A Tale of Two Fourths

As a kid, I used to look up into an inky sky and watch fireworks explode over my neighborhood. This was the 70s. There were no town-funded displays, it was the family down the block whose Dad knew a guy who knew a guy. The backyards weren’t yet fenced off and  the street was one, giant yard; kids cannon-balling into pools and adults cannon-balling into coolers full of Miller Lite. There were hot dog chunks marinating in a gooey sauce and fruit salad in hollowed out watermelons, the tops decorated like an American flag.

Miraculously, no-one drowned while the adults were busy drowning in Budweiser, blue cigarette smoke circling their heads like halos. No one blew off a finger tip or got third degree burns or accidentally torched a house or slipped inside for a cop and a feel with someone else’s wife. At least if they did, I never heard about it.

I didn’t even know what we were celebrating, not really. There had been pilgrims and a war and Betsey Ross sewed a flag. The pool water was slick and cool on my skin, the sting of chlorine sharp in my nostrils. Watermelon juice dripped down my chin. Dusk came down and someone else’s mother would come along and choke you in a cloud of OFF until you could taste the fug of it on your tongue like a fur. 

There were good people in that neighborhood. Hard working. Vans in driveways and fathers that got up early to go into shops and mothers that macraméd twisty twirly pigtail holders for the Christmas PTA sale. The rich family at the end of the street had a heated pool. The kids all  knew they were rich because they handed out full size candy bars on Halloween. When you’re nine or ten, those are the things that counted.

I thought that’s what every neighborhood in the US was like. I didn’t know any better. 

****

Two decades later my husband and I drove down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, looking for an address. There were new apartments for sale, in our price range, which was stupid expensive then and obscenely expensive now. The building, deep brown brick with brand new Windex shine windows, was on its own on an otherwise barren city block, the kind of abandoned stretch with sun-parched weeds twisting through the buckled concrete. Two or three blocks away were the unmistakable silhouettes of housing project towers that dot the Brooklyn skyline like Soviet-dressed sentinels. We did math in our head while we circled the block in our crappy car; mortgage rates and commuting times, maintenance costs. As we rounded a corner, a sudden phalanx of police cars, lights flashing, sirens wailing like the furies, screamed down the street.

It was the middle of a sweltering New York City 4th, when the city stinks of spoiled milk and rotting garbage. I don’t care where you live, NYC reeks in the summer. It was blazing sunlight afternoon, not yet dusk, not even dark enough to watch a sparkler spritz and pop in the air before it fizzed out. Two, three, four, police cars screeched to a halt sideways and perpendicular, blocking off the street. Doors flew open and cops jumped out, storming up a nearby stoop. Lights flashed, radios crackled.

We drove quietly in the other direction.

It’s taken me a long time to confront my own racism about that day, my reaction, my assumptions, the nifty little racist trick of finding excuse after excuse to forget about that (relatively) affordable apartment.

It never occurred to me that the folks who lived on that street were just having a street party– the same way we used to when I was a kid. Relaxing in the sun on a day off, drinking a beer. Taking a moment to breath in between working their asses off–just like the folks in the white neighborhood I grew up in. They didn’t have one long summer lawn slash of green to run through, but they had stoops connected by sidewalk pavement. Their kids were cooling off in the spray of fire hydrants instead of doing cannon balls because there is no damn pool. And maybe there weren’t hot dogs in gooey, sauce, but I bet there was watermelon because you can’t have a 4th of July without watermelon.

What if there was a girl, popsicle juice dripping down her chin, sitting on a stoop and thinking this is what every neighborhood I know is like. She didn’t get fireworks, she got flashing blue lights and sirens; not even in the dark where if she squinted, maybe they could kind of/sort of look pretty.

No one ever called the cops on our neighborhood parties, even though there were fireworks that no one was supposed to have going off in the night sky. Even though there were at least a dozen other things the folks in my white, working class neighborhood were given the benefit of the doubt about.

There’s a kid who grew into adulthood with a memory of the 4th of July not being cannonballs in pools and rocket pops, but guns drawn and flashing lights and cops storming a stoop.

That’s their version of the United States.

It’s totally different from mine. But…here’s the kicker. My story? It’s pretty. It’s nostalgic and it makes you feel good.

But it’s not right, or better. Those two countries are the same damn country.

My story is not more American than anyone else’s. It’s just one story in a land of 365 million stories. A time, a place, a memory. 

But my story sounds better, doesn’t it? Wholesome and patriotic. Kids running and laughing up into the night sky as bottle rockets exploded in the dark. Still tasting the fug of that OFF on their tongue. Drunk adults hiccuping softly in the night. Like they earned the right somehow to own the story. 

That sure sounds a lot better than the police coming and shutting down your street party, doesn’t it?

So guess whose story you hear? Guess whose story is the one that gets told? 

Don’t let anyone tell you, today, of all days, that America is any ONE thing. It is beautiful for spacious skies and it is dark and ugly and grim. And those polar opposites? They are not always what or where you think they are. It is coastal cities and rural corn fields. It is the good, it is the bad, and oh my God, it is the ugly. It is the kid born in Kentucky as much as it is the immigrant from Bangladesh who just became swore an oath to a country he believes in but might not believe in him back. It is taxi drivers and tractor drivers. It’s a girl growing up in a white, working class neighborhood and it’s another girl growing up in a black, Brooklyn one.

And every one of us has a story. 

You want to truly make America great?

Start paying attention to the stories that are the most unlike yours. 

 

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A Disturbance in the Force

leiaBack in October, when glass ceilings seemed shatter-able and not steeled, I was a judge for a Halloween costume contest. There was the expected assortment of ghouls and zombies, mummies and small, adorable witches in black, pointed hats. What was lacking were multitudes of frilly princesses in confectionary gowns all a-sparkle. I admit, I was surprised.

Way back in the 1970s, as a girl gearing up for the glory of a New England Halloween, there weren’t a lot of female icons to choose from. Come October 31, your choices fell somewhere between gypsy and witch. If you were lucky, Wonder Woman in a bullet-proof brassiere and sweaty, plastic mask.

Where were all the heroes a girl could see her reflection within?

It’s naive to assume that along the arc of history girls and women have been sitting silent and still on the sidelines. It is incorrect to assume that women have not been steadily contributing to art and science and exploration, mathematics, innovation. Women—explorers and inventors, leaders and heroes—have always been there, it is just that more often than not, we’ve been left–or forced–out of the narrative.

As an elementary school girl I read about Vasco de Gama and Magellan, Isaac Newton and Galileo; the artists, the authors, the musicians, the doers and inventors, the sports figures—they were all male, almost all white. There were a handful of women thrown in, but not many.

As a girl, you were often left with…princesses.

And then, in 1977, along came Carrie Fisher in a belted toga and cinnamon bun hair and in one epic reel of film, girls of my generation suddenly had a hero of their very own. A badass princess who could shoot a gun, was mouthy, and was organizing a resistance against a tyrannical regime.

For many girls, pig-tailed and searching for something they couldn’t name, she was a first.

The only people who underestimate the importance of representation—in books, or films, or even in everyday life, are those who don’t need to look far to see themselves reflected in the eyes of society; the first television show you turn on, the first history book you open, the first book from the canon of literature. But when nothing you see in the world matches the you that stares back from the mirror, it makes you question your own validity. It can feel as if you exist in a vacuum.

It’s not surprising one of the first real female heroes of my generation was from a science fiction film, set in a time and place where it was safe for females to rule, to fight, to command. It seems, in 2016, in real life, we are still not ready for a female to do that. Yet, at the end of the day, Leia was still a Princess, still a damsel in need of rescuing, but she was the first princess I remember who transcended passiveness. Leia didn’t sit around waiting, braiding her hair and biding her time until a prince came to shoot the truest arrow for her hand. She spearheaded a guerrilla movement.

Dig just a little and you will see how large a part women played in the French resistance movement, how crucial women were working at Bletchley Park to crack the Enigma, how women contributed to space exploration at NASA and computer engineering. How women have been there, all along.

When I was a young girl, heroes were men. No one ever did the digging to show us the heroes who were women.

Oh, but Leia! Leia was a girl.

I suppose it’s fitting that of all that the post-mortems I’ve written this year, Carrie Fisher’s would be the last. In a year which was filled with ups and downs for many women, a year in which many women  saw their own reflection in a potential leader for the first time, that the last post-mortem should be for actress who brought us Princess Leia. Leia was the first princess many Toughskin wearing girls saw and wanted to emulate–not because she was blonde and beautiful, but because she wasn’t. She could hold her own, on her own.

As I watched my social media feed explode with remembrances of Fisher, but mostly of Leia, I wasn’t surprised. The effect Leia had on an entire generation of girls who saw, on screens, the bits of themselves they had no room to express before is profound. Leia came and blew life into the vacuum.

Back in October, watching the parade of costumes, my heart sang. I have no problem with girls who like to dress as princesses, but to see how the spectrum of choice has grown exponentially between their generation and my own was a beautiful thing. There was a Jillian Holtzman, the scientist from the Ghostbusters reboot, a baseball player from A League of Their Own and a kick-ass Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. How many more heroes to choose from these days. When given the option, most of these young girls chose strength and smarts over sparkle and sequins.

It’s no accident that most of those girls have mothers who watched Carrie Fisher blast her way across movie screens a few decades ago.

Carrie Fisher was much more than Princess Leia Organa of Alderon, of course. She was a noted author, an advocate for mental health and addiction recovery. She was a sharp-tongued wit and a feminist. A mother, a daughter. She was complex and imperfect, a warrior scarred from battles both personal and public. Carrie Fisher, like Leia, was the reflection of so many of us, unafraid to put her scars on display.

But for many, she will be remembered, primarily, as that Princess.

Thank you, Carrie, for giving a generation of girls a Princess who could shoot straight and smart. There is still a long way to go until the force is in balance. We’ll take your lessons forward as we try to find it.

To the Girls Who Shared Their Aqua Net With Me

sheragroupFor the past few summers, I’ve been getting together with a small group of friends from high school. Each year we seem to add a friend or two, like charms to a bracelet. And though it’s been nearly thirty years since we threw our mortar boards into a cloudy, June sky, it’s easy to slip back into a friendship that is both comfortable and uncomplicated.

Light as a feather, stiff as a board. It was a girlhood game we played at slumber parties, but it describes these friendships too. The responsibility for maintaining them doesn’t weigh heavy upon me, but I know, without having to think about them too much, that they would bear weight as well. Together we have a shared past of acne and baby fat, of crushes and teenage heartbreak. Of all the good and bad that make up the exquisite pain of adolescence.

I don’t try to impress these women when we visit. I throw some chips in a bowl, open a tub of ready-made dip and make sure I have enough wine. That’s about it. These are the girls that have seen me at my gawkiest, my gothiest, my geekiest. These are the girls that snuck wine coolers at the bridge with me, who gave me endless rides, who slept out on the sidewalk with me for Duran Duran tickets. They are the girls who shared their Aqua Net with me, who let me primp in the magnetic mirror on the inside of their locker, who stood in a circle and danced to We’re Not Gonna Take It.

Once you’ve white-girl danced together to Twisted Sister in a sweaty cafeteria it’s hard to impress someone.

Sometimes it’s hard to get past the past. In my head (and often aloud) I still refer to them by their maiden names. It’s difficult sometimes to think of Kelly as a well-respected veterinarian instead of Kelly who adored Howard Jones. It’s hard to think of Joanne as the mother of two adult women and not Joanne whose house we always hung out at.

We’ve all chosen different paths. Some work, some don’t have kids. I’ve moved abroad. Some live in the same town we grew up in. But we have this core, this commonality that draws us like moths to a flame, a history of having survived the same hallways and the same classrooms, of growing up.

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We still talk about boys–though they are our husbands and sons. We still talk about our parents, but now we talk about the plans in place as they age. We still gossip about who did what to who in high school and a few long-held secret crushes have been shared over the pinot-grigio.

We trade memories like baseball cards. We tell stories, because that is how women connect, through stories. Often we have different recollections of the same event. We were so caught up in our own heads, so focused on the girl in the mirror gazing back, that we often didn’t see past the cloud of hairspray to the girl standing to the right or left.

In thirty years the conversations haven’t changed too much, but we have changed.

Diane has a new hip, her old one worn down by juvenile arthritis–and Tammi is a grandmother. I am softer around the edges. And the middle, top, bottom and sides. Laura’s hair is streaked with gray. Amanda is caretaker to her family, the equation turned upside down, the child turned parent.

Despite the loss of collagen, despite the need for reading glasses, we all look better than we did in high school. Not simply due to hairstyles and a better dress sense, not due to filling out or even tightening up, but because on the other side of the girlhood door we all found the woman we were meant to be.

These are the girls who witnessed my transformation from tall geeky girl to tall eyeliner goth. With them I am not Dina, the writer or Dina, the expat, I am the gawky girl who had a crush on the quarterback. I am the girl who didn’t get asked to the prom, the one who, even at 16, was railing about the injustices of high school life in the school newspaper. I am the caterpillar who didn’t manage to blossom into a butterfly until well after high school.

These women know from whence I came. They ground me.

Aqua NetAt a time when I have felt so untethered to the world around me, as I try to figure out where to go next, I rather desperately needed that grounding. I needed to know that even though I don’t look the same, the girl I once was is still present in the woman I am. As I get ready to go through another metamorphosis, it is comforting to know I won’t lose myself–but instead I will take the girl and woman I am with me into the next phase of my life.

To the girls that shared their Aqua Net with me, thank you for the reminder.

Love,
Me

Blowing Bubbles

00002a9c_mediumThere was a time when I was moon, sun, and stars to my boys. Their days began and ended with me: a morning hug around the neck, a goodnight kiss in the dark.

It was exhausting, but it was also gloriously uncomplicated.

These days their need for me grows more nuanced by the hour. I no longer have to follow their toddling legs around to make sure they aren’t sticking forks in the outlets or finding coins to swallow. Nowadays it’s conversation and shared experience, text and email.

I miss my babies and my sturdy, chunky toddlers, my excited pre-schoolers, but I realized the other day what I miss even more is blowing bubbles.

Remember when a bottle of soap bubbles was enough? When those filmy baubles floating into the air coaxed a smile or a gaze of wonder? It’s been a while since I’ve had that kind of magic at my fingertips.

I know there’s magic deep down. There are layers of love and listening and trust that are building up over time, foundations and steps that will be high enough for them to stand on one day, by themselves. I know those things are vital and necessary and important.

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But sometimes it would be nice to grab a bottle of bubbles and see the world light up in those brown eyes again.

Increasingly it is difficult to find things for us all to do. They would rather play on an X-box and I have boxes of my own to tick. The pendulum swings from wildly busy to mind-numbingly not–from hummingbird to sloth depending on sports schedules and homework, travel and school. My (oft lame) suggestions of family outings or trips to the museum are met with half-hearted shrugs or outright dismissal.

I miss the times when just being with me was enough to do. Swinging in the playground,  running in endless circles or digging in a sandbox. The glee is contained now. It still bursts through sometimes, but it has to pierce a thicker skin. Or it could be they are away from me for such long chunks of time I don’t see it as often.

53fa9a98c673904e53b3406b003f659aLife is immeasurably easier. There is quiet, there is peace. There is reasoning. I am exhausted as I watch mothers of young toddlers following them as their little wills go faster than their legs can carry them, mothers ready to soothe a scraped palm when they pitch forward to the ground, who swoop them up and plant a hundred kisses on them.

I miss the magic kisses too.

But mostly I miss the bubbles, the way we would chase them through the sky, their little legs following as fast as their hearts would let them.

I miss a time when most of the magic was me, when the day rose and set with a hug around the neck.