14 May

Mary, We Have To Talk: Did I Diss My Granddaughter On Mothers Day?

by Jon Katz
We Have To Talk

As I do every year, I decided yesterday to write a short piece about Mother’s Day focusing on my complex and painful relationship with my mother.

I could not really imagine writing anything less controversial, but I will say it was a difficult piece for me to write, I am still trying to come to terms with my mother, and am beginning to run out of time. You know how that goes.

Curiously, I wrote more about Gus’s mother Hannah, than about my mother. Alas,this is America in 2018, and there is nothing simple or innocuous that is ever published in our new world of social media, where boundaries and manners are cast aside, and every one’s life and thoughts are on the line. Social media is a place were ideas often go to die and be trampled, they never get a chance to stand up or breathe.

Within minutes of my Mother’s Day reflections, I got a message  from Mary, I will not give her full name, it was simple and to the point: “I am wondering why I am not seeing any pictures of  Robin or Mothers Day wishes to Emma,” she said, seemingly annoyed with me for overlooking these two wonderful woman.

I will say I am rarely surprised by any message I get online these days, or ever, but this one brought me up short.

I replied with my usual poise and thoughtfulness and tolerance, ( yes, that was a joke.)

“Keep on wondering,” I said, “I don’t see why this is your concern.”

I understand that my e-mails tend to be blunt, one reason is that I get so many of them, another is that I don’t really like conversing through e-mails and I keep them as short as possible.

When I push back on people who intrude on me or, worst of all, tell me what I should be saying or writing, I have noticed a curious thing. Every time I reply or challenge the message, I am told the writer is always, always, a devoted and loyal and long-time reader of my,  and is invariably disappointed or sorry at my response. Usually, they storm off in a huff, happy to challenge,  but horrified at being challenged.

(Yes, yes, of course I ask for it, after all, I share my life..what do I expect? A MacArthur grant?)

And the next morning, there it was.

“I  have been a follower of your writing since “A Dog Year,” and I have enjoyed both your insights and humor. I have also enjoyed your honest when writing about family relationships. I  was very happy when you reconnected with Emma and had your first grandchild whose photo you frequently shared with your followers. I am sorry that this is no longer the case. I also am fairly certain that I am not the only one who has asked about Robin and Emma.”

Mary, we  have to talk.

I am offering you insights today that you do not seem to like or enjoy, but I will be honest, and I am very sorry that my personal decisions about what to write on Mothers Day are a source of sorrow to you.

I am even sorrier to tell you that no one else  in the entire ecosphere of social media asked me why I didn’t wish my daughter a happy Mother’s day (ironically, I had just gotten off the phone with  her when your letter arrived, we both had a good chuckle about Mother’s Day). I think most people really do realize it isn’t any of their business. Didn’t our mothers  teach us about minding our own business?

Perhaps I just forgot, or didn’t need to include every mother in my life and world in a piece about a dog and my birth mother. Maybe Emma wouldn’t wish me to. Maybe, like Maria, she doesn’t like to be referred to in that way. How could  you know? Why do you need to know, or even more important, why do you think it is your right to know?

I admit to have my ego dinged when someone writes to say they have been following my work for years but seem to know nothing about me or what I believe. That is a true failure of writing. Very few people who actually do read my insights would send me a message like that.

I’m wondering wish insights of mine you have enjoyed since I wrote “A Dog Year” and you found me worth following?

Was it the one about sharing my life but not surrendering it to other people? Was it the one about how social media was destroying the boundaries of good manners and privacy, and the very idea of thinking for oneself?

Was it the insight musing about how Henry David Thoreau would have hung himself at Walden Pond if he got messages from Facebook and the Internet questioning and asking him to justify  everything he ate, did or thought?

Or maybe it was the one about how I don’t take orders when writing or taking pictures, I write for myself and hope it’s of value, I don’t write on demand to entertain people? And do you remember the one about how I feel about people telling me to write? Or the one about how crazy I am?

Maybe it was this insight: how arrogant it is for people to make assumptions about what I am feeling or intending? Isn’t that my job, and if you value my insights, why not wait to read them rather than tell me what they are?

Mary, if you really value my insights, you would not, of course, have ever sent me that message, and I wish I could sugar-coat it in a s soft-spoken way, but I’m afraid that would not be me, and another insight you seem to have missed is that honesty is not about my explaining every personal decision I make on the Internet to a total stranger. The truth is, this is not your business, and I am truly sorry you don’t see that what you wrote me is inappropriate. You are not responsible for my ties to my family.

It is your problem, not mine.

This is not “Search For Tomorrow.” My life is not on display for your amusement. My life is a serious business, and yes, I do love humor and am obsessed with insight. But I am not laughing when you suggest I have dissed my granddaughter and daughter and have decided to stop writing about them. That is false, and yes, hurtful to me.

There are hundreds of thousands of people out there, and your assumption that you are part of some sort of Emma and Robin guardian tribe is false. If Emma has a problem with me or what I write, she will let me know. She and Robin do not need protection from me, she has no reservations about setting me straight.

I will share photos and images of Robin and Emma when I wish to, it’s really about as simple as that.

I really do share my life, I really don’t surrender it to other people. I really do set boundaries for myself, I hope you can do the same.

If you wish to continue this conversation, feel free to e-mail me. If you really care about me and my work, you will want to get this right. If you don’t, then you will storm off in a huff and cluck about what a nasty man I am. In either case, peace and compassion to you.


  1. Your response unnerves me. How about…..thanks, Mary. I just got off the phone with my lovely daughter. No need to humiliate the poor woman and faithful reader. Sometimes I think you are a tad too touchy.

    1. Your reply does not move me, Liz, I challenged Mary, I did not humiliate her, I gather you have never been humiliated if my response is your idea of what it is like. I didn’t even use her name, so humiliating her would be quite a hat trick. You puzzle me, Liz. Why on earth would I thank Mary for suggesting that I was no longer interested in writing about my granddaughter? That would be a lie. I was not in the least bit grateful to her, as should be obvious, and hypocrisy is a much more offensive trait to me than intrusive and obnoxious messages, which I often get. I think you are a tad too wrong….

  2. Thank you – I am learning to keep my wondering to myself (although I must admit I still wonder why you added this reply section to your blog) Heretofore I thought of it as a way to show connection, a way to understand, not as a judgment, just curious. for example, when you share with us your conversation with Ed, you wondered why he abruptly stopped farming and asked. Through your blog I feel I know all of you, admire your creative lives, your deep connections, and must remind myself that although you share your life with us, I am not sitting at the table.

    1. Melanie, I would wish for you to share your wondering, much of the wondering here is thoughtful and valuable, and I think it works well.

      I think it is all about the spirit in which it is asked. I can tell the difference, I believe, between an honest inquiry and an inappropriate one, and I will always be honest about both.

      I am glad I offered comments, and pleased with them,I’m not a robot, I don’t have to love everything people say to me. I especially do not love when someone chastises me for not writing about my granddaughter on Mother’s Day or tells me what I should be writing. Wondering too far.

      I could delete if, of course, or have a discussion about it. I usually prefer the latter. Nobody died.

      How we communicate in this new media is quite important, and worth discussing. People who send me such notes are not made of crystal, they can take a challenge as well as give one. We are all responsible for our words. Asking me about a belief is one thing, being invasive and judgmental is another. I believe I know the difference, although we may disagree. You are definitely sitting at my table, but you don’t own my table, is the way I would put it, you don’t tell me what to eat.

      I haven’t given the table to you. The rule I use is that this is my online home, and I don’t expect anyone to say anything to me they wouldn’t say face to face or in my presence. When something makes me uncomfortable, I say so. And yes, if that is too much for some people to bear, they might not be comfortable here. Your message to me is a kind of wondering I consider to be both welcome and appropriate, and I thank you for it.

      1. Melanie, a P.S., but an important one, I think. You equate my questioning of Ed Gulley, a close and dear friend, with a stranger on social media I have never met and do now know. I guess you don’t see a difference between a close friendship where we talk to one another honestly all the time, and somebody asking me very personal questions in irritation because they want to know something more about me. To me, there is an enormous difference, but part of my squawking about social media is that many people are losing any understanding of the difference.

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