Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Dear Teenagers - Some advice from my late Dad...via me

My dearest teens. You know I love you. I really do. That's why I write books for you, and love to answer your emails. So that's why I'm writing this post. Because I care. 

I subscribe to several daily news, business and tech email blasts to keep me informed for my "other life" as a columnist - and also because I'm interested in what's going on in the world. It helps me to be a better writer and a more interesting person. 

This morning, to my horror, in an email blast that calls itself Business Insider "Tech Select," these were the first three stories:



Relegated to "other news" were stories about how Tesla is building batteries for use in buildings and how Facebook's Ad service affects businesses. But the first three stories were about teenagers (that's you, my dears) doing this viral challenge to have have plump lips with dangerous and painful results.



After my first thought, which was to be mad at the alleged grown ups at alleged "Tech Select" for the ridiculous way they are prioritizing "news", I started hearing the voice of this guy in my head:



That's Dad and me, the day I graduated from college. Sadly, Dad passed away in November 2013 after a long struggle with Alzheimer's, but I still hear the things he said to me, the advice he gave me, as clearly as if he were standing right next to me like he was in this photo. 

And when I saw those headlines, I heard his voice saying something he so often asked me when I was a teenager: "If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?"

I'm sure many of my similarly aged friends heard something to that effect from one or the other of their parents, and were as sick of hearing it as I was. 

But there is wisdom in them there cliches, my dears. Trust your Auntie Sarah on this. 

I get it. You are trying to figure out your identity. You want to be heard. And there's so much pressure today to be SEEN. 

I'm old. Or as my daughter would say, "OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLD." We didn't have things like Instagram and Facebook and YouTube when I was a teen. Heck, we didn't even have the Internet. We didn't have cellphones. So we didn't have to worry about how many followers we had or how many likes we got, or if we could get our YouTube video to go viral, because there wasn't a YouTube and viral was something associated with a disease you didn't want to get. 

But here's the thing. I was in a video that did go viral. This one.   It's had over 1.1 million hits on YouTube. 



Yet that conversation didn't go viral because my son and I went into the StoryCorps booth with the intention of creating something viral. We didn't even know it would be on NPR Morning Edition. We didn't even know that it would be turned into an animation. We didn't know, when we walked into that booth, that one day we would be on Good Morning America.  We never thought for a moment that because of it we would be on our very first red carpet: 





We certainly hadn't the slightest idea that one day we would be in the front row at the TED Conference when Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, and winner of the 2015 TED Prize, announced his Wish for the World.   




All of those incredibly amazing experiences happened because my son and I went into the StoryCorps booth with the sole intention of having a genuine, honest conversation with each other - of making a loving, human connection. And we did that. Even if none of the other things had happened, we would have achieved what we set out to do. 

The rest is gravy. Really exciting and wonderful gravy, and I am so grateful for all of the experiences we have come out of this. I also continue to be amazed by how this conversation connects with people from all over the world, no matter their nationality, race or religion. 

That's what's important, my dears. Not having plump lips. Not looking like anyone else. Being the best YOU that you can be and making human connections. 

 So please, I beg you - the next time you think about doing one of these ridiculous challenges, just remember my dear old Dad and pick up a book instead. You'll thank me later. I promise. 


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Another Dear Congressman Letter








Dear Jim - 

I already wrote you another Dear Congressman piece on the subject of school libraries  after our meeting last year. Today you asked me "So it's bad for a legislator to ask for facts and data?"

Well Jim, of course it isn't, and I feel, once again, you are asking me a disingenuous question, which makes me lose even more of the respect I once had for you. Because Jim, you know I once had a LOT of respect for you. What's more, I BELIEVED in you. I really thought that if we sent a smart guy like you to Washington it could really make a difference for our country. I lost my columnist gig with Hearst over you - but I even thought it was worth it, because I believed in you that much. 

But you want to know something? You have done more to make me discouraged with our political system than anyone. It's the people we believe in most that cause the greatest damage to our beliefs. 

So why do I feel you are being disingenuous? 

Let's see...perhaps because when we met to discuss education, I brought you lots of "facts and data." I brought you studies that showed that TFA are less effective than traditionally trained teachers, and the higher costs to school districts of their frequent turnover. 

I brought you data about how despite charter schools like Achievement First claiming 100% graduation rates, if you look at their cohort graduation rate from the students who start 9th grade it's nothing too special. 

I told you about charters not serving the same special ed and ELL populations and Achievement First having the highest kindergarten suspension rate in CT, and the lawsuit against them for special ed violations and how it made me furious when I read it because some of the things they were PUNISHING kids for were the kinds of coping strategies my son would use when he was trying to avoid a meltdown when he was having sensory overload. But these kids were being PUNISHED for that. 

But despite being my legislator, you didn't appear to have the same intellectual curiosity about THOSE "facts and data."And I can't help thinking that it's because it's too politically inconvenient for you to do so. That's why when you asked me the question about research on school libraries, it seemed more like you were deflecting me so you didn't have to answer my question, rather than requesting actual facts and data. 

I gave you the facts and data anyway, because there's over 40 years worth of studies proving the efficacy of having certified school librarians. Annual Testing like SBAC that we're wasting so many billions of dollars on? Not so much. But that doesn't seem to make a difference to policy makers, does it? Because facts and data don't appear to be driving education policy. 

 Why weren't you, and Dan Malloy, and Arne Duncan et al asking such questions BEFORE making the policy that is destroying our education system, driving teachers out of the profession (despite Gov Malloy's utterly ridiculous claim that they are all leaving "because they were hired at the same time, like the state troopers") and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars? Why weren't you asking questions about no-bid contracts by all the crony edreform folks? Because I've been asking those questions. 

Here's another thing that seriously rattled me about my Congressman: your reaction to being told of a Democratic elected official threatening to sue a member of the press, despite not being able to point to anything factually inaccurate in the piece. There's a name for when someone does that -  it's called a SLAPP suit - stands for "strategic lawsuit against public participation", and it's intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense.

 If a Republican had done this during the Bush years, I know you would have had something to say about it. But instead you laughed it off, like it wasn't an attempt at press intimidation by your own party. Now you're probably going to tell me you're a supporter of the First Amendment, but your reaction sure didn't give me a whole lot of confidence that as my Congressman you're going to do much to protect me, a constituent of yours and a journalist, if it's someone in the Democratic Party at fault. In fact, it showed me that you are happy to put party over process. 

And that, Jim, is why I am not a party member anymore, and why you, personally, have made me so incredibly disillusioned with the political process. Because if someone I thought was a smart, good guy ends up like this after a few terms in Washington, what the hell hope do we have in this country?

I would write more, but I spent four hours today doing a library program with seven other authors getting kids excited about writing - because they don't get the chance to do enough creative writing in school these days. Too much testing. Too much Common Core. All those things you told me were so wonderful and needed. 

I spent the afternoon with kids who crave creativity - who couldn't wait to use their voices. Isn't that what we should be encouraging in a democracy instead of test taking?


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Mom's Words of Wisdom

When you're grieving, you never know what will trigger the next meltdown, that next wave of uncontrollable sobbing, the feeling that your heart is broken into so many tiny fragments that it cannot ever possibly be whole again.

This morning I wanted to be brave, because my mother had been taking a memoir class at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, and she'd been working hard to complete her recollections, focusing on the theme of strong women in our family. I found out from someone in her class who came to make a condolence call that the deadline is April 18th, and so I'm going to try to finish the job for her.  Her work was all laid out on the dining room table in her apartment, and we'd put it in an archive box.

I hadn't had the courage to start reading, but I knew I had to do it today.

And at the end of chapter two, I read this:

"Life is a patchwork quilt. Each piece of experience, whatever size or shape, is part of our whole being. Our friends and family, our children, and their children, our forbearers and those to come in the future, all enlarge the quilt. We are covered in their love. And our love covers them.

I learned from a woman who was a prisoner in Romania in solitary for several years. She said that experiences couldn't be taken away from her, as material things can. Throughout her incarceration and torture, she made her thoughts turn to experiences: trips she would retake in her mind, planning how she would decorate her new home if she got out. Give yourself and your family every experience, don't wish you had done something and put it off."


My mother was an amazing, strong woman. I miss her so much.

PS: I taught my youngest nephew "Carpe Diem" on Sunday. I told him it was the way smart people say "YOLO." Then I introduced him to my friend Irene, who grew up in Germany and is a Latin scholar, to make sure he said it correctly. So now he knows how to say it in both English and German learned Latin. CARPE DIEM, my friends. And sew your love into the patchwork quilt of humanity.





Sunday, March 22, 2015

Eulogy for my mother, Susan S. Darer

Delivered at Temple Beth-El, Stamford, CT March 22nd, 2015

When you’re a teenager trying to assert your own identity, pretty much the last thing you want to hear is how much you look like your mother. But I heard it a lot, and in that funny way history has of repeating itself, my daughter Amie has heard it once or twice herself, much to her chagrin.

But standing here today, nothing makes me happier than knowing that I bear a strong resemblance to my mother.

Since Mom’s unexpected passing earlier this week, we’ve all been in shock. Every morning we wake up hoping that it was bad dream, only to be hit again with the painful understanding that living in a world without our beloved mother and grandmother is the dreadful new reality.

I make my living as a writer, but when I tried to begin penning this eulogy, I had a rare moment of writer’s block. Because how can mere words sum up Mom?

I first tried – and failed – to do this in the dedication of my book CHARMED, I’M SURE which comes out next spring. I’m so, so grateful that I gave Mom the manuscript to read on her recent trip to Israel, so that she knew about the dedication. It says: To my mother, Susan Darer, for teaching me to become the woman I am today.

But that short sentence doesn’t begin to do Mom justice.

Here’s where it helps to have friends who are bestselling authors, so you can crib the words and ideas that they write in in their condolence letters.

Cinda Williams Chima wrote this: “You look so much like her, and I’m sure that’s not her only legacy to you. So you can think of yourself as carrying your parents forward through the years.”

Reading Cinda’s words made me think about Mom’s greatest legacies to John, Anne and me - the ones we are endeavoring to carry forward.

The most important of these is family – not just us, not just our aunts and uncles and first cousins, but our great aunts and uncles, and our second and third cousins. Unfortunately our great aunts and uncles are no longer with us, but when we were growing up it was like having multiple sets of grandparents, dispensing love and wisdom and guidance. Family gatherings were big fun affairs, and if you married into the family you probably needed a scorecard to keep track.  But the second cousins we grew up are with are here today supporting us in love, and our kids are friends with their third cousins. That’s what we mean in Yiddish when we use the word mishpocheh.

But another legacy our mother left us is the knowledge that family members aren’t merely the people related to us by blood or marriage.  She modeled that we create family by caring about those around us. Seeing faces here from so many different time periods and facets of her life is a testament to that. As someone who is struggling to face the fact that she no longer has parents, I hope that I can look to you, the extended family Mom created, to continue to dispense the love, wisdom and guidance our mother is no longer here to give us.

For all of us who loved Mom, the shock of her sudden passing feels like having limbs torn off without anesthetic.  In recent years Mom hadn’t just been my parent, she’d become my friend. During challenging moments with my teenagers, I’d call her up and apologize time after time for everything I’d ever said and done to her when I was a teenager – and as everyone who knew me when I was in high school can attest, I had a LOT to apologize for. It got to the point that Mom gave me the Jewish equivalent of a Papal Indulgence – “Enough already, I forgive you once and for all!”

Mom with her granddog, Benny
We were able to have deeper conversations, about life and love, and even politics, a subject area where over the last decade of being a columnist I’ve developed a reputation for being rather outspoken. I know this made Mom proud, even though it sometimes caused her problems. For instance, there was the time someone who couldn’t get my unlisted phone number left her several vitriolic messages late at night, resulting in us having to file a complaint with the Stamford police.  I was beside myself because I’ve had to develop what it takes to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but folks should know better than to mess with my mom.
Still, I was glad we’d started to have such conversations, because when I was growing up, politics was an area where my father’s voice overshadowed my mother’s.  

Beth Styles, to whom I’m so grateful for being here with Mom’s New World Chorus family today, wrote about how our mother returned the love she received from fellow choir members after Dad’s death by volunteering to be the leader of the Chorus’ care team. Beth wrote: “It was her desire that everyone in the choir felt known and acknowledged.” 

That really resonated with me, because my son Josh and I found out that we’d lost Mom when we’d just got off a plane on the way back from attending the TED conference in Vancouver after hearing Dave Isay of StoryCorps, winner of the 2015 TED Prize, announce his Wish for theWorld. 

StoryCorps is an oral history project that aims to provide people of all backgrounds with the opportunity to record and share their life stories in the belief that “every life matters equally and infinitely.”

Anne and I interviewed Dad for Father’s Day shortly after the first StoryCorps booth opened in Grand Central in 2003. It wasn’t long after that, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so we’re so grateful to have that recording. In 2006, Josh and I went into the booth together, and as a result, ended up at the TED conference last week. In 2010, Mom and Dad were recorded at StoryCorps as part of the Alzheimer’s initiative, and later that year, I interviewed Mom. I’m so glad I didn’t wait.

To honor Mom’s memory please consider having a conversation of your own with someone you love. You no longer have to wait for an appointment at a StoryCorps booth – at TED, Dave announced a new StoryCorp app, which helps you with questions and gives helpful hints on how to record a meaningful interview. It then allows you to upload your recording to the Library of Congress.



 Don’t put it off, because as I learned so painfully this week, you don’t know when you’ll kiss your mother goodnight after spending a great evening together and say: “See you when I get back, I love you,” only to return to find out that you won’t see her again, ever.

Mom touched so many lives in a positive way. In an age where society too often focuses attention on the loudest, the flashiest and the wealthiest, she was a quiet, humble hero. She was my hero. My greatest hope is that I will live the rest of my life in a way that is truly worthy of the example she set.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

YA (and Middle Grade) Authors LOVE Teachers - Book Giveaway!

I'm not a Valentine's Day person. To me, it's WAAAAAAAY more important how my significant other treats me the other 364 days of the year, than if he spends a whole lot of money on overpriced roses and chocolates on a day when it's prescribed and everyone else is doing it. Call me a freak, but I felt more loved when my boyfriend made sure that I had jumper cables and a flashlight in my car before driving up to Vermont for a writing retreat when it was snowing. To me, showed he loves me and is really concerned about my safety more than roses that are twice the price because it's the day you're supposed to receive them.

But just because I'm all "bah humbug" about Valentine's Day doesn't mean I don't like doing loving things for OTHER PEOPLE- especially teachers. Because I LOVE TEACHERS - and these days, they don't get nearly enough love and respect. 




 I am not alone! Several YA and Middle grade authors have banded together to arrange giveaways of our books to show our love of and appreciation for teachers. For the middle grade giveaway, visit LyndaMullaly Hunt's blog.   

And here, *drumroll* are the details of the authors involved in the YA giveaway!



Twitter: @JoKnowles
Author site: www.joknowles.com



Lee Kelly City of Savages
Twitter: @leeykelly


Alexis Bass  Love & Other Theories




Nova Ren Suma  The Walls Around Us
Twitter: @novaren
Author site: novaren.com




Cindy L. Rodriguez When Reason Breaks
Author site: cindylrodriguez.com

And yours truly:



Sarah Darer Littman  Backlash
Twitter: @sarahdarerlitt
Author site: sarahdarerlittman.com


HOW TO ENTER: It's easy! Just enter your name in the Rafflecopter here

And then Tweet about it using the hashtag #Authorsloveteachers 





#authorsloveteachers

Thank you, teachers, for all you do!









Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Why we ALL need to speak out against Hate Speech. Every single one of us.

This morning, I received an email forwarded to me by a Jewish relative in Europe. I am loathe to even print it here, because I find it so offensive, but I am going to do so for a reason, along with my response to the person who sent it to me. 

Here is the forwarded email:

CAN MUSLIMS  BE GOOD AMERICANS?

This  is very interesting and we all need to read it from start to finish.   And send it on to everyone.  Maybe this is why our American Muslims are so quiet and not speaking out about any atrocities.

Can  a good Muslim be a good American?
 
This  question was forwarded to a friend who worked in Saudi Arabia for 20 years.  The following is his
reply:
 
Theologically  - no. Because his allegiance is to Allah, The moon god of  Arabia.  
   
Religiously  - no. Because no other religion is accepted by His Allah except Islam.  (Quran,2:256)(Koran)  
   
scripturally  - no. Because his allegiance is to the five Pillars of Islam and the  Quran.
 
Geographically  - no. Because his allegiance is to Mecca, to which he turns in prayer five  times a day.
 
Socially  - no. Because his allegiance to Islam forbids him to make friends with  Christians or Jews.
 
Politically  - no. Because he must submit to the mullahs (spiritual leaders), who teach  annihilation of Israel and destruction of America, the great  Satan.
 
Domestically  - no. Because he is instructed to marry four Women and beat and scourge his  wife when she disobeys him. (Quran 4:34 )
 
Intellectually  - no. Because he cannot accept the American Constitution since it is based  on Biblical principles and he believes the Bible to be corrupt.
 
Philosophically  - no. Because Islam, Muhammad, and the Quran does not allow freedom of  religion and expression. Democracy and Islam cannot co-exist. Every Muslim  government is either dictatorial or
autocratic.  
   
Spiritually  - no. Because when we declare 'one nation under God,' The Christian's God is  loving and kind, while Allah is NEVER referred to as Heavenly father, nor is  he ever called love in the Quran's 99 excellent names.  
   
Therefore,  after much study and deliberation... Perhaps we should be very suspicious of  ALL MUSLIMS in this country. They obviously cannot be both 'good' Muslims  and 'good' Americans. Call it what you wish it's still the truth. The more who understand this, the better it will be for  our country and our future.
   
The  religious war is bigger than we know or understand!
 
 Footnote:  The Muslims have said they will destroy us from within.  SO FREEDOM IS  NOT FREE.

 THE  MARINES WANT THIS TO ROLL ALL OVER THE U.S.

When I read this, I was shaking with anger, particularly because this person had also sent it to my son, who I have always tried to bring up to evaluate people on their merits, not based on race, religion, or anything other than how they act as a person. I calmed myself down a bit, and then wrote this response:

 I always love to hear from you but  PLEASE, I have asked you before, and I ask you to respect my wishes,  DO NOT SEND ME HATE SPEECH LIKE THIS. 
It is EXACTLY the kind of racist propaganda that was written about US, the JEWS in pre war Germany. Or is even, still, being sent around by the KKK and other anti-Semitic groups. 
Someone I know posted something on Facebook that Evelyn Rothschild financed Hitler (!!!) as the beginning of a rant about the how the Jews are part of the New World Order controlling the world. 
I could look at this list and if I wanted to change it to anti-Semitic propaganda, I could easily make it apply to groups like the Satmars in Williamsburg just as much as this so called “Marine” is making it apply to Muslims. 
It is also full of lies. American Muslims aren’t quiet. They *ARE* speaking out about atrocities. Perhaps you are in such an echo chamber of anti-Muslim sentiment, only listening to the Islamophobes that you aren’t able to hear them. But I have my ears open. And here’s another thing - American Jews try to silence any criticism of Israel from “moderate” Jews. I am a journalist, a member of the press, and I was actually told I should keep my criticism “in house.” 
So politically, I could make this criticism of my own people. They don’t feel I’m allowed my 1st Amendment right to free speech? So by this email's “logic” does that mean Jews can’t be good Americans? Trust me, there is plenty of anti-Semitic stuff going around that says so, because “a Jew's first allegiance is to Israel."
This screed is disgusting and racist, and ask that you stop sending things like this to me and to my son. I am bringing up both my children to judge people on their merits, not to hate them instinctively because of either race or religion. 
After all, we know where that leads to, don’t we? My father’s grandparents and all of my mother’s family that remained in Poland perished because of exactly the kind of racist hate speech you are sending me about another people. 
When Pam Geller and her organization put up an Anti-Muslim billboard at our local train station, I was horrified, and I wrote an op-ed about it. I said that it was my family’s own experience with hatred that has made me determined not to be a bystander and to fight hate speech whenever I see it.  A Muslim Albanian doctor in Greenwich wrote to thank me for speaking out and me how his family in Albania sheltered Jews in WWII. This is how we repay them? 
Certain evangelical Christians in the United States are a serious danger to our democracy, particularly if one is woman, but you don’t appear to care about that, because they support Israel. But I am bringing my children up to think critically about the world. The ENTIRE WORLD. 
If you think of sending me anything, substitute Jew for Muslim and if it is hateful to you then, do not send it. 
Sarah

         I am beside myself that we are at a point where Jews, who of all people should know the consequences of hate speech, are forwarding this kind of filth about another people. Haven't we learned from our own experience? Isn't this why we formed the Anti-Defamation League?

I'm also horrified if this really DID come from a US Marine. I sent it to my local ACLU branch and I hope they pass it up to national ACLU for investigation. Because if this did come from the US Military, we've got bigger problems with our military culture than we thought.




Friday, January 16, 2015

Why I support free speech, but Je Ne Suis Pas exactement Charlie

I am a fervent supporter of free speech. I'm a member of the PEN Center USA, the ACLU, the American Library Association's Freedom to Read Foundation. In order to maintain a healthy democracy, journalists, artists, and writers in particular, must be able to express themselves without censorship. 

So how, you might ask, can I look at the horrific act of terrorism in Paris and say "Je Ne Suis Pas Exactment Charlie"?

First of all let me saying this in no way condones the heinous act of terrorism, which resulted in the deaths of 12 people, including a Muslim police officer, and injured eleven others, several critically. 

 But what I am trying to highlight here is that just because I support, wholeheartedly, our right to free speech, it doesn't mean that we have to use it willy nilly. With that right comes tremendous responsibility for the words and images that we put forth into the world. The pen really is mightier than the sword in influencing hearts and minds, and we must be aware that using that might have consequences. Potentially deadly consequences. 

I am a Jewish woman, brought up in a family that lost members in the Holocaust, and it has inevitably shaped my outlook on hate speech. My great-grandparents were murdered in the Ukraine. Our entire family that remained in Poland were murdered, with the exception of one person who survived. 

My late father used to tell me how scared he was as a boy growing up in the Bronx by Father Coughlin's hateful anti-Semitic rants spewing from the radio. So I am deeply conscious of how words and "satire" can have very real and dangerous consequences for the groups at whom they are directed. 

When I saw the Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, I gasped, because it reminded me so much of Nazi propaganda "satire" about Jews in the 1930s. 

Compare: 





Just because one is a cartoon and one is a print, it doesn't make it any more "satire'y" in my opinion. They are both using offensive stereotypes, meant to engender fear and "otherness."  With the memory of my father's words about Father Coughlin, I wonder how it must feel to be a Muslim youth growing up in the United States today listening to and/or reading  Rep Peter King, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and now even Thomas Friedman.

So instead of saying "Je Suis Charlie", I have a question:  "Pourquoi, Charlie?" Is using deliberately offensive stereotypes the best way to get the point across in an already inflamed world? 

France hasn't exactly been a hotbed of religious tolerance. When I last visited in 2000, before 9/11, before Israel bombed Gaza, before the shootings in Toulouse, before ISIS, I saw anti-Semitic graffiti in several places. Former Front Nationale leader Jean-Marie LePen was a Holocaust minimizer so it makes my head explode to have some of my European Jewish family members praising his daughter Marine for her support of Israel. Do they forget their histoire so easily?

I'd ask all the people who say that the newspapers who aren't re-printing the cartoon in question are cowards for not doing it as an act of defiance to terrorists to rethink their position. Would they say the same thing if those newspapers printed the picture below as an act of "bravery"?  

With free speech comes great responsibility to use it wisely for the greater good of humanity. Not to engender more divisions and hate.