Beyond the Helpers

There’s a popular Facebook meme circulating that quotes the late, esteemed Fred Rogers advising us to “look for the helpers” during times of tragedy.

This well-meaning trend re-emerges just when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has admitted to a lack of transparency for the social network’s advertising policies and display algorithms. Specifically, the ads allowed foreign (Russian) companies to funnel hundreds of thousands dollars into circulating divisive, often false information. These ads were paid for in Russian rubles, from an unclear source that Facebook has not been required to disclose…yet.

In addition to the negative political sway Facebook has exhibited through ad sales, there has been a barrage of content relative to kneeling NFL players and interpretations of Trump’s (in)actions in Puerto Rico. This is the backdrop against which the “look for the helpers” philosophy has re-emerged. 

With these events, the construct of “helpers” is considered in different ways.  With the NFL protests, we need help clearing the misinterpretations of protests against police brutality, as well as an understanding of First Amendment rights. In Puerto Rico, significant humanitarian efforts from celebrities and everyday people have taken the place of significant government action. Helpers seem to be in short supply with too many challenges across the nation and the globe to attend to at once.  The aid needed is varied as well: hearts and minds (NFL) versus a physical requirement to rescue and rebuild infrastructure (Puerto Rico). 

The renaissance of the Mr. Rogers meme, however, is overwhelming applied to the  mass-shooting that took place in Las Vegas weekend. While there are ways to help our fellow Americans  through every crisis (and there is abundant evidence of Good Samaritanism in Vegas), now more than ever, we need action from our duly elected government representatives.

I’m looking for the helpers to address our many challenges on Capitol Hill, and across the board, I’m finding them lacking. The obvious leader in failure is Mr. Trump, who benefited from the Russian attack ads, greatly exacerbated the NFL protest’s momentum, made a mockery of assistance in Puerto Rico (he wanted to throw cans of chicken a.k.a. metal projectiles into a crowd of people without water or power) and has already deflated efforts for gun control reform, because white male “lone-wolves” are his people. The President of the United States, rather than being our central helper is instead the Instigator in Chief.

Sure, there’s a select few representatives pushing for changes in gun laws, but the political gridlock turns it all into lip service. An insufficient proposed regulation of gun stocks rather than gun sales. Over 500 injured and 58 dead demands more than compassion and partisan time wasting. It demands positive action across the aisle that will actually save lives.

I offer up a new meme: Guns don’t kill people. Cynicism does.

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Love, Hate and Islamophobia

I’m exceedingly proud to introduce my first guest blogger since the launch of the website earlier this year – my eminently talented and thoughtful younger sister, Jennifer. I will not be posting this week because nothing I have to say is nearly as urgent, and this deserves our collective attention. Please read and share.

Max and Jenny

In 2001, I met a man at work who intrigued me. We began dating shortly after the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2003, I married this man, and in 2007 we had our first child together – a beautiful little girl to join my older daughter from a previous marriage.

In 2016, we will celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary with our children at Disney World – our favorite place on earth. Max loves me more than seems justified, but he’s exactly the father my kids deserve, the kind of man I wish I’d been able to look up to as a child. Everyone he works, prays, plays or engages with loves and respects him. He’s one of those rare people who doesn’t seem to have any enemies. But there’s just one little thing. Max is a Muslim.

The sad fact is, despite the qualities listed above, and the other terrific nuances that make Max a better man than most, some people that don’t know him at all hate him because of his religious beliefs. Oh, and they hate my 8 year-old daughter too. Facebook taught me that yesterday. In fact, Facebook has been educating me about the inherent disgust for my family for years now. However after last Friday’s senseless tragedy in Paris, the rejection of my loved ones reached a fever pitch.

It was a former aunt by marriage who posted a “fact” sheet (which I have not yet vetted) that delivered the blow that led to this post. The data in the meme purported to reflect Japanese restrictions on Muslims in their country. Said aunt (who has, it must be owned, recognized her prejudicial error, removed the post and apologized) added the editorial comment, “And so should the US,” in reference to Japan’s alleged closed door policy to Islamic people.

It’s not like I haven’t experienced different forms of hate or racism by proxy over the course of my relationship with Max. Quite the contrary. I’ve had my luggage contents dumped on the floor for all to see in an airport in Omaha. You know, because I was traveling with a bearded brown man. A hateful employee at O’Hare, the world’s largest as well as one of the most diverse travel hubs, attempted to prevent my husband and I from flying on the same plane to our honeymoon destination.

More recently, I was waved through a security checkpoint at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City even though my bracelets were tripping the metal detectors. However my cousin by marriage, wearing a hijab, was harassed about a blue dolphin statue that I purchased for my daughter at the Museum of Natural History. My cousin had been kind enough to tote the item for me on her stroller, and her kindness turned into an ugly memory.

I’ve asked these questions a million times. Does every Christian (or even an atheist gun owner) pay the price every time a rogue member of the flock shoots up an abortion clinic? Did every white American male have to apologize for or denounce the Unabomber? How about Timothy McVeigh? Did we close the borders to white Protestants after the evils perpetrated by the Klu Klux Klan? The obvious answer to all of these queries is “No.” Why obvious? Because it’s absurd to expect every American or Christian to denounce the distorted beliefs of a crazy person in order to stave off personal suspicion. As a culture, we do not afford the Muslim community that same courtesy.

You know those people that spout racist speech but then take cover under dubious claims when caught? They’ll say “Oh, I have black friends” after making pointedly ignorant statements about African-American culture. This phenomenon exists in discussions about the Islamic faith too. When I’m frustrated and emboldened enough to call someone out for their hate speech, and this has happened a few times, some are very quick to tell me they have Muslim friends who are “good people.” All better then, right?

1) No. I don’t believe you have Muslim friends. Because if you did, they would tell you that your gross, painful generalizations are unfounded.

2) I don’t think a Muslim – or any religious/ethnic minority – would befriend you knowing your opinions.

3) The second you protest that you have a ____ friend and are not a prejudiced against ______s as a result, you have lost the argument.

Max is a man of seemingly limitless tolerance and patience. But I’m not. Those security disasters I mentioned? My husband waits for them to end with humility. He does what he’s told and asks me to remain quiet so we can get through it and not draw extra attention to ourselves. He accepts that additional layers of mistrust and scrutiny are his lot in life – that he has to deal with being unnecessarily harassed for the good of the country. I sit there incensed and mortified. He just endures. I’ve learned to internalize my anger because if Max is willing to undergo racial profiling so we can board our plane to Disney World, who am I to presume greater entitlement to respect? Who am I to disrupt the peace he so desperately wants? But instead of getting used to the repetition of these indignities, they fester inside.

This is the world my daughters will inherit, the youngest of whom is being proudly raised in the Islamic faith. That’s what hurts and scares me the most. My husband is a big boy who can take care of himself. He was an adult with excellent coping skills before, during and after the horrible events of 9/11 that changed our country. But my baby girl is sweet and innocent, thinks the best of everyone. I dread the day she realizes that some will reject her based on one part of who she is. How will she react the first time she’s on the receiving end of a racist remark or hate speech about the only religion she knows? How will I react? My nearest and dearest should start saving bail money.

I spent part of yesterday morning watching President Obama’s speech at the G20 Summit in Turkey. I mentally applauded a particular quote as it was uttered, but in light of this recent, personal emotional roller coaster it bears repeating:

I had a lot of disagreements with George W. Bush on policy, but I was very proud after 9/11 when he was adamant and clear about the fact that this is not a war on Islam. And the notion that some of those who have taken on leadership in his party would ignore all of that, that’s not who we are. On this, they should follow his example. It was the right one. It was the right impulse. It’s our better impulse. We don’t discriminate against people because of their faith. We don’t kill people because they’re different than us. That’s what separates us from them.”

For inquiries, please contact jennifer.ashrafi@yahoo.com 

Not Sari (October 5, 2014)

I was in the middle of managing an NFL Sunday iPad media center when I came across the news item. The 21st Century’s answer to the society pages, Facebook, unveiled the conclusion to a suspenseful mystery I wasn’t necessarily looking to solve. For a split second, time and reality were suspended. I broke out in a flush and gave in to the stomach drop, the momentary equilibrium imbalance.

I suppose that the acceptance of an event as inevitable is not quite the same as being prepared for it when it actually arrives. As I started to reclaim my bearings, I admitted I’d been nursing a delusion that I was unforgettable. There might be a second act but it would never be the same. Staring at the photographic evidence, I realized I’d been right in ways unimagined. Whatever else it is, it’s more than cultural expediency. There’s an ease and confidence we never had.

I’m trying on some new ideas in 2014. One is a world in shades of gray as opposed to the black/white, right/wrong, good/evil conceits that long served as a ready, but terribly flawed approach to categorizing human decisions and behavior. Including my own.

The second concept I’m engaging is that accepting tumult and working through it organically causes a lot less longterm damage than pretending, of trying to enforce arbitrary logic. Soldiering through like a drone until reality catches up and the inevitable breakdown ensues is the sad, tired narrative arc of a repetitive emotional story. Finally seeing that strategy as the loser it is created some fear. I have to be OK with not feeling the “right” things, perhaps even laying down and rolling around in the ugliest ones for longer than feels morally comfortable.

But a little experience in staying still and letting the storm blow through, as opposed to running futilely away from the inevitable, has proven a painfully reliable precursor to recovery. So I took the album out and showed it to all the people who’d been asking for three years or longer to see it.

I told the stories that go with the pictures over and over again, and didn’t try to tidy observances that I looked unhappy, lonely and lost. I didn’t wear the shame of secrets and untruths surrounding those days, and refused to cringe from a highlight reel of denial. We all did the best we could with what we had at the time. It was a tour de force effort in trying to fit mismatched pieces. That was what we needed to do then. There was also genuine love.

I opened the suitcase and consulted someone with experience in this sort of thing. It’s time to unwrap, to quite literally unload the remaining baggage. Those colors were never mine and I’ve stopped letting people dress me. But as I smelled the uncased scents of the past, I had to own that I was more than willing to serve as mannequin, a tabula rasa, and a good deal of my previous resentment was unjustified. How I expected people to know what I’d want and fight for it under pressure, when I was clearly unable to articulate and defend those needs. It was too much to ask.

It’s a fuller, more hurtful and dizzying view when I look at the world in 360 degrees. But when the spinning stops, its easier to shake off the vertigo and notice other opportunities. To see a different path that I couldn’t before, one that’s crooked and unconventional, but apparently the right road for this journey.

Two weeks of funnel clouds and the storm receded. Things are as they should be, as they must always have been. The next time we meet could be the last. With no regret, snark or ill-will, and as briefly as possible, genuine good wishes. Then keep moving.

Open Letter to the Alcoholic Who Broke My Heart (December 12, 2013)

This may seem like an odd post right on the heels of so much Thanksgiving happiness and gratitude, but life is full of twists and turns that way. I did not write this material as a blog post. I actually wrote and sent this to my now former flame earlier this week. It will never be responded to and I am not likely to ever have the answers I need to help me make sense of it all and move on cleanly. But my life and voice matter and in order to try to minimize what is already a huge pile of sorrow and waste, I am reprinting the letter here.

I realize that certain portions of it may be shocking, embarassing, perhaps even anger-inducing to certain people who have come know and respect me. Clearly I am an imperfect being with a lot of work to do on herself. I am one who lived a life (prior to age 30) mostly in the shadows – secrets, hidden pain, truths almost too awful to speak. In a sense, though there was much love, serious portions of the last 18 months have been a lived lie as well. I just didn’t see how clearly that was so and it’s time to throw the doors open so that maybe, just maybe, I can find some peace.

Dear Sir-

For reasons I will never fully comprehend or understand, I am sitting here thinking about and viewing the wreckage that was our life and home together. As the entire Facebook world knows now, you went out last Friday night on one of your famous benders, came home later than promised and nearly burned the house down for the second time in a month – all this when I had the flu and needed security and care. The next morning, I woke up understandably incensed but instead of apologizing, you mocked me, told me you were tired of my shit and said you were going for a walk. Yes, I threw your coat and sweatshirt into the hallway and invited you to walk it off and return when you had some sense of responsibility. Who wouldn’t? I am not a doormat and this had happened too many times

As you know I never saw you again despite many, many pitiful begging outreaches for you to return, let me apologize (when I had done nothing wrong) and work things out. Instead you chose the situation we have now. What I regret more than the loss of you and I is the way I let your disease control me. I degraded myself convinced that your logic, grasp of right and wrong and love for me would lead you back to sanity. I was arrogant. I never understood until now that I was never a match for alcohol.

I was so confused, depressed and desperate, I put myself in harm’s way on Saturday and it is quite fortunate I am sitting here typing this message today. I took way too much (apparently overdosing is harder than it looks) and I woke up vomiting, hating myself for my weakness and giving you the satisfaction. You never looked back at me despite 18 months of love, family, experiences, intimacy and life planning. I will never be sure or be able to prove it, but will always suspect that something angry and destructive clicked in your head Saturday and you wanted to definitively punish me for my inability to accept your disease and commitment to drinking, knew we could never come to agreement about it. Perhaps you were right, but I am a human being who took good care of you: invested in you, your dreams, your child and grandchild, believed the best in you. You were and still are the love of my life but if there is any justice for me it will not remain that way forever. 

Your ongoing flight from reality has allowed you to hide from the harm you’ve caused, the fact that I am terribly, terribly hurt when you know well from my history that I am a person who can ill afford another disillusionment. You’ve taken advantage of that as you have so many other elements of me. I remember when we started dating, you predicted it. You told me more than once: “My drinking is the source of all my problems: financial, career, relationships. If I lose you, it will be my fault and everyone will know it. Know that I blew it with a woman who loved the shit out of me that I probably never deserved anyway.” I should have taken you more seriously, clearly, but another one of your tricks is to always straddle the line between “humor” and reality so that no one ever knows what matters to you or how serious you are.

I deserve some sort of conversation, closure, some taking of the responsibility that you haven’t been able to assume while I propped up the relationship and gave you a great Facebook love story.

Almost everyone who knows us, even those who don’t like me much, know I was good for you. They also know you’re a drunk and that at your age, there’s not too many chances left for health and happiness like we had (because really, at the end of the day, every problem we faced stemmed from your drinking – the embarassing episodes, the womanizing, the fights and police activity, the damaged ribs, the broken promises, my hysterical confusion – all had genesis in your bottle). The same couple that could build a Run for Fun and the family we were forming is thoughtlessly and effortlessly brought down by one man’s refusal to be well for himself and the person he claimed to love and cherish. This is an epic tragedy and one I will just never understand. I have to believe somewhere that you did love me, that what we had was real, but it’s so hard to grasp given your heartless behavior.

What I wanted Saturday was a loving, calm partner who could see what his patterns were doing and work with me on finding solutions. Only a completely blind person could miss that this dream is now impossible and I have to find another. It will be hard but I will do it.

What I won’t be anymore is a dehumanized warehouse for your belongings and the remnants of our life, left to come home to an empty apartment each night to look at what was: the only adult who seems to be wondering how we’ll end our storage lease, whether you have enough clothes and toiletries, or if you’re drinking yourself to death. It has been clear for several days that you are not wondering about or missing me. The fact that I haven’t eaten since Friday night, can’t sleep and feel a gnawing pit in my stomach probably means nothing to you. My sister advised me not to tell you these things but I have nothing to hide. It is you who should be ashamed. I am proud of the effort I gave us. I was my best partner with you. 

So here it is. If I don’t hear anything from you by Sunday evening, this is what I am doing: I will have friends help me remove your belongings from the storage place and my apartment and put them somewhere, anywhere out of my sight so that I am no longer burdened with the pain of having to see them. Both the apartment lease and the storage space are in my name and it is my legal right to do so in the absence of some accountability from your end. I have said this to you in a voicemail but I am also typing it out for posterity with witnesses so there’s no later confusion: I do not want you in my apartment moving and packing things when I am not present. I no longer trust you with anything.

All this said, you do not have to let it come to that and any wise person would probably encourage you to act like the 42 year-old man you are supposed to be. You can collect your belongings at a mutually agreeable time and it doesn’t have to be by the close of Sunday, but if you’d like to take advantage of my patience in that regard, you are going to have to communicate. You don’t make all the rules. This is not your world with me just gratefully living in it. I want to leave no room for being misquoted. 

The storage lease is due December 28th and the rent on the first. I will not pay the former out of my own pocket just because you refuse to make a transition plan with me. The rent I will deal with as it would be mine whether you lived there or not. If you need to leave things in storage beyond the 28th, you will have to pay me half the fee. Not negotiable and silence is not a response. If that is what you choose, I will revert to Plan A which I delineated several paragraphs up.

I have advised my building super that you have a key but are not welcome in my apartment so again, I must fervently discourage you from trying to go there without my presence. I cannot believe I am having to type any of this. I have been through divorces that were more adult and caring and amicable. One of the only comforts left to me at this point is the absolute certainty that somewhere in your confused brain you are well aware of the mistakes you are making, and will regret them long after I have ceased to feel pain. I would have loved to say all of this in person but you will not grant me any courtesies. So this is what I have.

In my secret dreams, I will nourish a fantasy of you showing up at my door, 30-day sobriety chip in hand, saying all the words you couldn’t say when you had the chance and vowing to take care of me for the rest of your life to atone for everything. Of course that will never happen but it’s a lot more plesant to ponder than the sick and awful events you have intermittently subjected me to over the course of 18 months. I will do my best to always remember the good in you, your humor and your potential. I also promise to always be there for your child and grandchild, as well as treasure the bonds I formed with other members of your family. I do not have to lose all of that just because I am nothing to you.

Above all, I will always live in fear of that call – the one that says you’re in jail, the hospital or dead, the outcome of some terrible drunken tragedy. You deserve better than that. I hope you see that, believe it and take action one day. You are letting alcohol do your living for you. It’s not the choice you pretend to yourself that it is.

I await your response – or not. Then I will follow-through with Plan A with a very heavy heart, simply because you’ve left me no other option. Through it all, I love you. I always will. I also thank you. You were really the man who brought my heart back to life after my divorce two years ago. My sister will tell you she’d never seen me happier with a man, for however long that lasted. I know better than to expect you to say anything kind in return, no matter how true. It’s safer to keep to yourself, I’m sure. So I will have to learn not to need it and hold onto my own truth.

30 Days of Gratitude: 2013 Edition (November 26, 2013)

Yes, I have seen this meme work its way across Facebook over the course of November. I thought about participating, but my brain is usually too stream-of-consciousness for that level of daily content commitment, and I refuse to violate my personal rule of one status update per day (any more than that and I run the risk of the dreaded newsfeed “block” by bored connections). So with that in mind, here’s a month’s worth of people, events and phenomena for which I am grateful over the course of 2013, all in one shot.

1.Occupying the top spot with good reason, I am grateful for April’s reconciliation with my sibling and her family. Life is a lot less funny and loving without my baby sis.

2.Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, recently described by funny man Stephen Colbert as a “possessed Cabbage Patch doll,” I thank you for two things: reminding North America that the USA does not have the monopoly on mentally challenged local politicians, and for instilling waves of nostalgia for the comedic stylings of Chris Farley.

3.Early summer period of unemployment: I salute you. Were it not for the unexpected job loss, I would not be happily ensconced as a Marketing Manager with a wonderful company in downtown Chicago.

4.I am grateful that pompholyx eczema, while challenging and painful, has thus far limited itself to my hands. In many cases, the feet are also affected, ushering in a whole new wave of debilitating restrictions.

5.Early Fall welcomed Act III with the love of my life. We’re making it work this time, applying the lessons of the past with strategic guidelines for a balanced future. That might sound more business jargon than romantic sweetness, but I’ve finally learned that hard work and commitment are every bit as important as passion. And we’re lucky enough to have that too.

6.I’m grateful that the Illinois Woman’s Press Association chose me as their 2013-2015 leader. Together we’ve grown membership by 20 percent in six months, introduced dynamic new programming and collaborations with other communications organizations. The era of siloing and membership bleed is over. This makes me proud.

7.Thank you to the rollerblading ukulele player and singer who often greets me as I alight from the Red Line stop near my apartment. The sight of you gliding in circles with perfect tune and pitch never fails to put a smile on my face.

8.I cannot stress enough how much I love my de facto stepdaughter Amber and four year-old grandbaby Chloe. I leapt right over motherhood into a full and diverse family life as unexpected as it is treasured. Our growing bond is a source of continual joy.

9.Dr. T: You with your string of pearls, pale blonde hair and Stepford Wife looks. You may not have been the ideal of how my perfect therapist should appear, but when you echo my angry “f” bombs, I never feel more understood.

10.Salt Lake City: As an atheist from an all-business metropolis, I never expected to find your exceedingly friendly locals, natural cultivation and Mormon-culture appealing, but your $4 beer and shot specials, clean streets and sincerely helpful citizens won me over.

11.Breaking Bad: Thank you for five seasons of jaw-dropping storytelling and acting. I held my breath, I cried and I was angry. You shall never be duplicated. Thank you as well for leaving the party long before you got stale.

12.Mr. Roger Ebert: Your April death provoked a sense of public loss I had not experienced since the 2008 premature passing of NBC’s Tim Russert. My sincere gratitude for your thoughtful, diverse body of work and the opportunities to bond with a father who was and remains, mostly incomprehensible.

13.Thank you soft, black doughnut cushion (February 2013 – August 2013) for making hours of sitting bearable as my poor, busted tailbone slowly healed. Thank you also for doubling as a comfy Metra train sleeping pillow. I apologize for carelessly leaving you behind in the Salt Lake City airport. I like to think you are enjoying a second life comforting the buns of another injured soul.

14.Epsom salts: I just wrote about you last week, but it bears repeating. For your affordable, diverse ability to treat and soothe so many conditions, this Bud’s for you.

15.My growing adoration for the NFL, despite its imperfections and the perennial so-so-ness of the Bears, is the reason I do not entirely succumb to Seasonal Affective Disorder each Fall.

16.The Republicans behind the late-Fall government shutdown: grazie for providing a much-needed, if temporary distraction from the abominable rollout of Obamacare.

17.President Obama: Thank you for breaking with eight years of W’s “Cowboy Diplomacy” to show the world that we are capable of talking and negotiating our way to a more peaceful world. Thank you also for being tough enough to stand up to warmongers who love to try to settle scores with bombs, yet failed to learn from the Iraq and Afghanistan examples that getting in is a lot easier than getting out.

18.I regret the coming conclusion to PBS’s Downton Abbey, but am grateful for the modern-day Austen void this society drama has filled.

19.Red wine: You’ll be on this list every year, you angel/devil, you.

20.The Boston Marathon bombing was tragic, frightening and a terrible blow to the assumed security of community events, but it taught the nation a couple of critical lessons: don’t assume Islamic terrorists are brown-skinned folks from distant lands and most of all, DON’T mess with the Boston PD.

21.Pope Francis: Like I said I am an atheist, but I am a huge fan of the compassion, good sense and humility you’ve unleashed on the Vatican thus far. There may be hope for a modern, relevant Catholic Church yet. I still can’t believe you made it through the Conclave given your radical ideas about poverty and tolerance, but I’m glad you did.

22.Not a fan of Edward Snowden, but I’m grateful for the public conversations about privacy and surveillance his shenanigans invited. It can easily be argued that we would not be having them otherwise.

23.Paul Krugman: For keeping Keynesian economics alive and mainstream and for standing up to destructive austerians and “deficit scolds” on the regular. Your brilliance, approachability and determination demonstrate why they don’t hand out Nobel Prizes to just anybody.

24.I thank the National Federation of Press Women for seeing fit to bestow my second first place national writing award in four years. The fact that my 2013 prize was for last year’s work on this very blog makes the victory that much sweeter. This page is me.

25.I am grateful for my diverse, eclectic neighborhood of Rogers Park, and the multi-faceted benefits of lakefront living.

26.Zipcar: Thanks to your affordable membership prices and pickup location plentifulness, I don’t miss vehicle ownership one whit and shall never purchase an automobile again.

27.I don’t know whose decision at CNN it was to allow Newt Gingrinch to assault the airwaves on a weekday basis, but thank you. I now have a place to channel my sweaty hate whilst running on the treadmill.

28.Much love to PK and his painful, awful craniofacial massage techniques that have helped the Great Migraine Crisis of 2012 seem like a distant memory.

29.Wendy Davis: Your June, 11-hour filibuster badassery in the Texas Senate may not have killed the State’s assault on abortion rights, but your honey badger determination announced a new leader for women’s issues – and spiked sales of pink sneakers.

30.Last but not least, I am grateful that I have been given another year on this planet upon which to reflect.

The Oddly Liberal Racism of the 21st Century (July 5, 2010)

racism-down-under

I am noticing a rather disturbing social pattern of late. After a mid-90s low in popularity due to the rules of political correctness, people seem to be more comfortable with airing their prejudices again. While the long running PC fad inevitably had a McCarthy-esque dark side to it, I personally appreciated the fact that its power generally made it uncool to be a bigot. Attributable to a network of causes, not the least of which is finding ourselves at an epoch in history where almost nobody is trustworthy, people appear more relaxed about sharing their sinister impressions of you and your ilk – with all the subtly of a hand grenade.

I live in Chicago, a City never famed for its racial tolerance. And yet, our downtown streets are such a melting pot that one hopes for a more colorblind progression. I know that I attended public high school in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and shared class space with almost every known ethnic group. This not only enriched my high school experience in ways I am only beginning to appreciate, but it prepared me to follow events from and of the rest of the world. My young life growing up in the City made me a better listener and learner.

But it seems not everyone in Chicago is capable of expanding their mind and being part of an increasingly global future. Some folks would rather wallow in stagnation, clinging to ethnic stereotypes and rote expectations. This is their choice. It’s unfortunate when that choice comes crashing into someone’s else’s unassuming reality. I suppose as long as there are people, there will always be ignorance. Normally, I don’t let an isolated stupid comment break my stride. But the pile-up of thoughtless and/or dangerous remarks that have been lobbed at either myself or other important people in my sphere of late has my dander up.

Last Thursday at work, we held a meeting with a volunteer technology resource, who worked on a membership mapping project for my non-profit employer. This man, it would not otherwise occur to me to note, was white, roughly 65 or so, a recent retiree. He is the adopted father of three grown children with his longtime spouse, which I found rather wonderful. I proceeded to share that I was childless but had not ruled out adoption one day myself. I indicated that this imaginary child would likely be of Indian birth, given that I am married to a man of Indian origin. I honestly believed I might be making a connection with this man, until he stopped me dead in my tracks with the following “facetious” question: “Were you bought at auction? Because you know how those Indian men love white women.”

Ha, frickin’ ha. It is only because I was in the workplace and he was a volunteer that I held back. As it stood, I simply clammed up, seething with red faced indignance. I hated that sense of situational powerlessness.

I took to my Facebook page with a brief status update about this encounter and was appalled by the density of replies I received, detailing similar recent incidents:

From my sister Jen:

“I had some guy at 7-11 question my relation to [my 10 year-old niece] yesterday because ‘she looks Indian.’ Lucky for him he was also Indian, but I still thought it was quite rude.”

I replied to Jen that this man’s being Indian was indeed zero excuse for his impertinence.

From my friend Heidi, married to a Japanese-American man, and mother to adorable twin daughters:

“I had a [Caucasian] lady at Restoration Hardware ask me where the ladies were from….[My husband] wasn’t with me though, so maybe I can excuse her?”

I believe this question mark paradoxically answers the inquiry. No reprieve at all. Heidi’s girls, second generation Americans, were born right here in Chicago, not that its any of this woman’s business.

My husband works with a culturally diverse IT team at his place of employment, and he reported that the most racist and incendiary co-workers around were his two fellow Hindu Indians. One went so far recently as to start an ugly (and demonstrably untrue) rumor that one of his Muslim superiors refused to notice or promote anyone who was not a fellow “mullah.” Despicable, ugly and unprofessional words.

I suppose if there is any silver lining to this dark cloud of ignorance, it is that the intolerant are becoming more diverse in their slanderous makeup. Casually tossing about racial epithets used to be the exclusive domain of white people, at least in public. I am all for equality and liberation across classes, but I mourn the idea that this empowerment must come with the security to spread inharmonious, hurtful dogma.

Facebook is No Longer my Happy Place (May 18, 2010)

Facebook

I am often the last to jump on any new technology bandwagon. In fact I sat out most of the 90s – no pagers, AOL or the first onslaught of the DVD entertainment format for me. As I enjoyed a prolonged era of landlines, freedom from wireless communications and good old VHS tapes, I figured I had all I needed. If anyone wanted to talk me that badly, well they could just wait until I got home.

And yet look at the Crackberry addicted, constantly stimulated mess I have become. I watch almost all my TV via the wonders of commercial-free DVR. I blog, I Twitter (for work anyway), and I cannot seem to drag myself away from my PC for any longer than 30 straight minutes without fearing, deep in my bones, that I am missing important intelligence. Lindsay Lohan is unleashing her drunken fury on Cannes people!

One phenomenon I was eager to sign up for right away, in 2006, was my own Facebook profile. You may be thinking to yourself, “old news Boop, so what?” Well lambs, I will tell you. Facebook opened a whole new world for me – reconnecting with people I literally hadn’t thought of in years, folks I presumed had passed out of my life like the proverbial ship. Social networking in this fashion has been an invaluable gift.

So too has been the much discussed Facebook status. Twitter fans may hate me for saying this, but I look at “tweets” as little more than the red headed, second cousin of the groundbreaking status. In nearly as many characters as I want, I begin each day with a little dose of artistic expression (or complaint). I have come to rely on this as sort of a litmus test reflection of where I am in that moment of history. Periodically I revisit my old status updates and it’s like catching up with an old friend – only it’s me. For me, it is journaling in microcosm.

It may sound like a paradox, but I would argue that I am never more “myself,” with such a keen sense of abandon, a flagrant departure from worrying about how I’ll be received, than I am when I update my status each morning. Before I have given myself time to wipe the sleep from my eyes, I shoot from the hip and see what comes out. Need it even be said that oftentimes, my status update contains one or more of the following: not-safe-for-work language, hangover laments, or declarations of opinion about “alternative” issues (being purposely vague there)? I do have some Facebook friends that I often hope will avert their eyes – for example the parents of school mates – but in general I trust my Facebook community to know me and look the other way.

It is often said, by now a cliché, that “everyone is on Facebook.” This appears to be true, and the phenomenon has gone global. I have pals in England, Germany, Israel, and very recently, India.

It is inside the boundaries of this last ancient land that my current predicament lies. For you see, I received an email from my in-laws yesterday afternoon that instantly froze the blood in my veins. Mummy and Papa are about to go viral and start a Facebook account.

Shit.

I have viewed the Book as the one place, outside the confines of this blog, where I do not have to censor myself. That is all about to come to a crashing halt. Because here is the conundrum of Facebook etiquette: one has the absolute freedom to decline or accept any friend request, but as we all know, the psychological costs of doing so can be too much to bear. This got me thinking: am I really as free on the Book as I think I am?

My in-laws are well aware that I am not mainstream. They are aware of it as I say, but that doesn’t mean they want to actively think about it. From the safety of Mumbai, I can be comfortably viewed as a loving and supportive wife (which I am), without the other R-rated fun that makes me a unique brand of wingnut. That delicate balance is about to come crashing down. How do I get them to understand that befriending me through social networking will ultimately make all of us less happy?

So now instead of enjoying my footloose and fancy free Facebook joie de vivre, I am considering the possibility of edits. I cannot tell you people how many hours “scrubbing” my profile might take. It’s not like I am a porn star or gangster, but I am cringing already at the high volume of drunken photos, ex-boyfriend pictorials and inappropriate commentary they will encounter. And yes, to answer your pertinent and preemptory questions, I WILL hear about it. Yet I cannot decline to befriend them. They would be crushed and I truly do love my in-laws. So what to do?

With one email sentence, I feel like I fell from the sky, confronted with the possibility of acting as my own thought police. This is not an appetizing prospect. It’s enough to make me wish it were 1996 again. I am going to retreat into the fetal position clutching my Steel Magnolias video.