Tuesday, October 31, 2006


We decorated the office in a pirate theme this year. About fifteen staffers came in costumes ranging from a very vampy pirate mistress to a granny with big, um, breasts. I was going to wear my pirate wench costume (not vampy but historically acurate, with real lace up corset and long skirt) but I chickened out. Brian from Enforcement said, "So, I thought you were wearing a costume today?"

And I said, "I am. I am a fifty-year old single mom of a toddler and that's pretty scary." He laughed so hard I used the line all day.

All afternoon little kids came trick or treating. Ben's preschool came and when he saw me he let go of his rope loop (an interesting method of getting the little kids to walk with the group-- a long clothesline with little loops tied at about 18 inch intervals and each kid holds a loop) and then cried when he had to go back to school. But they actually got him to wear his costume: James from the Thomas the Tank Engine series. His pal Malcom was the actual big star, Thomas. Haj was too overwhelmed by the whole affair and stayed back at school with the babies.

So, I thought about the Friend of Court being a pirate ship, and wondered what the payors of child support thought of that as they came to the window to kvetch about the amount or negotiate a pay off on a delinquent account. Apparently, not one voiced objection to the irony. Not even the guy there for a custody evaluation whose fingers were tatooted "NECK" on the left hand and "RED" on the right hand in such a way so that if he made fists and held his hands out in front of him you could have known he spent a lot of time working in the garden.

It was good to have the little kids trooping through all afternoon, it reminded us all of why we were there. Maybe it even reminded the payors.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A true story

When Ben was 18 months old, we walked down to Pine Grove Park from our house on Lincoln Street in Port Huron. There was a play scape there, that had a pretend pilot house and ship's wheel. Ben was just learning to love climbing and the slide. And he had just discovered the ship's wheel.

I helped him climb up, and there was a three or four year old white kid up there already. He looked at Ben, and he said, "No black kids can be pirates here!"

Ben laughed and clapped his hands. I went to the three year old's father, and told him what his kid had said. He glared at me for the longest ten seconds of my life. Then he brushed past me and yelled, "Jason! C'mon, we're going home." The kid ran to him like he knew what might happen if he didn't, and off they walked, across the green grass to the street.

At the time, I was posting a lot of poems on the site Poetry.com. One of my favorite reviewers was Dean Walker, a twenty-somthing coffee salesperson from Sebastapol, California. I wrote him about the incident, and he wrote this, for Ben.

Home Grown Pirates

Boxed in and filled with sand
like an ocean
the towering creosote soaked pilings
take the form of an old shipwreck,
with riggings and planks,
and a captain's wheel.
Paid by the commons
for the children to enjoy.

"Aye scalawags all aboard,"
shouts a portly pint size scoundrel.
And hence heed the call
and came skipping
from his yard none other than
two year old Suleiman.

"Holt boy!There are no black pirates!"
says the patch-eyed little thug,
within ear shot of his parents,
keeping the world of thievery
squarely in the domain of whitie.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Affirmative action and the playground biter

Ben was bitten by a kid at preschool this week. That phone call from Miss Lisa was horrifying, even though the injury wasn’t severe. I felt sick that my child was crying because someone had hurt him. I wanted to make it better. I also felt concern that one of his friends wanted to hurt him. I felt compassion for his parents, too, as they struggled with the thought that their young son could hurt someone else.

The precipitating event was that Haj wanted to get in the car Ben was driving on the playground. At two and a half, sharing is not yet a consistent value. Ben said “No! My car!” “No” and “my” are two of his favorite words lately. Haj tried to crawl through the car window, and when he got within range, he bit Ben’s lower lip to express his displeasure.

As parents, we want to right the wrongs done to our children. I had no desire, however, to punish the other kid, I just wanted the friendship to be repaired and for both of them to thrive. I wanted both Ben and Haj to be equals again, instead of bitee and biter. Of course I want Haj to learn not to bite, but rather to speak his frustration. And I want Ben to learn to share.

I did think, fleetingly, about sending Ben to school the next day with a sign that said: "Don't bite me, my mom's a lawyer."

I imagine James Fett, a lawyer and one of the strongest proponents of Michigan’s Proposition 2, the innocuously-titled “civil rights” proposal, also wants to right a perceived wrong. Mr. Fett feels that his clients, white men, have been unfairly bitten and deprived of rights because affirmative action has given opportunities to non-whites. So he goes around the state trying to drum up support for this misguided notion.

The supporters of Proposal 2 pander to all of our worst fears: a woman will take away a man’s job, a black kid will take your kid’s place at U of M, a Hispanic kid should learn to speak English before they get to our schools. They are just girls, they look funny, and they talk funny. That’s a value judgment for you. This approach focuses on our differences in a negative way and makes us think that somehow those differences mean we’ll be treated differently.

James Fett wants to see us go back to the days when white men didn’t get equal treatment, they got preferential treatment.

Here’s life: sometimes you get bit. There are only so many desks for the incoming class. If you don’t get a seat, you try somewhere else. When I applied to colleges, it was rumored that there was a quota for Midwestern kids at Eastern schools. Apparently, some other Midwesterner kid beat me to Radcliffe and Yale. But I got in at Smith. So I went there. I didn’t think I had a right to take someone else’s seat away at Yale, because they were from New York and I was from Michigan. Life is not about granting all our wishes, or our kids getting everything we want for them. It’s about choices and allocating resources for the greater good.

Affirmative action is less about giving some minority kid a break than it is about leveling the playground for all kids: about taking away an advantage you get just by being born white. All affirmative action has ever been about, in any court case or factory or school is this: as between two equally rated candidates, the one who is non-white or non-male will be given the place. As between two equally rated candidates. It has never been about giving an unqualified person a job because she isn’t white. When we each do better, we all do better.

Ben got bitten, Haj bit him. I can’t change that. When Haj learns not to bite, and when Ben learns to share, they’ll both do better.

I’ve been on a steep learning curve about white privilege since Ben came into my life. Because he is African-American, and I am not, my race consciousness has been sharpened and changed dramatically. I no longer spend days, weeks, years without thinking about race. I am conscious of it every day. Because Ben and I get a certain look from certain people. Sometimes people actually say things. Cruel, unthinking things, like, “My niece and her husband adopted two crack babies.” They say this because Ben is black, so they think he came from a crack mom, and I rescued him because I am white.

And they were making those assumptions about him because he is black from the time he was born!

Nothing could be further from the truth. His birth mom was a responsible mom, who chose me to raise Ben. She wasn’t a crack addict, or a neglectful parent. She made a sacrifice I was not willing to make: she chose to live her life without Ben so that I could live mine with him. She chose me, a single, white, middle-aged woman, to raise her son. We met before Ben was born. We talked about race, about our families, about raising children, about men, our mothers and politics.

I picked Ben’s school because there were teachers who were African-American, Caucasian, Indian and Japanese-American. Haj, his best friend, is Japanese-American. I made decisions based on race, because I wanted a life with more diversity, and I wanted Ben to grow up knowing people of many races, religions and abilities.

Science has actually shown that workers in a diverse workplace are more productive, that companies who can sell to all sorts of people make more money. And so the big companies now recruit in schools where diversity is a value, like the University of Michigan. They don’t go much anymore to California schools to recruit, because Proposition 209 there killed diversity a decade ago. Ward Connerly got that poison passed there, then he turned his money to Michigan to spread his hate. Don’t let him bite Michigan’s kids.

Michigan has the third highest number of hate crimes in the nation. No wonder we were ripe for something like the poison of Proposal 2.

We have to learn to live among each other, not just tolerate each other. We can’t be colorblind, we have to move to an appreciation of each other’s differences. Our children have to play with each other, we need to welcome people of different colors and shapes and sizes into our families. We have to stop biting each other on the playground, and instead learn to share. We need to talk to each other about race, religion and honor our differences. We have to come to the place where we understand that Ben’s pain is also Haj’s pain, and that when Haj improves, Ben improves.

Proposal 2 only increases the pain between us. Vote no, for Haj and Ben. Vote no for your daughters, mothers and sisters. Vote no for yourself, because a life where you aren’t afraid of someone just because they have a different color of skin is a better life.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Why I care about who gets to be Probate Judge

There is one political race that may touch your life in the most dramatic way: that’s the race for Probate judge. There’s only one candidate in St. Clair County who will do a good job: that’s John Tomlinson.

Find his website at

Let me tell you what it means to be a Probate judge. You deal with the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, the criminally insane, the parentless children, the widows and widowers, and thanks to the wisdom of our Supreme Court, you also deal with divorces two days a week. You deal everyday with people in crisis, sad people, sick people, our most vulnerable neighbors.

That means that judge decides who gets locked away for treatment even though they are too sick to know they need it, who gets the kids, how much child support should be paid, which heirs get the money, how much money a surviving spouse can live on, who needs a guardian and what sort of powers does that guardian have, and who takes care of the money if someone can’t manage their own.

It takes a special kind of person to be a good Probate judge, and there aren’t, sadly, that many good ones. John Tomlinson will be one of the good ones, but he needs you. Now.

Don’t get me wrong.

Every political decision is an important one, every vote counts. But your vote for Probate judge can literally save your life. Did I mention the Probate judge also has the power, if asked, to make end of life decisions for you?

I was the chief clerk of Probate Court for five years, and in June I left that job to move to Ann Arbor with Ben and take a new job with the Friend of Court. But my sister, nephew and brother in law still live in St. Clair County. The best friends of my life still live there. If I died or became unable to care for Ben, my sister Emily would be Ben’s guardian, and I’d want John Tomlinson watching over that. If my dear friends Linda or Jackie or Phil or Nunu or Bev or Janice or Monica or Bill or Matt became disabled, I’d want John Tomlinson to supervise their guardians and conservators. And I want John Tomlinson to be the judge who oversees my friend Mary Beth’s estate.

John Tomlinson knows and cares about real people. He worked at Community Mental Health for a number of years before becoming a lawyer. He has a developmentally disabled adult sibling. He’s the child of divorced parents, he’s been there. He’s served as conservator, personal representative, trustee, and guardian for many people. He's warm and smart and kind and funny. He’ll make a terrific judge and he’s earned it.

If you’re still not convinced, email me, or leave a comment, and I’ll respond in 24 hours. Even though I don’t live there, I am helping John. I am not a person who is given to hyperbole (well at least not every day!) but this vote could save your life, or the life of someone you know, like a little kid or a gravely ill elderly person.

If you only cast one vote this year, make that your vote for John Tomlinson for Probate Judge.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Farewell, Mary Beth

I first met Mary Beth Black when I was a law student working at Lakeshore Legal Aid in Port Huron, Michigan. I was representing a tenant, she was representing a landlord. She called to see if we could reach a settlement before getting to court. In the way only a law student could, I carefully quoted a court rule and told her she hadn't properly served my client so we wouldn't be appearing at all.

"I don't have to take this shit from you," she said, and hung up on me. Five seconds later the phone rang again and she talked with my supervising attorney, Steve Lockhart. They settled the case, and I learned how to get my client more than she could have gotten by following the court rule.

It was the beginning of a great friendship that lasted twenty years. Both of us did our best to beat each other up, and I learned so much from her. We shared lunches and laughs, and she gave me endless advice on practicing law and, most recently, motherhood. We didn't always agree, but we each recognized in the other a willingness to work our hardest for our clients, but rise above it to be friends at the end of the trial.

Last Sunday night, Mary Beth Black, aged 61 and in her thirtieth year of pratice, put a gun to her heart and pulled the trigger. We buried her today.

The St. Clair County Bar filled six pews in a huge church: her family and a grateful community filled the other pews. It was so hard to say good bye.

Mary Beth started practicing at a time when women lawyers were still an oddity, and an unwelcome one at that. She was smart, and a hottie. The old boys gave her a hard time. And through it all, she kept winning and grinning, and clicking down the halls of justice in her trademark high heels. She was a person who invaded your space. She'd lean in and touch you. If you were in the middle of a case with her and she was out-lawyering you, it would piss you off, frankly. She ran for judge a few times, and she had just survived a primary for the open District Court seat. She'd have made a fine judge.

Instead, she lay in that damned casket looking awful, because only Mary Beth could have done her make up right. It was a final irony that this woman who cared so much about her public face looked awful for this farewell. The torment and sudden severe health problems that led her to shoot herself took a toll.

Mary Beth leaves only questions for me. Her parting was, as one friend and sister at the bar put it, "signature Mary." She decided she wasn't going to take this shit anymore and she ended it.

Her daughter, the pride of her life, eulogized her. At the end of it, Alicia quipped through her tears, "If I can be just half the woman my mother was, I'll be really tired."

It was impossible not to weep. I will miss her, and I will never completely accept that she's gone. In the end, she won. Mary Beth would have loved the celebration of her life that brought all the old boys to church in their dark suits and grim faces. I hope we all remember what a gift to the practice of law she was.

Farewell, Mary Beth. You were a fine friend and a you could be a goddamn pain in the ass. In the end, that's really the best a lawyer can be.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Time and mentoring

Last Saturday, I went to a party in Detroit hosted by the National Lawyers Guild. I was active in the Guild for three years while in law school, twenty years ago. When I moved to Port Huron, I lost touch with many of the lawyers in Detroit for complicated reasons. I missed them all.

So Saturday I saw two people I hadn't seen in twenty years. The time peels away, and we reconnect as if no time at all had past. Now that I am single and able to freely do what I want without negotiating (except with babysitters) I want to renew these great friendships.

I was reminiscing about the first time I met Ernie Goodman, a co-founder of the Guild. It was a defining moment for me. Now I'm one of the old farts. The Guild's organizer, who could really be my daughter (she's that young), asked me to write something about my memories of Ernie. You know you are old when a person young enough to be your daughter asks you to do this.

So, this is what I wrote:

A irony strikes me now: I started law school and met Ernie Goodman in 1984. Reagan was well on his way to a second disastrous term. I had been a public benefits paralegal with a rural legal aid office in Michigan during his first term, when the term “welfare Cadillac” came into the public lexicon. I didn’t have any client who drove a Cadillac. Law school seemed like more of the same newspeak

The student chapter of the Guild organized a gathering of first year law students to hear Ernie talk about his years as a Guild attorney. Now I recognize that meeting as mentoring: then I just felt as if for the first time since I started law school I could breathe inside that building.

I worked with tireless, dedicated attorneys who were brilliant advocates for the poor: Guild attorneys like Marilyn Mullane, Susan McParland and Kathleen Gmeiner. I had no sense of the work being done outside of Legal Services for social justice. Law school and the private sector seemed like a wasteland to me.

But there in the basement of Wayne Law School, Ernie sat with his wry smile: a co- founder of the Guild, an old guy who still had the spark of young person, a lawyer in private practice who had held onto his ideals and politics through years of practicing law. I can still hear him say, as he pointed at each of us, that trademark twinkle in his eyes, “You really can do well by doing good.”

That initial evening with Ernie blossomed into meeting Bill Goodman, Deb Choly, Julie Hurwitz, Ken Mogill, Neal Bush and Guild lawyers working with Detroit’s peace community as they the protested against Reagan’s foreign policy in Central America. We law students got to work with those lawyers to organize the Civil Disobedience Conference. By the time I started practicing, my ethical and political perspective had been both broadened and honed by gifted Guild lawyers. I had a sense about the wide range of work for justice that could be done.

I’m not saying I would have gone over to the dark side had these lawyers not been present during my legal education, but they gave me something to balance the Oceania of law school.

I probably never said anything to Ernie about the significance of our meeting that night. I know I never thought to thank him. But that one contact with an experienced lawyer, doing good work, and doing well after years of practicing might have changed a lesser person, has stayed with me. The presence of experienced Guild attorneys as mentors during my three years at Wayne was priceless: all of them did good by me.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Randomly searching blogs and grasping

"I tend to reach out with whatever hand is nearest."

Such honesty in the face of attempts to categorize.
Are you right handed or left handed?

"I tend to reach out with whatever hand is nearest."

And do you grasp what you reach for?
Or do things continually evade you: ideas, people?
Are there no satisfactions to your hungers?
Do you go wanting? Can you name it?

"I tend to reach out with whatever hand is nearest."

And do you hold it then?
For how long?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


There's a blogger on this site named Clare. Clare writes Three Beautiful Things each day. She succeeds because it isn't smarmy whiskers on kittens stuff, but real things that she sees joy in. Simple things, recipes for small inward smiles, the holy of the everyday.

Here's a fall recipe, too.

Ruby red
sweet beets
in the long late

juice like
candied blood
from the cut gems
stains my hand .

Two colors of red
revealed in the slicing,
soaking in the
chestnut balsamic
while garlic browns
and onions become
tiny window panes
in hot oil.

Add the garnets
to the oil and it begins
to steam--
tart vinegar and garlic
season the kitchen.

Chop the greens:
from the beets
green and burgundy;
then kale, dewy water
rolling off the oddly
pale leaves.

Now oiled greens and reds
filled with life,
the suicide drug for

so pleasing
and useful.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Reaping what is sown

On Friday this week, the traditional Harvest Moon appeared: so named because the timing of the moonrise early in the evening, before sunset, actually lengthens the work day for those working in the fields to gather the fall harvest in the Northern hemisphere. And this year’s moon was stunning. The clear skies and mild temperatures made it possible to wander out after dark with Ben and moon gaze. “Moon” was one of Ben’s first identified objects, and remains an enthusiastic word for him. There’s a spectacular moon flower outside Peachtree School, and each morning until our first frost last week, Ben would drag me across the street and to the stunning white flowers and say, “Moon, Mamma!”

This morning we spent an hour on the couch, me sipping coffee and reading the Times, and Ben watching Thomas on TV and trying to interfere with my reading. Beside me in the to read pile was the Business section, with an above-the-fold story on Rosa Parks memorabilia. Through my distracted haze, I heard him saying, “Mamma’s hair,” and lowered the paper to see him pointing at picture of Rosa’s silver hair piled in a braid on top of her head. Leave it to Ben to spot race-bridging commonalities.

When he jolted me with his observation, I was reading a piece about the destructive human interaction with elephants. Our disruption of their powerful familial bonds by enslaving, jailing, killing, poaching and encroaching has led to a breakdown of elephant society. Adolescent males of the species are traumatized by the loss of elders to show them the way; rudderless and rampaging, they have killed alarmingly increasing numbers of humans and are known to rape other species. Young females are reproducing without developing elephantine attachment to the larger group and without the extended support network of mothers, grandmothers and aunties.

In a perfect world, young elephants spend their first eight years no further than 15 feet away from their mothers, learning how to attach to the larger group and be elephants. The introduction of elephant elders, male and female, back into the destabilized groups of immature and orphaned adolescents can stabilize them in a year. In some sanctuary areas, human caretakers serve as allomothers: matriarchs to work with orphaned elephant youngsters to develop attachment and cohesion with the larger group. Rosa Parks and elephant matriarchs and saving the world.

Today Ben and I traveled to northern Washtenaw County to the Three Cedars Farm, a touristy but somewhat tasteful pumpkin and hayride place. We petted the goats and looked at the pumpkins and odd gourds, and we wandered off the hayride into the pumpkin patch. Ben did not want to pick a pumpkin. Instead, he went up to each kid his own size, and asked to hold hands. Some kids walked for a while hand in hand with him.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Amygdala rondala

Love, that noble emotion;
dethroned patriarchs
and beguiled matriarchs
with chemicals manufactured in the brain.
Dopamine makes us dopey;
neurepinephrine makes us mad with love.

The amygdala governs the mixings:
physical responses,
organs tighten and engorge
lusty attraction before attachment.

A primate learns to grasp
and kiss his mate
from the front;
she learns this is pleasant
like the baby clinging to her breast.

Mother's love for lover's love.

Front to front,
two backs outward,
shielding the inner body,
the soft bellies,
from the world.
Very god of very god
the pre frontal cortex then
lends attachment to the soup.
That scent,
like lavender
or maybe like fresh fruit:

the scent of survival.