Learning to Listen

America has a hard time listening. We can watch the news and see what’s going on, but there’s a difference between looking and listening, especially when there’s so much noise to filter. Learning to listen requires us to go beyond the words, to hear and appreciate what’s also being communicated in moments of silence.

Over the past week, we’ve seen our listening problems rise to the surface, unfolding via the growing reports of harassment and misconduct by Harvey Weinstein. News coverage prompted numerous celebrities and victims to emerge from the shadows years, or even decades later. What caused the delays? A familiar set of problems – hostile work environments, fear of retaliation, a power imbalance and good old fashioned fear.

Actress Rose McGowan’s Twitter account was suspended after sharing her own abusive experience with Harvey Weinstein. Her initial accusation was shushed out of court for $100,000. The deluge of accusers that have supported McGowan’s account reflects another dark chapter for male accountability in Hollywood. It’s clear that Weinstein’s actions were well-known, and textbook bystander silence was the rule until the accusers generated enough media coverage to make it safe for other powerful men to come out against Weinstein.

Consider this situation in the context of the recent repeal of campus sexual investigation standards promoted by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The repeal means that the burden of proof shifts even further toward victims, while protecting rapists like Brock Turner.  The result? Offenders are receiving the communication that they can abuse with minimal (if any) repercussions.

In the short and long term, victims are facing ever steeper battles to be heard while waiting for (historically) ineffective campus police/security to take action, under rules which mandate that rape kits and tests be performed within 72 hours of an attack. Additional roadblocks placed in front of people who deserve support.

Remember that the man-child in the Oval Office stands in the company of Weinstein and Turner for his own aggressive and unwelcome behavior towards women. There was outrage a year ago when the infamous Access Hollywood footage came to light, but not enough to derail his campaign. Is that predictive of Weinstein’s fate? Some time in the pop cultural penalty box  before business resumes as usual?

We cannot afford silence any longer. There isn’t space to devalue the traumatizing experiences others. A nation recovering from several natural disasters (with a notable lack of action and coverage in Puerto Rico), a President speaking to hate groups while cancelling necessary healthcare subsidies for lower-income citizens….we need a multitude of loud voices against these atrocities, but we must also learn to listen. The cynically powerful and repressive are muffling voices that should be heard. 

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What’s American Anyways?

In the past week, we saw the resurrection and death of another GOP healthcare bill, as well as massive failures across the board for the Trump administration in terms of focus and constructive action.

One obvious example of the discord is yet another social media war launched by the President, with tweets railing against the NFL. The rising political consciousness of athletes has been  assailed since former quarterback Colin Kaepernick  began a peaceful on-field protest a year ago. Some of the loftier discussions involve definitions of what constitutes patriotism. The Trumpbots advocate blind allegiance to tradition, with minimal consideration of different sociopolitical experiences of our country. Others view Kapernick’s kneeling as an expression of First Amendment rights designed to advocate change.

What does it mean to be American? The saying goes that actions speak louder than words, and the public and the office of President have been tested to back up their patriotism – with trial by fire, rain and torrential winds. Hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters have recently devastated states, territories, and communities.

Trump and his America have failed to be inclusive in their support of crisis operations. In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Texas is slowly on the path to recovery and the Florida Keys are opening up next week for tourism, despite 25 percent of homes being destroyed. News of progress has been muted, eclipsed by other trending topics, including the devastation of non-mainland American territories.

Texas and Florida have electricity and supplies. Puerto Rico does not. It took nearly a whole week for public outcry to turn into a collective roar, demanding that Donald Trump and his administration take action, rather than ignore the increased degradation of daily life for Puerto Ricans.

I’m sure your social media, news feeds and offline conversations have been filled with both NFL news and hurricane updates. But we need more media clarity regarding exactly who is being most negatively affected by the indifference: those whose skin tone is not found on the same color swatch as Mr. Trump (although in fairness, there aren’t many orange people).

It’s no secret that America has a race and “othering” problem. This administration is attacking sexual assault victims, non-christian religions, and pre-emptively filing waivers for the Jones Act in areas that support Trump and house his default residence.  Meanwhile, leadership held off on filing for a ravaged area full of brown people.

It’s time to hold authorities responsible and accountable for their lethal biases. People are dying from inaction and insufficient support. To be American isn’t a complexion, blind obedience to a ritual or speaking Midwestern English. Americanism used to mean welcoming and protecting freedoms, taking care of our citizens in times of crisis. It’s a shame that the occupant of the nation’s highest office needs constant reminders.

Polar Vortextual Mood Swings (January 31, 2014)

“Yesterday, I stood outside waiting for the Chicago Avenue bus. I saw one approaching and my heart leapt. Then the bastard drove right by us, resulting in another 30 minutes of trying to withstand the wind. I just started crying. I am so sick of being cold.”

-Conversational anecdote from personal trainer friend

“Oh my God. More snow. I want to die. Can’t take anymore. Stabby stab.”

-Text message from a buddy who thought this might make for a catchy, if lengthy, Twitter hashtag

“Sometimes I just sit at my post at the reception desk and wistfully stare out the window, trying to summon memories of less dark and miserable days. Lately I am just pretending to be a nice person. So much hate in my heart.”

-Forlorn colleague

“Hey Mother Nature and God… this is a memo to you. WE ARE GOING TO GET ON THAT PLANE TOMORROW MORNING to get to New Orleans for our cruise. I don’t care WHAT you say. We deserve a vacation after the crap you’ve thrown our way these last few weeks. 8″ of snow on Friday night before our trip starts? REALLY? NO. I’m telling you RIGHT NOW. WE WILL GET ON THAT PLANE TOMORROW MORNING. #PolarVortexCanSuckIt”

-Agitated Facebook rant courtesy of my best friend’s partner

“Dear Alaska and Chicago, Illinois:

We need to immediately work out a weather exchange here. Anchorage, Alaska, Colorado wants its weather back. I am going to arrange for Chicago to send you yours. And I’m going to send this s**t to Chicago. Chicago should be fine with that, since the 22° we had today is much warmer than what they had.

Every time I have to break out my ‘Chicago clothes’ a baby kitten cries. True Story.”

-Native Chicagoan who relocated to Colorado several years ago

“Winter 2014 sucks more than anything that has ever sucked before.”

-A poetic Becky Sarwate, channeling “Beavis & Butthead”

These are quotes sampled from a smattering of hardened Midwestern weather survivors. It felt appropriate to publish this roundup on this, the last day of January 2014. A punishing 31 days indeed, the month will forever be remembered as usurper of April as the cruelest. If T.S. Eliot was still alive and forced to wear two pairs of pants every day just to survive the commute to work, I am certain he’d agree.

In aggregating the misery of my acquaintance, I accomplish two goals. The first is to feel slightly less isolated throughout my own increasingly despondent winter experience. The second is to answer critics who have diagnosed Windy City residents with an acute case of Cry Babyitis. We should be used to this, the thinking goes. What more do we expect from January adjacent to one of the Great Lakes?

Perhaps just a small, teeny tiny respite from the cycle of white out blizzard conditions followed by Arctic deep freeze. In years past, winter could be counted upon to furnish the occasional 30 or 40-degree day which made daily life navigable, even if the sun remained stubbornly hidden. This is expected and infinitely preferable to the trick of blazing sunshine that requires industrial strength shades, a cruel irony contradicting the soul deadening chore of trudging through multiple feet of snow-turned-block ice.

But I believe the current variable that is really dragging down morale is the calendar. Tomorrow is just February 1. We have so much farther to go before there’s any real hope of hospitable climate change. Let us not forget that we received nearly an inch of snowfall in mid-April 2013. With a number of meteorologists predicting “Polar Vortex: Part 3” during the early days of February, it’s not a stretch to wonder if a hat trick of tragic weather (predictably on the heels of what’s expected to be another 10” of accumulated snow through the weekend) might not just be enough to turn us all into Jack Nicholson from The Shining.

Romney’s Latest Scandal: Twittergate? (July 24, 2012)

romney-followers-3098-20120722-90

 

 

During the 2008 Presidential race, then-candidate Obama showed his competitors how to leverage the Internet and a variety of social media platforms to reinvigorate the notion of a grassroots campaign for the 21st Century. It was largely upon the shoulders of individuals who reposted and retweeted his messages that the POTUS was carried to victory – by small donors who contributed their last $100, those who believed that the nation could ill-afford another four years of Republican top-down cynicism disguised as patriotism, morally and fiscally bankrupting the nation. Don’t like continued tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy during a time of war? Then the terrorists win!

It is a savvy marketing template that ensuing candidates from both parties have sought to emulate, with varying levels of success. Former Maverick John McCain captured the public imagination however momentarily with his selection of social media darling Sarah Palin as his running mate, unfortunately learning the hard way that stupidity is no more appealing in the digital age, but we can never take that moment of cultural zeitgeist away from the Republican ticket. All credit goes to the Obama team for forcing all walks of political dinosaur into accepting new media as part of the deal. It does not matter if one appreciates the value of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the like. They are modern campaign tools that one must utilize in order to compete. We can never turn back the clock.

And as social media strategy becomes synonymous with campaign activity, reports of potential misuse become a common feature of the news cycle. For example, this morning Yahoo News ran a story via Mashable: “Mitt Romney Sees Sudden Unexplained Spike in Twitter Followers.” At first glance this appears to be an unlikely tale of crashing bore Romney enjoying unexpected appeal in the Twitterverse. Could it be that dull messaging is somehow inverted when permitted only 140 characters?

Ah but no. To delve deeper into writer Alex Fitzpatrick’s story is to uncover a common feature of new Republicanism: if you can’t engender love the old-fashioned way through sound policy and dynamic personality, just go out and buy it. After Romney’s Twitter feed gained a plethora of new followers over the weekend – 23,926 on Friday, 93,054 on Saturday and 25,432 on Sunday – Zach Green of 140elect.com, a blog which monitors Twitter trends relative to the presidential election, couldn’t help but notice per the Mashable piece that, “analysis indicates that Romney hasn’t seen a noticeable uptick in other metrics, such as mentions, which would suggest Romney was getting these followers organically.”

In other words, there are no more people interacting with he of the slick hair on Twitter than before. Well then, what’s the dilly yo? Do we really believe that nearly 150,000 individuals suddenly couldn’t resist the bon mots of the Romneybot on a weekend when campaign activity was suspended? Sometimes the easiest answer is the right one. For whatever reason, the campaign bought the followers, in a wrongheaded, simplistic attempt to make Mittens appear beloved. As the Mashable piece highlights:

“Zac Moffatt, the Romney campaign’s digital director, has denied buying Twitter followers. Moffatt has in the past stressed that his strategy revolves around targeted engagement and not simply accumulating massive numbers of new followers. Buying fake followers doesn’t mesh well with that approach (plus, follower totals mean very little for politicians if real voters aren’t interacting with the message being sent).”

So the Romney campaign has flip-flopped on a previously stated position? The hell you say! Now granted this is not the type of scandal for which a Congressional investigation must be called. It is merely another example of how very out of touch Team Romney is with reality. Did they think no one would notice this latest shell game? Hide your tax returns! Change your tune on health care reform! Buy some Twitter followers! But all the money in the world can’t make you a real, relatable homo sapiens Mittens. The human touch can’t be purchased.

Sh*t Jesika Said (August 17, 2010)

Jesika

I am not on Twitter, and I vow here and now that I never will be. I promise you the day will never come when you are able to hurl these words back at me. In the first place I don’t get it. Or maybe I do but just can’t get behind what looks to me to be the most self-serving, arrogant form of expression out there. Who am I to assume that there are legions who will hang on my every 140 character sound bite? Meh.

That said, there are a few people who have managed to evolve genuinely successful literary careers from their Twitter accounts. One such individual is Justin Halpern, the man fortunate enough to be born to a wise and hilarious philosopher of a family patriarch. Sh*t My Dad Says has morphed from a daily feed tracking one father’s off the cuff remarks, to a veritable cottage industry. This year, Halpern published a memoir of his father’s musings (of the same name) with some truly touching anecdotes woven around the random slice-of-life observations. This book spent weeks onThe New York Times bestseller list (Hardcover Nonfiction), and deservedly so. Halpern Sr. is as inappropriately candid as he is educated, loving and genuine. Fathers like this well deserve their 15 minutes of fame.

On April 25, 2009, I lost one of my best friends, Jesika Brooke Thompson (above right), to a devastating and quick bought with ovarian cancer. Just 30 years old at the time of her death, an accomplished lawyer, and a wonderful daughter, partner and friend, Jesika only had 17 days between diagnosis and death to finish up the business of her life. Obviously, this isn’t nearly enough time to provide closure for oneself and a whole circle of admirers. The whole outcome still feels like a bad nightmare from which I might eventually awake.

Today, August 17, 2010, would have been my friend’s 32nd birthday. We met in 1992, at the pregnant with promise age of 14, and for the next 16 years, Jesika continued to be the most hilarious person I knew. Not of the punchline driven, stand up comedy variety either – most of the time Jesika wasn’t trying to be funny. She was organically raucous, a gift of which I was always envious. Much like Justin Halpern’s Dad, Jesika had this uniquely warped, but logical way of viewing the world that managed to get right to the heart of its rampant absurdity.

In reviewing some of the emails and messages exchanged between Jesika and I over the years, and with respect to Justin Halpern’s tome, which brought me oodles of unanticipated mirth this past weekend, I bring you the first edition of Sh*t Jesika Said.

On Temporarily Moving In With Relatives After Relocating to Chicago:
“I might not survive Joliet. My grandmother hasn’t stopped talking for about 3 weeks.”

Locating a Dentally Challenged High School Rival on FaceBook:
“I found Little Miss Jump Rope floss on this thing.”

On Catching Up With Friends You Haven’t Spoken to in Awhile:
“How’s it going toots? I have had the most ridiculous couple of weeks……….it includes identity theft and Iowa. Bet you are hooked now huh?”

On Ambivalence Over Starting a Family:
“How do you feel about carrying little black babies (anything so I wouldn’t have to do it)? Just kidding! But seriously…”

Discussing Current Events:
“The article was about how PETA approached Ben and Jerry’s to start using breast milk in their ice cream instead of cow’s milk. Deelish!”

On Dividing Household Chores with Your Partner:
“That wouldn’t work on Kevin, I have to ‘pretend’ like I’m so mad, so he gets scared into doing chores.”

Supporting My Fledgling Writing Career:
“UGH. Am I going to have to start buying StreetWise now? I need my daily Becky fix……..On a side note, a co-worker of mine just grunted and farted. I need a vacation.

P.S. I’m proud of you.”

Is it any wonder I miss this woman so? I have spent the last 16 months weeping profusely at the very mention of Jesika’s name. However, in recent weeks, I have found that I am suddenly able to enjoy reminiscing with a smile – and exercise the option quite often. How selfish would I be if I didn’t share a slice of the wonderful memory I carry, with those who were not given the chance to know this fantastic lady?

Wherever Jesika’s spirit might be, I hope she is enjoying the birthday rewards deserved from a life well lived, having shared the gift of laughter with everyone she encountered.

Katy Perry Is Ruining My Life (June 15, 2010)

A picture of Katy Perry and Russell Brand in front of the Taj Mahal, posted to Perry's Twitter page. Original Filename: twitter katy perry russell brand.jpg
A picture of Katy Perry and Russell Brand in front of the Taj Mahal, posted to Perry’s Twitter page.
Original Filename: twitter katy perry russell brand.jpg

 

Ever since I made the mistake of telling my husband Eddie that pop singer Katy Perry had gifted a birthday trip to space to her English fiancé, comedian/actor Russell Brand, I have opened myself up to endless complaints that I am not a supportive wife. It’s not like Brand is going to physically walk the moon. He’s just going to shoot up above the Earth’s atmosphere, have a look below and float in a gravity-less environment for a bit, before heading back down to the ground.

Apparently, I am the ultimate shrew because I believe rocket launches to be historically unsafe (Apollo-13, the Challenger disaster) and I have this thing about liking my hubby better alive than dead. I would think he’d be flattered, but no, he thinks I ought to support his sense of adventure, come what may. This from a man who informed me yesterday that he couldn’t possibly take me to a theme park because he doesn’t “like to hang upside down.” What does he think will happen in a rocket? Then there’s the small matter of my not having 100k to spare for Eddie’s Big Adventure.

As tiresome a wife as I am, I was not content to burst this dream bubble and call it a weekend. I also had to put the kibosh on Eddie’s desire to “make a record and go on tour.” Oh, did I lay the blame solely on Katy Perry for bringing marital discord into my home? My bad, I should have included Matthew Morrison, aka “Mr Schu” from the hit Fox television show Glee in my complaint. With his dapper wardrobe, magnificently crafted hair, banging beach body and smooth vocals, my husband has discovered a new 30-something American Idol. On a TV show full of talented high school singers and dancers, it is Mr. Schu who has walked away with Eddie’s heart. He has managed to accomplish the unthinkable, according to my youth-is-everything spouse. He has made a grown man with a day job look sexy and glamorous. Somehow however, I don’t see my husband’s co-workers in the IT consulting field joining him in a glass breaking rendition of “Dream On,” no matter how fun that idea might sound. IT workers are notoriously vanilla.

This got me wondering if grown men ever leave behind the little boy inside. And if not, is this a good or bad thing? In my husband’s case, I choose the former because it is his refusal to disregard “maybe” that keeps him so engaged, active and interesting. Though he has toiled for seven years as a successful software engineer, a career in which he becomes more expert and entrenched with each passing year, there remains a side of him that credulously believes it is possible to chuck it all one day to become an astronaut or a rock star. I like this. He has yet to grow cynical. May he never, despite my nihilistic influence.

Gotta run. I think I hear Eddie tying a bungee cord to our balcony.