Sunday, February 11, 2018

Failure and triumph

In the 1990s, in my home office at the time, I had two paragraphs posted on a bulletin board near my desk, cut out of some newspaper article I'd read at some point. The first paragraph was a quote from Agnes De Mille, about her perspective when she was 36.

At night in the little personal hours I did the dreadful arithmetic. Youth gone. No husband. No child. No achievement in work. I used to wake up cold and consider the situation. Time was passing. My prospects had over a decade ago ceased to be bright.

The next paragraph noted that, a year after this thought, she was a legend because of Rodeo, and choreographing Oklahoma, which would cement her status as an icon of the arts.

I never knew Agnes de Mille was a failure before Rodeo. I grew up knowing that name as legend, as stellar success. The article had both jolted me and inspired me, as I was having a hard time of it myself right at that moment, so I had kept that quote nearby, to give me hope.

I lost that newspaper cut out in a move, and I couldn't remember the wording well enough to find it online. So I decided I would read her entire autobiography, Dance to the Piper, to find it.

I got so much more than that quote.

I'm not a dancer. When I was a little girl, I thought that people who became professional dancers were born into a family of dancers, and were born in New York, and as this wasn't my circumstance, it never, ever dawned on me that I could enjoy dancing, that it wasn't just some silly pretend thing. I thought people were born into their adult professions or college athletic aspirations – doctors were the sons and daughters of doctors, teachers were the children of teachers, basketball players came from families where others had played at the college level before them. My Mom put me into a dance school when I was young, probably about 6, but I thought it was just something she wanted me to do so I would be out of the house, and I thought I couldn't be a real dancer anymore than I could be a doctor – I wasn't born in the right place, to the right family. I didn't really try to do well in class, to learn anything or even to enjoy what I was doing, because I never knew that this is how you become a dancer: by dancing. In fact, I thought the people around me in my family and at school and in my neighborhood thought dancing was silly, and being young and profoundly insecure, what people might be thinking kept me from attempting oh-so-many things as a kid. I'm not sure I'd even seen ballet on TV at that point, other than as a joke on a variety show or daytime rerun. That this barre work in a little dance studio in a converted house on Main Street in Henderson, Kentucky was the same all over the world, and I could be part of a beautiful, glorious tradition merely if I wanted to be, at least while I was in these classes, never dawned on me. 

But, as a kid, I loved seeing live performance, and before I was a teen, those live performances were in grade school cafeterias and church fellowship halls and sanctuaries. I loved those simple shows about Jesus or history or whatever. When I was about 14, the Berea College Dancers and the Louisville Ballet company did performances in the gym at South Junior High School, and I sat trembling in the bleachers as I watched those dancers. I was realizing at last that, indeed, you could be a performer in Kentucky, an artist, even a dancer. But I was too old to think about studying dance, and I deeply regretted not knowing, not understanding, that I could have taken it seriously back when I was 6.

Agnes de Mille, as a child, saw the legendary dancer Anna Pavolva. And, so, she understood the possibilities even at a tender age.

I had witnessed the power of beauty, and in some chamber of my heart I lost forever my irresponsibility. I was as clearly marked as though she had looked me in the face and called my name.

That moment as a child seeing such artistry set her on a path that brought her so, so much disappointment. She put on pageants in her backyard and committed to the craft completely, despite her parents, especially her father, trying to talk her out of it. She did not have a dancer's body by birth - so she created it by work and practice.

I bent to the discipline. I learned to relax with my head between my knees when I felt sick or faint. I learned how to rest my insteps by lying on my back with my feet vertically up against a wall. I learned to bind up my toes so that they would not bleed through the satin shoes. But I never sat down. I learned the first and all-important dictate of ballet dancing – never to miss the daily practice, hell or high water, sickness or health, never to miss the barre practice; to miss meals, sleep, rehearsals even but not the practice not for one day ever under any circumstances, except on Sundays and during childbirth... My calves used to ache until tears stuck in my eyes. I learned every possible manipulation of the shoe to ease the aching tendons of my insteps. I used to get abominable stitches in my sides from attempting continuous jumps. But I never sat down. I learned to cool my forehead against the plaster of the walls. I licked the perspiration off from my mouth. I breathed through my nose though my eyes bugged. But I did not sit and I did not stop.

She was a full-figured teen at a time when boyish figures were the rage. She had a head full of curls at a time when girls wore their hair as straight as possible.

I received an anonymous note at school suggesting I wear tighter underclothing. I was couched in French, in the interest of delicacy. I did not get over that note in a hurry.

The negative comments were crushing - but she persisted. She studied, she practiced every day, she traveled to London, she put together recitals, she collaborated, she performed, she experimented, she invented, and, again and again, she played to empty houses when she tried to put together a paying audience. She had newspapers praise her, but it never turned into a paid success. She would have a producer tell her she was brilliant and that he would bankroll a tour, and in the end, she would end up financing the entire production and tour and dance her heart out and lose all the money she had borrowed. She and her mother designed and sewed all of her costumes herself. She borrowed clothes to wear day-to-day outside of dancing. Yes, her uncle was Cecil de Mille, but Cecil wasn't rolling in dough, despite directing Hollywood spectacles. There was no fortune to back her. It is amazing to think of her and her mother mixing with Hollywood royalty and, yet, being on the brink financially.

Agnes de Mille was frequently cheated out of money. She was cold and hungry a lot. She kept dancing, but every promising career turn fizzled. She even landed a much-needed, high-profile job, choreographing the dance scenes in Romeo and Juliet starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer. But her hard work was largely ignored in the film, hidden in the closeups of the stars, and no one wanted to work with her again. She went back to trying to be a dancer. She made sure she was in the company of great dancers. She kept dancing and creating. She and her colleagues were creating amazing work – and no one was watching.

Let's repeat that thought of Agnes de Mille that opened this:

At night in the little personal hours I did the dreadful arithmetic. Youth gone. No husband. No child. No achievement in work. I used to wake up cold and consider the situation. Time was passing. My prospects had over a decade ago ceased to be bright.

It was 1942. She was giving up. Her mother had had a stroke and was barely getting by financially, largely because of the money she had given her daughter in pursuit of her dancing dream. As she notes in her autobiography:

I had been given a fair long chance to prove my mettle, and I seemed only to drain off her resources dollar. Plainly I hadn't made good. But I had done my utmost. I must rest on this and accept God's will. There was however one further thing I could do. I could quit.

I intended to go down to Macy's, where Mag (her sister), no divorced, had been learning merchandising, and get a job at a ribbon counter or wherever they'd take me and earn a stipulated weekly salary, no matter how small. I would not continue to wear my sister's cast-off clothes aas I had done for the past eight years. I would budget myself and live on my own earnings. At the end of a year I would be able to hand in an income tax – something I had done only one in my life. Or – I had heard there was to be a women's branch of the army – 

And here's what's so awesome about this moment when she gave up: this feeling of absolutely nothing left to lose gave her a mental and emotional freedom that allowed her, ultimately, to succeed. She stopped wondering about what people thought of her. She stopped being self-consciousness. She got a fuck it attitude. She continued to practice her craft, but it was more out of habit, and just to enjoy it. Her ambition was gone - only love of dance remained.

But on the street one day, before she'd made it to Macy's to apply for a job, she met someone who told her the oh-so-snooty Russian Ballet, ever-touring the USA, wanted the novelty of having an American ballet by an American, and they were considering her. And the fuck it attitude of Agnes de Mille, her I'm going to work at Macy's after this final failure belief, was her strength that lead to triumph. And it started in her first meeting with the Russians:

Although the situation I found myself in was ornate and rich with treacherous personalities, I had these advantages:

  1. I said just what I meant which baffled the Russians to a standstill and set them to figuring at length what lay behind my seeming Naïveté. Nothing lay behind it. But they didn't realize this for several years. I was to them a figure of mystery.
  2. They spoke Russian so I could not understand their objections
  3. I thought they were a down-at-heel, shabby company who had got by with hokum for far too long, so I was not hampered by awe or any such restricting emotion.
  4. I believed that I could do something good.
  5. This was to be my last job so it didn't matter anyway.
On the bus home from that first meeting with the Russians, she had a chance meeting with her friend, idol and mentor, Martha Graham. She told her what was happening. Here's what Martha told her:

You be arrogant. You're every bit the artist any one of them is. This they won't know because they don't know art from a split kick, but they will recognize arrogance, and for your sake, for our sakes, show them what it is like once in a way to be on the receiving end. They won't respect you unless you're rude.

Clearly, Martha would also know what it's like to work with Silicon Valley types – rich with treacherous personalities.

And Agnes was arrogant. She held completely closed rehearsals. If you weren't dancing in what she was choreographing at that moment, you were removed from the hall. If your heart didn't seem in it, you were fired, even if you were the best dancer in the troupe. She said, "No", over and over. 

And she triumphed.

I cried several times during this book, especially the last four chapters. 

There is nothing like professional failure to humble a person. Operas and country songs and ballets are about romance and heartbreak, and are incredibly comforting – but there's no work of art capturing the pain of repeated professional humiliation, no comfort for such. On top of the disapointment, I also am so shaken professionally - my confidence is shot. And I miss that confidence. But the years of rejections for jobs I really wanted and felt I could do, and the derisive comments I should have ignored but didn't, and the chance things like someone dying or an election changing the course of organizations I've counted on for contracts, ultimately take their toll.

At 52, I'm relatively sure I've peaked professionally and that there are no more high profile, highly-influential jobs before me. I don't think that, on my way to the movie theater in the next town to apply for a job tearing tickets and cleaning bathrooms, I'm going to run into a colleague I've worked with in the past who will say, “Hey, we're got this idea for a project and we think you would be great to run it.” In fact, that did happen to me, online, rather than on a bus, back in 1996, when I was offered the Virtual Volunteering Project, and a certain quote from Agnes de Mille was posted on the bulletin board next to my desk and computer.

My legacy is tiny compared to Agnes de Mille, and though it was every bit as pioneering as some of the people I see celebrated now as tech4good pioneers, it is largely forgotten. But I know what it did, I have heard the personal, sometimes emotional stories of people who feel my research and advocacy changed them and their organizations. And that's enough for me. I don't care if anyone else knows it - I know it. And I cherish it. 

Dance to the Piper has reminded me about the importance of personal and professional integrity, even when things aren't going so well personally and professionally. Of celebrating the good stuff, the daring stuff, you are doing in your work and life, even when no one else does. Agnes de Mille danced like the world was watching, even when the house was empty, and she worked to be the greatest dancer and choreographer – the greatest professional -- she could be. That hard work and dedication did pay off in the end, so while she was a professional failure for so many years, she was never an artistic or personal one. Had she not triumphed professionally in the end, had her genius not been recognized, would she have been in perpetual mourning for the rest of her life of what might have been? Maybe. I prefer to think she would she have looked back with fondness at the incredible experience she had, the time in rehearsals and on stage, and said, “I am glad I did it, nonetheless.”  

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Racists who believe they aren't racists

I love language. I love English. Not in a "Everyone MUST speak English in the USA!" kind of way, but in a "Let's read aloud from Hamlet tonight!" kind of way. I like poetry. I like well-written narratives. I lose myself in a well-crafted novel. I love hearing a well-spoken person deliver a speech where every word feels perfectly, lovingly placed. I correct people speaking on TV, particularly newscasters, sometimes talking back to the TV and sometimes tweeting the channel (I'm sure they love that). I correct myself when I realize I have been using a word incorrectly, or not using proper grammar.

A friend posted a photo on Facebook that had this caption:

This pic of the openly gay son of Alabama’s new senator, staring defiantly into the eyes of the outrageously homophobic VP who’s swearing in his dad, is everything! 

A friend of his commented:

I’m sorry, but just because someone holds a religious opposition to homosexuality does not mean they are homophonic, nor does it mean they hate anyone who is homosexual. This rhetoric and word twisting is infuriating.

So I responded:

"homophobic | ˌhōməˈfōbik | adjective having or showing a dislike of or prejudice against homosexual people: homophobic remarks." Pence is against allowing gay people to marry, for conversion therapy to 'change' gay people to straight, for allowing businesses to be able to fire people who are gay, and against gay couples from adopting children. If we are English speakers and understand the meaning of words as they are defined in the dictionary, yes, the vice-President is homophobic. Were he against all of those same things for black Americans, he would be racist. That's how words work.

And it dawned on me yet again that not only do homophobic people in the USA not want to be called homophobic, but racist people in the USA don't want to be called racist. And I wonder - why?

Homophobic people in the USA say, "I don't HATE gay people. I just don't want them to marry, to adopt children, to be my doctor, to rent an apartment from me, to ask me to dry clean their clothes from their wedding, or to ever mention anything all of the rest of us are allowed to mention - like 'I had a date last night' or 'I think I'm in love' or 'my boyfriend and I just made plans for a vacation to Mexico.' And if my child said he was gay, I want to be able to take him to a counselor who says he can change him and make him straight. But I don't HATE gay people. Jesus tells us to love the sinner, hate the sin! In fact, I have gay friends!"

And racist people in the USA, say, "I don't HATE black people. I just don't want them to date or marry white people, to be my doctor, to be my massage therapist or to rent an apartment from me. I don't want their kids in my kids' schools because they will bring down test scores because most of them can't be as smart or well-behaved as white kids - it's just their biology, they can't really help it. I don't want one as my mayor, or sheriff, or governor, or President. But I don't hate black people! I love their music! And I have black friends!"

I've heard almost all of those actual statements from real people, particularly back in Kentucky. Some of the comments have come from relatives. And I love my family, and I love Kentucky, but, yes, a lot of people there are racists. You might "have black friends", you might not march with the Klan, you might not want to bring back slavery, you might never, ever use racial slurs, you might have black co-workers and you all use the same bathrooms, you might prefer a certain bank teller because she is the nicest of everyone at your bank and she also happens to be black, but, yes, you can still be racist.

Did you see the movie Get Out? If you didn't, stop reading and SEE THAT MOVIE. If you did, keep reading: I loved that movie. I cannot get that movie out of my head. The white characters in that movie, in response to the question, "Are you racist?" would say no. Seriously. They would say no, with great sincerity. When the dad says he would have voted Obama a third term? He means that. Yeah, I know the movie is fiction, but those white characters rang true for me on a level that shakes me to my core. I know those people. They don't lure black people to their homes and steal their souls, but they feel entitled to exploit black Americans economically, to make voting difficult for them, to defund their schools, to pollute their water - and that sense of entitlement makes them RACISTS.

And I know I've singled out racism against black Americans. I fully acknowledge the racism against other perceived races - Arab people, indigenous people of the Americas, Asian people, and on and on. I hear people try to attribute biological traits to Eastern Europeans, to Irish people, to people from a specific province of a country. I've heard Africans from one country disparage as biologically inferior Africans that are also from that same country, but are from a different "tribe." It's all JUST as offensive as any racism, of course. It's just that racism against black Americans is the racism that jumps out at me the most, the one I grew up with.

Racism. Racist. Homophobia. Homophobic. These words have specific meanings. And if the meaning describes you, why not own it? If you don't want to own it, maybe the problem isn't the word - maybe it's you.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

My Highlights of 2017

Yeah, I know, it's already 2018, so based on lists other people do, I should have done this, oh, I dunno... November?

My Highlights of 2017, roughly in the order they happened (it's not everything good that happened i 2017, but this was the absolute best stuff):

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Another year of resistance

At the start of 2017, I psyched myself up and got busy fighting the good fight. I marched, I called government offices, I attended city council meetings and meetings to help the Latino community resist ICE, and I read as much as I could so that I knew the issues and always had a strategy. A lot of times this year, I've felt really powerful in this fight, and a lot of people have told me, especially on Facebook, how much they've appreciated my words and actions this year.

But it's been exhausting, and a lot of time, the payoff for all that fighting has felt minimal - even useless. And when I see the Nazis marching in the streets and being defended by the President and immigrant families being torn apart and the Republicans in Congress smugly bankrupting the country while their supporters assure the press that they absolutely would vote for them again, I've felt despondent and lost.

Eventually, I'd gather myself up and go back to the city council meetings and the Democratic Party meetings and reading updates from the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center and call Congressional representatives and keep. But the closer I got to the end of 2017, the more I felt overwhelmed and unsure of myself. Was any of this really making a difference?

As 2017 ends, I remind myself over and over that the dark clouds of fascism started rising in Germany in the 1920s, but most of the public dismissed them as any significant threat. Even when Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, millions refused to believe a bloodbath was coming. Victory in Europe wasn't secured until May 1945. That means it took more than 20 years to defeat the Nazis.

There wasn't one march that started the Civil Rights movement in the USA, one demonstration that launched it all nor resolved it all. The demonstrations and legal actions and pressure happened over more than a decade. And people died for that cause. Many people. And millions of white people fought against that movement, and were never convinced it was righteous.

Nixon resigned in 1974, more than two years after the Watergate break-ins. And had he not resigned, the investigations and eventual impeachment hearings could have stretched into another year or two.

This is going to take time and lots of work. A LOT of work.

I also remind myself that there are people all over the world fighting circumstances even worse than what I'm going through. If they aren't giving up against Daesh or the anti-women Saudi government or the rape culture of India or all of the other civil rights abuses and assaults happening all over the world, all the physical harm and harassment, year after year, decade after decade, how can I? At the end of my day, I get to go to bed and sleep safely - they don't. Did I really think this was going to be easy?

I remind myself that Victor Lazslo always found a way - and with a great deal of style.

I remind myself that he's actually a fictional character, but not Marlene Dietrich, a tireless fighter against fascism who also always found a way - and with a great deal of style.

She didn' give up. She kept fighting AND stayed fabulous. I'm no Marlene Dietrich, of course. I'm no Victor Lazslo either. Plus, I don't smoke. But they are good icons to keep in mind as this fight continues. 

So is, of course, Princess Leia. 

This is a marathon, not a sprint. It's going to take so much work, so much action, over and over and over, for years. 

And so, I'll renew myself for 2018 and I'll keep resisting.

But I may not always look good doing it.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

four kinds of people

Tough year. Goodbye, 2017. I hope that, as this blog entry is published, I am in a cabin with my husband and dog, per our reservation made so many, many weeks ago, and that we are having a lovely time and not thinking about the Internet at all.

The women's march in January was wonderful. The sudden, spontaneous protests against the Muslim ban were beautiful. The resistance is glorious. But while all of this and more has somewhat slowed the fascism slowly taking over the world, including the USA, it hasn't at all stopped it. I'll keep fighting. But I'm also resigned that things are going to get a lot worse - and may never get better in my lifetime.

As I say goodbye to 2017, I note that I used to call myself a skeptic and assure people that this did NOT mean I wasn't a cynic.

Then election day 2016 came in the USA. And the election, plus, in the ensuing months, watching many thousands of people cheer and rally around a sexual predator and Nazi sympathizer in the White House, and watching Nazis march in Charlottesville and be defended by the man in the Oval Office, I became a cynic. I used to say the only faith I had was in humanity. Now, as of November 2016 and all that's happened in 2017, that faith is gone. I am a cynic. And it's been tough to get used to. But I can't deny that that is what I am now.

I don't believe that truth always, or ultimately, wins. I don't believe that love always, or ultimately, wins. I don't believe that most people can be swayed by reason. I don't believe most people have a sense of honor. People are not only motivated by self-interest, they are oh-so-easily manipulated regarding what is in their best interests. No, not all people. But most people. Humanity, as a whole, is oh-so-easily manipulated and will happily ignore facts if it's inconvenient to what they want reality to be.

As politically-active and outspoken as I am, I do take mental breaks. I'm reading a lot of novels and non-fiction, mostly biographies and historical books. I'm writing a lot. And I've been exploring what I DO believe.

So I'm going to end 2017 with a post about what I believe.

I believe is that there are four kinds of people in the USA. I separate them into four groups based primarily on two things: how they value ALL of humanity - or don't - and how they process facts, especially if the facts go against what they want to believe.

I admit to putting people into these categories as I get to know them.

I was going to write this in my private journal and then thought, what the heck, I'll never run for political office, I'm sharing it.

Here goes:

There is the largest group of people, the let's-not-think-too-much group. They are the ones that read "The Lottery" and don't get it. They are the ones that think the "Please don't feed the wildlife" sign does NOT apply to them: they ignore such as they position little Billy with a Cheeto so the chipmunk will come up to him so they can get the perfect photo. They avoid jury duty and then complain about the criminal justice system. They don't think voting is a big deal and do it only for really important elections, if they do it at all, yet they may complain bitterly about the state of affairs. They are often distracted by their financial issues, but they don't tie their financial issues - losing their rental home, being in debt, rising healthcare costs, struggling to care for a special needs child or older relative, etc. - to what their state and national legislators are doing, or not doing. They think people that love reading classics and studying to learn new things are at least a bit weird, and/or wasting their time, or even elitist. They are often suspicious of science and academics. They love regionalism and nationalism, and claim to love their mother tongue and fear that it's disappearing, even as they make frequent grammar errors, don' try to speak and write correctly, and think actually studying their language as a native speaker is silly. They may find some different cultures interesting, but fear "too many" foreigners or outsiders. They believe in conspiracy theories. They rarely change their minds, even in the face of facts. If they can't understand something, they doubt the credibility or truthfulness of such. They can be kind, even generous, with no expectation of something in return, but prefer to give simple charity over undertaking or supporting complex, long-term approaches that could help in the long-term, even transform things for the better. They might cry at a news story, if they watch the news at all, and be moved so much as to write a check to a church or a nonprofit, but they won't be moved to learn why bad things happen, not to push for the societal, legal or political change needed to stop whatever bad things are happening. They might post a few political posts to Facebook, but they prefer cat videos or dumb jokes or chain posts. They fall for email chains, "Repost this to get money from Bill Gates" hoaxes, payday loans and rent-to-own schemes. Like all humans, they have the potential to be smarter, to be wiser, to be more aware, but they don't pursue that potential for too many and, sometimes, complex reasons to list here.

There's the second largest group, the "know nothing" group, not because they don't know anything, but they just don't want to take a stand on most issues. They have read "The Lottery" and get it, but don't want to talk about its relevance today. They don't like being uncomfortable, so they will avoid political debates or watching an investigative documentary, even if it's an issue they would, on a questionnaire, say they care deeply about. They are the complacent people. They rarely post anything political to their social media - they like to smugly say, "I avoid politics", and they are able to avoid politics because so much of what happens doesn't affect them directly, at least that they know of. To feel better, they simply skip watching or reading the news for weeks, even months, at a time. They not only don't believe in most conspiracy theories, they don't know about them, because they don't have conversations nor encounter media where such would come up. They may vote in national elections, but rarely in local elections. They might like to think of themselves as socially conscious or caring, but avoid people who are expressing passionate feelings about some cause - the environment, women's rights, etc. They might go to a demonstration, but only if it's because it might somehow be historical or something that would be a great deal of fun to be a part of or provide lots of opportunities for selfies, like the Women's March in 2017. But they don't go to demonstrations to make anyone angry - they never want to be provocative. They don't like feeling anything too deeply. They roll their eyes at blogs like this. They can be quite smug - as smug as the next group.

The third group is smaller than either of the previous two, the better-than-everyone-else group. They have read "The Lottery" and are offended by it. They believe they, and those like them - which may be people from the same ethnic group, or same culture or same economic level - are better than most other humans. They believe that they are special, they are exceptional. They believe that, overall, good things that happen to a person in life are earned by that person and always deserved, and they don't believe prosperity happens just because of luck of birth or a chance investment. They believe the poorest people are in that state because of their lack of character and work ethic. They believe that people who lose their houses because they were wooed by a smooth-talking mortgage broker get what they deserve, that there is no such thing as a "predatory lender" - such are, in fact, smart business people, and those not-so-bright people should have read the fine print, should have done their research, etc. They actively work to exclude certain people from certain neighborhoods, certain jobs and from voting. They often delight in manipulating that first group into thinking that government is always the enemy, that privatizing public schools and national parks will make life better. They are prone to regionalism and nationalism, especially when it can be manipulated so they can get what they want politically and economically, but are happy to make a deal that hurts their region or their nation so long as it brings they themselves wealth and influence. They have infallible heroes. They bristle at phrases and concepts like social justice or gender equity. They may or may not believe in conspiracy theories, but they are happy to promote such if it serves their political or economic interests. This group can have a variety of people in it, from corporate executives to neo-Nazis to Islamic terrorists to people passionately promoting homeopathy.

And then there is the smallest group. Like all people, they make mistakes and have biases and can be grumpy. But they also think about ways to do better in life, not just for themselves but for others. They change their minds in the face of facts, even when it hurts their heart and challenges long-held beliefs. They have a moral compass but are also open to it being challenged with facts and different points of view. They want to have integrity, and mourn when they don't, even if no one else sees their moral failing. They admire scientists, academics, writers and artists. They have heroes, but sometimes have to give up those heroes when they find out those people they admired did something egregious or aren't nearly as great as they thought. They don't believe all humans start off on a level playing field - and they want this to change. They are willing to give up a convenience if it means a healthier planet for future generations. They like the differences in humans regarding language, culture and history, they aren't bothered by hearing a foreign language in their own country, and if they are privileged enough to go abroad, they revel in the different sights and sounds. They might believe a conspiracy theory, but will immediately abandon it in the face of facts. They like to read. They like to learn. They will decide at 70 to take up an entirely new activity - motorcycle riding, learning Italian, playing the piano - even if it makes absolutely no practical sense to do so. I don't know what to call this group. But I do know that when they read "The Lottery," they are chilled to the bone.

There can be cynics in all four groups, but there can also be optimists. Anyone from all four groups can be mild-mannered or boisterous. There can be religious people in any of these groups, as well as atheists. There can be economically poor people as well as very rich people in any of these groups. There can be very well-educated people as well as people that lack any formal education in any of these groups. There are impatient people in all of those groups. Anyone from these groups can love their children, love a particular sport and talk endlessly about some big game, and those commonalities can keep people being polite to each other, even help them work together at the same employer.

But the world is taking a dangerous lurch to the right, and I have my doubts about who will help in trying to turn the tide - and who will just go along with it all because they don't really care enough to fight. In fact, I think it's just a tiny minority that care. And that scares me deeply.

Which group am I in? The last group. The really, really unhappy group.

Dreading 2018. But still here. Still resisting.

A better message tomorrow to end the year.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

thoughtlessness and responsibility and the power of names

In the summer of 1986, I was the reporting intern at my hometown paper in Kentucky, The Gleaner. It was between my sophomore and junior year at university. I was so proud to have that job. I worked mostly the afternoon/evening shift, when the newsroom was all abuzz and all of the sports scores, front page news and obituaries were put together for the next day's paper (note: that shift no longer exists - the Indiana company that owns the paper now has pretty much closed The Gleaner, except the name, and won't take Henderson news after 5 p.m... but that's another blog...).

Small town newspapers were HUGELY important back then. This was where the community was documented for what we liked to pretend was forever, and in one, central place. Not only did everyone's day start by reading the newspaper, to be named in the newspaper was an incredible affirmation of a person's existence. That was true of everything in the newspaper back then, but it was true tenfold for obituaries.

I was in charge of the obituaries that summer. The funeral homes would call about an hour before I was off-shift and read information over the phone - there was no email nor fax machines. And usually, I would read what I had written down back to the person calling, to make sure I got it right before I handed it off to be put in the paper for the next day. But sometimes, I was lazy, and I didn't read it back. And one day, that laziness caught up with me: I got an obituary wrong. I got the last name wrong. It meant that the deceased and most of the family members were listed in the newspaper with the wrong last name.

The reprimand I got from the editor the next day was something I'll never forget. I remember all of his words: about how an obituary is a person's LAST story, that the person never, ever gets another chance to be profiled in the newspaper, it may be the ONLY time a person is ever named in the paper, and it's often the first and last time the entire family will be named, altogether, in the newspaper. He told me how the family looked to an obituary as the public affirmation of their tribe, their existence, their value - a moment when their family matters, because the family members are there, together, in print, for all to see. And he pointed out in oh-so-starkly terms that I had denied this family that, and that even with a correction a day later, they were still denied an experience that they were owed and could never get back.

I cried a lot over my mistake - in the bathroom at work and later at home. I felt horrible. I felt the anger and sadness of that family that I'd never met even though I never heard what they said to the editor. I also didn't think they were over-reacting, or that they shouldn't be THAT upset, or that they should just get over it. I never denied what they were feeling and their right to feel that way. I fully accepted responsibility and that I was the cause of it. I also felt deep regret at my thoughtlessness. I wish I had written that family a letter of apology, even if they had torn it up and thrown it back in my face.

That experience more than 30 years ago hit me like a ton of bricks this morning: my name was left out of my grandmother's obituary in The Gleaner. A first name is there, one spelled exactly like mine, but the last name is one I've never had, that I've never used, that I've never said and that I've never written. But someone in my family gave this incorrect last name, per just as much thoughtlessness I had back in 1986. Because of that thoughtlessness, I'm not there, and that can never be changed. And the pain of not being there is real. It's shattering.

And I am not wrong, or over-reacting, at feeling this upset.

I had decided a few days ago not to fly home for the funeral, to be sensible rather than emotional: I was just there, I spent two wonderful mornings with my grandmother just last month, all of the arrangements are made and my help isn't needed, I have reservations somewhere for Friday and Saturday, it's crazy to fly at this time of year, I might get stuck at an airport rather than even make it back to Kentucky... it means not having to fight through holiday air or car traffic, not having to sit on a plan or an airport for 10 hours one way, not having to rent a car, not having to miss out on very special plans I made with my husband...

It also means not having arms around me over and over from people in my hometown, saying how sorry they are, how they can see this or that from my grandmother in me, it means not being together as a family at a very visible, important moment, it means not going through a ritual that helps me so deeply. It means feeling very, very alone.

And now, it feels even more so.

Monday, December 18, 2017

National egoism is worthless

    National egoism is worthless as a regulatory principle for our world! For this worldview describes the world as an arena, a kind of battleground, in which everyone is fighting against everyone else and in which everyone has to assert their own interests, either alone or in alliances of convenience. In this worldview, the law of the strongest prevails, not the strength of the law. Ladies and gentlemen, I am convinced that we have to rise against this worldview. We need more international cooperation and less national egoism, not the other way round. The motto ‘our country first’ not only leads to more national confrontations and less prosperity. In the end, there will only be losers. In international cooperation, no one loses sovereignty. Rather we all gain new sovereignty which we could no longer have as nation-states on our own in today's world. 

Germany Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, in remarks to the United Nation's Assembly’s 72nd annual general meeting in September 2017.