Monday, April 1, 2019

An Open Letter to my Congressman about the Special Olympics

"Write Reps" appears on many voters' to do lists. Writing to Congress can feel like shouting into the wind, but congressional staffers track constituents' letters, and an avalanche of mail on a given subject will get noticed. (If you'd like to cut and paste from my letter to save time, please feel free.)

I have no personal connection to the Special Olympics, other than a stint I spent as a volunteer at Lift Me Up in Virginia during my student days. At the time, Lift Me Up helped a twelve-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who was training for the Special Olympics. Her time on horseback provided a bright spark of happiness amidst a grueling week of less pleasant therapies.

Congressman Joseph Kennedy III
304 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

RE: Please introduce legislation to increase federal funding for the Special Olympics

Dear Congressman Kennedy:

I live in your district, and my son attends a public elementary school in your district. 

Last week, I was shocked to learn that the White House planned to eliminate funding for the Special Olympics. Though I believe the proposed cut was a stunt, designed to distract voters from other news of the day, I was still stunned to learn the Special Olympics receives a paltry $17 million a year from the federal government. I am writing to urge you to introduce legislation to increase funding for the Special Olympics, at least ten-fold.

A budget, whether for a family or a government, is a statement of values. We should value the Special Olympics experience—an experience with a wide bi-partisan constituency, an experience that brings tremendous joy to thousands of children with special needs—at least as highly as we value a ten-pack of presidential golf junkets.

Since your late aunt founded the organization, I doubt you require a lengthy pitch about the worth of the Special Olympics. I’m sure you know that many parents of children with special needs face enormous financial strain, due to the costs of specialized education, medical treatment and various therapies for their children. Shouldn’t the federal government help bring these families a little happiness?

Thank you for your time.

Kindest regards,

Mari Passananti

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Bridge Too Far

A smiling neighbor here in genteel New England once informed my mother that she was "a desirable immigrant."

The same neighbor took a much dimmer view of my father, and explained that "we don't want your kind here."

I was six years old and I will never forget (nor forgive) that remark, though the man who uttered it is long dead.

My mother is a blond from Finland. My father, however, comes from Italy.  He arrived in New York after the war as an unaccompanied minor, sent to live with a paternal uncle. My mother first set foot in this country not as an immigrant, but as an exchange student. Her story is one about having a plan in life, and then having something else happen.

Both my parents are U.S. citizens, but they didn't start out that way.

If the American Dream has poster children, they are my parents. Mom and Dad not only managed to scramble aboard the new country carousel; they grabbed that brass ring like nobody's business.

The American Dream has never been about amassing a stack of money. It's about securing a good future for yourself and for future generations; a  future that affords your children choices and opportunities not available in many corners of the world.

Unless you live under a rock, you've heard ProPublica's horrifying recording of a group of jailed children crying for their parents, who have been separately detained by Customs and Border Patrol for the misdemeanor offense of illegal entry into the United States. Many of these parents wish to apply for asylum. They're fleeing unspeakable violence. They have undertaken a dangerous and uncertain journey, because they have no better option.

Their modest version of the American Dream involves, at least in the immediate future, working in a lousy job and not getting murdered.

The so-called Zero Tolerance policy that rips children from their mamas is a bridge too far.

Because I'm a very lucky beneficiary of the American Dream who happens to resemble my "desirable immigrant" mother, I feel a duty to use my privilege to condemn the dehumanization of today's immigrants. When people in power use words like "animals" and "infest," they rob these children of their humanity.

Because I'm a very lucky beneficiary of the American Dream, I've also got a dusty old law degree from a fancy pants school.

I've signed up to use it to help these kids with an organization called RAICES. (As of this writing, their website has crashed due to high traffic, and they're working to get it back up and running. Please consider joining me.)

I'm also researching other ways to help keep track of the imprisoned kids and help reunite parents detained at the border with their children before the government spirits them away to Lord knows where. RAICES is one of many non-profit groups working on this disgraceful crisis.

Even with many well meaning boots on the ground, some of the children will likely be separated from their parents permanently. If you read the HHS website, it's pretty clear they have no system for keeping track of the children and parents after separation. Thousands of children will be scarred for life by the trauma inflicted in the name of the American people.

Only fascists and weird religious cults believe in taking small children from their mothers.

Don't bother writing to me to say we need this for "deterrence." If you're all right with jailing preschoolers in prison camps, the politest thing I can suggest  is that you re-examine your entire existence.

And if you think this calamity is good for national security, I've got a bridge to sell you.

Kids abused at the hands of our government seem quite likely to grow into adults who hate us. That's common sense.

As is the fact that we the people should not tolerate child abuse in our name.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

June: The Official Month of Teacher Revenge

One thing I've noticed, the school events requiring parent involvement come fast and furious at this time of year. So I've decided to dub June: The Official Month of Teacher (and School Administrator) Revenge.

Dear Parents: Great news! Your child has been cast as_________ in the end-of-year class play! The class play will be held the day after tomorrow, precisely one hour and fifteen minutes following regular drop-off, which should be SO PERFECT for all you working parents! Please work with your child to create a woodland creature costume. As our artist in residence has not yet given me the assigned parts (between us, she seems a bit overwhelmed), I cannot advise which children should prepare which woodland creature costumes.Thankfully, this is your problem and not mine. Thanks in advance! Sincerely, Ms. Teacher

Dear Parents: We need a volunteer to bake two dozen miniature, nut-free, gluten-free muffins for the class breakfast next week. Please make absolutely sure to bake the MINI muffins, and NOT the full-size muffins. We have an obesity epidemic in our country (so, so sad!) and we want to be EXTRA vigilant about those empty calories! So, 24 MINI nut-free muffins, please! Also, we need another parent volunteer to bring in 400 Dunkin' Donuts Munchkins. Maybe 500, to be safe! Also we might need a gallon of orange juice—I'll circle back on that later today, in a whole new thread! Thanks, all! Warmest regards, the Chairwoman of the PTA Breakfast Committee

Dear Parents: I need a volunteer to bring in two dozen bubble wands (the kind that come with soap), no duplicates, please. I need a second volunteer to bring in four gallons of bubble soap (the kind that comes with the plastic bubble wands). Please DO NOT sign up for both slots. We need to give every parent a chance to contribute! All best, Your Field Day Coordinator

Dear Parents: Can you believe it? Only one week to go until our school carnival! Please be advised that our principal—he's our PAL!—has once again volunteered to take a shift in the dunking booth (BRRR!). He respectfully requests parents to remember that the dunking booth is an activity for your children ONLY. If you could help out and spread the word that our principal does NOT dictate our school budget, that would be super-duper! In advance of the fair, please remind your cranky neighbors (you know who they are!) that the school fair dunking booth is  NOT an appropriate forum for members of the Concerned Senior Taxpayers of Pleasantville to vent their frustrations. Things got very heated (well, not for the principal) last year, and we hate to expose our kids to that kind of neighbor-on-neighbor strife. Thanks so much and see you at the fair! The Fair Committee

Hola Mamas y Papas! I'm your child's Spanish teacher and I just realized my emails have gone to  your spam folders all year, because apparently the Gmail spam filter doesn't like the upside down exclamation point I have been placing before  the "Hola!" in my messages! Please note that this exclamation point is the correct Spanish punctuation and I've taken the matter up with Google. While I await their apology, please find attached the nine Spanish class newsletters you missed over the 2016-17 academic year. Gracias! Senora Spanish Teacher P.S. Please have your kindergarten student bring in his or her favorite animal on Tuesday for a very special vocabulary activity!

VIA EMAIL [Timestamp 3:23 AM EST Tuesday] Dear parents: The Spanish teacher meant please send in A STUFFED ANIMAL. Please, for the love of God, DO NOT send your pets to school. We are NOT a doggie daycare, FFS!The second grade did this activity yesterday, and the unfortunate miscommunication caused some extremely tense moments involving a gerbil, a parakeet, and an exceedingly unruly Miniature Hypo-Allergenic Pug-a-cock-a-doodle, who is now in the custody of the Pleasantville Animal Control Officer. Thanks in advance for your cooperation. Best, Your Kindergarten Teaching Team

VIA EMAIL [Timestamp 6:01 AM EST Tuesday] Dear Parents: The Kindergarten Teaching Team meant to delete the expletives and ill-considered commentary about Doggie Daycare. The Kindergarten Teaching Team respects you and regrets this lapse in their observance of OUR SCHOOL VALUES. Please remember, pets are not allowed on school grounds during school hours, per Pleasantville Town Ordinance 54(b)(18). Thanks in advance, Your Principal

Dear Parents: Your child has been assigned to our rainbow tie-dyed relay team! Please send in a colorful tie-dye T-shirt for Friday. Please, no drug references or dancing bears! Some parents have expressed concerns that tie-dye could stir depravity in our youth, but I think that's nonsense, and I'm frankly out of crowd-pleasing colors. Also the forecast calls for a low of 98 degrees in the shade, so we scrapped the black and navy teams, because heaven forbid we reschedule. I cannot believe I need to write a memo justifying what should be my executive decision on T-shirt colors, but here it is. Thanks so much, Your Field Day Coordinator (Who is retiring next week, so you can shove your OUR SCHOOL VALUES complaints where the sun don't shine! HAHA! Joking! Sorry. Not sorry.)

Dear Parents: Please return all library books by Thursday, or your child will not be able to buy milk during the upcoming 2017-2018 school year. No, we are not joking. We regret this draconian measure, but do you have any idea how much money we lose on stolen books? Thanks for your cooperation, Your Library Team

Dear Parents: We regret to inform you that Butterfly Day is cancelled, because we didn't realize we had to feed the butterflies after they emerged, so they all died a slow death of starvation. Please take this opportunity to have a difficult discussion with your rising kindergarten student about the circle of life. Warm wishes for a great summer, Your Pre-K Team

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Loose Lips Sink Ships

When I was a kid, my dad possessed an immense fondness for the old World War Two slogan, "Loose lips sink ships."

Normally, our family didn't discuss matters of national security at the dinner table. We took the quip as an admonition to refrain from gossip, and Dad repeated the line so frequently, that we inevitably responded with the standard-issue sarcastic teenage eye roll.

I haven't written much about politics recently, but five minutes ago, I hung up with a nice young man who answered the phone at my Congressman's office.

I asked him, "What else can I do to make sure we get a special prosecutor to look into  Russia-Trump collusion and Trump's Russian financial entanglements? A Congressional investigation no longer feels like enough, when we have a president who blithely compromises the lives of our agents and the lives of our allies' agents, along with the lives of any civilians inclined to help our armed forces abroad, to a hostile world power."

(Head desk.)

The young man in the Congressman's office said, "Ask your friends to call both their senators and their congressional representatives, and ask them to KEEP CALLING."

Congressional offices log constituent calls every day. Give your address. Make it clear you are a constituent, and you want your elected representatives in Washington to demand a special prosecutor. If they're already beating this drum, thank them. If they're hedging, urge them to put the republic over party.

Let's make their phones ring.

Russia is not our friend. This is not tricky math.

Russia guns down writers and political dissidents in the public streets. Russia jails protesters in Siberian gulags. Russia seizes assets of private companies whose executives piss off their dictator and then, often, Russia kills those business leaders for good measure. Russia poisons its exiled opposition leaders to try to silence them. Russia annexes land belonging to sovereign neighboring countries. Russia props up Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen, helping them gas children and bomb their country to kingdom come.

This latest aspect of the ongoing Russia Scandal makes Watergate look likes child's play, and unlike Watergate, where the Washington Post had the story months before anyone could corroborate the allegations, both the New York Times and Reuters had independently corroborated the details of the classified information leak by the president to the Russians last night.

Either the president is truly in Putin's pocket, or he's too stupid to understand the consequences of his boastful loose lips.

Either way, it's dangerous for the American people, our armed forces, and our allies. We all deserve so much better.

The traitor president's words might not sink an actual ship this time, but they could get our intelligence assets abroad beheaded, if the CIA and our allies cannot act quickly enough to protect their people.

Incidentally, I took a stab at writing political suspense once, involving collusion with the Russians, no less. I could not have made this level of crap up.

Why? Because nobody would have believed it, even in a fictional, chase caper/thriller context. What the Washington Post reported last night is just too mind-boggling to put in a contemporary novel.

So, Dad, I know you read this space. You were right: Loose lips do sink ships.

Please go call your senators and rep and remind them.

United States Capitol Switchboard: (202) 224-3121

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Meaning of No

If we can't teach our sons, from a very young age, that no means no, do we really expect some half-naked sixteen-year-old girl, hormones raging, to explain it better in the backseat of a car?

My friend, D., mother of an eleven-year-old, posed this question at a recent book club meeting. Everyone fell quiet for a moment as we shared one of those rare moments of true epiphany.

All of us admitted, that at least sometimes, we have let our children use our "no" as a starting point for negotiations.

We have told ourselves it's okay; they're developing reasoning and debate skills.

Meanwhile, our kids have learned that "no" can sometimes mean "maybe," and that their repeated, pleading requests stand at least even odds of wearing us down.

The flip side, of course, is that we often say give the kiddos an offhand no, when the stakes around whatever they're requesting don't matter much. Then we backpedal, when we said have said maybe, or I haven't decided yet, in the first place.

None of this is okay.

It's not okay for any kid. We all pride ourselves on being egalitarian, and we teach children of both sexes that privates are private.

However, the realities of relative physical size and strength in male and female humans (after puberty) mean it's especially not okay for parents of boys to fail to teach the meaning of NO.

Cosmopolitan published an essay in its most recent issue: How I Talked to My Son About Sexual Consent. I read this the moment I saw it last week.  So did countless other moms, because the editors blasted it out, using the creepy tagline "Every Rapist Is Someone's Son" as click bait.

I found it encouraging that at least some of us have begun, in the span of one generation, to move the conversation from, "If you love me, you will" to, "Are you sure you want to do this?"

The type of frank and honest discussion the writer recounts having with her teenager doesn't materialize from nowhere. She clearly laid the groundwork for that awkward interaction over many  years.

Which means we should start young. Like elementary school young. Maybe earlier.

There was a great British public service video making the rounds, several months ago, that explained sexual consent in the most civilized, G-rated terms possible.

The video not only explains affirmative consent and the importance of no, it also illustrates the importance of recognizing when a person is too impaired to give consent: "Unconscious people don't want tea."

Every one of us women around the table that night was once a teenage girl, who at one point or another, told some teenage boy, "no," only to be met with "please, pretty please," or "come on, don't be a tease," or the slightly more dated, "if you love me you will,"  or a pseudo-progressive variant, "but I brought a condom, so it will be fine."

To borrow from the British PSA, we didn't want tea, or perhaps we wanted more time to consider the tea.

From where the boys were sitting, they stood at least even odds of wearing us down.

Those teenage girls said, "no," and the boys interpreted "no" as a starting point for more discussion.

They heard "maybe."

Friday, November 18, 2016

Update to October Post: Life Isn't Fair

Dear Readers:

I'm reposting this update to my October 19th piece, Life Isn't Fair, as a new and separate post, to make sure it hits all subscribers' inboxes. If this update reaches you in duplicate, I apologize for the inconvenience.

I am blown away by how many of you wrote, called, and reached out to me through social media, to ask how to send non-cash and/or holiday gifts to the girls. THANK YOU SO MUCH for reading and taking an interest in their story.

There is now an Amazon Wish List, created with the help of some mom friends: C, H, and E. Thank you so much for your insights and suggestions. Thank you also to the readers of the Great Thoughts Book Club, for the avalanche of fantastic book ideas, some of which I'm holding in reserve for now.

Items ship directly to the girls, who are now living a couple of hours away from us. Suggestions for additions and edits are most welcome (they are ages 8 and 10).

Since many of you asked: basic clothing is not an urgent need, but as the girls are residing with childless relatives, all parents reading this will know they have some ramping up to do, in terms of toys, games, books, art supplies, outdoor/winter fun, and the like!

A. is a voracious reader, and S. particularly loves arts and crafts, dolls, and imaginative play. They both like creative projects, as well as Legos.

R., the Grape, and I miss the girls a lot, and it warms our hearts to know so many friends are rooting for them.

You can view the list through this link:

I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving, and safe travels to those hitting the road next week! 

With deep gratitude,


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Life Isn't Fair

Update: There is now an Amazon Wishlist, because so many of you wrote to me and asked how to send holiday gifts. Items ship directly to the girls. Suggestions welcome. This is only a first attempt! Thanks, everyone.

Life isn't fair.

Two little girls, friends of the Grape, became orphans last week.

I won't identify them, as they are eight and ten years old; I'll call them S and A.

Their mother had struggled for a long time with a chronic incapacitating illness, but her sudden death, by a brain bleed, I think the term is ruptured aneurysm, took everyone by surprise.

S and A went to school and their mama had a headache. The next time they saw her she was in an irreversible coma in the Neuro Intensive Care Unit.

Life isn't fair.

I can't imagine their shock and heartbreak.

The girls had lost their father some years earlier. The mother, an Ivy-educated physician, had been too ill for many years to work. The family lived in a subsidized apartment and scraped along, all three of them victims of a brilliant scientific mind imprisoned by illness.

When the Grape first started having S over for play dates,  I tried to befriend the mom. She politely but firmly put up barriers. All play dates were at our home, and she never set foot beyond my threshold. After a few weeks, I stopped asking if she'd like to come in for coffee or tea or wine, or if she'd like to stay for dinner with her girls.

She always looked down on her luck, a wisp of a woman, bundled in all kinds of weather, because her disease interfered with her body's metabolism and temperature regulation. Sometimes, you might have been forgiven, if you mistook her for a homeless person.

There was no family money. No adult child with special needs trust. No safety net beyond the bare bones the state of Massachusetts provides, and while Massachusetts provides more than most states, it doesn't provide quality long term inpatient treatment. No state does. And sometimes that means the state makes orphans. Life isn't fair.

S and A had one regularly involved relative, a grandmother whose biweekly visits S and A recounted with huge smiles and sparkling eyes.

The mother excelled at finding resources for her daughters: camps and art courses and donated clothes. She got them scholarships at a private school and took advantage of free events at the library and the art museum. She had the girls paired with Big Sisters. She did most of this from the computer at the library, because she didn't own one of her own. Nor did she own a smartphone.

She did the best she could, but more days than not, those kids were hungry.

As the girls grew, and her illness worsened, she occasionally admitted her task grew more challenging. Local charities like Cradles to Crayons have a wealth of items for the baby and preschool set, but far less for kids in the middle to late elementary years.

A few of us moms at the school noticed when they had no snow gear (in Boston), no Christmas presents, no school supplies. We tried to help discreetly, and quietly marveled that the school turned a totally blind eye.

Life isn't fair.

For that reason, I dedicate my No Trump Vote to S and A, because they are orphans, and Trump doesn't believe in any expansion of the safety net, or in expansion of universal healthcare to a single payer model.

I dedicate my No Trump Vote to S and A, because they are girls, and no man has the right to grab them in the privates without their consent.

I dedicate my No Trump Vote to S and A, because they are black, and I abhor the racist rhetoric of Trump's campaign. It smacks of fascism, as does his almost unfathomable threat to jail his political opponents. In America. In 2016. If a candidate in Africa or Eastern Europe said anything remotely resembling this, we would send election monitors.

I dedicate my No Trump Vote to S and A, because their mother was chronically disabled, and Trump mocks disabled people.

I dedicate my No Trump Vote to S and A, because I want them to know ambition should not be a privilege reserved for well-to-do white men

I didn't plan to write about this election, because anyone who's read me once can deduce I'm a solid blue voter. 

I'm so tired of hearing about how awful it is that Clinton "wants to be President" and "She's worked at it for decades," and "She's too ambitious, not warm enough, too prepared, too thoughtful, not smiling enough."

I dedicate my No Trump Vote to S and A, because I want this glass ceiling to shatter. 

I want this catch-22, that says women cannot be feminine, but also strong and ambitious, to end with my generation.

Can you imagine anyone making similar criticisms of any male candidate for County Zoning Board, let alone President of the United States?

I'm also tired of hearing about voters sitting out the election, or voting for third party candidates.

I would strongly prefer a multi-party parliamentary system, but in the system we have, either Clinton or Trump will win the White House on November 8.

Which means nobody hears your protest ballot. If Trump scares you, but you don't vote for Clinton, you are as culpable as the Trump voters.

Before you cast that "I don't like either of them ballot," please think about the American military pilots under threat from Russian anti-aircraft artillery in Syria.

Yes, that Russia. The one Trump holds up as an example of a well run country. To be clear: the only aircraft in the skies above Syria are American. ISIS does not have an air force.

Clinton is not perfect.

Life isn't fair. We don't get perfect candidates. S and A don't get a mom, let alone a healthy one.

I am optimistic that the deliberative, thoughtful, highly analytical qualities that stifle Clinton's charisma on the campaign trail will serve her well as the nation's chief executive, and that her policies will benefit kids like S and A more than those proposed by her opponent.

#ImWithHer  #NeverTrump #DedicateYourNoTrumpVote