Wednesday, April 26, 2017

'13 Reasons Why' is a show parents can't afford to ignore

For this Saturday's Briefing, published online early:

If you are a parent, if you work with children, if you care about the teens in your life, you need to watch 13 Reasons Why, the new Netflix series based on a popular young adult novel by Jay Asher.
If watching it is too difficult — as it almost was for me — at least become knowledgeable of the content. Though the work is fiction, there are uncomfortable truths that we can't afford to ignore.

Here are 13 reasons why we need to talk about 13 Reasons Why.

1. Preteens and teens are watching it without you. If you have a Netflix account or if your kids' friends have a Netflix account, they may have already binge-watched all 13 episodes.
Yet the content in this show is too intense and disturbing for children to watch without guidance and the opportunity to discuss and process. My 11-year-old daughter will not be watching the series anytime soon. She and I can discuss themes and situations, but she does not need to carry the burden of the show's violence. My 15-year-old son and I will watch together. (He's read the book already.)
2. Suicide is the second-most common cause of death among American teens ages 15-19. Ignoring the problem doesn't make it go away. The narrator of the series is Hannah, a teen who kills herself but first records audiotapes that describe her reasons. Her spirit is absolutely broken, and she craves the emptiness of death more than hopefulness of life.
3. There is nothing glamorous about killing yourself. There's warranted controversy about the bathtub scene in which Hannah slits her wrists. To be honest, I didn't watch the whole scene. I hid behind my hands. It was too real -- and yet isn't that what we need? Don't we need people to understand the horror of taking your own life?
4. We all make mistakes. Sometimes we think we'll never recover from our mistakes. We can't see beyond the mistake and the consequences. We can't forgive ourselves. We need to practice grace — for ourselves and the people who love us and the people who watch us and model our behavior.
5. We need to understand the power of technology and social media.One ill-timed photo can lead to an avalanche of unfair rumors. Our ability to send and receive information — and disinformation — instantly can have devastating consequences. How often do you talk with your child about appropriate social media use? Do you know which accounts your child uses? Do you know what content they see daily? Ignorance is dangerous.
6. We need to talk about sexual assault. It is never acceptable for one human to force his or her body on another human. Our children need to hear us say this often.
7. We can't afford to allow underage drinking and drug use. I live in a community that rationalizes substance use and abuse. "It's OK as long as they're not driving." "They're going to drink anyway. They might as well do it at home." Yet teens under the influence make really stupid decisions. Their brains aren't fully developed. They seek unnecessary risks. They hurt themselves and others.
8. Teens need to feel comfortable talking to adults and advocating for themselves. If your child were sexually assaulted, would he or she feel comfortable telling you? If your child made a terrible mistake, one that might even be illegal, do you trust that he or she would confide in you?
9. Teens need to root their identity in something stronger than their reflection or their peers. I was struck by the complete lack of religion in the series. There is one teen who off-handedly mentions he is Catholic. Another reads tarot cards. That's it. No one talks about God or a faith-based value system. No one wrestles with decisions in the context of a greater good or spiritual purpose.
10. Authentic relationships can save lives. When we know one another intimately, we notice struggles and out-of-character behaviors. When we are vulnerable, others feel comfortable being vulnerable.
11. Trust your instinct. If you're worried about someone, say so. If something doesn't feel right or sound right, investigate with compassion.
12. We can't underestimate the impact our interactions have on others. Our tone, our words, our body language, our availability — it all matters. We don't always know who is struggling, but we know everyone struggles at some time. Let's model a culture that values positive interactions.
13. Kindness is never wrong. When in doubt, opt for kindness. Every time. As the character Clay says in the final episode, "It has to get better, the way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better somehow."
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Blessings shadowed by world's imbalance

From today's Briefing:

I’m in the middle of a happiness challenge, one of those 21-day initiatives that encourages healthy habits. We’re called to exercise, give thanks, reflect on something positive, perform an act of kindness and spend at least 10 minutes praying or meditating.
I love a good checklist, and nothing motivates me like a challenge, so I’ve been dutifully participating. My biggest hurdle so far: counting my blessings.
There’s no shortage to list. The challenge requires that we list three a day, but I could fill a page in my journal every night.
The trouble is the imbalance.
The day after the deadly sarin gas attack in Syria, when it was time to write my thanksgiving list, I froze. Everything I thought of – safe and cozy home, comfortable bed, healthy children, job I love – seemed so luxurious.
Tears reached the page before I could write a single word. I thought of those children and their short, tumultuous lives. I thought of the families they leave behind. I couldn’t shake the inequity between my privileges and their calamity.
Eventually I jotted:
·      A/C that works again in the minivan
·      Students who work hard (and those who don’t always but aspire to)
·      Books
That night I devoted my prayer time to those Syrian families, aid workers and world leaders.
I’m also thankful for easy access to food. I can drive north, east or west and reach a giant, clean grocery store within four minutes.
I don’t even have to walk into the store. I can order my groceries online, pull into a special parking space at the store and listen to the radio or check my email while a clerk loads everything I want in the trunk.
Better yet, I can order from a different vendor online, and someone will deliver the groceries to my doorstep at whatever time I choose. Frozen and refrigerated items are protected by regular ice and dry ice.
If I don’t feel like rinsing, chopping, stirring and heating, I can grab my phone and order from dozens of nearby restaurants. I don’t even have to talk to a human. I can just click, click, click and wait for the doorbell to ring.
Yes, I’m thankful for all of those options.
At the same time, I am horrified by the news this week that almost 20 million people in African and the Middle East are at risk of dying from hunger. Famine, drought and conflict are decimating Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.
I struggle to celebrate my good fortune while millions of other humans subsist in crisis. They have almost nothing, and we have more than we can enjoy.
One of my acts of kindness this week was to send a tiny loan to a merchant in Yemen, a man who struggles to buy enough stock to sale. (My family has participated in microloans through Kiva since 2013.)
I’m not na├»ve. I don’t expect my prayers or my loan will change the world.
I hold hope, though, that enough prayers and acts of kindness might.
I am truly grateful for the time and place in which I was born. I am thankful for the few luxuries I’ve earned – and the many more I didn’t. 
I give thanks for the people of privilege who devote their lives to helping souls who were born in a time and a place less hospitable than our own.

In the middle of all that gratitude, I keep hoping for a balance in the world, a day when conflicts and famines don’t threaten our neighbors, a day when our brothers and sisters don’t struggle to find happiness.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. You can reach her at

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Our memories don't need our mementos

From today's Briefing:

Katie cleaned out her closet last week, creating a giant stack of clothes to pass along to younger friends.
This isn’t unusual. Children outgrow their clothes quicker than they outwear them, and we’re surrounded by families who appreciate a pile of hand-me-downs.
What was unusual was the little dress I placed on top of Katie’s discards: a charmingly mismatched floral number that I’ve held on to for seven years, a dress that Katie outgrew before she entered kindergarten.
She loved this particular dress for its twirling qualities. She wore it to church and preschool parties. And she wore it for our final family photo with her daddy.
 I’ve struggled to let it go for too long, allowing my sentimental tendencies to overpower my practical side. I was finally able to pass on the tiny dress, perfect for a spunky 4-year-old we know, because of music.
Way back in the summer of 2000, in our time before children, Steve and I attended a performance of Parade, an award-winning yet commercially dismal musical. We fell in love with the story and songs, despite the tragic themes and ending.
Parade is obscure, as far as musicals go. It tells the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man living in Atlanta who was accused of murdering a girl in the pencil factory he managed. Though the murder and subsequent trial take place almost 50 years after the end of the Civil War, the South is still struggling with anger toward the North and changes in the economy and social structure.
It’s heavy stuff, for sure, providing plenty of material to debate and process.
In the decade that followed, we would discuss the story and sing the songs together. Our favorite was “The Picture Show,” a playful duet between Frankie and Mary, but we’d perform them all, sometimes in the car or in the kitchen while washing up after dinner.
When Steve died in 2009, I didn’t stop listening, and I didn’t stop singing, but I lost a little gusto. Those songs, plus a whole library of others that matter, bridged a connection between life with Steve and life without.
Cooper and Katie have grown up with Parade in the background – along with U2, Jack Johnson, ZZ Top, Wicked, Aaron Copland, Rent, the Beatles, the Dixie Chicks and the Cure. Those tunes are a nod to the daddy they love, a man whose days were too short.
Because Parade is underappreciated, I expected to listen to the same recording over and over for the rest of my days. But a local theater brought the story to life for one night only last weekend – and I couldn’t pass up the chance to enjoy it live again.
Cooper, Katie and I attended the special production at the WaterTower Theatre, and I used all of my willpower to not sing aloud. I had no willpower to stop my tears.
The lyrics filled my soul again, and this time I was seated not next to Steve but surrounded by our two children. Sometimes I would close my eyes and just listen – and ponder the power of music that endures years, that sweeps us back in time and propels us forward.
I can’t possibly hold on to every scrap of clothing, every memento that ties us to Steve – or to any of my loved ones who have passed away. And I don’t need to. My heart swells with snippets of conversation, with scents that evoke joy, with lines of poetry set to lovely melodies.
Listening to the music again helped me to remember that there are forces more powerful than things.
Little Phoebe will twirl in Katie’s dress, then one day she’ll share it with sister Ingrid. They’ll create their own memories. My sweet memories of the dress are stored up and nestled in with songs and laughter and a few tears.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at