Am I Paying Attention?

The last public event I attended before the pandemic shut everything down was an appearance by Scott Simon, the NPR broadcaster, sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute. He talked about his career in journalism and the book he had recently written. In the course of the discussion, he said something I made note of and continue to think about. He said, and this may not be an exact quote, but I believe I got it, “If you have the same convictions at 42 as you had at 22, you aren’t paying attention.”

Hmmm, I wondered, do I agree?

As I sat in the auditorium, I think I construed convictions as equivalent to values. And, my values have not changed over the years: honesty, integrity, kindness are steadfast principles and always will be. So, at first, I rejected his premise. Subsequently, I looked up the word conviction: a firmly held belief or opinion. Ahhh, that is a different question. Have my opinions changed?

What were my convictions when I was 22?

When I was 22, I had just graduated from the public administration master’s program at Columbia University. It was 1982, an important year in my life that I have written about here. What did I believe?

I was a Democrat and, though Ronald Reagan was popular, I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980 (it was the first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote). I didn’t believe in Reagan’s message – he campaigned on small government, tax cuts, trickle-down economics and the whole ‘greed is good’ mentality. I didn’t buy it. I still don’t. That is one conviction that hasn’t changed.

Over the many years since then, even with the disappointments in our government, all the instances that corruption has been uncovered and scandals revealed, I still believe in the potential for good governance. I was 12 years old during the Watergate hearings; old enough to understand the implications.  I knew big corporations were just as problematic, though, if not more so. Over the years my understanding has become more nuanced, but I grasped early on that the common denominator was human nature. People could abuse power and money in any setting. Justice and fairness are best served by checks and balances. I stand by the notion that elections and oversight from journalists and governmental entities are more effective mechanisms to ensure the greater good than the “free” market. The market has its benefits, and I still call myself a capitalist, but a strong government is essential for the common good. That opinion has not changed. 

In 1982 I believed in Gary, and our future together. That hasn’t changed either. I believed in the importance of family. My thoughts on one aspect of that has changed. Forty years ago, I thought I could be a career woman and a mom at the same time. I no longer believe that, at least for myself. In fact, I had to let go of that conviction to maintain my sanity. I honestly think I was headed for a nervous breakdown if I didn’t adjust my expectations. It took a long time, a solid decade or more, to not blame myself for not achieving the dream of a successful career and happy, healthy children and husband.

As time passes, I see just how challenging it is for women to balance the competing demands of career, motherhood and all the other roles we play (wife, friend, daughter, etc.). I was not able to – at least not at the same time. Sequentially it might have been possible, but not all at once. Perhaps the particulars of my circumstances conspired against it. Gary’s career was, and is, all-consuming. I didn’t see how both of us could be pursuing work that demanded so much of our respective energy and still attend to our children appropriately. We weren’t rich enough to pay for nannies or housekeepers. We didn’t have a support system of family and friends that could substitute either. Something had to give. Maybe I could have sustained a job, but not a career. I was fortunate in that I could make a choice. I left the workforce, except for some freelance assignments, for ten years.

I also had to come to terms with the fact that my career wasn’t what I envisioned anyway. When I graduated with my MPA, I hoped to make meaningful contributions to public policy. Early on I found myself working for Pittsburgh’s Department of Finance and a decade later I was at the Department of Tax and Finance for the state of New York. This was not what I had in mind. I believed in the importance of an efficient and effective system of taxation, but when I thought about ‘public policy,’ I wanted to help people more directly by improving the quality of community life or helping people move up the economic ladder. That was quite a stretch from what I was doing buried in the bureaucracy. My career path was unfulfilling. It made sense to step off it. I am very glad I did.

I think there is truth in what Mr. Simon said. Our convictions should evolve. We need to be paying attention – to other ideas, to new information, and other perspectives. We need to test our beliefs to see if they hold up. Sometimes it is painful to let go of a closely held belief. Unfortunately, these day too many of us don’t do the work of examining our opinions. We are entrenched in our ideas, stuck in our echo chambers. One constant for me, at 22, 42 and now as I approach 62, is I am always wondering, questioning and thinking. In answer to the question I posited in the title of this post, yes, I am paying attention. Many of my opinions have remained, some have evolved.

Have your opinions changed since you were 22? Which ones? Care to share? It would be interesting to hear how and why your beliefs evolved.

The Journey Continues – Ethnicity

Note: Two weeks ago I posted the first part of an essay exploring my Jewish identity. I missed a week – life got in the way. The first part of the essay examined Judaism as a religion. Here is the second part of that essay.

The other strand of my Jewish identity is more deeply engrained and easier to define – my ethnicity. Wikipedia tells me that ethnicity can be understood as a group that shares a set of traditions, ancestry, language, culture (food, dress, rituals), among other things. Far more than the religion, I felt and continue to feel very connected to those elements; they are my history, they are part of my DNA.

            Do other ethnicities feel the same way? Is it the same for Americans of Irish or Italian descent, for example? I feel an affinity with other Jews – especially those whose origins are in the New York City area. The sense of humor, the cultural references and worldview tend to be similar to my own. When I meet someone who shares that, it feels like an old shoe in the best way, I am at home.

            Some cultural bonds are stronger than others. If I am traveling abroad and come across a fellow American, I may feel a connection, but I might not. Depending on where they are from, they may have totally different sensibilities. To the outside world there may be a definable American culture, but especially these days, there can be essential differences.

            I don’t feel the same kinship with Israelis. We may share a religion, but we are culturally quite different. Whether they are Israelis living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan or when I traveled to Israel, I notice striking differences. I love Israel and found it beautiful and endlessly fascinating, but it didn’t feel like home. The people are blunter, more direct (maybe that is a good thing, but it isn’t how I function). The food is wonderful, but not the things I was used to.

            There is a great fear among American Jews that we are being assimilated into nothingness – that there will be nothing left of Judaism as time goes by. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard sermons from rabbis warning of this, exhorting the congregation to renew their efforts to preserve our identity. I think part of the challenge is the divide between the religion and the ethnicity. Rabbis define Judaism in religious terms, which is understandable given their education and training, but perhaps self-defeating. In my experience, they don’t put much value on being culturally Jewish. For me, though, that is the stronger pull. And the culture isn’t just food and humor. It includes a set of values – questioning authority, being a mensch (a good, kind person), and valuing education are at the core. There is an intersection between the religion and the ethnicity in those values. I think for many the rejection or discomfort with the religion is about the emphasis on faith in God and on a text that is centuries old. That text has much to offer, the Torah is worth studying but for many of us it cannot be the source of all teaching. [I can imagine an observant Jew reading the last two sentences and being horrified and cursing my chutzpah. Who am I to pass judgment on the Torah, how could I be so disrespectful? I mean no disrespect. I am writing how I feel, how I experience the religion. I envy those with unshakable faith, who find comfort and guidance in the Torah.)

            I want a Jewish identity to survive in this world. After more than 5700 years of persecution, I don’t want to see us melt away into whatever country we happen to live. For some the religion will sustain them. Some may have found a comfortable combination of the two. For me, it is the culture. Will that be enough? I wonder what choices our children will make.

Notice the Disney menorah

My Journey

One of the themes of this blog has been exploring different aspects of my identity. One central question I have grappled with is: What does it mean to me to be a Jew? This is part of a longer essay.

            At 61 years old, I think I have finally figured it out. As a young person I was confused by the different strands of Judaism. It took a while for it to dawn on me that it is both a religion and an ethnicity. Those two things are not one and the same. When I was child, those strands were all tied up together.

            To further complicate things, as a religion there are different levels of observance. I have not studied other religions, so I don’t know if others feature such a wide range of practice. We have three main branches: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Each branch, as their respective names suggest, represents a level of practice of ritual. The Orthodox adhere to many rules and regulations. On the other end of the spectrum, with very few restrictions on everyday life is Reform Judaism. Beyond Orthodox, on an even further extreme we have Hasidism, recognizable as the men who wear black hats and side curls, and the women who wear wigs and modest clothes; they live in very insulated communities. We also have secular Jews, those who have been born into the faith but do not practice it. And, we have everything in between. Even if the family you are born into provides a place on that continuum (mine was even less than Reform), each individual needs to figure out where they fit in, if they fit in. It can be confusing; it certainly has been for me.

            Over the years I explored whether I accepted Judaism’s religious tenets. As a young person I immediately hit a stumbling block. One of its foundational beliefs is monotheism. I was, and continue to be, uncertain about the existence of God. Most religious Jews either don’t share that uncertainty or they ignore it and observe the laws and rituals anyway. I tried that latter path as I continued my journey.

            One of the troubling things I have found is the sense that the Jewish community stands in judgment of itself, judging those within it who make different choices. Each segment casts an eye on their own members assessing whether they are Jewish enough, on one hand, or are they too dogmatic or zealous on the other? Maybe I imagined those appraising eyes, but I don’t think so.

            The family that I married into was far more observant than my family of origin. This created a tension for me. I was willing to practice many of the rituals because of my respect for my husband and his family’s history as Holocaust survivors. I hoped the religion would ‘take,’ or I would take to the religion.

            When Gary and I married we kept a kosher home. We went to synagogue regularly, not just on the high holidays. I made seders. We hosted Chanukah parties where I made latkes and we lit candles all eight nights. We sent our children to Hebrew school. I studied with the rabbi myself. Our home features Judaic art and we have mezuzahs on our doorposts.

Our breakfront – always ready for Chanukah. You would never guess we were Jewish.

Despite all of that I never uncovered a belief in God. I never felt a sense of belonging to the community in our synagogue either. I liked our rabbi, but my connection didn’t go beyond that. I would have been happy to find a home there, but I didn’t. I continued to try to make it work, but then I hit another major obstacle – 9/11.

            After 9/11 it felt like a door closed, both in my heart and mind.

            On that never-to-be-forgotten Tuesday, a sunny, clear late summer day, life came to a halt: the airports closed, Amtrak shut down, regular television programming was suspended. Fear was palpable.

            My parents, who were retired, were visiting. Dad, recently diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, was facing chemotherapy. His doctors were in Albany, near me, though they lived in the Catskills, over two hours away. They were considering getting an apartment in the area so they wouldn’t have to deal with the long drives while he was being treated. That very morning, we were planning to look at some apartments. In fact, we did go to look at one, but everyone was so distracted we decided not to continue. They went home and I waited anxiously for Leah and Daniel to return home from school.

            Thankfully they came home safely but I couldn’t take my eyes off the television – the images of the towers coming down were seared into my brain. Watching the firefighters rush into the billowing smoke and ash while everyone else ran away from it filled me with awe and fear for them.

            It all felt so strange. Without airplanes flying overhead, without the Thruway truck traffic that I ordinarily heard even inside our house, there was an eerie silence. Whenever there was a loud noise, it was startling. Was that a bomb? Was that gunfire? Those possibilities had never occurred to me before.

            We had to re-evaluate the risks of everything. Some things returned quickly – Gary went to work, the kids went to school but other things were slower to come back. The second weekend after the attack, we went to synagogue, we did not want to give in to the terrorists.

            The four of us walked into Temple Israel’s cavernous sanctuary on that Saturday morning, as we usually did. Attendance was bit lighter than usual, but plenty of people were there. We took seats in our customary location and opened our prayer books. Like every other time before, I read the English translation of the Hebrew and listened to the rabbi’s sermon. This time a coldness came over me. Something was wrong. I felt alienated from the proceedings. It hit me that the words and rituals were separating us from other people, reinforcing our separateness. The people in the sanctuary might be drawn together by reciting and chanting the prayers, but we were walled off from everyone else who didn’t participate. How could this be a good thing? We needed unity.

            I thought about all the different religions in the world. Each with its own structures, physical and otherwise. Each tradition offers an identity to adherents – and by providing those identities, they necessarily define ‘others.’ If 9/11 proved nothing else, it showed how toxic that could be. Taken to its extreme, it results in violence and death.

            Of course, this wasn’t the first time that I questioned the value of religion. I was well aware of history and how often wars were fought in the name of God. Despite that, when Gary and I had children, we wanted to give them a foundation in Judaism. Neither of us had strong faith in God, per se, but continuing the legacy of our Jewish identity was important to us. We knew that they would make their own choices as adults, but we thought it was important to give them roots, especially in view of our respective family histories.

            In September of 2001, Leah had already had her bat mitzvah, she was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. Daniel was preparing for his rite of passage, he was 12, and his bar mitzvah was coming in six months. We had been attending services regularly for the prior 7 years to give our children that foundation. I knew we would continue our commitment through Dan’s special day, but something changed for me on that Saturday in September of 2001.

            I spent many years trying to focus on the good – the positive values, the moral compass Judaism offered and the community it created. I tried to overlook, or compartmentalize, the portions of the teachings that held no meaning, or worse, were terribly anachronistic. Clearly in the modern world we rejected animal sacrifice and slavery, though those practices were still included in our Torah readings.  Aside from those obvious ones, there were other stories and rules that didn’t resonate. Spending so much time on the minutiae of the rules of the Sabbath seemed pointless to me. The general idea of observing a Sabbath day, on the other hand, was genius. Putting aside work, turning off electronics and turning inward and focusing on family, is a brilliant practice. But splitting hairs over whether one could plant a seed in a garden on the Sabbath or carry a purse, frustrated me. Too much energy was spent on parsing those rules instead of digging for more meaningful guidance.

            I think, in that moment on that Saturday in September, something crystalized. I realized I had come to the end of the journey. I was done with trying to make the religion an integral part of my life. I could continue to practice the rituals that were meaningful to me, but I wasn’t going to struggle to be religious anymore. Letting that go didn’t happen all at once, but I knew something inside me had changed.  

Letting Go

Being able to let go of something – a person, a belief, a dream, a habit – is terribly difficult. I can’t say I have done it successfully very often, certainly not as often as would be healthy for me. I was thinking about this the other morning when I woke up feeling lighter. It was not because I had lost weight (I wish!), at least not in the physical sense. But a noticeable heaviness had lifted from my shoulders and heart. It happened while I wasn’t looking; snuck up on me. It was not a conscious decision, but rather an accumulation of thoughts and actions.

As I reflect on the times that I have successfully let go of something that was dragging me down, I realized that this was my pattern. It wasn’t like I could just decide to move on and, boom, I did. It was more subtle and required sustained effort. I would be making progress and I didn’t even realize it – until I did.

The earliest I remember it happening involved my first serious boyfriend. That relationship lived in my head and heart far longer than was healthy. It was clear that it wasn’t working. We were too young, he wanted to be free to see other people, I wanted commitment. I couldn’t let go of what I saw as our potential future together. I blamed myself, I thought it was some deficiency in me.

Finally, after months of mourning and wallowing, I consciously put my energy into college courses, nurtured new and existing relationships and took better care of myself physically. Eventually I got the payoff. One night, long after we had officially broken up, he called because something reminded him of me. I realized, in that moment, that I didn’t feel hurt or longing when I heard his voice. I could have a conversation with him, but I wasn’t invested in some outcome. I was okay where I was – I was free. I couldn’t tell you when it happened. It was an accumulation of all the actions I had taken – some of them awkward and painful, some more rewarding. But, the combination of time and effort, did its thing, and I moved on.

I had a similar experience in graduate school, though this time it had nothing to do with a relationship. I was torturing myself that I wasn’t doing as well in my classes as I expected. The breaking point came when I got a B on my Cost-Benefit Analysis midterm. I was devastated. A B might not sound like a bad grade but, in my experience in graduate school, it is more equivalent to a C. It felt like failure. The fact that I had a 17-month old baby and was pregnant with my second was no excuse. I went to see the professor, trying hard not to cry. I told her I was very disappointed in myself. She assured me that no one in the program, I was in the public administration doctoral program at the State University of New York at Albany, thought I was a B student – regardless of the grade I got on that test. I tried to let that sink in.

I was still overwhelmed – our house was a mess, toys, laundry, and piles of paper everywhere. I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth, but I expected more of myself. Gary was in his third year of his residency program in internal medicine and was stretched to the limit. My parents and friends tried to talk sense to me. My folks paid for a cleaning service to come to our house every other week to help ease the burden. It was helpful, but I had to clean up before they could do their work!

I couldn’t turn off the pressure until something clicked. While I wasn’t conscious of the moment, one day I realized the critical voice in my head had quieted. I accepted that I was doing the best that I could and that would have to be enough.

A year and a half later I took a leave from the doctoral program. Gary and I realized that financially the ends were not meeting, we did not want to accumulate credit card debt, so I went to work for the state. Family had been called upon enough to help. Ultimately, after working for a couple of years, I decided I didn’t need or want to complete the doctoral program. I had done the coursework and taken the comprehensive exam, but I would still need to write a dissertation to finish. I concluded that I didn’t need the credential for my career. I didn’t want to be a professor.  To work in government, a PhD in public administration didn’t add much value, I already had a master’s degree. I made the decision to leave. I let it go without regret and haven’t looked back.

More recently, when I awoke that morning feeling lighter, it dawned on me that I had let go of the dread and helplessness I felt about my mother’s health. It was not that I wasn’t still worried about her or that I didn’t care – of course I did and do. But I had been carrying a sense of responsibility for her condition that was causing great stress. After months of trying to find an explanation and treatment for Mom’s breathing problems, I finally accepted that it wasn’t in my control. Gary, my husband the doctor, who has been advising me throughout this journey, pointed out to me repeatedly, “If different cardiologists and pulmonologists, who have years of training and experience, can’t come up with an answer, don’t you think it is unreasonable to expect you to?” As much as I wished I could fix it, or at least understand it, I couldn’t. The first three times he asked me that question, it didn’t take. I knew the answer, but I had to internalize it. Finally, when I wasn’t consciously aware, I woke up that morning realizing that I had.

I was doing the best that I could and that would have to be enough. It is hard enough to deal with the losses and disappointments that life brings us. Adding blame and guilt, when it is misplaced or unearned, is a burden too much to bear.

Now if I could only figure out how to let go a bit sooner, I would be grateful. But, as they say, the only way through it is through it.

More Hard Questions

Note: It has been another challenging week for me. Aside from my mother’s continuing health issues, I am troubled by the violence in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. I do not subscribe to the narratives offered by the far left or far right in explaining what is going on there. I believe all the participants share responsibility for the violence and that they all need to change to come to peace. In view of these events, I thought it was a good time to revisit a book review I wrote a couple of years ago. The book, Salt Houses, was insightful and provocative and was written from a Palestinian perspective. Even if you haven’t read the book, I hope you find my discussion of it enlightening and thought provoking. It is clear that we, across the globe, all of us, need to find better ways to address trauma that has been passed down through the generations. We see the impact of failing to do so everywhere we look.

https://stories-i-tell-myself.com/2018/12/24/hard-questions/

Privacy

Privacy settings on Facebook

A snippet of conversation overheard:

“I can’t think of anything worse than finding a picture posted of me on the Internet without my permission,” he said.

“I don’t actually remember if he asked before he posted,” she replied. She didn’t sound perturbed by it. “He may have asked, I don’t remember…..I mean, I don’t like when someone does that either but….whatever.” She shrugged.

He shook his head disapprovingly.

The exchange got me ruminating about my own actions. I surmised that she was surprised to find a photo or video posted of herself online, and to him the idea of that happening, of personal stuff being out in the world that he didn’t put there, is an anathema. He wants his privacy. He doesn’t want anonymous people knowing or seeing his business.

Clearly, I don’t share that feeling. This blog offers plenty of evidence of that. I know better than to post a picture of a person without getting the okay beforehand, but I been known to make mistakes. Overhearing that conversation, I could imagine the young man saying to me, “You’re nuts for putting all that stuff out there!”

I know the exchange had nothing to do with me, but it hit a sore spot. I feel some measure of self-consciousness about what I do.

I don’t share everything. I draw boundaries.  I make choices about memories or experiences I want to write about. I also want to be careful that I am sharing my story, not someone else’s. Most of the time when I write something that involves another person in a significant way, especially if it can be seen negatively, I show it to them first. I have edited pieces in response and sometimes I censor myself. I have invited folks to share their perspective on the blog, too.

I want to share my experiences. It is a way of feeling less alone. When a reader responds that they identify with what I have shared, it is validating. And, even more importantly, writing about painful feelings, takes away of some of their power. Things that live in my mind as embarrassing or irritating are made less so when I put the feeling in words and set them free.

Why do I feel the need to justify that I do this? There must be a part of me that questions it, wonders if it reflects weakness or a failure to properly value my own privacy.

This question of privacy, though, goes well beyond social media etiquette. For instance, people make different choices in regard to sharing information about their health (I’m not referring to what is shared on Facebook, I mean even in everyday conversation). Some are an open book and might share more than you ever wanted to know. At the other extreme, some don’t want to be asked how they are feeling. As we get older, health becomes more and more of a focus. It can be hard to avoid discussing it. I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I want to be open with my husband and my children. If it is something that can be inherited, like high blood pressure or diabetes, then I think I owe it to them to share the information. If it is something that is affecting the quality of my life or my mood, it seems only fair to clue them in. I’m not big on putting on a happy face – at least not for those closest to me. I also tend to think secrets have a way of blowing up.

There shouldn’t be shame attached to illness either– it shouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness or a personal failing. We’ve lived too long with people hiding mental illness or addictions, in particular. Some illnesses carry judgment – if you are a smoker and get lung cancer, or if you are obese and are diagnosed with Type II diabetes, you can feel like you deserve it and/or that others deem it as a just punishment. None of that is helpful. If it were simple, no one would smoke or be obese.

By the same token, I understand not wanting to feel like your condition is tattooed on your forehead. We don’t want to be defined by an illness. It is a matter of personal choice if you want these things widely known. There is no right way to be about this. We need to respect each other’s wishes. What makes it complicated is if we assume that others share our standards.

For me, the health issue is particularly vexing. My husband is a doctor. I have been with him from the beginning of his training and while I am not confused about the fact that I did not earn a medical degree, I think it is fair to say I have more knowledge than your average citizen. If someone speaks to Gary as a patient, he doesn’t share it with me. If it involves our children, he will. Our kids understand that (if they didn’t, now they do). I find, for whatever reason, some people do confide in me about these things; others don’t. It can be surprising who falls into each category.

I will admit to having pretty strong problem-solving skills. When my dad was sick, it made me feel better if I came up with something that helped him to be more comfortable. When Dad was getting chemo, he and Mom were staying in an extended-stay hotel. Dad was spending a lot of time in bed, aside from being tired, the chairs in the sitting area in their suite weren’t that comfortable. I found a place that rented furniture and we had a reclining chair delivered for the duration of his stay. It was a win-win. I still feel good about that. If Mom hadn’t shared her concern about Dad being in bed so much, I couldn’t have helped find a solution.

Combine the familiarity with medical issues with a propensity to want to fix things, or help people, and I can probably overstep. Or maybe I don’t. Geez, my brain is a confusing place to live.

I started this essay by recounting an overheard conversation that led me to question myself. Now, having written about it, processed my thoughts, and putting it on the blog, it isn’t eating at me anymore. I won’t go so far as to say I am at peace, but I am not ruminating. I’ll call that a victory.

Crime or Misdemeanor

Photo from Chad McMillan

‘Crimes or misdemeanors.’ My husband uses that phrase when we talk about making judgments about people’s behavior. We are walking in our neighborhood and I am telling him about my distress because someone disappointed me. After listening to me vent for a bit, he will ask, “Crime or misdemeanor?” a reminder to put things in perspective. Do I want to hold a grudge? Do I want or need to discuss it with the person? Gary isn’t saying it to minimize my emotional response to the incident, but to ask me to step back and look at it afresh.

Some transgressions are minor, others far more significant and it is useful to make that distinction. It is relevant in terms of how we evaluate the person’s character and assess the consequence. Lately, particularly in the context of the #MeToo movement and accusations of racism, it feels to me that we are losing the capacity to be discerning, especially about the punishment. I think there is something to the argument that ‘cancel culture’ has gone too far, even if the phrase is a Fox News favorite.

I believe Harvey Weinstein got what he deserved. Even if one wanted to say he was canceled, he should have been. In my saying that the pendulum may have swung too far in canceling people, I am not offering a defense of indefensible behavior. Rape, assault, stalking, unwanted touching, ogling, unwelcome flirting are all unacceptable, but they represent a range of wrongs. I think we need to ask what the appropriate punishment is depending on the offense. In the context of sexual harassment at work, options could range from criminal charges to a warning. Potential responses include referral to the police, an internal investigation, bringing in an outside consultant, a counseling memo in their personnel file, firing, required training, reassignment or some combination of these. Perceptions will vary about the appropriate response. The problem we are up against is that for years and years and years, nothing was done. Women weren’t believed or the problems were swept under the rug. Perhaps in reaction to that, we are overcompensating now.

When the New York Times reported that Peter Martins, the director of the New York City Ballet (NYCB), retired because he was being investigated for creating a hostile environment, which included sexual harassment, my mother was outraged. It wasn’t clear whether the investigation had been completed when his decision was made (it seemed he was forced to retire). Mom was a huge fan of his dancing – we both were, we followed his career and enjoyed his performances over the years. She thought he was being treated unfairly. I argued that the organization likely had a lot more information than what was in the paper. I reminded her of some incidents that had been reported about him in the past. I also made the point that NYCB likely didn’t undertake a major investigation and accept his retirement without good cause. I asked her “Why would you assume that the charges are all lies?” She still thinks he was done wrong. While I don’t know the details, I don’t believe he was ‘canceled.’

In part the difference between my mother’s and my response is generational. Some behaviors that today we recognize as inappropriate were acceptable or expected to a woman of Mom’s age. Some of the #MeToo reporting didn’t sound so bad to her. (Let me be clear, she does not think sexual harassment is okay.) A coach was allowed to be verbally abusive. Sexual innuendo was part of office banter – at least in some places. A man giving a woman a compliment on her appearance may have been appreciated – it may still be.

There are intangible things at play – whether it was 50 years ago or today. Two men saying the same thing can be received very differently – tone of voice, body language, previous interactions, the look in their eye all inform the meaning of the words. “Pretty dress,” can sound innocent or lascivious. Two women hearing the same comment may respond differently – one may be flattered, another may be uncomfortable. One person may be motivated by a coach yelling, another may shut down. We can acknowledge that this can be fraught without giving up making judgments. We also can’t sustain knee-jerk reactions to every accusation. We need to make the effort to navigate this messy, confusing and difficult terrain.

We also can’t know a person’s intention. The law makes distinctions based intentionality – harming someone purposefully is different than accidentally. It can be hard for prosecutors to establish intent; harder yet in a harassment claim. Did they mean to make someone uncomfortable? Are they on a power trip? Are they racist or ignorant? Does intention matter? Yes and no. Sometimes the action speaks for itself. The guy in Atlanta may deny racist intent after he murdered six Asian-American women, but what he did belies his words.

Ignorance is an inadequate defense, too. If you make no effort to educate yourself, then you bear responsibility for not knowing the meaning of words or symbols. Is it believable that a person doesn’t understand what a swastika represents?

 Another question is: Can we give the harasser an opportunity to redeem themselves? I am troubled by the idea that people are written off or deprived of their career without slowing down to investigate and then give due consideration to the punishment.

What guidelines can we use? I think it can be helpful to ask what if the behavior/action happened to our child, spouse, friend or relative? Imagine yourself as the victim. See if that empathy changes your perspective.

By the same token, ask yourself if the person who is accused was your spouse, child, friend or relative, what would you think is fair? Does that change how you would like them treated?

We also need to be cautious in reacting to what we see in the media. Sensational headlines get attention. Sometimes the full story gets lost. Let’s all take a breath.

Accusations should be investigated, fairly and thoroughly. Once facts and perceptions are understood, we need to find a just response; one that is not inflamed by political extremism, righteous anger or a rush to judgment. In the long run, we all benefit from a thoughtful, fair process. We don’t want the pendulum to swing too far back in the other direction, silencing voices that have only begun to be heard.

Genies and Bottles

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” I said.

I don’t remember what prompted my remark, but Leah, my daughter, had an interesting reaction.

“Maybe you can. What do we know about genie-world?”

I laughed.

“Well, true, but it’s an expression…”

“I know, but why is it? What are the rules of genies? Who knows?”

She had a fair point. If I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s T.V. show that I loved when I was growing up, was any guide, genies went back into their bottles regularly. I remember the inside of Jeannie’s bottle. It was colorful and decadent with silk draped on the walls and velvet cushions. Not a bad place to hang out actually, though it seemed quite limited. Jeannie blinked, turned into purple smoke and went back in when directed by her ‘master’ or when she was angry at him and wanted to sulk. In hindsight it was a ridiculous show. I think I knew it was ridiculous at the time but couldn’t resist the romantic angle and attractive characters. But, I digress.

Sometimes when you stop and think about the expressions we use, you realize that they aren’t what they seem. In this case, the first known use of ‘letting the genie out of the bottle’ was in Tales of the Arabian Nights in 1706. We are familiar with the story of Aladdin, but there was actually another earlier one. The moral of that story, though, was the opposite of our use of the phrase today. In the original tale a quick-thinking fisherman outwitted the genie, convincing him to get back into his bottle, thus avoiding the mischief the genie might have wrought. How the message evolved to take on a different meaning, I don’t know. It is not the only example of the transformation of language or concepts over time.

The question posed by the genie and the bottle, or Pandora’s Box, is still relevant. Once an idea is out in the world, can you contain it? When I was growing up, we talked about this in the context of the threat of nuclear weapons. We wondered if the existence of nuclear weapons would inevitably lead to their use. Thankfully it hasn’t, at least not yet. They remain a threat, but steps were taken, and treaties were signed, to reduce the risk.

Today I think about it in terms of social media. Is it out of our control? Sometimes it feels like it is. Disinformation takes on a life of its own.

But social media doesn’t have to be that way. Some will find this objectionable, but regulation would help. We all know free speech isn’t unfettered, you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, there are limits to hate speech, etc. Some of the standards that are applied in that context should be applied to the Internet. It is a matter of having the will to do it and applying the resources to the task. It needs to be a cost of doing business for Facebook and Twitter. God knows they make enough money! Newspapers and magazines have fact checkers and editors. Wikipedia has found a way to deal with the need for facts – it isn’t perfect, but it does pretty well compared to the wild west of other of social media platforms.

I know that the devil is always in the details (another expression worth examining since I’ve also heard it said that God is in the details too). I’m not suggesting it will be easy to regulate but we need to start. The fact that something is difficult doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done. The damage to our culture of the current hands-off approach, in sowing division and inspiring violence, is a real threat to our democracy and our society.

It is indeed time to put the genie back in the bottle and I believe we can.

A Lying Liar

My parents taught me that lying was wrong.

 Their argument was five-fold:

  • First, ultimately the truth comes out; maybe not immediately, but in time it would emerge, and you would be embarrassed or ashamed to be caught in that lie.
  • Second, your lie could hurt someone, and we didn’t want to hurt other people if we could avoid it. [They did offer this caveat: If it was a white lie, intended to protect someone from harm, it might be okay.]
  • Third, it can be hard to keep track of lies and you might contradict yourself later (“What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” –  I remember that adage from that font of all wisdom, Sargent O’Rourke on F-Troop.)
  • Fourth, if you make a practice of lying, you won’t be trusted, and when you need to be believed, you will be out of luck (see the fable ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’).
  • Finally, and possibly most important, when you lay your head down on your pillow at night you want to have a clear conscience so you can sleep peacefully.

I was convinced. I am not perfect – I can’t say I’ve never lied, but I am really bad at it. Ask my family.

It appears that our president didn’t learn this lesson, or he has conveniently forgotten it. It is hard to believe that we need to review the reasons to value honesty. Let’s take a closer look at how Trump fails:

  • The first argument assumes a person can be embarrassed. Trump has no shame. When he is caught in a lie, he doubles down on it.
  • The second argument assumes that we value not hurting people. Trump is unconcerned about people’s feelings – he puts this on display every time he mocks someone for their disability and, more generally, how he treats people in his life.
  • Trump could not care less about keeping track of his lies, he makes no attempt to do so. When a reporter brings up statements Trump has made in the past which were incorrect or contradictory, he pretends it never happened or shrugs his shoulders.
  • Trump doesn’t value relationships and doesn’t want to acknowledge dependence on anyone, so he moves through the world without worrying about whether his word means anything. He has been sued repeatedly for not fulfilling commitments. His lack of credibility has done damage to our relationships with allies across the world.
  • Considering that he is known for tweeting at all hours of the night or early morning, sleep appears to elude him.

Trump’s enablers and followers apparently didn’t learn that lying is wrong either. It frightens me for our future – lying has become normalized. What will it mean for our country if our culture no longer values personal integrity and if we believe the ends justify the means?

Trump’s lying may in fact be criminal when you consider his handling of the coronavirus. I believe he has blood on his hands.

I understand the temptation to lie when it is expedient. If a lie gets you what you want in the short term, it can be quite tempting. Sometimes we lie to avoid conflict or unpleasant conversations. Whatever the motivation, it is short-sighted. If you lie to avoid conflict, it puts off the inevitable and possibly makes it worse when you finally do have to confront it. If you lie to achieve a short-term goal, it may jeopardize more important long-range accomplishments. We need to take a longer view, in our personal relationships and in our professional lives. I think any number of societal issues we face would be improved if we did that.

I was thinking about this because of a Facebook exchange I had with a neighbor. She is a Trump supporter and she posted a comment that she wasn’t voting for Trump’s personality, but for his principles(!). What principles? I was stunned. She made this remark in response to someone that criticized Trump for lying. Incessant lying is incontrovertible evidence of a lack of principles and/or mental illness. In either case, it is not a quality that someone who is entrusted with the presidency of our country should possess. This neighbor’s world is upside down. But, that’s what happens when you depend on Fox News and talk radio for your information.

Yesterday that same neighbor criticized Biden on Facebook for being boring. I long for boring. I am exhausted after four years of outrageous statements. I can’t wait for us to turn the corner and heal from this divisive and painful time – not to mention finally getting a handle on the pandemic with thoughtful, scientific federal guidance.

Tomorrow is election day. I pray that Americans send a resounding message by rejecting the Lying Liar and those that have enabled him in the House and Senate. While I also hope that Trump is held accountable for his crimes after he is out of office, I think I will be satisfied if he and his family fade away and are no longer part of our national conversation. It is an interesting question: what is best for our country? Pursuing investigations and possible prosecution or focusing on the future and turning the page on Trump. But, I am getting ahead of myself. We can debate that question after he is sent packing.

I am practically holding my breath with anxiety – I need to remind myself, and you, to breathe until we get through this, hopefully in 48 hours.

History

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Image from JB Shreve and the End of History

What is history? The first time I realized that the word could be broken up as ‘his’ ‘story,’ it was a revelation. Most of what we learned in school was the story of men, of particular men, those in power. One could argue that telling the story of the powerful is appropriate – after all they made the rules, they shaped the future. At least more so than ‘ordinary’ people. If we are studying the founding of America, learning about Washington and Jefferson is imperative. But, of course, that doesn’t tell the full story. Telling the full story is complicated.

So many things go into defining history. First, who is writing or telling the story? Who chooses what is included in the curriculum? Until relatively recently, historians were mostly male and mostly white. While in theory facts are facts (although in TrumpWorld perhaps we have moved into a ‘post-factual’ period), we know that making connections and analyzing information are colored by the biases and assumptions we bring to it. Our understanding is broadened and deepened when a range of perspectives are brought to bear on a topic.

It becomes a matter of balance – history can’t solely be the domain of the privileged. But, we don’t have unlimited time, even if we take into account that we send children to school for 12 years, time is short. Choices are made. It is hard to pack in all the history we want our citizens to know and provide them with a global perspective, too. When I was in elementary school in New York City in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we were taught American history by highlighting the contributions of every different group that made up our country (maybe not every different group). We learned about Crispus Attucks, Haym Salomon, Baron Von Steuben,  Tadeus Kościuszko, Marquis de Lafayette – I came away proud that so many different people, representing different ethnicities and backgrounds, contributed. We learned about Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc., too. The message I took home was that the Revolution was a noble cause, with many contributors.

Looking back, I recognize that there were gaping holes and many things were romanticized. When the values that inspired the American Revolution were taught, the fact that women, Native Americans and Blacks were deliberately left out of the vision of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was not given much attention – more of a passing mention. It wasn’t until 11th grade that I learned about our treatment of indigenous people – the deliberate spreading of smallpox via blankets, for example. My children spent a great deal of time in elementary school learning about the native people of New York State – changes in curriculum were made. I don’t know if they learned about the different contributors to the Revolution, as I did. I’m not suggesting there is necessarily a trade-off, I don’t know.

In talking with friends, even friends who were in school with me, not everyone remembers learning the same stuff I recall. I was interested so I paid attention. How does that factor into all of this? Sometimes when I hear criticisms of our education because some subjects weren’t included, I think to myself, but I remember learning about that. Which brings me back to my first point – what is history and who is telling it? Perhaps we can dig up the approved curriculum for 4th grade social studies in New York City in 1968, but that may or may not be what was taught in a given classroom. And, my friend may have been absent the day we learned about Crispus Attucks.

In my limited experience doing research for this blog, I have found it challenging to settle on a ‘truth’ about events. Some are small events, like when Cutie the cat leapt out of the car window. My family agrees that it happened, but not how or why. In a more serious example, when I researched the murder of my paternal grandfather’s family in Poland by the Nazis, the specifics were hard to get a handle on. The fact of their death was indisputable, but where and how many were killed, was hard to establish. It opened my eyes to the difficulty of uncovering history and how it gets reported.

Another question is: who or what is being written about? What resources were available to reconstruct events? Could my blog constitute ‘history?’ Many of my essays are memoir, recounting experiences from 50 or more years ago, or incidents from last week. Diaries and letters are great but need context and corroboration. I don’t imagine that Donald Trump keeps a diary or writes letters, but if he did, he would hardly be a reliable source. What will history have to say about him?

You may be wondering, where am I going with this? I think these questions are central to what we are going through as a country today. We are coming to grips with a fuller picture of our history. We are raising questions about the lessons we were taught. Some feel threatened by that questioning.

We are also addressing the role of monuments and museums in the telling of that history. We are recognizing that our understanding of history evolves and then what do we do with those monuments and museums? Some might argue that our history is being rewritten and resent it because it feels like sand is shifting beneath our feet.  But it is always being rewritten – there continues to be scholarship about the fall of the Roman Empire. It is right that it is rewritten and rewritten again. No doubt it can be unsettling, but it is necessary for our growth.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in history, or that we should cast aside all that we learned. But, I do think, like with most things, we need to read critically, ask questions and be open to new interpretations.

I come back to a quote from Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I think that applies to where we are now. I think we all need to be on a quest in our lives to know better, so we can do better.