Beyond the Binary – A Speaker’s Journey

I start my presentation on gender with a snippet from Free to Be You and Me and an embarrassing personal story – the time I realized that I knew far less about gender than my children do, far less than I thought I did. The time I learned (again) that one of the best ways to guide our children is by listening to them, not trying to teach and correct them all the time.

When I speak, I tell my audience that I began writing about gender because I couldn’t find much in print or online from a parent’s perspective. And once I began writing, I was asked to speak on the subject – first to a retirees’ education group, a year later at a Jewish learning festival; I was asked to facilitate a discussion with local educators, and then served on a panel with college counselors and admissions officers from around the world.

Last year, I proposed the session for the Independent Educational Consultant Association’s annual spring conference, a place where I am known as the college essay lady, not the gender mom. But who knew? They respect my expertise; maybe they would give me a platform. Maybe I could fill a conference room.

And then, thanks to Covid, the conference went virtual. Instead of flying to Connecticut, members could join from their kitchen tables and home offices. Registration exploded. Hundreds of people streamed dozens of sessions.

By the time the conference ended, more than 500 people had viewed my session – far more than the 80 or so who would have selected it from the menu of in-person options.

The morning the conference started, I received an email from a colleague I know only peripherally; someone I like and respect, kind of a big shot in our professional community:

I’m 20-something minutes into your video and I just have to say this one of the most remarkable sessions I’ve seen at a professional conference. The content is so thoughtfully curated and the delivery is pitch perfect. And my first [conference] was in 1994 so I know what I’m talking about. Thank you for putting so much head and heart into this. What a great start to my day!

What a great start to my day.

I had no idea how this would go over. My experience as a parent, presented to a group of independent counselors. It certainly hit a nerve. I received heartfelt messages from people I knew and many I didn’t. Parents of trans and non-binary children. Counselors trying to support their student clients.

Another colleague, the Director of Learning and Development at CIP, a post-secondary transition program for young adults on the autism spectrum and with other learning differences, asked if I would present a similar session for CIP staff and families. I wouldn’t be talking about autism or learning challenges, but she said that gender was a big topic of conversation in their community. She would open it up to the public.

Again, amazing.

During that webinar, I talked about community support and engagement, about the ways in which parents, teachers, counselors and others can do more than simply accept gender non-conforming youth; how we can engage in learning and sharing related to gender. How we need to practice the names and pronouns of our children and students when they’re not with us, so we’ll get it right when we see them face-to-face.

Again, emails and thank-you’s.

If you’re interested in the webinar, CIP has generously made the recording available to the public. You can check it out here.

And let me ask you something too: Spread the word. Our children know more about gender than we do. Listen, learn and practice. Give them space to create the world they know they need. And then dig in and do the hard work of participating.


Pandemic Haircut

My first thought on removing the plastic bag and rinsing out the extra dye was “troll doll.” Not the giant eyes and round belly. But the hair. Definitely the hair – bright mermaid blue. After some challenging weeks (David’s bike accident, friends suspecting Covid – which, fortunately, turned out to be a false alarm), here was something to celebrate.

Friday afternoon, Birch cut my hair on our deck – the first clippers to touch my head since February. Yesterday, I let her dye it. Because … Why not? My children have been dying their hair for years. I’ve long wondered what it would be like to color mine.

But I don’t do that sort of thing, so I set the idea aside. Until this weekend.

These days, everything feels uncertain, ad-hoc. What difference does it make what color my hair is? And what difference does it make if that dye job is the perfectly imperfect work of my sixteen-year-old? It’s joyful. It’s fun. It’s hair, for heaven’s sake.

Last night, we celebrated David’s 53rd birthday. Birch made a chocolate peanut butter icebox cake (highly recommend; here’s the recipe). Miriam and Sammy visited from Ann Arbor, where they are each living in coops with 15 young adults. It was our first family gathering since they left home again in July.

They arrived wearing masks.

We sat on the deck, six feet apart.

They didn’t stay overnight.

I loved being with them. All week I felt excited and sad – anxious to see them, sad that we couldn’t hug, relieved that during this isolating time they are living in community.

Birch had 12 days of community at Camp Lookout too, the best part of her summer hands down. This was her fourth season at the tiny camp in Northern Michigan, the capstone session before being old enough to work there next year.

When Governor Whitmer moved our state into Phase 4, the directors figured out a way to offer tiny camp experiences for kids from the same region of the state. Camp was back, albeit with masks and distance and pre-arrival Covid tests.

And now they’re even offering a semester school option, which my kid is anxious to join – seven weeks of online school with your home district, while engaged in a camp-like community up north.

So, things are looking up in unexpected ways.

And I have turquoise hair, which I love.

My children are finding their way during this odd time. Birch is settling into communities that embrace and celebrate her trans identity – folks who don’t question her name, her pronouns or her politics.

Sammy’s friends are returning to Ann Arbor after scattering when school shut down in March. They are walking and talking together-but-apart, sitting on the porch, sharing meals as best they can.

Miriam is working at a farm a couple days each week, figuring out what the fall of senior year looks like, navigating uncertainty like a pro.

No, it’s not what I expected. But it’s what we’ve got, and I’ll take it.

How Much Rice is Enough?

The basement fridge is nearly empty. A bag of carrots, some lemons, an extra quart of vanilla yogurt.

We still have giant bags of pasta and rice in the pantry, ten cans of black beans, a huge tub of hummus that we probably won’t finish.

I am lucky. While sheltering in place, I stocked up. I had money and space – an extra refrigerator and freezer, an entire basement kitchen. My college kids had returned to their childhood bedrooms; five of us were eating three meals a day at home.

A few weeks into the lockdown, I misread the order information from a local bulk supply outlet and accidentally purchased 45 dozen fresh eggs. I spent the next three days donating them to emergency pantries and my friends who were preparing for Passover, a holiday that requires dozens of eggs. But not 45 dozen.

I bought a giant box of frozen tilapia filets. My husband found new ways to cook them on his dinner prep nights. We ate a lot of fish.

We made sourdough.

Miriam – a food preserver even when we’re not living through a pandemic – pickled magnolia flowers, bottled cherry blossom vinegar, made capers from dandelions.

Sammy cooked tempeh and cauliflower curries, roasted sweet potatoes. He even fried hot chicken one night, on a quest for a dish resembling a blistering late-night snack he and David ate in Nashville.

Birch experimented with pie dough and mushrooms. She learned to sharpen knives on a whetstone, made chocolate cake, vegetable stock and risotto with pesto.

We thought a lot about food.

The big kids returned to Ann Arbor last Monday. With only three of us in the house and better stocked stores, I am learning to shop like a normal person again. I still avoid supermarkets if possible. I prefer curbside pick-ups and deliveries.  I know this is only a pause in the pandemic. I will probably stock up again when the second wave hits.

I hope my college kids can stay at school.

I hope my youngest has something resembling a senior year.

The only thing I know for sure, is that I won’t run out of rice.


I’m on my second cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll – not my usual morning routine.

I’m baking cheesecake for my youngest child’s 16th birthday.

I’m on news overload, and I can’t stop scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, looking for something true.

Photos: Kelly Jordan, Detroit Free Press

My oldest was arrested in downtown Detroit Tuesday night, held with 126 other protesters in what was described by the city as a socially-distanced arena basement, but which – according to those who were there – was crowded and sometimes brutal (way to support the community, Ilitch family and Little Caesars). My 22-year-old was handcuffed with zip ties. They were loaded onto a bus. They lost their backpack, glasses and keys in the shuffle.


You probably care about this because I’m telling you a story about my white, Jewish child – the artist, the one who may have babysat for your kids. The one who wins writing prizes and is thriving at a top university.

But what about all the others? The ones whose parents can’t just say, “Go online and buy yourself another pair of glasses. I’ll pay for it?” The Black and brown folks who walk through life being profiled every day?

Did you know that the protesters were loaded onto crowded buses, then lined up side-by-side on the floor of Little Caesars Arena?

Can you say Covid risk?

Did you know that some of the protesters left custody bruised and bloodied?

Did you know that officers in riot gear called for the group to disperse, but also surrounded them on both sides? And then, when the crowd did not disperse, arrested 127 people?

Yes, protesters were out past the 8 pm curfew, but really? How were they supposed to get past the armored police officers? Run and hope for the best?

Say what you want about cops only doing their job, about law and order and the protection of property. We can have that discussion another time.

I am not telling you this so you will feel bad for my child. They are part of a group working with Michigan Liberation, serving as jail support, documenting what happens as people are taken into and released from custody, posting bail when necessary, offering rides home to those who need a lift, taking notes and photos outside city jails.

While they were not planning to get arrested Tuesday night, they are fully aware of the risks.

I am telling you this because it is easy to comfort ourselves with words: “Isn’t it too bad… Isn’t racism awful… I care, but really, what more can I do?”

I have repeated those words to myself for too long.

If you’ve been living with and fighting racism your entire life, ignore me on my soap box. But if you live like me and look like me, it’s time to step up.

Here’s what I am doing instead of wringing my hands:

  • Joining a family march on Friday in my very white town, a march that I hope will encourage the white folks among us, in our comfortable enclave, to recognize and challenge our privilege. And then to do more.
  • Reading How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. This book has been on my list for a year, sitting next to my bed for two months. I finally cracked it open.
  • Donating to The Bail Project, not because young people like my kid are getting arrested this week, but because I’ve learned that cash bail is just another manifestation of our racist criminal justice system. You can learn more here.
  • Listening to my children. They think my left-leaning liberalism is pretty weak. That’s their prerogative. I taught them to hate inequity, but I didn’t really do anything about it. They are taking action. The least I can do is pay attention.

These are changes I’m making within myself – working from the inside out – and ways I’m trying to support change in the world around me.

How about you?

Scroll through social media and you’ll find lots of books to read, funds to support, slogans to shout. You don’t need me to make you another list.

I’m a little jittery from all that coffee, queasy from the sugary pastry. The top of the cheesecake burned, and I had to scrape it off. I’m feeling off-kilter, unmoored.


Time to do something about the injustice I’ve tolerated for far too long.

Preparing for Shabbat

The rice casserole was delicious, thanks to loads of garlic and fresh shiitake mushrooms from my new favorite mushroom farmer. Tomorrow, dairy kugel and fish for Shabbat dinner (still trying to use up the cottage cheese), plus an Earl Gray tea cake with chocolate and orange. The fish is my husband’s responsibility; he recently became a tilapia expert, after I bought 20 pounds in March from the same place that supplied the giant tub of cottage cheese.

I don’t have egg noodles for the kugel, so I’ll substitute bow tie pasta. Or cream for the cake’s frosting; we’ll make do with a slightly less fluffy topping.

Shabbat dinner requires dessert: peanut butter, chocolate or blueberry cake, brownies, apple turnovers, rhubarb crisp. The Earl Gray recipe is new.

We have been lighting Shabbat candles with my parents via Facetime. It’s a sweet way to end the week, though we can’t always get the angle of the iPad right. Sometimes they’re looking down at us, while other times all they can see is the overhead light. Still, we’re together in a manner of speaking, marking the beginning of Shabbat as we always have, with candles, challah and wine.

But I can’t help but wonder, how long till we can host them in our home, in person?

How long till they are seated side by side in front of the baker’s rack, the spot in our dining room where it is most difficult to get up from the table, which means they have to stay put and let the rest of us serve the soup and clear the dishes?

How long till I can hug my mother?

How long till I can sit next to my dad? Really next to him – not six feet away on the front porch?

I don’t know. So in the meantime, I bake. I sauté onions and mushrooms. I search for ways to use up cottage cheese.

It keeps me busy. And sometimes I don’t even cry.

Cottage Cheese

Spinach and Brown Rice Casserole sounds like something my mother would have made for our family circa 1981, during our vegetarian dinner phase.

Frozen spinach, chopped mushrooms, cottage cheese, brown rice. Even the word casserole evokes the white laminate dining table and vinyl print wallpaper of our 70’s era kitchen.

I was searching for recipes featuring cottage cheese, because several weeks ago, when I first started Covid bulk buying, I grabbed a four-pound tub, not realizing I already had two smaller, normal size containers in the fridge. The expiration date approaches, and while I know that the cottage cheese won’t suddenly turn green at midnight, I also know that as soon as I open it, the clock begins ticking.

Recall: Cottage cheese recalled by Kraft Heinz on risk of plastic bits

I can’t imagine throwing it out. And so my hunt for cottage cheese rich recipes.

Spinach casseroles and sweet noodle kugels came up frequently. Creamy dips. Cottage cheese pancakes. Cottage cheese with cantaloupe. Also references to Richard Nixon, who ate it with pineapple or ketchup.

If I make both the casserole and the kugel, I can use up five cups and put half of each casserole in the freezer for future meals.

That alone is enough to convince me.

To round out tonight’s dinner, I have lots of choices: a bag of fresh shiitake mushrooms, a head of cauliflower, black beans, my oldest child’s pickling experiments. Have you tried dandelion capers? Pickled magnolia blossoms? Turmeric garlic?

Or sourdough something. We have starter in a jar on the counter, and last week I successfully baked a loaf of bread using yeast water, which took a week and a half to establish: figs, water, sugar and salt, much shaking and resting, and a good bit of sheer faith. Would it work? No idea, until the dough actually bubbled and rose, and the loaf emerged from the oven looking like … well, bread.

Sunday I baked rhubarb custard bars, which are kind of like lemon squares, but pink. My book club will be meeting on Zoom this Thursday, and when I tasted one, I thought perfect book group snack, while simultaneously realizing I could not share them with these friends, some of whom I’ve been meeting with on the second Thursday of the month for 30 years. I briefly considered drive-by drop-offs, but our crew is so widely dispersed – Ypsilanti, Oakland Township, Rochester, Saginaw, Bay City, Bloomfield Hills – it would have taken all day to visit everyone.

As you can tell, we’ve been cooking a lot. My youngest requested tart cherry juice, a key ingredient in a future baking project. Last night she made chocolate pudding from scratch. My middle child is a master of tempeh, which shows up frequently in his weekly dinners.

I am not sad to be cooking or eating well. I am just tired of the focus on ingredients – using them, finding them, evaluating if we have enough onions and milk; splurging on spice mixes and gummi bears.

Tonight, spinach and brown rice casserole. Maybe I’ll save some for my parents – a little nostalgia trip for all of us – and drop it off on Saturday, when I bring them their produce box from Detroit’s Eastern Market. We’ve been ordering on Mondays for Saturday pick-up – another change to our grocery habits. I’ve become attached to the tortellini and spinach and tortilla chips.

More goodies coming. More dinners. More snacks.

We’ll be cooking all week. And occasionally we’ll forget that we couldn’t go out if we wanted to, that we won’t be running to the store for that missing ingredient, that we’ll be eating at home together, again, all five of us in our familiar spots, seated around the dining room table that was a gift from my parents when we moved in 20 years ago – the table with the big scratch at the head and the inlaid wood diamonds and the spot the puppy gnawed at the base.

Today. And tomorrow. And the day after that.

Crepes with Van Gogh: Corona Quarantine Phase 2

Last night, sheltering in place got the best of me. I was scrolling through texts and landed on a thread from late last year about who was bringing what to a potluck of some sort. Reading it made me cry.

I miss all of you, I texted my friends. I need a virtual gathering. I’ve had my share of open ended “How are you doing” sessions with various people, which are great, but I’d like to DO something if anyone has any ideas. Unfortunately I don’t.

Easy Crepe Recipe - How To Make Basic Crepes—

Twenty messages later, we had a plan: Zoom meetup Saturday night. We’ll visit the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, where Vicki will screenshare/guide us through the Van Gogh exhibit. BYO crepes and wine.

A month into this experience, we’ve moved into a new phase of coronavirus reality.

This is it, we seem to be saying.

What’s next? How do we manage longer-term?

Yesterday a case of toilet paper landed on our front porch from the local janitorial supply service. It’s the grayish, thin kind you find in gas stations and dive restaurants, where the restroom looks like it belongs in your house, not a commercial establishment. The type of restroom with a pink lotion soap dispenser, where – way in the distant past – you might have wiped your hands on a damp cloth looped on a metal-framed holder and then dried them for real on your pants.

Why did we order so much? Because we were just so damned tired of thinking about toilet paper. I needed it off my mental list. And while each roll of what looks like about 20 sheets of two-ply toilet tissue will not last long, I feel such relief knowing those puny, paper-wrapped rolls are stacked on a basement shelf.

I also feel fortunate to have a basement shelf. And an extra carton of milk in the fridge. And three dozen eggs, and a giant bag of spinach. All of which reminds me that I have to figure out when and where I am going to shop next week. Three dozen eggs will not last long around here. The spinach will be gone by Friday.

As my friends and I were firming up our Saturday night plans, I started searching for games to play online. I found versions of Scrabble and Rummikub, but when I downloaded the apps and tried setting one up on my phone, I stopped mid-registration. I don’t want to link my account to Facebook. I don’t want to create a screen name. I just want to do something familiar with my friends.

I want to sit in a room full of people and talk around the dining room table. Then I want to get up and perch on the edge of the sofa next to someone I haven’t seen for a while and catch up while the Superbowl halftime show plays in the background and everyone else finishes dessert.

For now, I’ll have to settle for a virtual museum tour and a solo glass of wine. Yes, with friends. But still sort of alone.

None of this is easy, though there are occasional bright spots. I’ve been ordering a produce box from Detroit’s Eastern Market each Monday for Saturday pickup. This time I added ramps, tortilla chips, salsa and a loaf of whole wheat bread to my cart. Last week we had the most gorgeous blue oyster mushrooms I’ve ever seen, which Birch turned into pasta sauce Monday night.

So it’s not like everything is bad. It’s just not how I want it to be. I want my college-age children to live with their friends in their grubby campus houses. I want them to have summer jobs. I want camp for my youngest.

Vicki shared a crepe-making video to get us in the mood for Saturday night. I’m contemplating where I want to sit for this pretend outing. Should I pick the spot where I usually set up Zoom, or try somewhere new? Maybe the weather will cooperate and I can sit outside.

Should I wear a hat? Wrap myself in a colorful shawl?

Perhaps we’ll post pictures. Probably not. I look forward to our gathering. I just hope I’m not too sad to enjoy myself.

How Are You Doing?

I am drawing blobby shapes on my sketch pad, filling them in with colored pencils while listening to Haydn piano sonatas.

I am advising my youngest baker on what to do with the over-cooked marshmallow concoction that was supposed to become a buttercream icing base. (Start again. Can we substitute dark corn syrup for light? Not sure, but what the heck?)

I am deciding whether butter is an emergency supply and needs to be purchased right this minute from a nearby gas station. (No.)

I receive texts with photos of baking projects from my cousin in Chicago. Last week, challah; this week, bagels. They are gorgeous. He says they’re a bit doughy. He’ll try again.

My children are making dinner, one night each: red lentil & sweet potato curry, pad thai, tempeh-cauliflower stew, lemon-ricotta pasta. I am relieved not to be cooking so much.

I run through grocery lists and meal plans in my head multiple times a day. I fill virtual grocery carts, only to find that the food can’t be delivered till … till never. Try again later. Or tomorrow. Or the day after that.

I realize I don’t have parsley or horseradish for next week’s seder. A friend says she’ll share if I can’t buy my own before then.

I connect with a Covid-infected friend daily. She is in New York. I am in Detroit. I feel like we are only a week behind them. I am scared.

A friend leaves five heads of garlic on my front porch. I will buy flour for her with my next grocery delivery.

I help my children move furniture. They are swapping dressers, clearing out closets, moving books to the basement or to the giveaway pile in my room, which is growing, and which I cannot deliver to the charity thrift shop until who knows when.

I don’t know what to do with the overdue library books. Where should I put them so I’ll remember to return them when it’s time?

I do online yoga on my bedroom floor. I use two mats because hardwood is not that forgiving.

We sing Happy Birthday to my mother on Zoom, all of us in silly hats, huddled around the laptop camera.

Today we will deliver her chocolate birthday cake covered in buttercream. Once she’s seen it whole, we’ll cut the cake in half and take a portion back home. Maybe we’ll set up the computer on the dining room table and eat it together.

Chicken and Poems

Yesterday I brought a friend 7 pounds of frozen chicken. It was the only thing I could offer when she and her family went into sudden home quarantine. Her husband’s doctor declared his relatively mild symptoms “assumed Covid-19” and told him to stay hydrated and as separate as possible from the rest of the family. So he’s spending the next two weeks in the guest bedroom, which got me thinking that they’re pretty lucky to have a guest bedroom. Continue reading

Election Day

I called the doctor’s office first thing Monday morning –  the one I visit when the tendinitis in my elbow flares up or my neck is so stiff I can’t turn my head. Today it is a deep pain where my low back meets my hip. I can’t bend over far enough to pull on my left sock.

Help me, I said to my husband. I can’t get my sock on. I had tried squatting, bending forward, bringing my foot toward my chest. No luck. Too stiff. Too stuck.

David rolled up the black sock like you would for a small child, and slipped it over my toes, across the arch, to my ankle.

When I arrived at the physiatrist’s office for my appointment, I handed over my insurance card, signed another HIPAA release, settled in to wait, while a large TV screen silently played the opening credits of a movie I hadn’t seen. I thought about my absentee ballot, which I still hadn’t completed, even though the primary was scheduled for the next day.

The exam was friendly and brief. I bent over, twisted left and right, laid on my back and pointed my legs in the air, pushed against the doctor’s hand. No neurological damage. All the important stuff works. He found a spot in the lower right quadrant of my back and pressed.

Ouch! Yes. That’s the spot.

Muscle, he said. Ligament. Some arthritis. Maybe a disk. No need for imaging. Ice. Anti-inflammatories. Ice, 20 minutes, 5 times a day. Lots of ice.

As we get older, it doesn’t take much to trigger that kind of muscle strain, he reminded me.

As we get older, and he meant himself too. We began the visit with small talk about our college age children. Where are they? What are they doing?  What do they care about?

I am getting older. I am more prone to injury. I weigh 10 pounds more than I did two years ago, despite no change in diet or exercise. I am more tired.

I left the office with a prescription for Naproxen and a follow up appointment that I’ll probably cancel. By next week, we both know I’ll be fine.

I Voted

Later in the day, I stopped at the City Clerk’s office to turn in my absentee ballot. When Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the primary race last week, I didn’t know what to do. Who would I vote for? Biden? Sanders? I dislike them both equally, for different reasons. My children were lobbying hard for Sanders.

You can only ask me once a day who I’m voting for, I told my youngest, who follows polls and reads and listens to everything possible about the election. Birch is 15, the only one in our family who can’t vote, a passionate force for change, opposed to the World Bank, the US military, our health care system, capitalism in general. I admire the passion. Sometimes it’s exhausting. Still, I tell myself, I’d rather have kids who care, even when I don’t agree.

One more day till the Michigan primary, and I had been holding onto my absentee ballot for weeks. I voted yes on the millages. That was easy. Yes to the art museum; yes to funding for the roads.

Candidate for president. I left the space blank and tossed the ballot in my bag. I’d finish after I dropped off Birch at martial arts. On the way there, I explained that I was voting for Biden, that I had finally decided he was my best option.

Silence from the passenger seat. Then disappointment, a flood of last-ditch arguments.

I listened, as I had been listening all month. I pointed out again that there are more than 35 years between us, and while I don’t expect my children to adopt a pragmatic point of view, I also don’t want them to deny my position.

Disagree with me, but don’t dismiss me.

Birch looked pained. Shocked that I could choose Biden in all his sexist, homophobic, transphobic, elitist horror.

And then I had an idea. I could let my nearly 16-year-old child vote in my place. I could fill in the ballot with Birch’s choice, not mine. I had come close to choosing Sanders myself. I had been swayed almost daily by arguments for and against both candidates. Every time I read an article about the fate of Elizabeth Warren’s supporters, I felt like I was reading about myself.

Was this ethical? Was I acting rashly? Did it matter?

My back hurts. I know that politics is a messy game. I’m frustrated that I can’t vote for Warren. So I took my black felt tip pen and filled in the space for Sanders. Birch offered a quick smile and got out of the car for martial arts.

When I told my sister, she was not impressed. You just decided not to vote, she said. Maybe it’s something I can’t understand because I don’t have children.

My husband liked the idea. I thought of doing that myself, he said, but I decided not to.

If you’re reading this and you don’t agree with my political choice, we can have that discussion another time. I know – Israel, health care, etc. etc. This isn’t really about elections. My sister is right. It’s about parenting. And this is the parenting choice I made this day under these particular circumstances. I feel good about it.

Tuesday night I’ll lay on an ice pack and watch the returns come in. After class, Birch said thank you and made one last request: I wish I could have an “I voted” sticker.