewish life. The class filled sheet after sheet with tally marks and she lined the classroom walls with these papers. I think we reached about 100,000 marks, and then we were asked to stretch our imaginations to ten times that amount, and then six times that number. As far as I was concerned, nothing this horrible could ever occur again. At 12, it is difficult to understand how something that took place 30 years before, in a country as foreign and far away as Germany, could ever happen at home, in America. So, at 18, only six years later, I believed Mark was wrong. Over the years, Mark and I have had many discussions (or, more honestly, battles) over religion.

Mark and I met when my family moved from New Orleans to New York. Both of my parents had been raised in the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn, but after they married they moved to New Orleans for business reasons. When I was 16, they believed it was time to move back to New York because, in keeping with tradition, they wanted me to marry a Syrian Jew and be part of the Syrian community. Even though three out of four of my grandparents were from Aleppo, Syria, making them Sephardic Jews, my maternal grandmother was from Europe, making her an Ashkenazi Jew, and she had a profound influence on my life.

The transition from New Orleans to New York was difficult for me. Besides leaving behind the South, I left behind a reformed lifestyle sprinkled with Ashkenazi influence and moved into an orthodox community with Arabic roots. Passover went from being a large dinner party with a customary Sedar plate in the center of the table to a two-hour reading of the Haggadah.

Mark is a man of conviction, someone who sees the world in black and white. I, on the other hand, see shades of gray. From the beginning of our marriage, Mark and I struggled with our religious differences, trying to understand each other and create peace in our home. Mark insisted you couldn’t have a haphazard approach to being Jewish. He believed you had to act on it. You had to do things like keep Kosher and observe the Sabbath. I thought of Lynn, my best friend from New Orleans. Her family was Ashkenazi, and they were the nicest people I knew. Her mother was a caterer and an active participant in a reformed synagogue. She made a birthday party for her husband once and invited the rabbi. She served shrimp and crab. Lynn’s family believed that being a Jew had nothing to do with what you ate.

Immediately after Mark and I married, his grandmother, a traditional woman who had her reservations about me being raised in New Orleans away from the Syrian community and distant from what she considered Jewish life, pulled me to the side and sneered, “Anyone can get married, not anyone can have a baby.” I was 20 when my first son, Jack, was born.

Three out of five of my children eventually attended secular schools, but when they first entered school, they attended Yeshivah (an orthodox school of Jewish learning). While Mark was elated because he didn’t go to Yeshivah and felt strongly that his children be afforded this privilege, this was difficult for me. My sons had to wear tzitzit and a yarmulka and my daughters had to wear a skirt. Again, I found myself in a strange world, and when my children came home with questions and ideas regarding organized religion, sometimes I couldn’t relate. And so Mark and I continued to debate how to live our lives and how to best raise our children. Mark said he wanted our family to be religious, and I claimed that we were. We found ourselves discussing what it meant to be religious. I argued that Mark was substituting the word religious for observant, and that they were not the same.

One Purim, I sat at the kitchen table with my children. Hamentash (cookies traditionally eaten on Purim) baked in the oven while we made paper-bag puppets of King Ahashvarosh and Queen Esther. We designed a pictured Megillah (a scroll telling the story of Purim) and wrapped the drawings around an empty paper towel roll. We decorated toilet paper rolls and filled them with beans to make groggers (noise makers used to drown out the sound of the evil Haman’s name when the Megillah is read.) As my children worked on their projects, I got up to check the hamentash. My son Richard was around eight at the time, and he looked across the room and asked, “Mommy, when did you turn Jewish?” I was stunned and felt judged in my own home, by my own child. I wondered how I’d let things get so far. I needed Richard and the rest of my children to know, I’d always been Jewish. I wanted them to understand what I believed it meant to be a good Jew, and ultimately that meant they needed to know what it meant to be a good person.

Almost a decade later, my father-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Over the nine months that followed that diagnosis, until the day he died, he was surrounded by family and friends. Community members visited and prayed. All six of his children and their spouses, his grandchildren, and his wife did what they could in the hope that he would survive this disease. His children made him fresh juices that he couldn’t even drink, helped him put on tefillin when he couldn’t do it himself, and administered medicine. His three sons, his three sons-in-law, and his older grandsons took turns giving him a coffee enema to relieve his discomfort. This was a terrific ordeal that took at least three men to carry him through the process. His bedroom became an amazing place, bustling with activity, ironically filled with life and energy, hope and prayer, and the exact opposite, his imminent death. The cohesiveness of family and community was astounding, and I felt proud to be part of it.

The last few days of his life were painful to watch. I asked my mother-in-law if she thought it was appropriate for my son Jack, who was then 18 and very much involved with what was happening, to participate in giving the enemas or to watch his grandfather deteriorate. My mother-in-law turned to me and said, “There are so few things that people can look back on in their life and feel true meaning. Let him have this.” And so I watched Jack unflinchingly link his arm through his grandfather’s as he helped carry him to the bathroom again.

As a parent, I find that sometimes there are these flashes of light, rays of sunshine. Those are the times I look around and think I’ve done something right. For years, Mark and I worried that our different approaches to life and Judaism would confuse our children. But in the end, I believe what we both honestly wanted was to raise good people; people with conscience and commitment; people with heart and soul. We wanted to give our children a safe place to learn and question, discover and share. Through the years of negotiating and compromising, with any luck at all, our children have learned to have respect and tolerance for people with different points of view, because ultimately if you can’t achieve peace in your living room, how can you expect peace on earth?

And so, after all these years, I still can’t answer Mark’s original question about identity. I don’t believe I am any one thing. I am a fair-skinned Jewish woman of Arabic descent who now eats mechshe instead of crayfish, and who now says inshullah as readily as I used to say y’all. And while I haven’t embraced every Judaic tradition, as an American I have choice, and there is nothing matter-of-fact about how I light my candles every Friday night and pray to a loving God for peace on earth and in my home.