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Copyright Peaches McGee

After college, my friend Lisa and I packed two enormous duffel-bags full of our belongings and moved to Japan.

We lived in a small city near Osaka, in an apartment with tatami mat floors and sliding shōji doors.  In the winter, we would sit on the straw floor with our legs tucked under a kotatsu – a low table covered by a thick blanket, with a heating element underneath.  We ate okonomiyaki (savory pancakes made with shredded cabbage, eggs, flour and – my personal favorite – octopus) at a local food stall, sang at karaoke bars, and tried our best to learn Japanese and its three alphabets.

One of my favorite attempts to absorb Japanese culture was bathing at the local onsen — a public bath complete with hot, medium and freezing tubs of water.  There was even a pool with currents of electricity running through it.  Before you entered these tubs, you had to take a seated shower, planting yourself on a low plastic stool & using a hand-held shower head to make yourself squeaky clean.  A row of women would be doing the same in the large, open shower room, and their children would look openly at Lisa’s and my naked bodies and giggle about our ghostly white skin.

This week, so many memories came flooding back when I visited the Korean Spa Castle in College Point, NY.  I had been heard about the Asian-inspired pools when the facility opened in 2007, but it wasn’t until my little experiment in trying something new every week (more on that in an upcoming post)  kicked in that I got it together to go.  So, on my birthday, my husband, the boys and I went out to Queens to give it a whirl. Read the rest of this entry »


While walking with my 8-year-old son near our home in Manhattan, he spotted a purple swastika scrawled across a billboard advertisement. As I took in the complexities of the situation, my son uttered words that made my heart break…

Read the rest of this entry »

It was a very risky idea, given how much he wanted Beats headphones ($200 headphones for a kid?) and a Wii.  But this past week I gave my tween-age son his holiday present, choosing to surprise him with the gift of an experience over a thing.

Here’s what came out of his 5-day art class (and I’ve got the pictures to prove it!)…

The night I handed my 11-year-old a handmade card describing his holiday gift from me, he glanced at it quickly then looked back in the envelope as if to say, “That’s it?  Is there cash in here at least?”  But that was it — five days with a small class in an artist’s studio in SoHo, NYC.

He was dubious.

When the elevator opened right into the studio the next morning, five other students turned to look at us.  There were two boys who appeared to be high school seniors (one of them sporting Beats), and a few adults who had the air of honest-to-goodness artists already.  The teacher seemed like he might need a second cup of coffee as he casually pointed to a table where my son should sit.

As I left, I said a desperate prayer to the holiday gods, asking for this not to be a total disaster.

My son called me several times that day asking what I was doing with his younger brother, who is also on school vacation.  “We’re sitting here doing absolutely NOTHING,” I replied, hoping not to make him jealous.  “You’d be BORED OUT OF YOUR MIND!

By the end of the first day, he brought home this:

Hand, Day 1

And this:

Copy of Picasso's portrait of Igor Stravinsky

Read the rest of this entry »

I think it’s the perfect gift for the holidays.  But how will my son react when he finds out where I’ll be sending him for the next five days?

Read the rest of this entry »

It happens every year around December 10th.  I’ll be standing at the stove cooking dinner, or simply waiting at the bus shelter when I suddenly get a little choked up.  Or a lot choked up, depending on the year.

This Saturday will be one of those days — International Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the first global expression of the rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.   It was on that day in 1948, with Eleanor Roosevelt front and center, that the United Nations officially adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

In a world of grave abuses and daily bloodshed, it’s so easy to dismiss the day as one more marginally important commemoration for the overly-idealistic.

But this weekend, I plan to pause in the midst of the pre-holiday frenzy to remember the amazing human rights defenders I’ve been so fortunate to work with over the years.  I’d like to share a little about a few of them personally.  But please know that there are many other equally-deserving activists I will gladly bend your ear about any time.

Aminatou and I after her hunger strike

Aminatou Haidar, known as the Sahrawi Gandhi, is the leader of the nonviolent struggle to free the people of Western Sahara from Morocco’s 36-year occupation.

This is a tough battle to wage:  while the Moroccan government pours millions of dollars into lobbying and sophisticated pr to maintain control over the resource-rich land, the Sahrawi mainly live in refugee camps and impoverished desert towns patrolled by Moroccan military.   A UN-administered referendum, promised in 1988, has never been held to decide the issue, and peaceful Sahrawi activists like Aminatou herself have been imprisoned and brutally beaten.

I first met Aminatou in 2009 when she came to the U.S. to receive the prestigious Civil Courage Prize.  In between our meetings and briefings on the state of Western Sahara, we discovered we have so many things in common that Aminatou started calling me “sister.”

On her way home from her time here, she was deported by Morocco to the Canary Islands and nearly died on a hunger strike.  After 32 days, vomiting blood and suffering aggravated complications resulting from her time in Moroccan prisons, a victorious Aminatou was flown on a small medical transport plane to her awaiting family.

In her holiday letter, she summed up her approach to human rights and the importance of collective action in these situations:

No boundaries can stop the flood of noble and beautiful human feelings coming from all countries, crossing continents. Oh how powerful were those moments with all their strong symbolism, how warm they were, like the warmth of the affection of motherhood and fondness of the homeland, moments that express the most beautiful meanings life can have.”

Anna Politkovskaya, 1958-2006

Anna Politkovskaya was a fearless Russian journalist whose dispatches from the brutal war in Chechnya famously led to death threats and poisoning.

When I met Anna in 2005, she told me casually over our bowls of steaming Chinese noodles in midtown Manhattan: “They will probably kill me one day; I know that.  But I owe it to so many people who trusted me with their stories to make sure that I tell what’s happening.  I won’t be stopped by threats.

This story has a tragic ending. Anna Politkovskaya was shot to death in the elevator of her Moscow apartment on October 7, 2006, in what many call a politically motivated attempt to further squelch freedom of the press in Russia.

The former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev called her killing “a savage crime.” “It is a blow to the entire democratic, independent press,” he told the Interfax news agency. “It is a grave crime against the country, against all of us.”

Rafael with my kids

Rafael Marques de Morais is an Angolan journalist and human human rights activist whose reports on the diamond industry and government corruption have earned him international acclaim.

He’s got serious chutzpa — recently Rafael filed a criminal complaint in Angola against two diamond mining companies and their directors, who include a number of top military officers and others with substantial economic and political influence. He alleges that all of them have committed “crimes against humanity.”

Rafael also happens to be an amazingly warm person, with a wide smile and a deep and easy laugh.  My kids especially appreciate his fancy soccer footwork and specialty dish made with sweet plantains. Read the rest of this entry »

How can we instill in our children an appreciation for what they already have — especially when the people around them seem to have just about everything?  Here’s our family’s holiday tip…

This fall, my two children moved from a warm and caring New York City public school where a large percentage of the students live at or near the poverty level to a progressive private school comprised of many families in (or close to) that much-scrutinized 1%, to use the Occupy Wall Street parlance.

What has the change meant for the kids on a day to day level?

One of the most obvious things is that they have come face-to-face with the stark reality of America’s income inequality.  For them, this is most apparent in the size of their friends’ homes.  While many of their old playmates live in cramped apartments in government subsidized housing, a sizable number of their new friends live in cavernous lofts and single-family townhouses.  As is human nature for children and adults alike, my kids are prone to comparing what our family has to what they perceive is bigger and better.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lecturing them about the detriment of “keeping up with the Joneses” and the false trappings of materialism, but that tends to fall on deaf ears.  I also point out endless examples of good people really struggling, including the families who experienced massive loss during our recent storms here in the Northeast. Read the rest of this entry »

Click on image to hear Studs Terkel talk about what has been lost in modern life and where he saw hope for our future

Ah, Black Friday.  The most ironic holiday of the year!

Shopping list in hand, sharp elbows at the ready — this is the day we beat back our fellow man in the quest for that perfect holiday gift for our loved ones.  Coming at the heels of Thanksgiving, it’s hard to imagine a faster way to snuff out the warm glow of friendship and family that the season symbolizes for so many.

A few years ago I was part of an amazing team at StoryCorps, one of the largest oral history projects in the world, as we launched the National Day of Listening, an alternative (or additional!) activity for Black Friday.

We encouraged everyone who would listen to start a new tradition by interviewing someone they loved about their lives that day.  An elderly relative.  A returned service man or woman.  A teacher or the person who sells you your morning coffee.  At its heart was the most meaningful gift we could give another person —  telling them that their life matters and that we care. Read the rest of this entry »

Naked on the Bowery, copyright Art Observed

I realize this title might sound a bit provocative, like the outcome of a game of Truth or Dare gone terribly awry.

But this month I participated in museum-sanctioned nakedness and submerged myself in a one-of-a-kind exhibit dubbed the Giant Psycho Tank — a sensory deprivation pool of heavily salinated, skin temperature water.

If you’ve spent any time in NYC in the past few weeks, it’s hard to miss the ads announcing this exhibit by artist Carsten Höller at the New Museum.  Since its opening, visitors have been flocking to the Bowery to try out some of the experiential installations for themselves.

See video at the bottom of the post to learn how the New Museum installed the slide!

I didn’t intend to stand in line for the Psycho pool, but I had just gotten seriously banged up on another one of Höller’s pieces, a 100-foot metal tube slide which drops visitors down an Alice in Wonderland-like shoot at high speed into a room full of life-size neon crocodiles and hippos and rapidly flashing lights (not recommended for those who have visually induced seizures or a whole host of other conditions, the Museum warns).

True, I had been told to keep my arms together until I landed on the mat two floors below, but a primal survival instinct caused me to put out my hands at the bottom to stop myself from crashing to the floor. Call me crazy.  My right hand instantly swelled, which I was told by one of the security guards “has been happening a lot around here,” adding, “You’re just lucky it wasn’t your head.” Read the rest of this entry »

Bright and early this morning, my 8-year-old son and I walked over the Williamsburg Bridge to Brooklyn for our annual NYC Marathon ritual.

This fall rite involves hot chocolate for him and a cappuccino for me as we stake our positions in a patch of sunlight near the 11th mile marker.

If we time it right, we get to watch all of the top runners go by.  But we’re really there for the excitement of the elite wheelchair race.

In the early hours the sidewalks are pretty deserted, so we’re among the few at that stretch to cheer them on.  We try to learn a bit about them in advance:  Krige Schabort was a soldier in the South African army when a bomb explosion took his legs.  Two years later, he began to race wheelchairs.  Tatyana McFadden was born with spina bifida and left at a Russian orphanage as a baby.  She was adopted by an American family who introduced her to sports.

You don’t have to have a child with you to be reminded of the lessons on Marathon Day.  The importance of showing up for other people – especially when it’s early and cold and no one else is there.  How all of the racers – not only those in wheelchairs – have some personal challenge to overcome, making them heroes of their own journeys.

When our hands were numb from clapping and our throats were scratchy from all our boisterous encouragement, we walked back over the bridge towards home.

Watching the finish results on-line, we were left with few more ideas to ponder together, not the least of which can be the ick factor of marketing (bullet #3) …

  • The favored wheelchair racer, Kurt Fearnley of Australia, snapped the steering mechanism on his chair and came in second to Masazumi Soejima of Japan.  “In the end that’s racing. Some days it goes your way and other days it goes the other way.”
  • Geoffrey Mutai, the male winner and course record setter:  “I try at the last minute to push it a little more. We all worked together – and then it was time to push it. For me, I was trying to run my own race.
  • Meb Keflezighi, the sixth-place overall winner:  “I felt strong going into it, training at high altitudes in my SKECHERS GOrun racing shoes, which definitely made a positive impact on my running. I’ve been a heel strike runner my entire life, but SKECHERS’ mid-foot strike technology has helped me adjust my stride to be more efficient.”

Signing off now to put on our own somewhat ratty sneakers & to enjoy this beautiful NY afternoon!


Ps – I should mention that my son took all of these pictures — except the one of himself!

I started this blog right around the time Apple launched Siri, a voice-activated personal assistant who has a response to most questions or comments you speak into your new iPhone:  “Siri – I’m hungry.  Where can I get food around here?”  Her answer:  “I have located 18 restaurants in your immediate vicinity.  They are…”   Or, my kids’ favorite:  “Siri, where can I dump a body?”  to which she’ll respond, “What kind of place are you looking for… swamps, reservoirs, etc,

I would never be mistaken for a Luddite by anyone over, say, 25.   But I am concerned that if we don’t find ways to disconnect, we will lose sight of the serendipity and face-to-face connection that make life worth living.  And, of course, there are many things that Siri can’t interpret.  This blog is about some of those uniquely human experiences — on-line and off — that make up this one blogger’s life.

My name is Barbara, and I live on the Lower East Side.  I’m a mom, outnumbered in our NYC apartment by three loving but boisterous guys.  (I call our home The Frat House, if that gives you an indication.)  I work with human rights activists from around the world by day and teach at a university by night.

Life can feel a little crazy over here at times, but writing helps me slow down and gain perspective.  I learned that last year when I wrote a blog called Last Year To Live, in which I recorded observations in living while my close childhood friend was living out her final year.

Now I’m back, and hoping you’ll come along for this new leg of the journey.

Leave a comment, and let me know who you are.  Do you blog too?  I’d love to follow your work.

Thanks so much for reading!


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