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Thursday, July 7, 2016

I'm Just Saying: A Death In Our Family

I'm Just Saying: A Death In Our Family: So here we are again - communities enraged and demanding action, tweeted sentiments from the famous folks, eloquent words from our nation&#3...

A Death In Our Family

So here we are again - communities enraged and demanding action, tweeted sentiments from the famous folks, eloquent words from our nation's Commander in Chief, and the dueling camps shouting "Black Lives Matter"/"Blue Lives Matter"/"All Lives Matter" while television cameras stand poised and waiting for the balloon of frustration to pop and set our streets on fire. But all I feel is sympathy for two families grieving the wasted lives of two black men who made a difference every day in the lives of their families, their friends and their communities. Five little children will wake up every day for the rest of their lives knowing that their daddy is gone and will never return. A young woman will never be able to close her eyes at night without seeing her boyfriend killed before her eyes. Two men died, and though they were not related to me by blood or by marriage it still feels as if there has been a death in the family.

A look through my Facebook posts showed me that I wasn't alone in this sense of communal grief. One of my friends, who is white, told me that he felt ashamed to face his friends who are black. What he might not have guessed, though, was that I, too, felt ashamed of my own inaction and fear. I have consciously chosen to stay out of tough conversations regarding race and racial violence out of a sense of self-preservation. In college, black student enrollment on my campus hovered around 20-30 students out of 1100 students total. What this meant in practical terms was that acts of racism on campus went unanswered.

My graduate school career was almost the exact opposite - no racist jokes or overt acts of racism - but there was a pressure to conform to a certain flatness of being that de-gendered, un-raced, and erased cultural and sexual forms of self-expression that might mar the soup of inclusivity. In this pre-NPR StoryCorps framework, one could talk about racism and sexism and any other "-ism" as if they happened outside of ourselves. This approach allowed us to dissect and discuss and dialog (used here as a verb) in a way that allowed everyone to fully engage without being labeled as victim or aggressor. Yet, even in this environment I was uncomfortable with sharing just how uncomfortable this process made me feel.  To share my experiences would mean that I would have to share my own feelings of helplessness and fear and anger and once you go there it's difficult for people to un-see it. But, that's what happens when we grieve - the masks come off and we're face to face with the rawness of sorrow, and sorrow is what I feel right now, and it's really what we all feel, isn't it?

Let's unmask ourselves and look at a world whose face is contorted in sorrow. Sorrow for the deaths of these two black men and the thousands of others killed in this country; sorrow for the thousands of people slaughtered in acts of terrorism; sorrow for the mothers, sisters, daughters and aunts who are raped and murdered; sorrow for the military families whose loved ones are not coming home; sorrow for the scores of refugees who, right now, are braving oceans with their babies and belongings strapped on their backs looking for a safe place; and yes, even the sorrow of a law enforcement officer who has taken someone's life and is beginning to question how it all got so out of hand so quickly.

I thought that I was creating a safe space for myself where I could hold the sorrow at bay. I used anger and sarcasm - every weapon I had at my disposal to distance myself from my feelings. But, there is no such thing as a safe space. The barriers we erect can and will be breached because sorrow has no gender, race, religion or nationality. Growing up Roman Catholic, I remembered the nuns teaching us about the saints and what was called the "gift of tears" - a way that the Holy Spirit manifested itself through their tears during times of distress. Pope Francis has spoken several times about the "gift of tears":

We are a society that has forgotten the experience of weeping, of 'suffering with'. 
-Pope Francis, Excerpt from homily delivered in Lampedusa, Italy July 2013

On the day that we buried my father, I let go of all dignity and decorum and collapsed weeping into the arms of my friends who had come to mourn with me.  They held me up and my sorrow became our sorrow. And so we all mourn together, now - black people, brown people, white people, men, women, transgender, cisgender, lesbian, gay, straight, questioning - because there has been a death in our family.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Pulling the Plug on "Perfect"

A few weeks ago, I had an epiphany. Well, maybe not an epiphany, but it was a moment where I actually paid attention to the words coming out of my mouth at the exact moment I was uttering them. I had met up for dinner with an old friend and since I was on his turf I asked him to pick the place. We walked around the neighborhood near my hotel and while I was tapping away on Yelp my friend stopped in front of a restaurant that, as luck would have it, he'd been wanting to try for quite some time. So I put my phone in my pocket and declared, "perfect!" before heading inside and motioning for him to follow. Once inside I didn't need Yelp to tell me that this was a happening place - it was packed, so packed that two would-be diners who, like us, had walked in off of the mean streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, were quoted a wait time of 40 minutes. My friend looked worried but then the twosome ahead of us decided that this was too much of a scene and they folded like an over-the-knee boot sitting in your closet. At their departure, I exclaimed, "perfect!", and then headed for the bar after giving the hostess our name. At the bar, adorned with mixologist gear of almost fetishtistic proportions and complexity, we ordered our fancy drinks served by our over-pierced, over-tatted, over-mustached drink specialists (apparently "bartender" is so basic) to which I responded, "perfect!". Soon, I realized that I was vomiting perfection all over the place to the servers, to busboys, to the doorman at my hotel after dinner. This was distressing, but the worst was yet to come, because later that night as my husband and I were settling into our hotel bed and going over plans for the next day, I noticed that our conversation was being carpet-bombed by "perfects" - and we'll leave and get coffee by 8am? PERFECT!...then we can get back here, pack, and grab lunch? PERFECT!...and we have cash to tip the maids already. PERFECT!!

Just what the hell is going on?? 

I needed to trace this contagion back to its source, but that's easier said than done. But, I had to do something because this outbreak was almost as bad as the "at the end of the day" bug that spread from think-tanks, to boardrooms, to bad reality TV shows faster than you can say "PERFECT"!  So I began stalking "perfect" and what I found was enlightening and a bit scary. I started by laying a trap - I told my husband that he had to stop using "perfect." He was puzzled why I should have a problem with such a nifty word, but he played along, in as much as every time he said "PERFECT!" he held his hands up to his mouth like a 5 year old who'd been caught saying a bad word. This little experiment resulted in him noticing just how "PERFECT!" he had been making things verbally. As far as I could tell, when he was talking to me or any other close relative, he seemed to use the P-word as a means of saying, "I hear you - no, I really hear you," but also as a means to stop all further conversations about a topic, so that "perfect" meant, "we're done here so stop over thinking things." So was he using the p-word to pacify or to give assurance or both?

I also made a mental inventory of my own personal p-word use. I always use it at work, but I also become a heavy user of the p-word when I'm planning anything with my family. I use "perfect" as a means of moving things along as my family can take a looooong while to get it together so when we're on our annual family vacation,  things like selecting a restaurant for lunch or deciding whether or not to take my nephews to the pool before or after breakfast become bogged down in indecisiveness. Growing up in this atmosphere was bad enough but as an adult I've lost the ability to function according to the rules of my family's dysfunction so I plan everything and then verbally pound them with "PERFECT!" as I lay out the plan for the days. When I clench my teeth and say, "PERFECT!" that's the equivalent of the airline captain and crew doing cross checks before take-off, so sit in your seat and buckle up because this plane is taking off!

But, what's so wrong with being "perfect"? First, we're humans so it's impossible to be perfect. Secondly, striving for perfection might be great when you're running a marathon, but most of life involves working in groups and demanding perfection always leaves you some pretty thin margins for things like forgiveness and perspective.

So, I'm going on a "PERFECT!" cleanse, and what a great time to start this since I haven't started my Christmas shopping yet nor have I written one Christmas card!  I don't know how long it will last and I don't know what I'll discover on the other side of perfection, but I have a feeling I'll like it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Getting to Know You: How to Relate to Your Relatives During the Holidays

Well, the great Thanksgiving pilgrimage has begun and as you head over the river and through the woods to your relatives, some of you may be dreading a turkey day that comes with judgmental relatives, healthy servings of shade, and conversations that rarely progress beyond "can you believe how hot/cold/icy/snowy it is today?" But, I think there's a deeper issue - how little we know our relatives. Whether you're breaking the wishbone with your blood relatives or your in-laws, it's a sure bet that you don't know as much about each other as you assume you do. And I'm not talking about your hopes and dreams and fears, I mean basic stuff like favorite food, favorite color, favorite movie. 

For blood relatives who've known each other for most of their lives, the Thanksgiving table turns into a session of Mad Libs: The "remember that time..." edition. There are certain stories that make up the family mythology and the ritualistic retelling of these tales further cements the familial bond - or something like that! But, these stories sometimes don't allow for the telling of new stories and the family becomes frozen in a narrative loop that doesn't allow the characters in these stories to develop an interior life and to progress. 

Crazy Uncle Duck who accidentally blew up the family barn when he was 12 years old while deep frying a turkey will always be that character, even when he's 20 and in college, when he's 27 and doing his medical school residency, and when he's 45 and is tops in his field as an orthopedic surgeon. There is comfort in hearing this story and in telling this story. But, Uncle Duck - who now goes by Ben - might hate this story, and he might wonder why the family seems disinterested in who he has become and the journey he's taken to get there. 

In studying Biblical literature, the phrase "closed text" is used to describe a list of scriptural books considered to be authoritative, to which nothing more may be added. For instance, the books that comprise the Torah. In our family lives, we can become the human equivalent of "closed texts", not allowing space for the natural evolution that happens in human beings, and greeting these changes at the holiday table with scorn, disgust, derision, or dismissal. 

Years ago, when I was in grad school - broke and hundreds of miles away from home - I had the best Thanksgiving of my life. It was at the Westin Copley Place with a dozen or so other grad students, a couple of whom were my friends and the rest of whom were strangers. We laughed, we talked, we ate too much and over the course of several hours we got to know each other. We were genuinely interested in learning about each other and by the end of the night new friendships were forged and established friendships were deepened. 

So, starting this Thanksgiving, get to know your families. Ask them the who/what/why/where/how questions that a reporter or a stranger in an airport bar would ask. Bypass the family shorthand and truly engage with your family. If you're with your in-laws, don't let them cut their long stories short, assuming that your significant other has given you a pre-dinner briefing about who begat who and whom divorced whom. And if you're the one bringing your significant other into the family fold, let them get to know your family members one on one. Seat them next to a favorite aunt and let the two of them have a dialogue and get to know one another. It's better for your relatives to experience first-hand how wonderful your partner is and not hear about it from you. In short, don't talk about each other, rather talk to each other. The holidays are annual opportunities to check in with each other - don't miss your chance.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Oh Dear God, Not Another Talk About Racism: Dispatches from the Post-Racial Era

These were the words running through my mind at a recent brunch with some old friends as the subject of racism came up - well, actually, it didn't start off as a discussion about racism, it started off as a discussion about the possible lynching of Sandra Bland and why I don't take long-distance solo drives through certain areas of the United States, so really, it was a discussion about logistics and the shortcomings of GPS maps that may give you turn-by-turn directions, but are silent as to whether or not persons of color, like myself, might want to bypass certain routes in order to arrive at our final destinations ALIVE! Come to think of it, I guess it WAS a discussion about racism. 

The friends are a married couple and the wife and I met while in college. The husband was a later edition. My friend and I are like sisters. We've been there for each through the questionable hair decisions of our college days, job searches, still more questionable hair decisions, boyfriends, marriage, parental illness and death, and the birth of children. When our husbands are with us, she and I still talk a thousand miles a minute as our spouses try to get a word in, here and there. On issues of religion and social justice, she and I are in sync, but her husband is more conservative in his stance on certain issues. While he and I don't always agree, I was shocked when he responded to my fears and concerns around traveling to certain potentially hostile places with the following statement: I don't see it. The "it" he was referring to was racism. And that, my friends, was when the "it" hit the fan!

Let me walk you through his argument: Racism exists now because we (meaning minorities) keep talking about it. If we stopped talking about our differences, then we'd all just get along and racism would end.

But, there's more: The nine African-American church members murdered in Charleston, SC died not because of the actions of the racist shooter, but because minorities keep talking about racism and the media continues to cover minorities talking about racism, so much so that WE minorities have created the construct that fueled the racial hatred in the shooter. Oh, and, of course, President Obama is responsible for everything that's wrong in this country.

So there you have it - finally, I now know how to eliminate racism from this country. Dr. King must be shouting Hallelujah in that heavenly kingdom: let's just stop talking about it! Who knew it was all so easy!!

Racism is like your childhood imaginary friend, I guess. Like that movie "Drop Dead Fred" where the heroine reunites with her imaginary friend as a psychological crutch as she navigates the tough stuff of adulthood, including her divorce from a philandering husband. I'm so glad that I got whitemalesplained about racism before it was too late. Maybe, if talking about racism only perpetuates racism and NOT talking about racism ends racism, then maybe we should stop talking about rape or about suicide or about genocide. Don't you all feel great now that these burdens have been lifted from our shoulders??

I was offended, as you can tell. The intellectual in me was offended. This college educated professional whose own Italian American family had dealt with racism when they first came to this country seemed to be either ignoring or ignorant of how racism affected his own family. But the emotional side of me was just plain hurt. After almost 20 years of friendship, I was blown away by his inability to empathize with his friend sitting across from him. I wanted to cry because "I don't see it" means that he doesn't see ME. 

It's hard when your friends disappoint you, and it's harder, still, to forgive them. But the hard way is, unfortunately, the only way to break through someone's ignorance. I'd love for racism to die, but its death won't just happen because we've silenced the conversations about it. It's disheartening to think that Trayvon, Charleston, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner haven't been enough to move this man into "seeing" racism.  But, maybe the issue here is scale. It's easy to push platitudes and axioms pulled from political talking points and applied to large-scale stories that have grabbed international headlines. It's an easy thing to debate the issues, but how do you deal with an actual someone and not a some thing? This is the hard work and it can only be done one person at a time, and one conversation at a time. 


Monday, July 13, 2015

Lies, Damn Lies: Why "The Bachelorette" Makes Me Mad, Not Sad

Every season "The Bachelorette" seems like it goes on waaaaaay longer than it should. With this year's "Bachelorette", Kaitlyn, the producers must be beside themselves with glee. She's the whole package: weirdly-spelled first name, bobble-head body, baby talk voice with an old-man belly laugh, overly-large teeth, she can cry with the snap of a finger, she likes to be "goofy", oh, and she likes sex. Finally, they can put to bed the delicate metaphors like "fantasy suite" and "overnights" (you know, like they're a bunch of 12 year old girls having a sleepover, complete with popcorn and Taylor Swift on the radio), and all of the other linguistic gymnastics that the writers' room agonized over for lo these many years in order to avoid directly addressing the simple chemistry when hordes of telegenic young singles combine in dreamy exotic locations supplied with liquor, hot tubs, and cameras. But this "Bachelorette" is a monster of reality TV's own making. The reality TV universe has finally turned the corner and produced its own spawn!!

Cue the scary music and the clap of thunder!

That's right, Dr. Frankenstein has been hard at work because Kaitlyn isn't real. Sure, she looks like she's made of flesh, blood and bone, but her brain was swapped out long ago for a processing system that runs on bottle caps and lip gloss. Think about it - is she really such a cool girl who is down for anything? Who's idea of a great first date involves sloppy burgers and beer in a bottle? She came to the show's producers fully-formed. She'd probably already sketched out some notes as to who her character "Kaitlyn" would be - what motivates her, what angers her, who her enemies are and what the arc of her storyline would be. I wouldn't be surprised if she was running lines with her girlfriends every night after she got home from her day job in the weeks leading up to the submission of her audition tape. 

And it's not just "Kaitlyn" that's not real, just take a look at the bachelors. There's The Soulful One, The Moody One, The One Who Picks a Fight Before the Rose Ceremony, The One Who Rats Out The One Who is a Liar Who is Then Sent Home, The One Who Fools The Bachelorette But Not America - all of whom know how to cause the dreaded "drama" and all of whom think that every romantic cliche thrown up to them as a date is "amazing" as they "follow their heart" on this "journey" to, you know, "find love" and, when not handed a rose, spend their limo drive into the sunset wondering how they'll "process what's just happened." ENOUGH!! 

Look, there was a time when reality TV was authentic. They called them documentaries and they were unflinching and real. The first season of MTV's "Real World" reads more like a documentary in that it makes you deeply uncomfortable because it's so real with all of the awkwardness and that feeling when you're stuck on a full flight with a couple who are having the worst argument of their marriage, like way worse than Elaine Benes and David Putty on that episode of "Seinfeld" and minus the comedic genius of Larry David. 

But now reality TV is stocked with heroes and villains who arrive fully-formed and aren't created by post-production slight of hand in the editing suite. Slowly, we, the general public, have become characters in our own reality shows. Creation of the alter ego usually begins with creating your first social media account. The profile questions - favorite films, favorite music, hobbies/interests - are all opportunities to create yourself, or recreate yourself. Some of us bring these cyber ids off of the screen and into the four dimensional world and then boomerang back to the screen - at least that's what I think Instagram is for, right? I mean if you've described yourself as a foodie then eating at a fancy restaurant having a great meal is your THANG, but it doesn't really count until you take a photo of the meal at the fancy restaurant, Instagram it out to your followers, and then tag the heck out of it so that the fancy restaurant knows that you're eating there and loving it because you're a foodie, that's what you do! We've become wedded to the weird internal storyline that appears to be guiding our lives, and we have become insistent on maintaining a narrative consistency with the characters we've created. We've made existence boring and predictable and that makes me mad - not disappointed, not sad, not angry, just MAD. 

So, let's mix it up a little bit. Stop trying to be "The [fill in the blank]" and just BE. 


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Make It Stop: When Did TV Become So Demanding?

When I was growing up, Friday nights meant Mom, Grandma, my sister and I sitting in the basement with the television tuned to CBS and the strains of the "The Dukes of Hazzard" theme music emanating from the console color TV's mono speakers. After the theme song came the commercial break, during which snacks were retrieved from the kitchen, conversations were had among us family members, and an occasional phone call from friends or extended family was taken. By the time the citizens of Hazzard had survived whatever misadventure the writers had managed to throw at them in the span of an hour, the closing credits would roll and another commercial break, during which we made bathroom runs, and then the opening credits and theme song of the next show would begin. It was a kindlier, gentler time for lovers of TV. 

Nowadays, though, TV has become a fully immersive process, with theme songs scrapped for cold opens that thrust the viewer immediately into the action, and closing credits that bleed seamlessly into the next show, leaving a viewer barely able to digest whatever dramatic action just occurred. And don't get me started on what happens within the show with non-linear narratives that circle and bend so much that they've yielded a new phrase: "twisty." 

Screenwriter Shonda Rhimes - the talented mind behind "Grey's Anatomy", "Private Practice", "Scandal" and "How to Get Away with Murder" - is the Queen of Twisty, with plotlines that send a viewer to the edge of their seats in the opening seconds of a show and then grab you by the collar, pulling you onto your feet and up onto your tippy-toes before hurling you against a wall and kicking you in the gut after you've dropped to the floor. That's "twisty". "Twisty" could also be used to describe the level of physical gore that Ms. Rhimes manages to pump into, or, maybe more accurately, out of, her characters. So violent is the imagery that she puts onto the television screen that I'm forced to look away frequently with the mute button on until my husband yells "all clear"! Television has literally become all-consuming with a "don't-look-away-or-you'll-miss-it" attitude that's becoming a turn-off. I was three-episodes into "How to Get Away with Murder" before I realized what the hell was going on and by the end of the season I was glad for the summer hiatus.

And if the plotlines don't exhaust you, trying to stay caught up on your favorite shows on Hulu, OnDemand, and TiVo will. If you have any sort of a life and can't watch your favorite show during its first run, then you're doomed to schedule an alternate time to watch your shows. A work change forced me to watch an entire season of a show via OnDemand. I felt like I was handed a homework assignment. My adjusted viewing schedule also meant that I had to avoid all social media, since people love sharing plotline reveals as if they had some juicy gossip! Another thing I avoid is Netflix (sorry, not sorry) and the binge-watching trap. The idea of being tethered to my TV for a day and a night because I have to watch the entirety of a season's episodes of  "House of Cards" is astounding to me, especially when there's not a blizzard or I'm not recovering from a really awful flu that forces me onto my sofa for a 48-hour period.

Do we need this generation's version of former First Lady Nancy Reagan telling us to "just say no" to being consumed by television? Does current First Lady Michelle Obama have to personally come into our living rooms to say, "let's move", in order for us to step away from the flatscreen? I don't know what the answer is, but I know that the producers and writers and directors of TV aren't going to solve this problem, especially when they created the problem. They took the passive TV viewers of past generations and made them into active participants generating their own content based on the shows we watch. We tweet, we Facebook, we Instagram our way through these shows - sharing our reactions with the world, or just that little corner of our world where other fans of this particular show join in virtual community with each other. Who has time for snacks or the bathroom when there's breaking news about a character who was killed/not killed/kidnapped that has to be shared with your social media followers? 

You know, I'm starting to think that maybe TV hasn't become more demanding - maybe we've become more demanding and TV is just trying to catch up with us! Maybe we need to create a community for ourselves that stretches beyond our lonely couches and out into the world. Maybe we need television to consume us because we no longer allow ourselves to be consumed by things that really matter anymore. I mean I can always count on Shondaland to serve up twists and turns every Thursday night, but can I deliver the same high when I'm the screenwriter of my own life?