Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Profile in Courage

Courage -  the ability and willingness to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. 

I was sitting with my son’s fourth grade teacher during a regularly scheduled conference.  She showed me his papers, how he was doing in math and language arts and areas we needed to work with him on.  Then she told me that he had asked to make a special announcement to his class.  

He got up  in front of the class holding a few papers and turned to them and said: “I know that many of you might have heard, but I wanted to tell you that it’s true – I’m gay.”  I let out an involuntary gasp, when she told me this, not because I didn’t know or was ashamed but because admitting something like that could cause problems for him at school and I didn’t want to see my son hurt.  But then she told me that he continued talking to the group.

“I’ve been bullied because people think I’m different and being bullied can really hurt people.”  Then taking his cue from a show we’d seen on Nickelodeon called Sticks, Stones and Cyberslams, he then took out a photo of a young boy named Carl Walker Hoover who was polite and well mannered but who got teased for being gay. The pressure and the teasing got to be too much and hung himself at age 11.  

He also had a photo of Phoebe Prince, a young girl who was bullied to death because she was different.    He told them that words can hurt and that no one should have to die because they feel life is unbearable because they can’t be who they really are.  He then he asked for a show of hands of the kids in the class who had been bullied – all the hands went up.  He then asked if any of the kids in the room had bullied other kids and a few hands went up.   His teacher seeing a definite teaching moment opening up asked the kids how they felt when they were picked on.   The class discussed what it felt like to not be accepted and how words could hurt.  They talked about how everyone was different and that could make them a target for bullies.   After about an hour, it was time for the kids to go to recess where no one got bullied.   

The teacher was afraid that she would hear from angry parents who had a problem with a discussion about homosexuality but she didn’t get a call or e-mail from a single parent.  Her guess was that the kids understood that my son was different in his own way like we all are and that’s what they took away – not that it was wrong to be gay but that it was wrong to make people feel bad about themselves. 

I sat back from that meeting happy that my son had the courage to speak his mind but honestly feeling a little ashamed that if he had told me in advance what he was planning – I would have probably tried to talk him out of it.   I would have been afraid for him to take that chance – that he could have been rejected by those children – that his effort would have failed and the bullying would have intensified. My protective instinct would have been a huge mistake because after he had that talk with his class, the bullying stopped.  My misguided effort to prevent failure would have taught him and his classmates nothing.  Instead, the powers that be allowed me to stay out of it and to let things unfold as they needed to.  This time it was in my child's favor. 

When you first hold your infant in your arms you wonder what sort of person your baby will grow into and project all those hopes and dreams into your child.   I remember when my daughter was born I was planning her wedding in my head when she was just a week old – seeing her as a future Disney Princess.  I’d dress her in pink overalls, a white hat with pink satin bow to match her pink cheeks.    She looked like a baby doll and for a certain time through her toddlerhood, she would wear frilly dresses like Cinderella.  She was my girly girl.  But as she got older, she rebelled against the onslaught of pink and frills.  In fact, I don’t even look at that side of the rack when I’m picking out clothes for her now, because I know that she won’t wear it.  I’ve had to change that expectation of my daughter because she is the awesome person she is -  just not one who is going to wear dresses, pearls, and a ton of ruffles to the school formal – that’s her- not me, and I’m really good with that.    

If I’ve learned anything as a parent, I’ve learned to release my expectations about who my kids are supposed to be.   But sometimes it’s hard to release the image of who you feel you’re supposed to be – the pretty blond girl - the middle daughter who always tries to keep the peace.  I wanted to be straight A student and I would pressurize myself to exhaustion try to get there.  I guess I thought it would make me happy.  I was an honor student and finished in the top 2% of my high school class with a 3.8 a grade average.   I should have been over the moon, but instead I felt like a clown that was hiding behind a mask that was supposed to make everyone happy but me.  This me at age 12.  I look like a deranged Jan Brady. 

How many people out there have felt like this – showing one mask to the outside of the world, but inside you feel like you’re just barely hanging on?  Whether you’re trying to get good grades, get that internship, get that job that is supposed to solve all your financial problems you have this fa├žade that the world sees, but inside you know better.    I think it’s because we can’t release the image of who we think everyone wants us to be – and you end up you feeling like this.   Eventually, I figured out that I'm not wired like everyone else and  that I see the world differently which is good -  but it’s still a work in process and some days I still feel like the teenage girl in this picture - good God don't we all?  But at least I can project the image of what the world finds acceptable - but what if you're gay and tired of trying to be something you're not. 

When I realized that my son wanted to be different – wear make-up, nail polish, wigs, etc., I was concerned about how the world saw him and I knew that sometimes if you’re gay or transgender, it’s not safe to be yourself, especially in some parts of Georgia.  I tell him he is like Harry Potter and that home and church are Hogwarts – he can practice his “magic” with us and no one would make him feel bad about himself but around the muggles, he’d have to be careful.  He could wear his hair on a pony tail, but over the top make-up and bright nail polish was out.  After school and on the weekends, he can dress or be however he wants.  It’s the compromise we have for now but frankly we’re making it up as we go along.   

When we got to march in the Gay Pride Parade in the fall, he got to see that there were all kinds of people like him and we had a blast.  I was very grateful that our Unitarian church was part of that event and that both kids got to see people who were happy in their own skin, marching, hugging, singing and supporting each other.   It  felt like the happiest place on earth and really personified the word "gay."   Even the Westboro Baptist Church idiots could not diminish everyone's good time.  In fact, those folks had long scared my kids but when they saw them standing by the side of the road extolling their misguided philosophy that God hates gays, they walked over to them and told them it was not true.   The progressive Baptist church that was marching with us did the same and it made me smile because it helped my kids see that not every Baptist church felt the same way as these hate mongers did.  

In Georgia, the school year has started and he is more open this year about being transgender - his hair is longer, his ears are pierced and his wears a bit of face make-up but not eye make-up.  So far, so good - but when school begins - everyone is on their best behavior both the students and teachers.  So far, we've been lucky that his elementary school and middle school have had people in the administration who are gay and have his back.   I know that there are other places in the country where that is not the case and gay students are picked on and bullied unmercifully. They are made to feel like they are wrong and worthless for being gay, transgender or different.   Hopefully, they'll have the support of their family and church but I know that many kids do not have the support systems we do and I pray for them.
I pray for the gay people in Russia who are systematically being abused and oppressed because they are who they are.   I pray for all the kids who will be bullied this school year to have the courage to get through it because it will get better even if the idea of getting away from school and your tormentors is still years away.   It's interesting that polls can show that 93% of Americans support gay marriage but many gay kids in school wouldn't know it because the 7% who don't feel that way can still make your life a living hell.   I think the most courageous thing we can ask our children to do is not only be themselves but to stick up for those they see being bullied because you rob the bullies of their power.   The definition of courage is the ability and willingness to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.  My son showed me that. He is one of the most courageous people I have ever known. 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Clarence and the Superhero Factor

"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" - Clarence the Angel - It's a Wonderful Life

I'll be the first to admit that the last few weeks have been downright awful, depressing, physically, emotionally and spiritually draining.  The kind that make you question why you're here - a genuine George Bailey moment.   For those that don't know the movie, It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is the kind of guy that sacrifices himself to do the right thing, to follow in his father's footsteps at the expense of his own dreams of being an engineer overseas.  When a financial crisis befalls the business he has given up so much for - he is ready to give up in a big way - as in take his own life.  Now, I wasn't quite there but I was really depressed to the point of wondering what God's plan for me truly is.  
I have worked in non-profits for most of my adult life.   I've helped abused and abandoned children, women in developing countries get education and healthcare, worked on international AIDS prevention, brought open heart services to the local hospital, helped to market edgy theatre to the Atlanta and helped adults with developmental disabilities.   It's been a wide range of experiences and to all walks of life.   Accomplishing those things should make me feel fucking awesome - like a real superhero.  But lately, I've been so burned out that the idea of helping people seems to be a big drain.  I give way more than I get back - and that realization has shaken me to my core.   I try to look at the spiritual gifts: the smiles on the faces of the children who used to get the presents from the toy drives I spearheaded; the reports of women in Kenya being able to get a cart to start their own businesses thanks to a micro loan I helped facilitate; the associates at the local hospital who were able to show their talents at the staff talent show in a venue that made them feel like a star.   Those moments are valuable and impossible for a paycheck to capture.  But then, when you work 70 to 90 hour weeks on a project, pull miracle upon miracle out of your pocket and the committee people that you're working with don't have the decency to say thank you because it didn't turn out as perfectly as they would have liked - it hurts.   Maybe if you weren't so burned out you could roll with the punches, but sometimes you just feel like hanging up your cape or like George Bailey on Christmas Eve - wondering if the world be better off if you had never been born at all because all the good you do doesn't seem to amount to much.  
There is actually a term for it - it's called Superhero Burnout which is tailor made for people who work at non-profits.  It can be hard to have to deal with having little time or resources, lack of money, and constant stressors over the economy.   We have to do so much with so little and it can take it's toll.  The book, The Superhero Handbook by Glenn Campbell (the author not the singer) explains why being Superman can be so exhausting.  "Every superpower, no matter how impressive, has its load limit, and if you exceed it, one way or another your powers will be rendered useless. It is like piling too many apples on a cart.  Each apple seems small and easy to carry, but if you keep adding more, eventually the cart has to collapse. You don’t know exactly when it will happen, but as long as you keep adding apples you know it will happen, and when it does, your cart won’t carry anything anymore.  That is the fundamental problem of super-heroism. You want to do as much good for the world as you can.  You want to improve your society, but you must not compromise your precious core powers that allow you to do anything at all."   

Most superheroes have their own weaknesses or Kryptonite.   My weakness it's setting boundaries and self-doubt.  When my efforts are barely acknowledged, I feel slighted and hurt.  I doubt my skills and try to do more to make up for it.  It's the sort of thing that the Lois Lanes of the world prey upon.   Why should Lois be more careful when she's involved with a dangerous story?  She knows that Superman will always bail her out.   If there was no superhero, she'd be more be more responsible.   Why should the folks in Bedford Falls worry when the big bank closes?  They have George Bailey giving away his honeymoon money to save their asses until the bank opens in a week.  So falls the great problem with being a superhero - there is just so much of you to go around and the people who put themselves in peril know that.  They know that you won't let them fail, they know that you'll do anything you can to help them.  They'll take the help and will at first be grateful but after awhile they will take it for granted.   But as a superhero, your drug is feeling like you can change the world and the world will be grateful.  You work to relive that first buzz of appreciation but as they ask for more and more, you get more and more drained - then you begin to resent the people of Metropolis and Gotham.   "For God's sake, get a grip and do something to help yourself for a change - stop coming to me for all the answers," you want to shout.  
So as I look back at the last few weeks - the crazy hours and time not spent with my family it strikes me that my pursuit of being good and kind might be causing my apple cart to collapse.  Why do I feel so unworthy if I want to do something for myself?   If things happen that are out of my control yet still effect my family - how am I to blame?  How come I can't save everyone who needs my help?  The reality is no superhero, no matter how noble - can.   It's impossible.  You have to focus on the people that you have helped - in whose life you had made a difference and frankly screw anyone who doesn't have the capacity or decency to show some type of appreciation for the sacrifices you've endured to help them because they'll never get it - it's just not in their wheelhouse.  They will still ask you for more and more until you can't give anymore - you're physically, intellectually and spiritually bankrupt.  This is why you need to set limits.  Sadly, once those people see that - rather than offering support, they'll move onto the next superhero in the Hall of Justice that they can latch onto.  
I was thinking the other day about the most important things I've ever done as a professional fundraiser.   I did toy drives for abused kids in Miami for a charity that I used to work for.  I would drive myself to exhaustion to make sure each of the 600 kids in the different programs got at least a few presents for Christmas.   I would come back to work the week after the holidays and try to clear my desk from the December push still fighting post-holiday burnout.  I knew our kids got what they needed even if I never saw a thank-you note from them because it wasn't necessary - they just needed to know that there were people who wanted to help them.  The presents that came into "Santa Central" went out with little fanfare because that was not the point.  
One year, I had a social worker named Andrea call me and relay what a parent had told her.   One of the programs at this organization was to help families affected by HIV.   This mother and son both had been infected with AIDS.  The mother was in bad shape, with maybe a few months left to live.  Her son Octavius was five or six and had HIV but was not full blown AIDS just yet.  The social workers knew this would probably be their last Christmas together.  I wasn't aware how bad it was, I just treated Octavius' wish list like any other in "Santa Central" - it needed to be filled the best way I could.   Andrea told me that she had just gotten off the phone with Octavius' mother and while she was weak and her voice was raspy - she was able to say "Thank you, Thank you, Thank you," over and over again.    You could hear our tears on each end of the phone. That one simple act changed their lives and gave a dying woman a happy and ordinary moment to share with her son, free of hospitals and medicine.   She died that spring and Octavius a year later.   But for that one glorious moment, they were just a mother and son ripping into Christmas presents and smiling.    To this day, I think it's one of the most important "Superhero" things I've ever done. 

Another superhero moment was when I helped organize a talent show at the hospital where I used to work.   We invited associates and volunteers to audition for a chance to perform to win prizes.  We had many people audition including a man named John Sullivan who sang Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers which was the song that Max and I danced to at our wedding.   He was a guy in his 80's who had that old world charm and could sell the song even if his vocals were not the strongest.  We invited him to compete even though my boss thought it was a bad idea because his voice was not that great.  I explained that we needed the hospital volunteers to support the event and having John in the contest would bring them in.  My intuitional hit was that he would go all out during the actual show.  The night of the show finally came and while the younger contestants were acting like Diva's, John showed up in a tuxedo, ready to do his sound check and encouraging everyone who stepped on stage.  When his big moment came, he was as poised as Frank Sinatra and totally wowed the crowd which gave him a standing ovation.   He ended up winning the contest and you could see the pride on his face.   I made a video for him and also posted his performance on YouTube where his family who were not able to attend could share in his triumph. Click here to see the video. 
I found out later that Mr. Sullivan had gotten sick and passed away about six months after the video was taken.   But before he left this earth, he got to sing and entertain people.   The video on-line has been viewed over 1,300 times and his family left some very sweet comments after he died.  They will always be able to share in this moment which shows him doing what he loved best.   I helped give them that.  I'm not sure how many superheroes get to see that but thankfully I can.  I need to not lose sight of that. 
"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" 
So for all those superheroes: doctors, nurses, first responders, teachers, police officers, firefighters, soldiers, case workers, social workers and legions of people who work in non-profits who don't make the money or have the recognition and fame like Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump.  I know it's easy wonder why we bother sometimes.  It's easy to give into the Mr. Potters, Lex Luthors, the Jokers and the Green Goblins because no matter how many times you save the world, the world will still always need saving.  Those supervillains will want to pick off the good and make us look bad.  But it's the people that you touch that you can't always see that need our help the most - theirs are the lives we can transform.   It's not that they are ungrateful, it's just that there might be so many degrees of separation that they might not know who to thank.   For what it's worth, the world needs us - whether it's in Metropolis, Gotham City, Bedford Falls, or Metro Atlanta.    Sure, it's exhausting and people can be incredibly insensitive.  Sometimes it just really, really sucks.   But if life has taught me anything, it's that people like Octavius and John Sullivan can randomly walk into your life and make you stronger.   So thank you Clarence for reminding all us ordinary superheroes that when we jump in to save someone like you - we are actually saving ourselves. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Unconditional Love

"I hope the new Pope will allow priests to marry," I commented to my husband Max after hearing that Pope Benedict had resigned. "The Catholic church really needs to change."   "I don't know about that," Max replied, "But there is nothing in the bible that says that priests have to be celibate - Jesus probably wasn't."  That statement felt like a sucker punch to the gut.  "What?  How can you say that?"  I asked more out of surprise than wanting to jump under the dining room table to avoid a lightening bolt for my husband's blasphemy.   "He was a man, a man who hung around with a wide variety of people.   Why would God send him to earth and not allow him to experience everything human and that one is pretty basic,"  he paused looking at me, "C'mon, don't tell me you had never considered that."   My eyes started to well up with tears because I had never really thought of Jesus as a man, he was someone I used to run to as a child for protection.   He would comfort me in the middle of the night when I had nightmares.   He was someone I could talk to in my room when I had a quiet moment and was lonely (which wasn't often in an Irish Catholic house with five children).    I felt like he had my back as a kid and he would talk to me in my dreams.   He was more than a guy, he was my Jesus.   He was the literal Savior who would take the time to make me feel better when I had the nightmares about the giant crushing all the houses in my neighborhood and my sister Sharon and I running as fast was we could to get away from him. Then there was the nightmare with Frankenstein who would crash down to earth from the sky and would try to get me.   I would open my eyes, my face and pajamas covered with sweat and I would ask Jesus to help me.  He would comfort me and my heart will start to go back to normal.  I would dream about him walking with me at Fort Myers Beach or just sitting next to me.    

I thought about those times as tears rolled down my face as Max and I talked and I was taken aback by the emotion that I was feeling.   Yes, I had considered that Jesus had a wife and I knew of Gnostic texts that talked about that.  In September 2012, there was even  the recent discovery of an Ancient Greek text in which Jesus is quoted as mentioning his wife, Mary.   That honestly was not what was upsetting me.   It was that after about the age of nine, Jesus became for me someone to fear more than someone to love - that realization at age 49 really made me very, very sad.   I had told a someone, I really don't remember who, about my dreams of Jesus and how he would comfort me when I was upset at night.   I was told that if you dreamt of Jesus and there was light behind him, it meant that you were going to die and that Jesus was taking you up to heaven where  you would never see your parents or family again, until they died and went up to heaven too.   I loved my family and didn't want to leave them.   Why would my friend Jesus take me away from them?  This was also around the time when as a nine year old,  you learned more about the gory details of Jesus' death, the suffering, the crown of thorns, the spear to the side and the stations of the cross.   My friend who I envisioned with light brown hair and blue eyes with flowing robes, was being tortured for standing up for what he believed in.  This poor man on the cross was the guy that I ran to for help and he helped me without thinking of himself.   He'd smile at me and I felt better.  Instead of his angelic face, I finally noticed him with the crown of thorns, bloodied with nails in his hands and feet.  My friend was a victim of evil people who didn't understand him, who didn't believe in him.  He didn't have the power to stop it when he was alive and my nine year old brain couldn't comprehend why God, his father allowed such a thing.   He felt abandoned at the hour of his death after all he had done for mankind which is one of the most basic human fears.  My heart broke for him, but worse, I just couldn't feel close to him anymore, it hurt too much.  I guess I could have asked him about it and not felt so guilty but I could not shake the new images of him suffering enough to ask.   The dynamic changed and I was afraid of him. 

I guess growing up Catholic, you get a lot of mixed messages.   The Virgin Mother is the epitome of the perfect woman and yet she would not be able to be a priest in today's Catholic Church because a bunch of guys in the Vatican have decided that women can't serve that way.    You have this really high bar to live up to with the Virgin Mother and if you want to be a mother, you'll have to have sex which seems very unholy.   After all, we were told that Jesus and Mary led their entire lives celibate - so even thinking about sex automatically makes you unfit to be a religious leader in the Catholic Church.   So as you move through the sacraments of the Catholic Church, starting with Baptism which you get as a baby and have no say in.  Then you have your First Communion in which you take the body of Christ in the form of a host wafer (again another image that is hard for a nine year old to fathom).  There is the First Confession in which you go into a small dark confessional and tell this unseen priest what you've done which for me was usually the same - fighting with my brothers and sisters, not always listening to my parents and the occasional lie about who had finished the last of the Farm Stores chocolate marshmallow ice cream.   Sometimes I would confess to sins I hadn't committed yet (like not doing my homework and fibbing about the last of the Halloween Candy) to get absolution before I did it - sort of like banking some sinful credit.   I know that God could see what I was doing but I avoided looking at Jesus on the cross as I left the confessional because he had died for the sins that I kept on doing and that did not make me a very good person - it just made me feel more guilty. 

It was at this time I turned to God and his angels who were more amorphous and open to interpretation.  You had the stories in the bible of God's voice and the picture of him on the Sistine Chapel, but he didn't have the human qualities that could make you feel bad for him, after all, he's God.  He is omnipotent.   His angels are his emissaries and they can appear in human or angelic form.  I was not aware of their suffering so they seemed to be entities that I could ask for help without the guilt.   Jesus had been hurt so much by humans and who was I to ask him for anything especially something as seemingly small as helping me feel less alone, but my God - that's what he does - that's what he excels at and I just turned my back on that because I was afraid.   Why did I believe that seeing Jesus in my dreams was a bad thing?    I guess when you're nine, you don't reason those things out too well.   You run from trouble and things that make you feel uncomfortable and sad, and sadly for me at that time, it was Jesus. 

When I met Max, he had long hair and tattoos.   I felt an instant chemistry with him that I had not felt with any of my previous boyfriends.   He was sweet and kind and I knew after a few months of dating that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.   While we were still dating, he grew a beard for a part in a children's production of A Midsummer's Night Dream.  I don't think it really occurred to me that he had a savior quality about him until we were out and a little boy saw him, ran up and said, "Hi there, Jesus!!  Hey Mom, look it's Jesus at the mall.  He is everywhere!"  Max smiled sweetly and said hello while a mortified mother wisked her well meaning child away.   It was nice to see that childlike belief, one that I used to have when Jesus was someone I ran too instead of away from.   But I never saw that connection - Max with beard was still Max.   I had met him clean shaven, so I was not trying to work out any weird hang-ups.   He looked more like Kenneth Branagh with a beard then the Son of God. 

When I got pregnant with Amber, I felt a real connection to the Virgin Mother although our ways of getting pregnant were vastly different.   When I held Amber for the first time, I thought that this is how Mary felt when she held her son, that sense of love that is universal and timeless.   I felt really close to Mary because I could finally identify with her although I knew that I was probably not raising the direct son or daughter of God, I was still raising God's children which is still a huge responsibility.  When I was pregnant with Daniel I was very happy.  The pregnancy was going along well until I had to get the alpha fetoprotein (AFP) test which I felt at the time was taken too early and it came back a little low.  My mid-wife saw the score and suggested that there might be something wrong with the baby and that I needed an amniocentesis for further screening.  If that came back with a problem, then I might have to consider terminating the pregnancy.   Now, granted, I'm a liberal and I support a woman's right to choose, but that choice was not for me.  I also knew that the risks in getting an Amnio done which could harm the baby.   I prayed and asked the Virgin Mother for help.   I meditated and she came to me, much like you see her in the paintings, with long dark hair and blue and white robes.  She took my hand and we went inside my body where I saw my baby who looked healthy and perfectly fine.  I would risk the baby with an Amnio, she told me, but if I wanted another blood test, then to go ahead and get one.  She told me not to worry, that all was well and that the baby would continue to grow normally.  She smiled and looked luminous.  She then turned into a wall of roses and disappeared.  I opened my eyes and felt calm for the first time in weeks.  I called the doctor's office and asked for another AFP test which came back normal.    Daniel was born as a perfectly beautiful child and I knew that angels attended his birth.   I held him and thanked Mary for her help.    I didn't even think to ask Jesus for assistance which looking back I regret but I know he sent his mother because at that point in time I needed a woman's touch.   

So now here I was in the year 2013, contemplating my failed relationship with Jesus.  I sat at the kitchen table with all these suppressed feelings coming to the surface - how much I missed my friend, who became a savior who then became a victim of human nature.   To this day, I have a heard time going to church and looking at the altar and seeing him outstretched in the cross, looking down, sad, broken and bloodied.   I know that we have to remember that he died for our sins, but I also want to remember the guy who made the loaves and fishes feed thousands of people, the man who John the Baptist baptized.   The man who could walk on water.   The man who was bad ass enough to throw the money lenders out of the temple.  The man who wanted to make the world a better place.    It took a few days for me to realize that maybe while I didn't turn to him for help, he was guiding my life in ways I didn't realize.  I've worked in non-profits for most of my adult life, with children who have been abused, abandoned and neglected.  I've worked in global health to help women have healthy babies or to educate people on how to stop AIDS in developing countries.  Now I work with adults with developmental disabilities.   I thought of one of my favorite quotes in the bible, Matthew 25, when Matthew describes the importance of being of service to others:  "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?" Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."   

All this time, I was helping Jesus and didn't even realize it.   I knew I was trying to live a  good life, but it was not until now that I made the connection.   He's been around me the whole time, guiding me - allowing me to follow in his path without saying a word.   God, my guardian angels and Mary helped lead me to that wonderful conclusion.  So on those days when the bank account is low and we're just barely getting by on $10 a day before payday, I have to realize that it's all for a higher purpose.   I've always seen the world in a vastly different way than others and tried to see the good in everyone even when it's not always worked out in my favor.   But you can't stop trying to do your best, to help people, to be compassionate.   That's what my friend Jesus has taught me.  I know he's standing behind me as I write this and I'm not afraid.   He has loved me unconditionally all this time.   It's taken me forty years, Jesus, to realize this, but I'm so glad we're back together again.    

Monday, February 4, 2013

Tina Fey, Liz Lemon, The OTC and Me

I got misty eyed last Thursday night when my friend Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) decided it was time to move onto the next phase in her life.   She'd been producing this comedy show for seven years and knew it was time for something new.   She's a new mom - in fact she had just adopted two eight year olds and recently got married to a man she's been seeing for a couple of years - so those major life changes in such a short period of time were mind blowing.   The effects of trying to produce a weekly comedy show with egotistical actors like Tracy and Jenna were tough enough, but now with two kids, it seemed that she needed more - from her life and herself.    But being the martyr she is, she was going to shoulder on and take care of everyone else because that what female producers do - we take care of people.   We make the other actors look good, we make sure they have enough to eat, we work on things after our kids have gone to bed with their stuffies having sweet dreams because our dream is sitting there in front of us  barely in reach sometimes and so often at the mercy of other people.   We go to our day jobs which are important - sure, but a little bit of us wonders, "Man what if I could write or perform full time and make a living at it - what if this regular job safety net was gone - could I do it?"   Then the cold reality of the light of day hits and you tell yourself - it's better to strike a balance because in both worlds - your actors and your children depend on you to have the answers and to keep going.   So the dream gets pushed aside to after-hours when it's affordable.   

The ironic thing for me watching 30 Rock was that I have what Liz Lemon spent seven years trying to get - a husband who loves me for all my quirks and two kids who are pretty remarkable so that should complete me.  Yet the idea of producing a show on a network even one as dysfunctional as the fictional NBC would seem like a dream come true.  Even though I've spent the bulk of my professional career working in non-profits and in my own way saving the world - I've always thought I would make a good producer because I've also had to put up with a parade of crazy actors, theater owners, and people who come to see our shows over my seven years at the OTC Comedy Troupe.   Like Liz, I've had actors do outrageous things like call an audience member an "Asian Bitch" because he thought he was being funny and couldn't understand that he had crossed a line.  I had an actress not show up for shows until we were half way through the performance and still expected to go on.   I had another woman who did stand-up arrive to rehearsals late, leave early so she could perform at the open mike at the Punchline Comedy Club.  She would also promote her projects to the audience while I was paying her to do my shows.   The advantage to just being their director and not their mother was when it was obvious that these actors were not going to change their egotistical ways, I could fire them which I did.   That might not seem very maternal but for the good of the "comedy" family, they had to go.  

I could understand why Tina Fey decided that after seven seasons she was done with 30 Rock.   According to an article in Rolling Stone, she was trying to balance raising two children -  one a seven year old and one whose 18 months old.  Those sleepless nights were taking their toll - she was just wiped out at the end of the day.  I can understand that - I went back to doing improv when Daniel was about a year old and I was working full time.   Trying to maintain your identity doing what you love and yet the people that you love need you too- sometimes the guilt can really get to you - and you feel like you're trying to scale a very slippery slope.  Add to it the fact that women in comedy have to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously, and it's not wonder why we're sucking down chocolate and junk food like cheesy blasters just to cope.  

Junk food can help because both Tina and I have had to stomach our share of overt of sexism in comedy.  I remember being in the improv group Mental Floss back in Miami in the late 1980's where half the cast was women and the other half were men and still the attitude was that women would not make up a big part of the show.   In improv, you have set the pieces or games and put in the people to perform in them — so it doesn't matter if it's a man and a woman or two men or two women in the scenes because you make up the action as you go along with a relationship which can be husband and wife, co-workers, puppies -- just about anything.  Yet in groups like Mental Floss, the women would be lucky to get four pieces to the 16 pieces that the guys were doing.   Her experience with the legendary Second City was similar, "We were making up the show ourselves. How could there not be enough parts? Where was the 'Yes, and?' If everyone had something to contribute, there would be enough. The insulting implication, of course, was that the women wouldn’t have any ideas.”  Yeah, I've been at the condescending end of that equation and it pisses me off — it's so arrogant and yet in comedy it's so pervasive - the cards are stacked against us which is why I finally said, "Screw this, I'm starting my own company," which I have twice — once in Miami and currently in Atlanta.  

But even being in charge doesn't guarantee that things will be smooth sailing for me or the other women in the group.  I've had guys come into the OTC Comedy Troupe thinking they could weasel their way in, take over and force me out.   Big mistake - because if you want to really take down a funny woman, you'll have to try harder then being underhanded, because we'll see it before you can act on it - call it women's inituition but we generally have a pretty good feel for who is going to work well and who is going to be an asshole.   I've had guys leave the group because I would not let them do sketches on pedophiles, incest or make fun of the handicapped.  They think it's edgy and I know it's just in bad taste and borders on bullying - but because I won't let them do it makes me "a fascist."  Apparently I just don't know what's funny and those topics should be fair game.   True comedy does not come from putting down people who can't defend themselves or making fun of taboo subjects.  My attitude is that if you don't like it, start your own company and perform for the prepubescents who might laugh but won't have the theatrical or corporate dollars to book you.   

So it's on those days when I've had to sit in an empty rehearsal hall 20 minutes after rehearsal was supposed to start and wondered why I put up with it.   What is it about doing comedy and improv that compels me to sit in a freezing back room in an old church with no heat and breaker that trips when you plug in the heater to wait for a bunch of actors to sheepishly meander in?  Why do I care so much?   I've wanted to any number of times to say - "That's it, we're done - workshop is over - next time show up on time.   Good God, is that too much to ask!?"  I've wanted to melt down like Liz Lemon any number of times, but I know it's not worth it.  So I swallow my pride and welcome them in because maybe we all need to laugh.  We start to goof around and then it all makes sense, laughter makes those shitty life moments bearable.   Those web shows that we used to do at the coffee shop that made people smile when they had a lousy day - that's worth it.   Reaching out to a lonely teen and making them laugh in their room while they watch us on YouTube doing a sketch like drunk menopausal Barbie and having them leave a grateful comment on your channel - that's worth it.   Watching seven seasons 30 Rock that my kids and laughing together - those things are priceless.  Laughter has it's own wonderful power and it's a currency I trade in - dammit, it's what makes me who I am even when I think I can walk away - it's not long before I come running back with my hands in the air wearing a silly hat.   Me, Liz, Tina, Ellen - we're silly people who want to make the world better place by getting people to forget their troubles for a few minutes - because if you can genuinely laugh at yourself, you can't hate and you can't hurt.   You can go further with a strength you never thought you had.  Maybe that's why men and women don't see comedy the same way - for us it's a way to heal  - not a way to dominate or inflict pain like the Three Stooges - call it a girl thing.  If that means a guy might not find my kind of comedy funny then I'm okay with that.  
So as the sun sets on 30 Rock, I want to thank Tina Fey for us showing women that you can be funny, strong, silly and a hot mess at the same time.  I always laugh hardest when I realize what a total dumb ass I'm being.  I also know that after spending all that time taking care of other people, you need to take a break and try something new.    As I look at my work with The OTC Comedy Troupe, I understand the importance of new chapters.  While I love performing live, I'd like to move us into developing a series for the internet or a cable channel so our work can live beyond the footlights.   One of the sweetest last images you see of Liz on 30 Rock is with her two kids sitting on director's chairs laughing at the show she's producing.  God, I can relate.  My kids used to love to come and watch the web show - they were my laugh track.   I'm starting to write my own show and develop characters that grow week to week rather than ones that last just a few minutes in an improv sketch.  I'm hoping it will have a successful run even if there are bumps in the road which I know there will be.  But you have to take chances and you have to try something new because staying in the same place will just stagnate you.  I know as long as I have people around who will laugh with me I'll be okay.  I'm probably going to fail a few times before I get it right - that's the scary part.   But that's how you learn and that's what defines you.   Thank you Tina Fey for not being afraid to show me that.   

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Strange Vibrations

I was in Walmart last week when the overriding feeling of being surrounded by zombies overtook me.  I walked over to my son Daniel and half-way joked that we were surrounded by "Walkers" (a term they use for the Undead on The Walking Dead).    He laughed nervously but I could tell he knew the energy in the space was off — way, way off.  The back of my head started to tighten up and I was having a hard time being able to focus.   We had gotten some gift certificates to Walmart for Christmas and decided to use them even though I rarely shop there because I get a weird head buzz (not in a good way) almost every time I go.  Some Walmarts are better than others, but the one near us is really hard for me to shop in.  I decided not to say anything more until both of the kids begged to go because they were feeling dizzy and uncomfortable.   We gathered up what we could buy that day and walked to the register - walking past people with blank expressions on their faces, glazed looks in their eyes and not really looking like they were enjoying their shopping excursion.  Our cashier looked miserable and our discomfort got worse, but we were so close to finally being out of there.    We fled the glaring fluorescent lights and managed to exit to our car as sunshine dissipated our angst.   Both of the kids asked me how I was doing and I responded "Fine, now that we're out of there - but next time we go on-line to shop at Walmart."   

We drove to the peaceful repose of Target where we grabbed a quick bite and some Starbucks and finished the list of items we thought we could buy at Walmart.   I've always liked the vibe at Target - the icies and popcorn to keep the kids happy while you shop.  There are smiling salespeople who look like they enjoy working there.  It feels like home - it should because I'm usually there at least once or twice a week.  It's comfortable.  It's the retail version of "Cheers" - they might not know my name - but the folks at the food court usually remember my order.  It's that sort of positive energy that I'm drawn to.   This is not a knock at the people who work or shop at Walmart per say, but just an observation of how I perceive the energy at Target as being positive versus the energy of Walmart being negative.  Target is a physically and emotionally more comfortable place for me to shop.   Now my kids have started to pick up on that same kind of Walmart energy with very little prompting from me except for an occasional snarky zombie comment.  

It can be tough to be sensitive in a rather insensitive world where you can leave anonymous insults on Twitter or YouTube or create fake Facebook accounts to trash a perceived enemy.  People are not always receptive to the needs of others which creates angst which causes more anger which causes more angst so it becomes a vicious cycle.  If you can pick up on those types emotions like me, it effects you on numerous levels.  If I walk into a room and the energy is off - I'll feel it no matter how much of a happy face someone tries to put on.  I know if a co-worker is having a bad time even before she opens up to me because I can just sense it.  Sometimes I can feel their physical discomfort - like a stomach cramp or a fight they just had with a spouse and how tight their chest feels.  I've learned over time how to seal off my aura so that other people's emotional turmoil doesn't imprint on me.   It's sort of like a psychic raincoat - I can still feel the rain, it just doesn't get me as wet.  

I guess that's why I've never been a fan of certain kinds of horror movies - like the ones that show serial killers or evil entities that destroy people.  Sure the vicarious thrill of seeing other people suffer at the hands of Jason, Jigsaw or The Grudge is scary fun when you know that you are safe in a movie theater but being in a place where that much fear is conjured up for sheer entertainment just makes me uncomfortable.   I'm more likely to see The Walking Dead or The Lost Boys which show how people manage to survive and depend on one another.  It's the triumph of the human spirit that really appeals to me in those shows or movies. 

So it's natural that I've always been drawn to comedy.   I've loved sit-coms since I was a little girl who would watch I Dream of Jennie or Bewitched, or I Love Lucy over and over again.   If I woke up with a bad dream, before I would go into my parent's bed, I would try to think of a funny sketch I saw on The Carol Burnett Show. I'd think of Nora Desmond, or the dentist sketch with Tim Conway and Harvey Korman which would make me laugh under the covers and would dry my tears.  It would reassure me that everything was alright - in fact I used to pretend that Carol was my second mommy.   Laughter always sent the bad things away.  

It's interesting that I learned that approach at an early age since there are tons of research that back up the fact that being positive and having a sense of humor helps you feel healthier, helps you combat disease and improves work productivity.  According to an article in the British publication The Independent by Roger Dobson in 2008, "Happiness and laughter have been shown to increase natural killer cell activity in blood and free radical-scavenging capacity in saliva, as well as lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It is also thought that laughter causes the release of special neurotransmitter substances in the brain, endorphins, that help control pain. And there are more direct physical effects of laughter, including increased breathing, more oxygen use, and higher heart rate."  He goes on to report that according to the Oxford University Press medical journal, Rheumatology, an additional study showed that blood levels of key inflammatory compounds dropped considerably after patients with rheumatoid arthritis watched a humorous film.   

Laughter can change the whole feel of a room.  It can literally lighten the air and make just about anyone feel better.  Yet, there are those that know that people are more vulnerable to negative energy.  If they can keep them in a state of constant agitation they can exploit them easier.   According to a study by UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center  entitled “Using Biological Markers To Measure Stress In Listeners Of Commercial Talk Radio,” hate speech increases the amount of a stress-related hormone, salivary cortisol, which has the potential for negative health implications including the development of cancer and other inflammatory diseases. The research indicated that listeners of a radio segment with high prevalence of hate speech, experienced clinical anxiety and in turn had higher levels of the stress hormone, regardless of their race, ethnicity, ideological alignment with the speaker, or their level of previous knowledge on the topic.  You have to wonder if all the health problems that Rush Limbaugh has been experiencing over the years are products of the negative ideology that he has been spewing for decades - the man is a former prescription drug abuser, has a heart condition and yet lives in denial by still being overweight, smoking and drinking wine.   I honestly can't listen to more than five minutes of his show without feeling my own blood pressure increasing.  But even people who share the same ideology are going to feel upset by agreeing with all the terrible things he's saying.   It's a lose/lose situation for everyone but Rush who makes $64 million a year peddling his form of demagoguery.  

There is a darker spiritual side to constantly imbibing negative ideas and the energy that it produces - it can actually form a poltergeist.   Unlike what the movies would have you believe, poltergeists are actually created by negative energy, anger and stress brought on by living people.   It can manifest by causing all sorts of problems from making noises, to moving things to even attacking people.   I was going through a really tough time at work about two years ago along with my mother going into assisted living and my siblings at each other's throats.  The stress was taking it's toll.  I was constantly upset and angry - going to work was extraordinarily emotionally draining and hearing about the family squabbling didn't help.  It really could have consumed me if I let it.  Worse, those feelings could have created something I couldn't control because I was feeling so depressed and angry.  Luckily, I have a supportive husband and found a book called Healing with Angels by Dr. Doreen Virtue which helped put things in perspective.   I began to snap out of my funk and even when I was eventually let go from my job, I was emotionally strong enough to handle it.  On my last day in my cubicle, I stayed back while the rest of the staff went to a Christmas Tree lighting.  I used a few prayers in Healing with Angels to cleanse my work space of all the negative energy that might have accrued there because I didn't want it to affect the person who would eventually be at my desk.   As best as I could, I released it and tried to forgive those that needed to be forgiven more for my peace of mind then for theirs.  

Having the comedy troupe helped me forge through that difficult period because creating shows that made people laugh helped me and I knew it helped the audience.  When we used to do our comedy web-shows at a local coffee shop, folks would walk in not really knowing what we were doing.  Once they caught on, they would stay and enjoy, laughing with us and at us.  Sometimes they would come up and say that they were having a horrible day but being there with us completely turned it around.  I always love getting that feedback because while it's great to hear that we're funny and talented - hearing that we helped lighten their mood means way more.   We'd hear from isolated teens in the chatroom that our show was cool because they could make suggestions for scenes.  We would perform them without judgement because that's not what the show was about - we just accepted our audience for who they were not because we wanted them to think like us.  We were not there to push anything more than a very silly agenda - and being a part of the show helped people feel better.  

It's ironic that when the Taliban took over Afghanistan, one of the first things they banned was laughing in public - because if you can spread anger and misery, you can control people.  If you are happy and laughing you are more likely to think clearly and objectively which is something that ideologues don't want you to do.  If you are angry they can control you because misery loves company.   It makes you wonder how Bill O'Reilly's studio must feel most of the time or Rush Limbaugh's or Mike Malloy's radio booth.   They might not believe in poltergeists because - they are making money spreading their angst about anyone who does not think like them and that probably makes them happy.  But what about the people who believe in what they say hook, line and sinker.  What about those that believe the only credible sources of information are FOX News or talk radio?   The ones who believe that the president wants to take away all their freedoms and they are victims of a "liberal" or "conservative" agenda.  They are the folks I truly feel bad for because most of the time they must sit around with like minded folks feeling a false sense of oppression that is self imposed.   Their anger is high, so is their blood pressure and the myriad of health problems it causes.   I feel bad that those folks feel so bad.  

I'd like to propose an experiment to those that are hooked on their afternoons with Rush and Mike Malloy and their evenings with The O'Reilly Factor or Rachel Maddows - try just not tuning in for a week and see how you feel.   Is your sense of outrage less?  Is the vibe in the room different because you choose to watch The Big Bang Theory or The Middle rather than the usual talking heads?   Life can be full of laughter if you just take 15 to 30 minutes a day to find it.  Laughing for half an hour will improve your health and your psyche.  Maybe the fine folks at Walmart need to learn that and pipe comedy albums over the sound system instead of soft rock.  I might also suggest cutting back on the fluorescents and making it a fun place to work for your staff.  Maybe if those changes are made, I might consider going back sometime.   In the meantime, I'll find my happy place at Target. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Paranoid Conspiracy

It always amazes me how easily people will believe in even the stupidest things.    The latest and saddest one to date is by the "Truthers" who believe that the whole Sandy Hook Massacre is a hoax because they have uncovered conflicting accounts from witnesses and police accounts to lead them to believe that the entire tragedy was created to take guns away from law abiding citizens.   Their smoking gun includes a photo of a six year old girl named Emilie Parker who was reported as one of the Sandy Hook victims who was later seen in a photo with President Obama wearing the same dress that she wore in a different photo.   The reality for those supposed "truthers" is that the girl with the President is Emily's sister who looks like her and she just happened to be wearing the same dress her sister wore possibly as a way to feel connected to her.   For them, it proves that the President is in on the conspiracy and is using it to further his political agenda.  Forget that if that was true, it would be very sloppy for the President to be seen with someone who was assumed dead, but for those want to believe in the unbelievable, nothing is impossible and the truth that's out there is the one they manufacture. 

The "truthers" would be easily dismissed if they were just a group of whack jobs who congregated in basements or in chatrooms and kept on writing weird letters to the National Enquirer editors.   But unfortunately in this electronic age, they have unleashed their collective fury on people we would consider heroes of the Newtown tragedy.  Somehow by harassing people like Gene Rosen they feel righteously indignant at the possible fall-out of Sandy Hook - which in their minds includes the repeal of the Second Amendment.  Rosen, who lived just one-eighth of a mile away from the school, found six shell shocked kindergardeners on his lawn and offered them food and comfort.  He is now the subject to terrible harassment for this kindness.  These "truthers" have set up  false websites and Facebook pages that suggest that Rosen is a pedophile or an actor looking to be in the movies.   These paranoid people will stop at nothing to discredit those they see as threats even if it proves to everyone else the extent of their lunacy.    A few YouTube videos that uses some of these "truths" have gotten anywhere from 45,000 to over a million views.    I'd like to think the bulk of these views are from people who are outraged at the hoax implication but why do I think most of the views are from like-minded nut bars who need to prove that their crazy theory is true.  It's a sad state of affairs but then conspiracy theories are not new — and for those that are easily duped into believing them, the simple truth does not hold the mystique that an elaborate hoax does.   Think about it - first there was Hurricane Sandy and then the tragedy took place at Sandy Hook - both incidents in the same part of the country within weeks of each other -  somehow it has to be related, right? 

Of course, President Obama has been plagued by another set of crackpots called the "Birthers" who insist that he was not born in this country even after he submitted both this birth certificate and his long form birth certificate to prove he was born in Hawaii and is a legal citizen worthy of being elected.   It's interesting that 13% of Americans still believe that he was not born here -  of that number, 23% of them are Republicans.   However, the problem with paranoid conspiracy theorists is that no matter how many actual facts you throw their way, they will find a way to dismiss it as forgery.   There are lawsuits trying to block the President's inauguration as illegal or even suing John Roberts, the Chief Supreme Court Justice who will swear him in.  It would seem that after two resounding wins in 2008 and 2012 that those "birthers" would be silenced and realize they are in the minority because the rest of America is not buying their level of crazy.   But alas, the more the reality of a second Obama term is coming to fruition the more these people want to vehemently deny it because the rest of us "just don't get it".  In their minds, he was obviously born in Kenya.  The talking head of this movement has been Donald Trump, a rich man who has a vested interest in defeating President Obama both for publicity and political reasons.   His constant demand for documents which are produced, authentic and certified never seem to satisfy him - because like many conspiracy theorists, anything can be forged.   You will never know the truth until it's admitted publicly.   Interestingly enough, Macy's and NBC are standing by him, possibly to allow consumers and viewers who are not in the majority of his viewpoint to vote with their wallets.  If The Apprentice ratings are dismal (which my guess is they will be this season) he will be cancelled, ironically with his own tagline - "It's not personal, it's business."   

What's interesting in the minds of those that believe in conspiracies is that if they believe in one conspiracy, they will likely believe in multiple ones even if they contradict each other according to an article on  "They're explained by the overarching theory that there is some kind of cover-up, that authorities are withholding information from us," said Karen Douglas, a study researcher and reader in the school of psychology sciences at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. "It's not that people are gullible or silly by having those beliefs. … It all fits into the same picture."  In the first of two experiments, Douglas and colleagues asked 137 students to rate how much they agreed with five conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in 1997.  "The more people were likely to endorse the idea Princess Diana was murdered, the more they were likely to believe that Princess Diana is alive," explained Douglas. "People who thought it was unlikely she was murdered were also unlikely to think she did not die."  

Of course not all conspiracies are make-believe.  The attacks on 9/11 were coordinated by a group of terrorists who wanted to kill the most number of Americans that they could.   Their coordination of the attacks were by definition a "conspiracy."  However, the conspiracy folks would have you believe that that Bush administration knew and allowed it to happen or even coordinated the attacks so they could invade Iraq. If that were the case, wouldn't they have done a better job coordinating the size and scope of the war?  Eleven years of fighting is a long time to be mired on a conflict that was manufactured by "big government."  Obviously the conspiracy folks have a greater confidence that our government is efficient enough to hide the facts for over a decade with brilliant accuracy than I do.  Have you ever had to deal with the federal government to correct a tax issue or to get a name change for your Social Security?   Good luck getting it corrected the first or even the fifth time.  The reality is that our government bureaucracy is not set up for that kind of collusion.  I mean really you can't expect thousands of government workers to keep those secrets under wraps - it would be impossible.  Yet, for conspiracy experts the government is all knowing so it's all plausible. 

A prime example that the government simply would not be able to handle a huge conspiracy is Watergate.   The whole scandal started out simply enough - a few burglars broke into the  Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Hotel in Washington in June 1972 during the course of the Presidential Campaign to wiretap the headquarters.   The original five were arrested but their arrests led a FBI investigation which led to the White House and President Nixon recording key conversations that would implicate him and eventually led the way for his impeachment.  On August 9, 1974, Nixon took to the airwaves and resigned.  Later his Vice President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon.  Keep in mind, this was back before there was the internet and thousands of places to keep information - yet Nixon was brought down by the dogged fact finding of two Washington Post reporters.   After Nixon's resignation and subsequent investigations, 48 people were found guilty of the cover-up.  While many different branches were implicated including the CIA, in the end, all the President's men fell including Nixon himself.   Yes, there was a conspiracy, but it started to fall apart almost immediately after it began.   

The Kennedy Assassination is another topic that is ripe for a full on Government or Mafia conspiracy.   How could Lee Harvey Oswald have acted alone to kill the President?  It seems impossible for it to be so random - it must have had to be something more - part of a larger plot because that one moment changed the course of history.  History should not change because to the act of one insane individual.  It had to have been a plot - there are just too many contradictions.  Yes, there are conflicting witness reports but ask any detective about trying to piece together a crime scene and they will tell you that it's not unusual for there to be wide variety of differences in witness accounts.   The third shot that was captured on film was more than likely the exit wound and not a fourth shot from a second shooter.   Jack Ruby killed Oswald within days after the assassination - surely that must have been part of the plot.  All indications are that Jack Ruby also acted alone.  The movie JFK perpetuates many of the myths and actually adds more for dramatic effect.  Filmmakers like Oliver Stone feel that it must have been a conspiracy because Kennedy was going to pull troops out of Vietnam and if that had happened the war would have ended.  All those young soldiers would still be alive.  Someone must have ordered the murder to prevent that from happening.  If Kennedy had lived, Stone would not have gone to see the horrors he witnessed as a young man serving in Vietnam and documented in his film Platoon.  His friends would not have died in that horrible place.   The government had to be behind the President's murder that extinguished Stone's own youthful innocence because the universe cannot be that random and cruel - and yet sadly, sometimes it is. 

I was discussing the content of this blog with my 12 year son and told him that there are some people who would dismiss Sandy Hook as a hoax because they see conspiracies in everything, including things like Global Warming, 9/11 and the death of Princess Diana.  I took the Devil's advocate role when he tried to explain that global warming is real.   My answer for all the photos that he tried to show me of the Polar Ice caps melting was that they were forged and unless he had been there himself to witness it, he had no definitive proof to offer that it was real.   I could see him getting frustrated even though he knew that we were role playing.   Later when we were getting ready to go to church and I couldn't find my keys or make-up, I jokingly attributed it to a conspiracy.   It was meant as a joke but then I realized that if you see the world as full of plots and conspiracies, you don't really have to take responsibility for how messed up your life is because there is some puppet master making sure you don't get to where you need to go.  Your relationships fall apart because those around you don't possess the same level of understanding that you do or they are part of the plot to undermine you.  Your search for the truth will never end because the truth you are looking for was never there to begin with. 

So for those that bought into the Mayan Apocalypse and now have a whole basement full of rations much like the ones you had for Y2K, sorry things did not work out.  To those that think the government is watching us through our DVRs or tracking us via our driver's licenses, I would suggest that if you are going to turn over any more rocks looking for plots, try going to an actual park with real rocks where real human beings are taking in the sun and enjoying life.   You'll hear children laughing and feel sunshine basking on your face.   You might even remember a time before the world became a cold sinister place.   However, if it does make you feel any better, I will admit that there is someone who is after you.  They are closer then you think - I mean really, really close.  Just get up slowly and go into the bathroom and take a good hard look in the mirror.   You'll find that the truth is staring right back at you because if all you can believe in are conspiracies, you are easy to manipulate.  People like Donald Trump who perpetuate these crazy theories know that.  Don't get paranoid though, it's not personal - it's business. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Undecorated Truth

If there is one thing I really, really hate doing after the holidays it's taking down all the decorations.  It's not just the hassle of packing away everything - taking down the outside lights, the Christmas tree, the ornaments, the Santa figure who is dressed in gold and ready to golf (I got that one at a 75% off sale the day after Christmas) and putting it all in the attic.   It's that the holiday season is really, really over.   No more anticipation of presents or buying things to make everyone else happy, no more pressure (okay - so why am I missing Christmas, again?).   I guess when I was a kid at Christmas time, anything was possible, things were sparkly, and the time leading up to December 25th was so much fun.  The school parties, the car rides to see Christmas lights, and the Sears Roebuck Toy catalog where a child's fantasies could come true.  You had a only few presents to buy as a kid  and the weight of Christmas was not on your shoulders - it was on your parents.   Putting up decorations was fun and seeing Christmas lights (back then it was the big bulb kind not the little twinkly lights kind so they were extra bright) made me feel really secure.  I remember being able to see the Christmas lights outside my bedroom window and falling asleep happily because I was sure that nothing bad could happen as long as they were up.   When Christmas was over, I would close the shutters on my windows because the lights were gone and now my eight year old brain could conceive of robbers claiming through my windows - somehow the glow of the holiday lights or the possible burns they might receive from the bulbs kept them away.    

I guess the thing that strikes me most as I put those decorations away that get used from year to year is how different things will be the next time I get them out.   Last year when I put them away, I was still unemployed with no real job prospects on the horizon.   I had only been out of work for two months so my spirits were still pretty high.   I wondered then as I wrapped up the angels in newspaper what my life would be like in late November when all of it would go up again.   Would I be working?   What would I be doing?   This year I am lucky enough to have a great job that I enjoy going to rather then a job that used to give me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach because my ex-boss made me feel like nothing I did was good enough.   What difference two Christmas seasons can make!

There were the milestone years when I had put away the ornaments in January 1995 when Max and I had been married for three years and I found out that I was pregnant.  I knew that I would have a baby to buy presents for by the next Christmas.   I remember how stressed everyone was during Christmas 1999 wondering if the Y2K would bring down everything we knew  in just a week.   When New Year's 2000 was rung in with barely an interruption, I was able to put the decorations away knowing that the world as we knew would not descend into the chaos that you see on a show like Revolution.  I knew that Max and I would try for another baby, but had no idea if that infant would be on the way in November 2000 when everything would go back up again.   December 2000 brought with it a bouncy baby who was three weeks old when Christmas arrived that year. 

I guess for many people, Christmas more than any other holiday brings about those milestone moments.  It's different than an anniversary or birthday because all those are celebrated at different times of year - it's not a  mass experience.  It still means so much to you personally but not everyone in the world is taking part in it.   For better or for worse, Christmas comes on the same day every year - it never varies and that deadline is always there.  You have the same amount of time to get everything done that everyone else does and how you deal with that holiday pressure is up to you.   You can be the sobbing mass on the floor certain that you will never get your projects done in time (okay, so maybe that's just me) or the person who has it together and all their presents wrapped and ready by the first week of Advent or those that go shopping the a day or two before Christmas and still get it all done (for the record, both those types of people are irritating!)  

But there are the good things too.   There's the ornaments that your children make in school, or an art class or Sunday School that will forever be part of your decorations.  Those imperfect little ornaments with the paint splashing inelegantly all over the place because their little hands or minds were not able to stay within the lines.   You remember their faces as they put their latest creation on the tree - facing out for everyone to see.   It was messy, it was uneven, it was theirs and it was beautiful.   There's baking with your kids and trying to keep their fingers out of the cookie dough.  The smell of banana nut bread which was the same as when you were a kid because you're using the same childhood recipes that your mother used to.    You sit back and think - "Okay, for all the hustle and bustle - this right here is the good stuff."   

What makes Christmas more special then any other time of year is that the world is awash in red, green, blue, silver and gold.  The world is brighter and shinier.   I can also tell you as a person who has worked in non-profits for over 20 years, December brings in a ton of donations both cash and in-kind.   People want to carry that holiday feeling forward and help others.   It's not that they aren't generous at any other time of year, it's just that at Christmas you feel for those that don't have what they need and in your own little way you try to help even if it's donating $20 worth of board games to a toy drive because that's all you can do.  

Then the bleakness of January sets in.    Yes, it's a New Year, full of promise but all the pretty lights are gone and you're left with the starkness of your resolutions.  It's generally cold, overcast and unless you live in a warm climate, not very sunny - wearing shorts is a non-issue.   The lacy tapestry of barren trees paints the sky - their limbs naked for months before spring brings back their light green leaves.   So you're left in a bit of a funk.   Valentine's Day is near, but it's just not as much fun as Christmas.   The momentum of the Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year's train comes to a dead stop - three months of holidays gone for another year.   It just goes by too fast. 

Last night, exactly 18 days after Christmas, Amber and I took a drive from our house all the way to Downtown Duluth which is about 2.5 miles.  Our lights were still on as one of the last die-hards in the neighborhood and we wanted to see who else were still holding onto the holidays or were too lazy to take their decorations down.   We found just four homes in those miles rather than the dozens that had lined the streets in the weeks leading up Christmas.   By next week, I imagine those three other houses will be out - tonight our house is back to normal.  The mantel has the family photos back up and the burgundy and gold have been replaced by blue, yellow and white.  The cats are upset that the tree is not a permanent fixture.   The decorations are down and things look ordinary again.  

I guess this stuff hits me harder now because eleven years ago, my parents came up after Christmas to visit after staying with my sister Kathy.  It seemed like any other visit.  I was starting a new job and was glad to spend New Year's Eve with them, to go out to lunch and ring in 2002 with my husband, six year old daughter and my year old baby.   The lights were up, my parents were visiting and absolutely no one could climb through the windows and try to rob the place (we lived in a third floor apartment so that robber would have had a very long reach).   They left to go back to Miami and as per tradition, the decorations would stay up until after January 6th which was my father's birthday and the Feast of the Three Kings.   Then on January 7th, we got the call that my father had a heart attack and had died suddenly.    I remember going to the airport and passing those houses with decorations still up on the way and crying.   I remember the blur of those days afterwards, being with my brothers and sisters together in the same place for the first time in years and crying.   I remember flying back and seeing still more of the diehards with their outside lights still up and crying.   The worst part was coming home and taking down our decorations because when they went up, my father was still alive.   Now, I had to take them down.  The world seemed very dim, gray and sad.   There would be no bright bulbs to make it better.      

I always feel so sad when the lights have to come down.  I seem to relive that every year now which is why I dread doing it so much.  This year though, I didn't cry as hard and I did not seem as heartbroken.  Maybe it's because life goes on, and that little infant from 2002 is 12 years old and makes me laugh everyday.  That six year old little girl is a teenager who is smarter than she gives herself credit for.  My husband is kind, brilliant and uses his strong arms to give me hugs when I need them.  Right now, life is good.   So who knows what the next 12 months will bring.   I know I will always miss my dad - that's a given.   But maybe it's finally getting easier to let go - to miss my dad but not feel destroyed at the the loss.   The ornaments will come out next year with all their imperfections and those stupid animated deer will probably not work the way they are supposed to.   It's those rituals in life that keeps us going, living and remembering those we loved and have lost and holding those we have closer then ever.   For whatever it's worth, that's my undecorated truth.  Sometimes it's great and sometimes it hurts - but now,  I'm finally okay with that.