musical notes of various colors coming in and out of focus

Music that got me through 2020

Music is basically how I feel things. If I’m not listening to something, then I can’t be entirely sure if I’m really here. Some playlists are great for expressing a feeling, and some great for changing feelings. My personal Don’t Panic playlist comes to mind as one I designed to help me avoid spiraling into anxiety, for example. I usually make playlists for my birthday parties which later turn into wonderful documents of the energy I brought into that year.

2020 was one of the worst years I lived through. It was challenging on both a personal level and a societal one. And of course there was no birthday party for me. But it would have been even worse without great music to help me experience and express my feelings. Here are some of the playlists that helped me make it through last year.


At the very beginning of the year I attended the wonderful Creating Change conference. Creating Change is one of very few places where I have experienced feeling seen as the unique queer person that I am. I started this playlist as I was getting excited to travel to Dallas for the conference, and invited other participants to add tracks as well.

In March, my brilliant friend and comrade Liza Sabater started a Twitter thread of COVID survival songs. I compiled them into a playlist so we could enjoy them on Spotify.

Liza’s playlist (and my continued freaking out at the lack of any necessary action to prevent a genocidal pandemic) inspired me to make my own playlist about what I knew was going to be an extended period of isolation and suffering.

I was inspired by this summer’s uprisings against police brutality and white supremacy. Even though it’s tragic that it seems to require so much suffering for people to wake up, I’m at least heartened by the increasing realization that police and prisons as we know them are only perpetuating cycles of personal, institutional, and societal harm. They can never be a path toward a world with less suffering.

Almost all of my socializing in the past year has happened online, and so it only made sense that a group of friends compiled this playlist for a fabulous, free, and feminist friend’s Zoom birthday party.

And in a year when mental health and stability has been such a challenge for so many of us, we also collaborated on this playlist to facilitate a friend’s healing process.

I wasn’t at all sure that a free and fair election would even be possible, but the period leading up to it was such a nightmare that all I could hope for was to make it to November so that at least the electoral season would end and we could move to the next phase of the struggle for peace and justice.

And after surviving that tense moment I was grateful to one of my favorite authors and thinkers adrienne maree brown for understanding how small and incremental yet important that victory was.


Header image credit: “Music Note Bokeh” by all that improbable blue, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Mother and son walking away from the camera in a park, with long shadows behind them

A Mom’s Abortion Story

 I was 17 and looking forward to escaping high school and going to college. 

12th grade school potrait in the late 80's

I was independent, an only child raised by busy single parents with their own social lives. I was intelligent, but insecure. I used sex as a way to get affection and feel wanted. I dropped by an older friend’ house one boring spring afternoon, and one thing led to another. I asked him to put on a condom, but he ignored me. Maybe you would have the confidence to stop things right then. I didn’t.

And so I found myself in the summer before my senior year of high school trying to have a normal teen-aged good time and avoiding the slowly dawning realization that there was a reason my clothes were fitting differently, that I ate an entire jar of pickles in 10 minutes, that I nearly passed out one hot day. 

When I finally admitted to myself that I was pregnant, I began to imagine how life with a baby would work in a dormitory at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I hoped to attend. I had envisioned what a great mom I would be for years, it was just happening a lot sooner than I had expected. The fact that I thought that living with a baby and a roommate in a dorm room was something I could handle, or even something that would ever be permitted by the university, should let you know how ill-equipped I was to parent anyone at that age. 

In the fall, I finally came clean to my father. He took it well, in his characteristically chill fashion, but he was not about to let me keep dreaming that I could have a baby and go to college at the same time. His girlfriend, at the time, was a sophisticated woman, a professional art dealer who took care of herself. She was a Republican, which made it even more surprising when she sat down with me one day to share the story of the abortion that she had in college. More than anyone else, she helped to convince me I would be a much better parent if I waited.  If I focused on college and getting my professional life started, I would have the financial means and emotional maturity to parent well. 

By the time I went to an OB/GYN, I was well into my second trimester. Fortunately, I was able to have a late-term abortion in a local hospital. It was a horrible experience, but one which I have never regretted. If many Republican lawmakers had their way, I wouldn’t have had that option. Instead I would have been forced into motherhood before even graduating from high school. Instead of earning a degree in environmental science and beginning what would eventually turn into a successful career as a nonprofit technologist, I would probably have been working a minimum wage job and caught in a cycle of poverty that would be hard to break with a baby to take care of and no education.

I always held on to the idea that I was saving my mothering talents for the right time. Many years later, that time came for me. I was in a committed partnership with someone who wanted to be a parent with me. I don’t judge others who become parents in other conditions, but this was how I wanted to do it at the time. We got married, bought a house, and set about trying to make a baby. Before long, I was pregnant. But just at the very end of the first trimester, I started to bleed and I realized it was over. I had a miscarriage that was incredibly painful both emotionally and physically. After waiting a lifetime to be the mother I had always dreamed of, I was afraid that I might now be unable to conceive.

After a lot of thought, I realized that I would still have a complete and satisfying life even if I never had a biological child. And you can guess what happened once I stopped worrying. Of course, I got pregnant again. This time my pregnancy went perfectly – even if the doctors did insist on calling me “geriatric” for being over 35. Twenty years after my abortion, I gave birth to a perfect, healthy and wanted baby.

I’ll never be the world’s best mom, but in those 20 years I didn’t just build a career and buy a house. I found spiritual grounding as a Buddhist. I volunteered on municipal and nonprofit boards, and became an influential activist for a variety of causes. I made the world a better place and improved myself in the process.

Boy smiling with his mother's arm around him

I’m able to give my son a global perspective and help him find his own ways to grow up and give back. This year he started 5th grade and I am so grateful that I was able to bring him into the world intentionally and give him a life where he is well cared for and free to explore and become the creative whirlwind he is destined to be. He is all the proof I need that I made the right decision three decades ago.

The more I talk about my abortion, the more I hear from others who had them too. The more I realize that this experience I kept secret from even my closest friends at the time was actually incredibly common. 

The more I talk about my abortion, the more other people realize their choices were valid too. Maybe their family will never understand, maybe their coworkers wouldn’t like it, but they should feel no shame for making the decisions they did. There is not a single elected official in the world that knows better than we do what we should do with our bodies or how we should live our lives.

My story was originally published at https://www.womenadvancenc.org/2019/07/22/abortion-was-the-right-choice-for-me/

Children leaving the Lodz ghetto for the death camp at Chelmno

The price of collaboration

From visiting the wonderful Dutch Resistance Museum many years ago, I knew about the “Judenrat,” councils of Jewish leaders that Nazis used to facilitate the implementation of their own annihilation.

Although I’m Jewish and believe it’s important to remember the Holocaust, I never really spent that much time learning the political history. I foolishly thought that “never again” was an obvious and redundant slogan. But the similarities between Trump and the Republicans to Hitler during the Weimar Republic are unmistakable. And this week I discovered World War II Today, a site that walks us through the history as it happened, but exactly 75 years later.

The entry from a few days ago was shocking to me on two levels. First, that Nazis specifically targeted children for “deportation” (ie: death and torture at concentration camps). The parallels to Republicans efforts to rescind DACA are transparently clear.

“When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” ― Maya AngelouBut equally disturbing is how, even after it was clear what their fate would be, the Judenrat leaders continued to facilitate the execution of their own people in the deeply misguided, arrogant, and counterfactual belief that they could somehow lessen the impact by collaborating with the Nazis rather than resisting them. First it started with seemingly-acceptable policies like registering all Jews and distributing rationed food. You can imagine how some thought it would be helpful to do this. But like the frog in a slowly-boiling pot of water it became clearer and clearer that the end goal of all of these efforts was to extinguish the Jews.

With the benefit of hindsight, I have to wonder why Jewish leaders thought that they could trust German Nazis. How did they do the moral calculus comparing the value of collaboration against the possibly-deadly consequences of resisting?

Chaim Rumkowski was the Chairman of the Judenrat in the Polish Lodz ghetto. He gave this unbelievable speech to his community on September 4, 1942:

A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess … the children and the elderly.

I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I’ve lived and breathed with children.

I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters, hand them over to me!

Fathers and mothers, give me your children! [Transciber’s note – Horrible, terrifying wailing among the assembled crowd.]

I had a suspicion something was about to befall us. I anticipated “something” and was always like a watchman on guard to prevent it. But I was unsuccessful because I did not know what was threatening us.

I did not know the nature of the danger. The taking of the sick from the hospitals caught me completely by surprise. And I give you the best proof there is of this: I had my own nearest and dearest among them, and I could do nothing for them.

I thought that that would be the end of it, that after that they’d leave us in peace, the peace for which I long so much, for which I’ve always worked, which has been my goal. But something else, it turned out, was destined for us.

Such is the fate ofthe Jews: always more suffering and always worse suffering, especially in times of war.

Yesterday afternoon, they gave me the order to send more than 20,000 Jews out of the ghetto, and if not – “We will do itl” So, the question became: “Should we take it upon ourselves, do it ourselves, or leave it for others to do?”

Well, we – that is, I and my closest associates – thought first not about “How many will perish?” but “How many is it possible to save?” And we reached the conclusion that, however hard it would be for us, we should take the implementation of this order into our own hands.

I must perform this difficult and bloody operation – I must cut off limbs in order to save the body itself – I must take children because, if not, others may be taken as well, God forbid.

[Horrible wailing.]

I hope as you read this, you are wailing too. I hope that like me you will dedicate your entire soul to never trying to appease or compromise with those that would oppress and destroy people, even if you think your collaboration will lessen or delay the oppression. We can’t always imagine what others will do, but we know who our friends are. Never forget.

Image source: http://ww2today.com/4th-september-42-nazis-order-that-children-be-deported 

It’s a shame about Flickr

I just returned from a busy and fun week with my son visiting family and seeing lots of New York City! I posted some of our pictures on Flickr, but had so much trouble with it that I am seriously considering moving to another photo site, as so many of my friends have done.

One of the many problems is that I can’t seem to embed albums anymore! Until I figure this out, here’s the link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rubyji/sets/72157634628741010/.

Three is a magic number

3 I couldn’t write this post without the Schoolhouse Rock refrain in my head. Today is my son’s third birthday. We celebrated this weekend with a nice group of Izzy’s friends from school, and my friends with kids his age. The theme was Izzy loves trains, so we used the beer garden at Southern Rail, which is a restaurant that uses train cars and the old station in downtown Carrboro. Everyone had a great time, especially Izzy as you can see in Brian’s photo:

Bye bye, Bubbie

When my mother’s family gathered in Austin at the end of last year, my son Izzy was re-introduced to his great-grandmother. (He couldn’t talk yet the first time he met her.) “Izzy, this is Bubbie.”

“Bubba!” he responded. We thought that was an appropriate nickname for my vivacious grandmother who moved from Long Island to Texas in her late 80’s. She moved to be near one of her daughters, and got a bonus in the shape of her other great-grandchild Abby, who was born in Austin few months after Izzy was born here in Chapel Hill. Grandma Vickie established her painting studio in the garage of her new home (it was in the attic when she lived in New York) and even resumed teaching oil painting lessons as she had done for decades.

This week, she was felled by an infection that her 91-year-old immune system just couldn’t beat. My grandmother was a fabulous woman, and she loved to entertain. Here are pictures of her after I was born in 1971, and dancing at my wedding in 2006. A longer slideshow is at http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/vickierakoff/show/.

Mi familia