Missing in Action: The Week’s Overlooked News Stories

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Will the US finally follow the rest of the world in adopting humane paid leave policies? Can Southern states please stop bullying gay people in the name of religious freedom? And could Lucca the dog come over and play with us? So many questions this week….

Take a look at the world map below. It highlights countries that offer paid maternity/paternity leave. The color key indicates the level of support. See the U.S.A in red, along with only two other counties that you probably don’t recognize? Red indicates “No paid leave.”  Zip. Zero. zilch. paid leave

In this country, we make our hardworking families choose between bonding with newborn or adopted children and putting food on the table. Several states have realized this simply isn’t right and are starting to do something about it. On Monday, New York State passed a paid family leave policy that should serve as an example to the rest of the country. California already had practices worth cheering, but on Tuesday, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to require businesses to provide fully-paid leave. Right on.

The fight for equality within the context of state assaults on LGBT rights has unfortunately become a three-part “Missing in Action” series. Last week we covered the hypocrisy of conservative groups throwing a temper tantrum after Georgia’s Governor refused to sign a “Religious Liberty Bill” into law. That blurb referenced an item from the week before, detailing said bill’s outrageous “progress.” Fast forward to this week. Mississippi is now in the discrimination hot seat. The state passed a “Religious Freedom Bill” that Governor Phil Bryant had the balls to say is designed to “protect individuals, organizations and private associations from discriminatory action” in the name of religious freedom. Just to recap, discriminatory behavior against LGBT Americans is an exercise in liberty, but deterring bigotry is unjust practice that shall not be tolerated! Makes perfect sense.

To break up a news cycle full of negativity/hatred/crazy Republicans/wars/death/destruction, we thought a feel-good story was in order. While this narrative is a byproduct of the devastating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s sure to warm your heart. Lucca, a bomb sniffing, bad-ass Marine Corps dog lost one of her legs in a 2012 IED attack. She survived and has received a prestigious medal from Great Britain for her combat bravery. Lucca brings new depth to the tired misogynist phrase “Fight Like a Girl.” We want to give her a congratulatory cuddle.

Uncle Yee and the Erhu (October 23, 2014)

I paused before deciding whether or not to share a picture I took of Uncle Yee last Saturday on social media. I remembered he’s not courting a low profile and the debate was superfluous. How do I know Uncle Yee enjoys attention? Just stop for a moment to listen to him play the erhu, a two-stringed bowed musical instrument resembling a fiddle, and he’ll proudly point to a sign boasting his film and television appearances. He co-starred with Will Smith in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness, and I use the term “co-star” purposefully. However brief his scene, Uncle Yee is an attention grabber. Just look at the spring he puts in this little girl’s step.

The ancient narrow San Franciscan street where Uncle Yee plays his erhu has a violent history: indentured teenaged prostitutes in “cribs” (cages), Tong war battles and Gold Rush-related crime. When one grasps the chronicled backdrop against which Uncle Yee entertains Chinatown crowds, his peaceful aura seems almost ironic. Yet Uncle Yee doesn’t have a sardonic bone in his body.

My friend Andrea and I encountered Uncle Yee as a stop on a Drag Me Along Tour of the former Barbary Coast area, which includes the ethnic neighborhood. The tour is hosted by the “infamous Countess Lola Montez” (Bay Area resident Rick Shelton in fabulous period dress). It’s a journey into the past – stories of lurid sex, pirating and blood lust – that can’t be experienced online or in primary school textbooks. As sort of a history and experience junkie by nature, it was the perfect union. The untold tales of San Francisco shared by a drag queen with encyclopedic knowledge of the city, as we traipsed through the recesses of Chinatown. Though we tend to brand Asian cultures as conservative ones, my heart delighted in the reception the Countess received wherever she walked. She is a C-town treasure and she knows it.

Over the course of two hours and 40 minutes (and truthfully, the Countess could have gone on all day – indefatigable of foot and tongue, that one) there was so much to enjoy: the inside of the nation’s oldest Buddhist temple with its burning incense, a traditional Chinese funeral procession with full marching band, the sights and smells and delicacies of all kinds. But it was Uncle Yee who burrowed a hole in my spirit.

It started with the cuddly moon pie face, continued in the skilled precision with which he played an instrument I’d never heard of or seen before, and ended with the simple joy that emanates from Uncle Yee when he has a captive audience of any size. Have you ever experienced something so beautiful that it’s almost painful? There was a stretch during Uncle Yee’s rendition of “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” a tune that sounded so mournful as he expertly moved the bow across the strings, that I literally had to shut my eyes. I couldn’t keep my gaze trained on him. There was only one sensory overload to be coped with at a time, and it was sound.

As Uncle Yee wrapped his mini-concert, and the tour resumed walking, I sidled up to Andrea, tears still streaming from under my sunglasses. I tried to whisper a thought that was only beginning to formulate. Without words, just a smile and some perfect musical notes, Uncle Yee shared his love for life – his own and those surrounding the makeshift stage. The ultimate paradox – achieving such a complicated pursuit by means so deceptively easy in appearance.

I make the world convoluted. Not sure I have it in me to be satisfied with just instruments (a pen and paper or laptop in this case) and a beatific smile. But I love that Uncle Yee does. It’s hopeful and comforting – almost shatteringly so. Is his a wisdom that comes with the maturity and experience etched in the lines of his sweet face? Is it hiding inside the erhu, released incrementally when Uncle Yee touches the strings? This is a rare moment when I don’t need the answers. Satisfaction is found in tears of wonderment, in the mystical magnetism of his song.

Great Urban Racers (June 8, 2014)

For the past decade, I’ve tried to entice certain members of the friend and family circle to audition for The Amazing Race with me. Repeated pleas were issued to those with whom I’d work best, with lesser (but still important) consideration given to teammates with the potential to give good TV. Initial enthusiasm runs high….but then a would-be partner encounters the actual application, a behemoth of a document that calls for more evidence and stamina than the state Bar exam, with a lower pass rate. At that point, the initial “Hell yeah! Let’s do this!” turns into a “Well, maybe later.”

In 2011, unable to tamp down competitive scavenger hunt urges any longer, Gary and I registered for the Chicago heat of the Great Urban Race. The event’s website describes the race as, “a fun and challenging puzzle where your city holds the pieces. Teams solve clues, tackle challenges and race for cash prizes in this all-out test of smarts and speed…hundreds of Masterminds take to the streets to complete a variety of exciting mental and physical challenges at unique stops throughout the city. Your team is free to choose your own route as you hustle from clue to clue on foot or by using public transportation.”

Yep, that’s about it. GUR has three major mental and physical components: a initial set of 12 clues and puzzles used to determine race destinations, quick instincts and research leveraged to create a course map, then speed and skills to execute, hopefully fast enough to finish in the Top 25. Teams in that elite bracket are invited to compete against the other top racers from that year’s host cities in a contest for the national championship. In 2014 qualifying heats occurred in: Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin, San Francisco, Tampa, Jacksonville, Houston, Washington DC, Atlanta, Portland, Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, Chicago and Toronto.

In 2011, at 32 years of age, Gary and I ran our first race and enjoyed some beginner’s luck. We finished 41st – respectable enough to whet our appetites for more. We saw that with improved running speed (from me) and a few other tinkers, we had the goods. 2012 would be our qualifying year! …Only it wasn’t – not by a long shot. A more challenging course, more teams and some key errors on our part resulted in a completion time nearly 45 minutes behind the previous one.

In 2013, an unnaturally chilly July day in Chicago, we fared much better, only to be undone near the end by The Clark Bus That Never Came. Team Monsters Are Real was getting older, wiser, and settling into its niche of near-miss tragedy.

Saturday, May 31, 2014 was about as perfect as one could ask: warm sunshine without humidity, not a cloud in the sky. One half of Monsters Are Real awoke that morning full of optimism. Not six weeks before, the deteriorating and painful state of my hands made the consideration of withdrawal a serious one. Gary deserved a real shot at achieving our mutual dream of qualifying for the finals, and I no longer believed I was the partner to help him get there. But that was all before the miracle of beet juice. I’d slept well and hydrated the night before and arrived at the GUR starting point, Lizzie McNeil’s, with a sense of performance promise. I shared as much with Gary, not that I had to. Over the course of 22 years of friendship, we’ve developed a seamless ability to read each other and collaborate without explication.

We ran a great race. There was more walking in certain parts (from me) than I would have liked and I’ll never love Kraft Singles again the way I did before. But once we completed our first task nearly 45 minutes into the competition, we checked them off fast and furiously until we crossed the finish line.

It was clear we’d done well. There were very few teams checked in, enjoying their free-for-racing bottles of Miller Lite. However, while Team Monsters Are Real is in possession of a collectively healthy ego, it stops short of delusion. At best we hoped to match our finish from 2011. Hundreds of groups of competitors kept expectations low. We didn’t even stick around for the award ceremony.

In hindsight, I don’t know what would have been more delicious: hearing live and sweaty that we’d finally done it, we’d cracked the Top 25, or the Jesse Pinkman “Yeah bitch!” moment I experienced in an office conference room the following Monday morning – in front of my new boss and a senior graphic designer. When Gary sent the text message that we’d reached our goal, the euphoria overtook any semblance of professional decorum.

This afternoon, we booked our trip to Vancouver. We fly from Chicago on August 8, the day of my 36th birthday. The GUR national championship kicks off the following morning at 9:00 am in the downtown area of the city nicknamed, “Vansterdam.” This has all the makings of a most triumphant birthday weekend, no matter where Monsters Are Real ultimately finishes. In the ensuing weeks, I’ll be working on my speed sprints while Gary and I research Vancouver’s public transit, major landmarks and streets.

Six weeks ago I couldn’t dance vigorously without cracking, bleeding, burning hands. Today I am planning a training schedule for a competitive Canadian adventure with one of the people I love most. I’ve already won.