The Year in Tears, Fears and Cheers

I’ve done a lot of the right kind of crying this week – big, fat tears of hope, awe and relief. More fantastic than the cathartic sobs themselves, however, is the direct connection between them and national politics. For most of the year, emotional inspiration from the country’s elected leaders has been in short supply.

The lion’s share of 2017 blubbering has been of the traditional disappointment/rage strain. It’s been a tough year with many challenges to moral authority, character and justice. It may seem incongruous to sexist hate mongers like defeated Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore, but a liberal, atheist, feminist can also believe that standard codes of conduct should straddle all walks of human life. Righteousness is not the spiritual property of Bible-banging, racist, homophobic straight white men who condemn everyone outside their circle of privileged ignorance.

Regardless of gender, faith, geography or race, there should be a few universal agreements. We should reject white supremacy, violence, sexual assault, pedophilia, corrupt looting of the public treasury, heartlessness toward the poor and the war-torn.  When an American territory is ravaged by natural disaster, we should offer all forms of recovery assistance and skip the Ayn Randian self-reliance lectures. We should support science and research and take care of the only Earth we have. When hundreds are publicly gunned down at a concert and children are not safe in school, its way past time to ask ourselves if the Second Amendment should supersede all other rights.

Moderates, cynics and self-styled realists will be quick to say that we must make our way through the world as it is. Indulging idealistic daydreams is a waste of time. To which I reply in the words of my favorite former Vice President, Joseph R. Biden III: “That’s a bunch of malarkey.” Despite the unaccountable example elevated by President Trump, we can admit when we’re wrong. We don’t have to live with the choices we’ve made when empirical and experiential data illuminate error. If we’re not here to try our best to build a greater and more just world for ourselves and our children, what’s the point? If all we’re meant to do is take what we can and run, what sets humans apart from scavenger species like rats and vultures?

2017 has made it painfully clear that at the highest levels of American government and industry, a shared vision of social justice and opportunity has fallen out of favor. The Trump administration has appointed numerous leaders to public agencies with the express purpose of making it harder for us to breathe, receive a quality education or equitable treatment within the justice system, among other taxpayer scams. See, as just one absurd example, the decision to install Scott Pruitt, tool of the fossil fuel industry, as leader of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Never in modern history has it been so obvious that the public trust and tax dollar are being misused. The heavy-handedness of it all has elicited buckets of my impotent, despairing tears throughout the year. It’s been overwhelmingly tempting at times (Charlottesville, Republican tax “reform,” a sexual assaulter as POTUS) to view the country’s oligarchic, cynical tailspin without hope.

I recently took a personality test shared via link by a Facebook friend. I scored high on the quiz’s concept of reverence. Although the word has taken on a religious connotation, as applied in the personality assessment, it denotes a humbling of the self in respectful recognition of something perceived to be greater. I recognize this existential need. I’m a devoted planner and tactician, but always in service of a motivating larger concept. Shake my faith in the efficacy of action and I’ll quickly devolve. More Law & Order marathons, less self-confidence and movement. Reverence and I have been estranged for months at a time this year, replaced by tears of bitter shame as 45 debases this great nation with Twitter feuds, misogyny, bigotry, feckless and dangerous domestic and foreign policies.

But as we approach the end of the calendar year and the conclusion of the first twelve months of the Trump presidency, I’m starting to get my reverent groove back. On Monday night, Bob and I went to the Chicago Theatre to see the aforementioned Joe Biden on the Windy City leg of his book tour. Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, according to The New York Times Book Review, “splices a heartbreaking story with an election story and a foreign affairs story. And in so doing, he offers something for everyone, no matter which strand draws you in.”

Reading the words of Joe Biden is a privilege. Hearing his earnest, human good sense and compassion live is better still. The 75 year-old public servant is an American hero. A man who has weathered enormous personal tragedy with grace, intelligence and a steadfast commitment to bending the arc of humanity towards justice. I was, am and will always be inspired by Papa Joe. The choked sobs I released on Monday were full of gratitude – for Americans like the longtime Delaware senator, and for a husband who knew that walking down Obama/Biden memory lane would sooth my battered soul.

Then last night, voters in the deep red state of Alabama rejected a twice-sacked, child molesting, bigoted judge in favor of a pro-choice Democrat with a demonstrated commitment to civil rights. Much has been made in the media about urban and suburban white distaste for Moore. But the real story is the 93 percent of black men and 98 percent of African-American women who overcame all disenfranchisement odds and pundit expectations to put their state on the right side of history. As Esquire columnist Charles Pierce noted:

“Voter suppression is a scandal and a crime and an offense against the Constitution. John Roberts’s declaration of the Day of Jubilee in Shelby County v. Holder was an act of historical butchery. The laws enacted since that day should be torn out, root and branch, and burned to cinders. However, what the results from Alabama demonstrated is that, with good candidates and a solid message and tireless work, you can swamp the bastards and all their works just by showing up.”

2016 went out for me with a disillusioned, distressed whimper. Hillary Clinton’s loss was my despair for the country, for womanhood, for immigrants and any chance of addressing the nation’s increasingly stratified economic and social opportunities.

At the end of 2017, I’m rediscovering reverence for the American proletariat. The wise and compassionate words of a retired public servant and the empowered, forward-looking agency of Alabama voters make great holiday gifts.

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Increasingly Blurred Partisan Lines Offer Hope for Journalism in 2018

2017 has been a strange and disturbing year for the United States in so many far-reaching ways. Long, well-researched books will be written about this year’s impact (or lack thereof) on income inequality, government corruption, gender dynamics, the justice system, immigration, suffrage, healthcare, civil rights, the First Amendment, foreign policy, war and climate change. I’m hard pressed to think of a major issue facing humanity that hasn’t been stress tested to the point of breaking spirits, cultures, families, the economy and the nation in the seventeenth year of the 21st Century.

For liberal political journalists, it’s been especially hard to dissociate the self from the reporting. 2017 has been an unusually challenging year for investigating topics unemotionally. At least tangentially, we have a stake in the story by virtue of sharing space with other people affected by a policy, decision or revolution.  I don’t live in Puerto Rico, but I don’t need to in order to feel helpless anger over fellow Americans failed by every possible government system in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. People are still dying from the ripple effects of disease, water and power shortages, not to mention the callousness of a President who believes a paper towel tossing photo op is #MAGA – because brown people are takers.

As a writer/human hybrid, there have been many days and weeks this year when the power of the pen hasn’t felt forceful enough. That the exercise in information sharing that is journalism falls impotently short of the action needed to right a country that has popularly lurched toward heartlessness at the highest levels of government. Isolationist xenophobia, backs turned to war-torn refugees, a place where Nazis are labeled “very fine people,” black lives only matter when it comes to kneeling in protest and female reproductive health is a political bargaining chip for the dominant hierarchy of middle-aged white men. It’s easy to become disoriented and confused to the point of inertia. Should I be writing about this? Should I be in the streets? Am I supposed to be deliberating? Hand me another scotch in the meantime.

I do not pretend to be a moderate. Never have. I can’t be less than all the way when it comes to constructing government and social systems that support and offer opportunity equally. I do not believe we go it alone. Call me a socialist, a radical, an angry intersectional feminist or any of the more colorful epithets offered by my (typically male) Twitter trolls. When the leader of the country governs by pandering to the ignorant 35 percent, rather than representing all Americans, displaying the kind of divisive, threatening behavior and rhetoric well known to despots, I’m happy to be branded an enemy of the state. As lonely and frightening as it can be to sit outside the circle, the air is a lot less toxic.

All of this is to say that as the end of the year approaches, I and many other exhausted journalists in my acquaintance are still trying to find our footing. Just the facts has been replaced by fake news, many of the policy threats are deeply personal and after all, wallowing in the muck of the Trump era is spiritually exhausting. However the work continues in a bi-partisan way, and if there’s comfort to be found in the crusade, it’s the unexpected shared experience with an increasingly large number of conservative writers and pundits. If you’d told me just 18 months ago, that I’d find myself aligned with the thoughts of the New York Times columnist David Brooks, the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan and Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center – in the same week! – I wouldn’t have believed it possible. But here we are:

“The Republican Party is doing harm to every cause it purports to serve. If Republicans accept Roy Moore as a United States senator, they may, for a couple years, have one more vote for a justice or a tax cut, but they will have made their party loathsome for an entire generation…Young people and people of color look at the Trump-Moore G.O.P. and they are repulsed, maybe forever.”

“The support being given by many Republicans and white evangelicals to President Trump and now to Mr. Moore have caused me to rethink my identification with both groups. Not because my attachment to conservatism and Christianity has weakened, but rather the opposite. I consider Mr. Trump’s Republican Party to be a threat to conservatism, and I have concluded that the term evangelical — despite its rich history of proclaiming the ‘good news’ of Christ to a broken world — has been so distorted that it is now undermining the Christian witness.”

“[Republicans], have faith. Not everything comes down to an immediate election that is this coming Thursday. Think long term, philosophically. Be true to your own political principles, but have some faith and don’t make decisions that are not ones that you’re really comfortable with.”

Suddenly it seems conservative to stand against cynicism, pedophilia, party before country and the corporate raiding of the American people. I and other liberals may disagree with these writers on “everyday” policies. But in 2017, normalcy has been supplanted by Constitutional crises and the end days of representative democracy. The journalistic blurring of party lines may offer small 2017 comfort. But as a writer, it gives me energy to take on 2018.

Barney the Elf

A bawdy piece of holiday fun that also uses laughter to make incisive political observations, “Barney the Elf” is back onstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Directed by Tommy Rivera-Vega, who also guided the 2016 incarnation, the colorful show is more than meets the eye and ear. The plot summary, as it were, provides cheeky, consistent cover for a production that has been meticulously updated since its second Obama term debut.

The third annual musical comedy production from Other Theatre is written (and rewritten) by Brian Renaud, with lyrics by Renaud and Emily Schmidt. Press materials broadly describe the work in traditional holiday terms, with a nod to some modern twists: “After Santa Claus retires, his wicked son begins a not-so-jolly reign as the new head of Christmas. The North Pole begins to crumble under his bigoted rule, and Barney the Elf is forced to leave his home for being different from the others…he embarks on a fabulous journey of self-discovery (or is it elf-discovery?) that lands him in one of Chicago’s hottest drag bars.”

That’s a big story to tell in 90 minutes — the production’s running time. “Barney the Elf” moves fast, literally and figuratively, taking the audience on an emotional journey from Barney’s life as a sheltered, one-dimensional holiday spirit through his metamorphosis into a more complex citizen of the world.

The absolute silliness that drives much of the action, song and dance onstage can be taken and left there for theater patrons looking for a bit of joyful escapism. The dialogue is sharp and punctuated with up-to-the-minute pop cultural references. And despite the frightening topical issues addressed in the 2017 script — xeno and homophobia, diplomatic isolationism, income inequality and class warfare — “Barney the Elf” is careful never to take itself too seriously.

It’s quite clear that Santa Junior (played with marvelous gusto by Jaron Bellar) is a fictional stand-in for the mercenary, divisive and unfortunately all-too-real Donald Trump. But those looking for a respite from politics can just as easily locate elements of traditional holiday villains like Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Potter, the human humbug of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Thus, before the first word of banter is uttered, we know how the story ends. We already know who wins. Spoiler alert: it’s not Junior. And that’s a nice serving of theatrical comfort food as the country faces so many issues with uncertain outcomes.

I’ve already highlighted Jaron Bellar’s fantastic turn as Santa Junior. It is not easy playing the villain in a production like this. The temptation to chew scenery and twist the metaphorical mustache can be too much for the most talented actors to resist. But Bellar’s Junior is the man we love to hate, even as we can’t help but admire his trendy red suit, vocal chops and ability to execute a high kick. With much moxie, Bellar brings to mind a young Jim Carrey’s charm, comedic timing and legendary flexibility.

The rest of the cast is more than equal to Bellar. Roy Samra’s Barney is appropriately wide-eyed, rosy cheeked, full of love and hope. Samra is also gifted with a magnificent singing voice. Unfortunately, there were times during Tuesday’s night’s premiere when that beautiful voice was difficult to hear.

An unwise creative decision was rendered to leave the performers unmiked. In the intimate downstairs theater setting of the 2017 production, that may have seemed like a good choice in the rehearsal abstract. However in the presence of a raucous audience — as Tuesday night’s premiere observers certainly were — vocal nuances and dialogue were occasionally lost. There is still time to address this before the show’s December 30 conclusion. I hope that the producers and Rivera-Vega give it some consideration.

Maggie Cain is a wonderful Mrs. Claus, a character who begins the show obeying the voices of men before reasserting her own. This transition is neatly and comically summarized in a send-up of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You.” Cain sings it with the dramatic zeal of a North Pole woman with her own complex story to tell.

Rounding out the big four of “Barney the Elf’s” 2017 cast, Dixie Lynn Cartwright brings much more than glamorous, enviable drag to the stage. She also offers a lovely tenor and modulated, dramatic gravity. In the program distributed with my ticket, I learned that Cartwright hosts her own monthly show at Berlin in Boystown. Attendance is on my 2018 artistic priority list.

Other Theatre’s 2017 rendition of its holiday staple deserves space on lists both naughty and nice. “Barney the Elf” is worthwhile and effervescent with hints of social justice awareness. The production proves that being woke can be funny business.

“Barney the Elf” runs through December 30 at The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 773-404-7336 or visit the Other Theatre website.

The Minutes

Steppenwolf Theatre Company brought out the big guns for the world premiere of “The Minutes,” the latest from Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning ensemble member Tracy Letts. The playwright is a bonafide literary superstar, and the first production of his new work is rewarded with a commensurate cast.

I’ve reviewed 126 shows for EDGE Media Network in the Chicago market, and feel blessed to have witnessed this particular mix of talent sharing a stage. With direction from Steppenwolf’s Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro, six ensemble members and other well-known performers unite to deliver a hilarious and menacing look at the political dynamics of a fictional city council. Think “Parks and Recreation” with a side helping of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” “The Minutes” is quirky, current and frightening. Among other takeaway thoughts, I was left wondering what board of directors groupthink experience left Tracy Letts so jaded.

In press materials, the play is described as “a scathing new comedy about small-town politics and real-world power that exposes the ugliness behind some of our most closely-held American narratives while asking each of us what we would do to keep from becoming history’s losers.” Just a few weeks removed from Columbus Day, and on the cusp of the Christmas season and its white-centric Jesus narrative, “The Minutes” forces audiences to reckon with the historical fairy tales that have always buttressed America’s claims to Manifest Destiny.

What a fine group of actors Steppenwolf has assembled to tell this story. Kevin Anderson, Ian Bradford, Francis Guinan, James Vincent Meredith, Sally Murphy and William Petersen are the ensemble members drafted to “The Minutes'” dream team. Each embodies a small-town government caricature, starting with his or her unsubtle name.

Guinan for example, plays Mr. Oldfield, the council’s longest tenured member, and on the surface, a doddering man with parking space entitlement issues. Murphy’s Ms. Matz is a ditzy, disorganized young woman who shows up to meetings under the influence. Petersen’s Mayor Superba is a fittingly puffed up champion of ceremony and by-law.

During the first half of the 100-minute production (no intermission), these characters and others are played for laughs. And they get them. The chemistry between the seasoned performers is evident and satisfying. Seating Penny Slusher’s Ms. Innes next to Guinan’s Mr. Oldfield is a particularly directorial inspired choice. The pair of weary, disapproving elders have some of the best lines, and the give and take energy between Slusher and Guinan yields giggles even when their characters are silent.

Letts allows no pause between the plays farcical first half and the darkness that descends onstage in the second. Audience members who attended Tuesday night’s premiere were helpfully cautioned by Steppenwolf staff members to use the bathroom or take a second drink into the theater. No intermission means no time to catch one’s breath before the action takes a darker turn. When “Parks and Recreation” becomes “The Lottery.”

It would be an extra disservice in this case to reveal any spoilers, because the journey, however ultimately creepy, is its own reward. Suffice it to say the dramatic tension unravels through the municipal cipher of meeting minutes. And I can only thank the universe for allowing me to live long enough to see Francis Guinan dance Haka.

There are a few quibbles related to the script itself. Ms. Johnson’s herd mentality doesn’t jibe with the acts of record keeping resistance that propel the script toward its conclusion. A fine performance from Brittany Burch renders the deus ex machina diversion forgivable. And at the play’s end, Cliff Chamberlain’s Mr. Peel doesn’t count five offstage beats before re-emerging as a completely different person. I’d like to believe total character capitulation would be a somewhat more deliberate process.

But as I mentioned, these are mere quibbles and won’t prevent audience members from carrying “The Minutes” with them long after the curtain closes. This is an important work and theater lovers are unlikely to see this combination of artistry and talent again anytime soon. Any one of these actors can — and has — carried a production on his or her own. As a team, they are simply amazing.

“The Minutes” runs through January 7, 2018 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website

Wild Boar

Scott Shimizu as Johnny, Fin Coe as Yam

 

As the curtain descends on Silk Road Rising’s United States premiere of “Wild Boar” it’s hard to escape the suspicion that something has been theatrically lost in translation. The work from acclaimed Hong Kong playwright Candace Chong passed through several notably capable hands before coming to the Silk Road stage. It seems there can be too much of a good thing because ultimately, the production just doesn’t work.

It’s hard not to root for a show that addresses so many urgent issues at once — freedom, censorship, income inequality and sexual dynamics among them. The press packet synopsis describes “Wild Boar” as a “gripping investigation of journalistic integrity, city planning, and social conscience… When a controversial professor goes missing, an editor and his student band together to publicize the truth. Old flames spark and friendships are tested in this intense thriller about media manipulation, fake news, and who gets to speak for the poor.”

Normally, a show’s plot summary doesn’t dive deep enough to expose the production’s shortcomings. “Wild Boar” is an exception. The work is clearly crammed with ideas, including a few left out of the program such as deforestation with a dash of magical realism. There is too much happening for an audience to digest in a meaningful way. Yet, underneath the scattered ideological indictments, there’s not enough character development to lay claims to suspense or thrills. The work lands with a narrative thud.

Where’s the breakdown? As I mentioned, Chong’s work was carried out of the theatrical kitchen by a number of cooks. “Wild Boar” was translated from Chinese to English by Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith. From there it was adapted by Tony Award winner David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly,” “Yellow Face,” “Chinglish”) and directed by Helen Young. That’s four strong narrative voices struggling for control atop Chong’s original script.

As I found myself becoming progressively lost in what the production was attempting to say, I thought several times of the child’s game of Telephone. A message is shared, then distorted through individual consumption and interpretation so that the final result bears little resemblance to intention.

The consequence is that “Wild Boar” looks and feels like a familiar form of social justice propaganda. Upton Sinclair meets Hong Kong’s urban congestion. It is devoid of emotional investment. This is ironic and unfortunate considering the authoritarian ideas and expressions being critiqued. Is the flatness a result of too many ideas or voices, or a function of idiom lost between two wildly disparate languages? I wish I read Chinese so I could look for answers in Chong’s manuscript.

Instead, like most other American audience members, I rely on the artists who touch the material to make it come alive. In the Silk Road Rising incarnation, Chong’s dialogue does not. The only truly interesting, three-dimensional character work is performed by actress Emily Marso (Agent, Karrie, Sunny).

I didn’t even realize until I sat down to peruse the program after the fact that the actress inhabits three different personas. I can’t hazard a guess as to why this is necessary, as it also seems to be for Fin Coe, who plays two different men. I suspect there are thematic ties uniting the shapeshifting, but I don’t know what they are.

At a time when American democracy is feared to be on its own quick slide toward authoritarianism, a land of the one percent abandoning the Constitutional ideals of self-government and equality, liberal theater audiences should be ready for “Wild Boar.” Instead the Silk Road Rising production feels like it’s not quite ready for us.

“Wild Boar” runs through December 17 at Silk Road Rising, 77 W Washington Street, Lower Level, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-857-1234 x201 or visit the Wild Boar website.

 

Me Too: Louis C.K. Joins Hollywood’s List of Outed Sexual Predators

Yesterday afternoon, hours after the cancellation of his film, I Love You, Daddy, Louis C.K. publicly admitted that yep, he’s been a creepy wanker. I’d tell you what the shelved movie is about, but I can’t bring myself to type the words. So I invite you to read New Yorker writer Alexandra Schwartz’s account of needing a “barf bag” to endure the disgust. And oh by the way, C.K. – which is apparently an acronym for “cock” – also uses the “N” word in the movie. We really missed out, America. There’s just not enough self-involved, middle aged, white male stories of privilege being told (see: Election 2016).

C.K.’s fans have always found him edgy and – in a cruel irony – honest. The man traded on this reputation to create sometimes artistic, often funny content that also, from any angle, included plenty to make one wince. It was part of the brand. But hey, he was all in on Hillary Clinton, even if he felt the need to use the word “bitch” to describe her toughness. He has two young daughters. American audiences validated him. Unconventional feminist for sure, but we’ll take allies anywhere we can find them. Cool, I guess.

Except no. Louis C.K. and the guerilla-style perversions with which he attacked up and coming female comics were no secret to the industry. The power players – who are overwhelmingly male – enabled and uplifted a sick man who made them rich and famous by association. Let the shame hang on you now, Hollywood industrial media complex. You’ve also given us Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Mark Halperin, Brett Ratner, Charlie Sheen, Woody Allen, Billy Cosby, Roman Polanski, R. Kelly and Casey Affleck. None of these men committed their wide range of predatory acts in the shadows. Some of them, like Charlie Sheen, made TV millions after allegedly assaulting a young Corey Haim, and knowingly exposing female partners to HIV. That’s #Winning in the anything goes patriarchy.

And of course, Louis C.K., a writer on The Dana Carvey Show in 1996, has been running around with his dick in hand for over 20 years. His own work made no attempt to camouflage it, and still he kept rising (pun acknowledged, if not intended). In March 2012, now-defunct website Gawker, published a blind item entitled, Which Beloved Comedian Likes to Force Female Comics to Watch Him Jerk Off?

I’ll give you three guesses, but you only need one.

Five and a half years ago, the author wrote, “this shameless funnyman whips it out at the most inopportune moments, often at times when his female companions have expressed no interest in watching him go at it.” Yes, this checks out with what we now know. But appallingly, no one but the victims – two of whom who were intimidated by C.K.’s manager Dave Becky after one particular Aspen incident – would publicly say the emperor of American comedy was wearing no pants.

Well there were a few folks who decried the star’s penchant for pud pulling, but they’re women, lesbians or both. Why listen to them? Funny lady Tig Nataro, the deadpanned creator and star of Amazon’s One Mississippi, publicly distanced herself from her former collaborator long before the story broke this week. Jen Kirkman, Roseanne Barr and others have talked about Louie C.K.’s reputation as a glorified subway creep in an expensive trench coat. Nataro wisely advised the comedian to “handle that.”

As we know, after the quick flight of C.K.’s many entertainment partners this week, his weird, traumatizing business has been handled for him. No longer will the wildly successful comedian have access to talented, ambitious women he degrades by pleasuring himself. Louis C.K. belongs in intensive therapy, not on our screens. The victims deserve to be heard, if they wish. They must be believed regardless. And if the timing were not so totally cynical, while still lacking in honesty, the comedian’s Friday afternoon admission of guilt might have offered a chance to begin healing. The too little, too late, empathy is almost touching, nearly enlightened:

“I want to address the stories told to The New York Times by five women named Abby, Rebecca, Dana, Julia who felt able to name themselves and one who did not…. what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”

We know there are more than five brave women who’ve endured the full Louis. C.K. experience. And we know that there are more predators hiding in Hollywood’s sunshine-filled plain sight. And that should make us all angry, mad enough to finally start calling these pigs back to the trough (I’m looking especially hard at you, male allies). There’s no excuse for Louis C.K.’s behavior. But the celebration and inner-circle secrecy that allows powerful men to illiberally victimize women and young boys is what’s truly inexcusable.

Handle that.

A Foggy Feminist’s Clarity

A couple of weeks ago, on Saturday, October 21, I delivered an address at the Fall Conference of the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) Wheaton-Glen Ellen, IL Branch. Or as Bob characterized it while watching a video replay of the speech, “Beckytime at the Apollo.” The clip betrays awareness of speaking to an audience comprised of my supportive, social justice-minded mother-in-law, a gaggle of former students and an army of elderly, pissed off academic women. If ever there existed a friendly crowd for the subject I was invited to engage…

Comfortable showmanship aside, my passion for the material was real as it gets. Because October 21 was an important day in recent feminist history. Exactly nine months after the international Women’s Marches of late January 2017, local AAUW leader Danielle Byron asked me to speak about the impact from a female journalist’s perspective. The group had two questions about the largest protests in U.S. history: “What has happened in the last nine months? And what is being ‘birthed’ for the future?”

So many ways to respond to these questions as an objective observer of a cultural moment, and I did use research and statistics to point to positive trends such as the 17,000 women and counting since Election Day who are looking to run for office. I discussed the ignominious downfalls of a growing list of bipartisan pigs who have built powerful careers on the abuse of women and children. The encouraging, growing social awareness that predators do not deserve our celebration and silence.

Yet I’m not an impartial observer of my gender, of the battles it has fought and must continue to fight, am I? By virtue of my anatomy, experiences and growing activism, I am both participant and recorder of this moment in history. Thus my AAUW address was sprinkled with quotes from my writing and started where any larger narrative offered with individual interpretation must – with my own story.

As longtime readers of this blog are well aware, I had a distressed childhood, raised by two mentally ill parents. Our home was one of addiction – substance abuse, compulsive gambling and my father’s obsessive compulsive disorder which manifested itself in hoarding rituals. These were the physical challenges, which were rivaled only by complicated psychological ones – pervasive, often counterproductive dishonesty, simmering rage and tribal divisions where the sides were always subject to change.

These formative experiences taught me a few important lessons that were perversely empowering as I grew into an adult:

  • Resilience: fall constantly, get right back up, regroup and charge forward again
  • An admiration for honesty and order versus cynicism and lies
  • A curious lack of awareness regarding traditional gender roles

I’ve reflected on the third lesson more and more often from the position of a 39 year-old woman growing in enlightenment (or trying her damnedest).

My father was the more ill parent and my mother, a registered nurse, was the family breadwinner. Neither parent taught me to sit pretty and wait for the proverbial knight to come along. I was encouraged to apply myself to, and excel at everything – studies, sports, music, fist fighting. My father in particular, was just as proud if I came home with an “A’ grade, a trophy, or a swollen lip from scrapping with a neighborhood bully of any gender identification. I knew intuitively and from my parent’s example that I was going to have to fend for myself in every sense of word. Everything would be a fight.

Frequently the fights occurred between myself and my mother, who established a competitive and adversarial relationship with her eldest daughter. Ritual shame came early and often as I worked to avail myself of opportunities Gloria never perceived herself as having. My rapport, such as it was with mom, was marked by a curious and painful Catch-22. I was driven to excel at everything I took on, yet if I shone too brightly at any effort, it was somehow an affront, evidence of arrogance. I was a source of bragging rights, or a cypher for my mother’s own bitter sense of wasted potential.

Well into my 20s, if you’d asked me which gender suited me better, I would have proudly and unselfconsciously replied that I was a “guy’s girl,” a tomboy who enjoyed sports and verbal sparring more than the color pink and making myself pleasant to everyone else. I never had more than two close girlfriends at a time. Like the young fool lacking in self-awareness that I was, I convinced myself I was more comfortable with men than women. It would be years before hard knocks, therapy, and an adulthood free of the bizarre, warping influence of my mother exposed a programmed traitor to my gender and its systemic inequality. I did nothing because I felt nothing. Because I was convinced all doors were open to us if we were ready to walk through them alone.

How awesomely, pitifully naïve. How sadly ignorant.

We will kick the unopened doors alright, but we won’t do so it solo. With each passing year, I embrace the “feminist” label attributed to my work in terms both derisive and admiring. I continue working to synthesize the shame and gender isolation I once felt, with gratitude for the opportunity to discover pride in my womanhood. The chance to continuously learn and grow, the privilege of being able to use my words and physical presence to agitate for change.

Toward the end of my AAUW remarks, I said this regarding the immediate future of our gender. But I was also painfully aware of personal challenges that lie ahead:

“We have so much work to do. So much in fact that it can be demoralizing. It can cause anger, paralysis, fear and plain old fatigue. It’s normal and it’s ok to give into it now and then. We need our rest, our quiet time, our emotional releases. It’s ok to ask why in the hell we still have to fight these fights.”

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