Ida B. Wells: Journalist, Activist, Civil Rights Pioneer

historical woman

Everyone knows that, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and move to the back, and with this refusal became a major figure in the Montgomery bus boycott and the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. (Well, everyone should know that anyway.) But Parks was not the first to engage in an act of public transit civil disobedience—nor, I’m sure, will she be the last. For starters, in 1884, Ida B. Wells similarly refused to get up and move to a different train car when ordered to do so by a train conductor on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad. She was by force removed from the train by three men who, I think, really needed to stop and evaluate what they were doing with their lives.

Wells didn’t stop with train sit-ins, but we’ll get to that in a second. First, who was Ida B. Wells? Not to be confused with muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell (roughly contemporaneous), Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist, tireless campaigner for African-American and women’s rights, anti-lynching activist, and influential public persona. She was born in 1862 in Mississippi to slave parents, emancipated three years later with Abe Lincoln’s Proclamation. She was educated first at Shaw U., then at Fisk University, both Southern black colleges. When she lost her parents, she took on a job as a teacher in order to support her siblings.

Sometime during her young life, Wells got into politics—not surprising considering the tumultuous, nasty times she grew up in. The War was over and slavery was done, but America’s attempts at Reconstructing™ and creating a just post-war, post-slavery society were, let’s face it, occasionally pathetic. The government, fearful of completely alienating the South, made too many concessions and took just as many steps backward as forward.

One of the most hideous evils to become common in this period, and for a bunch of otherwise perfectly nice people to get complacent and blind eye-y about (see also: segregation, imperialism, most wars) was lynching, specifically, the lynching of black men in the South. In 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched by a mob in Memphis. So she turned to investigative journalism as a means for change.

Wells begin to study similar murders across the South, and then published her findings in a pamphlet called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All its Phases.” She concludes that the “reasons” for lynching black men usually fell along the lines of: they failed to adequately accept their alleged inferiority as raced human beings. This could involve competing economically with white men, being disrespectful to white men, and so much as looking at a white woman. (Wells also found that most sexual encounters between black men and white women were consensual, despite popular myth to the contrary.)

Wells traveled and worked with famed abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass, doing speaking tours of Europe and getting a bunch of British people on her side. But she continued to face an uphill battle at home, where the New York Times called her a “slanderous and nasty minded mulatress.” Oh, the liberal media!

In short, Ida Wells was no shrinking flower. She was one of the earliest women to not change her last name when she married. She wasn’t shy about getting into it with people she disagreed with, including white temperance activist Frances Willard and famed black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois (she said he excluded her from the list of NAACP founders). She fought for what she believed in and wasn’t afraid to face, head-on, one of the ugliest legacies of American slavery. Amidst headlines about affirmative action, George Zimmerman, and (yes) Paula Deen, it’s hard not to hope for similar take-no-s*** voices in our own time.

The Price of Fear

mind the gap

I first mentioned the lump to my boyfriend after it had been there for a month.  "I thought it was a pimple," I said.  "But it's not going away." "Go get it checked out," he said.  "We live in England, so why not?"  Why not, indeed?  In the four years since I graduated college, I'd spent more time than not uninsured.  I'd chosen the path of freelance work and enterprising startup jobs, which, while rewarding, came laden with different types of concerns then I'd ever been faced with before.  One Christmas, I stared at my pinky toe, which, after a run in with a table, had now grown to the size of an apricot.  Hospital visits were going to be several hundred dollars, at a minimum, I knew.  I decided that I could walk it off.   Another time, I fainted at a cafe, the back of my head absorbing the weight of my whole body on the concrete floor.  When my right pupil grew slightly but perceptibly larger than my left---a potential sign of a brain bleed, which can quickly turn fatal---I was told by my doctor friend that I needed an MRI, which would cost upwards of $1000.  I found myself playing the Russian roulette of What If games.  What if I spent over a grand that I didn't have and they found nothing?  What if I didn't spend that grand and it was something, and then I was nothing?  Eventually, fear won out and I got the MRI.  When they found nothing out of the ordinary on the scan, my relief was surpassed by anger, guilt, annoyance.

Now, though, I was in England, where the NHS ensures that all medical care is free.  Yes, you heard me---free doctors, free dentists, free prescription medications, free physical therapy, free surgeries, free outpatient care.  I scheduled an appointment with my primary care doctor, and I waited.  And I waited, and I waited and I waited some more.  Non-urgent cases are often given appointment weeks---if not months---out.  When I finally saw my doctor, he told me that his roll, essentially, was that of a gatekeeper.  "I think it's just a cyst," he said, "but that's just an opinion."  He couldn't diagnose my arm lump, but without him, I couldn't see a specialist.  "I've put into the system that you need an ultrasound," he said.

"Great." I nodded.  "When will I get that?"

"It's in the system," he repeated.  "You'll get a letter in the post once they book you an appointment."  Ah, the post.  The British are fond of the post, and use it almost exclusively for the scheduling of medical appointments.  Three to four weeks after you see your doctor, a letter arrives.  On it, is a single time on a single day.  Can't make it?  Only then can you call a hotline, where a slightly exasperated person (who are you, after all, to be too busy for their carefully arbitrarily scheduled appointments?) will offer you a different slot.  Maybe.  If there happens to be one open.

Six weeks after my initial doctor's appointment, I went to the hospital, where an ultrasound technician looked at my arm.  "This is definitely not a cyst," the man I'd never seen or met before said.

"What is it?"  My eyes were wide, fearful.  I would not cry in front of the businesslike ultrasound man.

He snapped his gloves off and shrugged.  "I don't know," he said.  "You've got to get it out.  I'll make an appointment for the surgery."  Seeing my wet cheeks---my attempts to hold back tears had clearly failed---he sighed.  "It's an in-office procedure," he said.  "It won't hurt."

He entered into the system and three weeks later, I got a slip of paper with my appointment time and not much else.  The appointment was still six weeks out, a month and a half I spent worrying over what the lump in my arm was and what the surgery entailed.  Did I have skin cancer?  Was I going to be under anesthesia?  Could I eat in the 24 hours before?  Would I have normal use of my arm immediately after?

The day of the procedure, I woke up early to make my way to the hospital across town.  I rode the elevator up to the sixth floor, and made my way to the dermatologist's office.  "Are we doing the procedure in here?" I asked, looking around.

"Procedure?"

"I didn't eat last night or this morning," I said.  "Just in case."

"Oh, honey.  This is just a consultation."

"But the ultrasound guy said---"

She shook her head.  "For this kind of thing, you don't even need an ultrasound.  Look: there are 350 dermatologists in the whole of the UK.  We're hard to get appointments with, so they like to put obstacles in the way."  She poked at my arm, and determined that it was, indeed, just a cyst.  "The ultrasound guys don't know what they're looking for," she said, and then: "Don't worry, we'll get this thing out of you."

The kind dermatologist walked me through what it will entail, finally filling in one of the many black holes that have surrounded this experience.  I haven't received my appointment yet for the final procedure, although I'm told it should be within the next four months, or approximately nine months from my initial appointment.

In the US, I likely could've had my cyst diagnosed and removed within a week, likely for a cost upwards of a thousand dollars.  In the UK, I'm receiving care free of financial worry but laden with every other kind: six months of not knowing what a strange lump in my arm was; months of back and forths to different doctors; a disconcerting lack of clarity from most parties; being at the beck and call of a scheduling system that likely hasn't seen any change in the last fifty years.

What is the value of fear?  What is the value of convenience?  I feel incredibly fortunate that I can even ask these questions; I realize the amount of people in the US who wouldn't have gotten the MRI ever, simply because the cost was completely prohibitive.  But as our health care system is changing in the US, I think these are questions worth considering.  While I remain in favor of free healthcare for all, I now know that free does, sometimes, come with it's own price.

xxxxi. provence

postcards from france

My family takes a bus from Aix to Cassis, a small beach town not far from Aix. While my parents wander the streets and visit shops, my sister and I lay out our towels on the pebbly beach and soak in the Mediterranean sun with all the other bronzed bathers. I sit up, my arms wrapped around my knees, and stare out over the sea, imagining the Greeks who originally colonized this place looking at the same view thousands of years ago. It probably hasn’t changed very much since then.

Even though it’s June, the water is still freezing but I decide to go in anyway. I let the waves lap up to my waist, the goose flesh spreading over my skin, and then wade back out. I just wanted to touch the sea. I come back to Cassis almost three years later with my language partner from ACCP, a shy boy named Luc, whose English is nowhere near as good as my French. It is night and we are going to have dinner along the small marina and practice speaking to each other.

I still feel that same urge to touch the ancient Mediterranean water, to feel its history on my skin. And here I’ve come, just now, with ships and crew, I silently recite as I walk down to the shore to skim my palm over the lapping tide. I am Athena, Book One, lines 211 through 212, sailing the wine-dark sea to foreign ports of call. 

It's Not You, It's Me. And By Me I Mean My Job.

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I am young and employed at the exact place that I said I would love to have a job at when I graduated with my undergraduate degree just over a year ago. I have a benefits package and vacation days. I rent a small home with a fenced-in yard and a small vegetable garden in the back. Every morning, when my alarm goes off, I seriously consider calling in sick to work. Some mornings I cry.

I have struggled, over the years, with chronic "mild" depression and anxiety issues. I have gone to therapy, tried medication, and have no issues with either of these things. They helped! It was great! I have been off of both for five years to no ill effects. But I have always been "moody" and "high strung," even when it wasn't bad enough to require medicine or therapy. Coping is not my biggest strength. But I'm trying to find a therapist in the area and maybe that will alleviate some of what is happening. I'm just not sure that is the entire problem here.

I loved my job at first. But staff has changed, and now the situation feels toxic. A new coworker is saying negative things to my boss about me. My boss is increasingly taking anger about mistakes made prior to my hiring out on me. I've become paralyzingly afraid of making even a single mistake.  My boss gets annoyed if I don't respond to emails they send after hours or if I leave before they do.  I miss interacting with (and helping, even in small ways) customers, as the nature of my tasks is devolving rapidly into standard unpaid intern-type tasks (and that's about the level of credit I get). Twice last week I came very, very close to having anxiety attacks while I sat at my desk. I've only been at this job for 6 months, although I've been with the organization for 3 years.

Sibyl, do I just need to get over myself? Is this job really not for me? Should I consider jumping back into the job search, even if it means leaving my current position after just a year (assuming I am able to find an alternative after a brief job search [I probably wouldn't be so lucky])? Are the issues with my job just a figment of my currently depressed and very stressed imagination? I should be happy right now---so why aren't I? And how do I get there?

Sincerely,

Sick Of It All

 

Dear Sick of it All,

Perhaps you are familiar with this quote, attributed to Steven Winterburn: “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”

I think you may be finding yourself in the latter category, my dear.  You absolutely need to get out of that job.

I can understand your confusion.  It is noble to ask yourself first, "Is it me?  Am I the author of my own unhappiness?"  But I think that before you come to that conclusion, you've got to say, “Well, maybe it’s a little of both.  Let me rule out some external suckiness and see how I feel.”  If you want to find out whether depression is plaguing you once again, you need to get to a baseline of peace to see what your natural state is.

It's possible that you are getting hit with the solemn reality that, for most of the world, work really, really sucks.  It's dehumanizing and disempowering, and all the infographics about "doing what you really love" don't help when you're punching a clock to make payments on student loans that you'll never actually pay off in your lifetime.

However, it does not seem like your issues are normal work drama stuff.  Something in you is reacting strongly to this current environment, and I'm here to tell you, you can make those changes you want to make.  You must be willing for your life to look really different, but it is possible.

Having spent way too long in a job that went sour, I asked myself, once it had all blown up in my face, "Why didn't I get out sooner?  I saw the writing on the wall months ago - what kept me there?"  Everything I could think of: loyalty, security, false hope, all could be summarized by one thing: FEAR.

I feared I wouldn't find anything better, I was afraid of having less money, and I feared what people would think of me if I left.  So, eventually, I was forced out, and once the dust cleared I saw that not working there anymore, even though it meant I was out of the full-time workforce for a considerable amount of time, was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I came to the realization that no job, if you are miserable every time you’re there, is worth the paycheck, if you are paying in mind-body-spirit health.  We spend more time at our jobs than anything else we do.  I’m not saying we need to love every second - all jobs have their equivalent of “taking out the stinky garbage” - but yes, I think you should look for a different one.  And if the garbage still smells so bad that you are hyperventilating at your desk, follow up on those therapy referrals.

Be smart about it---don’t do your job searches while you’re on the clock, don’t burn your bridges (you never know when connections you made at a miserable job will pay off in the future---someone is watching your hard work, believe it!), and save as much money as you can, so you’ll be in the position to take a less-paying but more fulfilling job next, if that’s what happens.

The first step is opening your mind to the possibilities that await, and deciding that being so upset at your job that you are questioning your own sanity is not okay.  You need to break up with this bad job like it’s a really terrible partner that steals your money and crashes your car.  No looking back.

Love,

Sibyl

One Big Awesome Tide Pool.

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, Last week I started working on my first podcast. It’s a new sub-project of my documentary film Stories From The Green Cabin. The podcast is a little silly, really. It asks people to talk about their work as if it were a wilderness. Say, for example, that someone is an essayist. The podcast asks them: What would essay writing look like as a physical place? Is it like a lush rain forrest, a freezing tundra, or a beautiful, peaceful field?

Then more questions along those lines: What is in an essayists backpack? Do you need a map, or is there a clearly marked path? Is it lonesome or are there lots of others like you?

What is the most dangerous animal to an essayist? (The Internet? An empty coffee cup? Self-doubt?)

What’s in your canteen? (Tea? Coffee? Whiskey?)

What’s your advice to a newly exploring essayist? How important is it to go to school or have a guide before venturing into this wilderness?

What would a Girl/Boy Scout style badge for your work look like?

I’ve had this podcast idea for a long time. I had been listening to shows online about writing, pop culture, science, international news, cooking , etc. Eventually I started using the Sticher app on my phone, which helped me burn through even more podcasts while walking my dog, sitting in traffic, or riding the train. Most of the shows were great. I loved them. Two of my favorites were The Dinner Party and Hash Hags. I liked the content and the hosting of Hash Hags, the theme and the structure of The Dinner Party. I wanted to listen to a show that combined the two, but couldn’t find one.

So I bought a bunch of audio equipment and told a few close friends about my idea.

Then I let the audio equipment sit unused on my bookshelf for almost six months.

Then I emailed Elisabeth and Miya and said “Hey, I have this idea for a podcast, can I share it on Equals?” They said yes.

Then the audio gear sat on my bookshelf for another month.

Something was wrong.

My desire to produce a podcast was there but wasn’t strong enough to justify a stand-alone project. The podcast didn’t have a home within Stories From the Green Cabin at that point. Would I really want to create a new website and media presence to support this podcast? I wondered. Would I really want to bother my friends about having them as guests on a silly little side project without knowing where it was all headed? There were so many people I wanted to talk to about their work but there was little reason for me to set aside the time in my schedule to record, edit, and promote this quirky program.  It seemed to me, at that point in time, that the podcast idea was just a distraction.

It wasn’t until recently, when I was halfway though an application for a summer media program*, that I realized how the film and podcast were linked. Applying for something always has this clarifying affect on my work. Regardless of whether or not I secure the grant or get accepted into the residency program, the structure of an application always demands a simple, straightforward explanation about the project in question.

The boundaries an application presents in format and word count always leave me with a better understanding of what I’m really up to. This time around I came to see how both the podcast and the film satisfy this intense curiosity I have about identity, creativity, and work. It seems so obvious now, but just months ago I couldn’t make that connection.

When I was little I was obsessed with tide pools. They felt like mini-oceans suddenly and perfectly contained for observation. Every once in a while a big wave would come and wash all of the little tide pools into one big awesome tide pool. I felt the same sense of wonder and excitement when connecting the film and podcast. For a long time I was just waiting for the next big idea wave, I guess, when all it really took was filling out that application to change the tide.

*The program I applied to (and have since enrolled in) is hosted by AIR (Association of Independents in Radio) and Uniondocs in Brooklyn. It’s called the Full Spectrum Storytelling Intensive. For any freelance radio or film producers out there, check it out---there are still a few spots available!

 

xxxx. paris

postcards from france

I first lay eyes on the Eiffel Tower, that eternal symbol of France, in the summer when I am 15 years old. I haven’t even had my first kiss yet, but I am filled with romantic visions of Paris — ones that I’ve carefully cultivated during repeated viewings of Amélie and Before Midnight.

On a hot afternoon train back from Versailles, I quietly watch as a French girl a few rows in front of me is approached by a cute Spanish boy, both about my age if not a few years older. Their common language is English, so I listen as she points out places to go on a folded, faded paper map of the city that he’s pulled out of his pocket. Before their separate stops in the city, she writes her phone number somewhere around the sixth arrondissement. He flashes a heartbreaking smile back at her as he steps off the train.

If only I’d sat in that seat, I scowl.

For a long time, I think of travel in this way — a matter of happenstance and luck where something magical might happen only if I’m in the right place at the right time. To a certain extent, I still think this is true. But the most magical things I’ve experienced so far have happened when I make them happen — when I uncross my arms, get up, and move a few rows over.

Let Bravery Be Your Blanket

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

My father was abusive to me growing up. Not very frequently was the abuse physical (the verbal variety dominated), but it was enough to instill a fear of him into me that I've never been able to shake. When he got angry, he took it out on me, I assume because I was the only one who would ever speak up when he was being cruel to my mother or sisters.

As a young adult, he used physical violence against me once; that incident alone is etched onto my memory with crystalline precision, and I cringe every time I see a person in the throes of anger. I had thought that now, since I was an adult, he couldn't hurt me anymore, but that experience settled that false assumption. Since that particular episode, I have just zipped my lip around him and kept my opinions to myself.

We do, however, have a decent relationship now---especially given the circumstances---and I have forgiven him, though I never confronted him about it and I’m not sure I ever will.

Now, however, I am going through a period of rather extreme personal change brought about by recovering from addiction. Through all this healing, I've discovered I’m not the person I once was, with the same strictly conservative viewpoints I once shared with my parents. My father especially cares passionately for right-wing politics and strict religious doctrine---it’s a hot button issue for him, and I've gotten frightened just watching him talk about it. So far, I've hidden my new opinions from everyone so as not to make any waves, but I’m getting tired of stifling my thoughts just so they won’t “get back to them” and result in a confrontation. I want to finally be myself without shame or fear.

The thing is, though, I am still afraid. I’m afraid of my father finding out, trying to engage me on this, and me melting down. I’m not necessarily scared he will hit me, but I am afraid of not being able to defend myself against his anger.

Advice?

Confused and Scared but also Fed Up

 

Dear Confused and Scared but also Fed Up,

The experience of having the person who helped bring you into the world, the man who represents your origins in many ways, turn on you in violence is something that shakes you to the core of yourself.  So my first thought is: though you see yourself as scared, you are actually incredibly brave.  Cloak yourself in that bravery like a grown-up security blanket.  It's why superheroes wear capes.

You were so brave to stand up to him as a kid, you are so brave to work on yourself through recovery, you are so brave to move beyond the values he clings to and find your own, and you are so brave to want to want to be yourself fully, in front of him and the whole world.

You are fucking awesome.

I hope he knows that.  I think he does, and fears it.  That's why he attempted to reassert his power over you by being physically abusive to you as an adult, and with the loud tirades about his politics and religion, which I consider spiritual abuse.

People who pontificate about politics and fundamentalist religions in a hostile way that excludes all other viewpoints are really just trying to order their world.  They see the world as an out of control place, and all the structure and rules of that way of life help them to make sense in the chaos, and find their place in it.

The thing is, in that world that makes perfect sense, where there are such heavy rights and wrongs, what you lose is love.  Love is inherently risky, and folks who are stuck in judgmental worldviews can't risk the rigid walls they've put up to hold everything in place, to love someone who might act in ways they can't control.

Whenever I consider standing up to someone, especially someone with this kind of strict worldview who may not be able to hear me at all, I ask myself this question, "Do they have any real power over me?"  If they do, if they are my direct boss or my landlord or the person holding the papers that say whether I graduate or not, then I consider holding my tongue in their presence.  However, if they don't, then I feel that it is not only my right, but my duty to be a change agent in their lives.  We don't have to wag it in their faces, that we don't believe what they do, but simply and firmly being who we are will be enough.

In fact, it is probably going to enrage your father, to see you asserting yourself, expressing views that are different from his.  The whole cycle of abuse is about power and control, so to see you moving off of that wheel and onto your own path is going to rock his whole sense of self and relationship to you.

My question to you is, what have you got to lose?  It's not like you will be giving up too much if he turns on you.  You say you have a "decent" relationship with him, which sounds to me like you are still in the role of peacemaker in your family.  What would happen if you let that down?  Your mom and siblings might say, "Why are you stirring things up with Dad?" but you could answer, "Why aren't you?  Are we all going to wait until he dies to be our true selves?"

Listen, I'm not suggesting you directly confront your father, provoking his rage.  Where I think you should start is with a therapist whom you can practice expressing yourself.  Engage in some drama therapy exercises, in which you picture your dad in an empty chair, and tell him what you really think about what he's done to you and your family, and how you truly feel about the world.  Then move into the chair and embody him, playing out his rebuttal.  Then move back into your chair, and tell him, "You had no right to be violent with me.  You have no power over me anymore.  I'm going to be myself, and no amount of posturing can stop me."

Then, start simply being your bold self, even if that means you publicly express things that your dad disagrees with.  He'll yell, he'll send you crazy forwards, he'll give you the cold shoulder.  You'll scoff to yourself, "I've survived worse", and let your bravery blanket flap in the wind.  He can’t take anything away from you anymore, because you aren’t under his control, and you know who you are now.  And if he cuts you out of his life, that will indeed be very painful, but then again, you'll be free.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

The Diary of a First Time Filmmaker

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, I am making a film. Does that make me a filmmaker? I'm not sure how this all started.

I guess it began back in August last year when I traveled from Virginia to New York to go to that blogging conference. I wasn’t much of a blogger, really. I was mostly unemployed, living in a dank hunting cabin that was infested with stink bugs and a rowdy squirrel family, and feeling mixed up about my next step in life.

I had hoped the cabin would help me make progress towards my goals. I hoped blogging would magically make me more dillegent in my writing practice. I hoped I would find a way to get out of coffee shop and retail jobs for good. The blogging conference was my first real step towards what I wanted to be doing with my time.

Don’t get me wrong, Diary. There’s nothing wrong with working in retail or pulling shots of espresso to get by. I still work in the service industry to pay rent. It was just that I didn’t know how to balance that work with the work I wanted to be doing in writing and filmmaking. The cabin gave me time to apply to writing residencies. It gave me the safe feeling I needed to share my work with someone other than my writing partner.

My time at the cabin also gave me some perspective on other work I had done that hadn’t been a good fit. I had worked as a production assistant on commercials, documentary films, industrials, and reality shows. But I think it was a safety net to work those kinds of jobs. I wanted to be close to filmmaking, but I never actually made any films. I was close to something I loved, but not actually embracing it full on. I enjoyed working in production but I wasn’t sure it was helping me find my voice. It wasn't much different than working at a coffee shop or in retail.

At the blogging conference, just like when I had worked on production gigs, I struggled to explain my story. I was a complete failure at “branding” myself in a way that made any sense or felt honest. Freelance production assistant/barista/salesperson? Aspiring director/editor/ writer? I didn’t know what I was about, let alone what my blog was about. Was it about my move to the cabin? About my budding interest in food? My pets?

It mostly became about my pets. 

I had a hard time connecting with people at the conference because I was so confused by my own blog. One person I did connect with was Lisa Weldon. We met at a small group session about writing book proposals based on personal blogs. The content of the workshop went in one ear and out the other, but Lisa’s story stayed with me. After the session I introduced myself and wrote a little note on a piece of paper with my contact information since I didn’t have any business cards. I also wrote “you’re awesome!” because, well, she is.

After a few weeks back at the cabin thinking about why I liked Lisa’s story so much, I emailed her and asked if I could write a screenplay about her experience. Lisa had walked every block in New York City the summer before and mastered social media in the process. She said yes.

Eventually I realized that reaching out to Lisa about her story was also a security blanket of sorts. I thought if I wrote about a compelling story that had really happened I’d have justification to write a screenplay. None of my own ideas could be good enough for a script, I figured, I needed someone else to help me along.

Lisa encouraged my writing through emails and calls. We even hung out in her hometown of Atlanta so I could do research for the screenplay. But then a funny thing happened. The story stopped being mostly about Lisa’s trip to New York two years ago, and started being about our relationship. We sent each other drafts of stories, sample chapters, and general positive vibes about our respective creative ventures. We stopped talking about the screenplay, and started talking about a documentary.

Now, almost eight months later, I’m almost halfway through with a short documentary — my first film — about Lisa and a few other talented people who shaped my time at the cabin.

I find it hard to think about what the filmmaking process has been like so far.

This is all I can think of:

At the cabin I used to sit on a concrete bench beneath a rotting old walnut tree. I’d look out across the flood plain and watch deer flicker through the trees. I would watch groundhogs perk up on their hind feet, nibbling grass and rolling their wary glistening eyeballs back and forth across the field. I’d watch birds, those bright little singing kites, gliding through currents of sky.

Making my first film feels something like watching a wild animal from far away. Maybe it's the not knowing what will happen next. Sometimes the deer disappear into the trees, other times they freeze, heads perked up like the wary groundhogs. And sometimes the birds take off over the ridge and soar higher into the clouds, higher than you'd think a bird could go.

Lessons from the workplace...(part two)

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, Last week, I started to think about the lessons and wisdoms that I have learned over the years from my mentors and colleagues when it comes to work and the workplace.  But soon I was also thinking of lessons I learned more broadly there as well.  These have served me well as I moved from one workplace to the next, and I have applied many of these same lessons from my work life to my non-work life:

  • People need to know what you’re about in 30 seconds or less: Be efficient.  Know yourself.  Know what you want.  Be able to communicate that to others.  I know it sounds simple, yet it is amazing how many people don’t know how to do it.  Sometimes when we spend a lot of time thinking to ourselves, we forget that others don’t necessarily know what we’re thinking unless we tell them.  And they’re likely not going to take a lot of time to hear us out---practice giving your “pitch”, that way it will be perfect when it matters.
  • The deal isn’t done unless there is ink on the paper:  This will happen to you.  At work . . . in real estate . . . with your local florist . . . doesn’t matter, it happens all the time.  When we get excited about a project or an offer or a possibility, it’s easy to assume lots of things just by talking about it.  When you’re on the receiving end of an offer, remember that the terms aren’t done and decided until the proverbial ink is dry.  Deals will fall through, offers get rescinded . . . until you are one hundred and ten percent sure and signed, always have a plan B. You’ll be less disappointed in the long run.  And if you’re the one doing the offering, try to keep your descriptions as flexible as possible for as long as possible.  That way, you’ll be disappointing others less in that same long run.
  • Some things will just "go away”: It’s not possible to get to everything that’s asked of us at work (or at home, or at school). Part of learning how to manage what’s on your plate is prioritizing what you know will be important and then taking your very best guess at what is less important.  As you get older and have more experience, that guess will become easier---but you will get it wrong sometimes.  This will result in some mistakes, and definitely in lots of effort as you make up for it, but overall, it should help keep workloads manageable.  Develop your radar for truly important and critical projects and requests that are priorities, and pay less attention to the stuff that will likely “go away”.
  • Check the headlines the morning of: It’s just good practice.  I don’t know if the news will still even be printed on paper by the time you are my age, but in school, in work, before big meetings, check the headlines.  You’ll be surprised how much you reference them because they are relevant or because they help make conversation while you wait for relevant things to start.
  • The best bosses aren’t necessarily the friendliest ones: As you start working , you’ll work for and with a variety of people, and you might not immediately like some of them.  That’s okay.  But there is a difference between liking someone and learning from someone, and in the end, I’ve learned the most from people who sometimes weren’t always the friendliest or the most approachable.  However, by doing good work and building up your credibility over time, you’ll gain access to them and lessons that they can teach from their experience that you will not easily get elsewhere.  Look for bosses and mentors that you can learn from.  Then one day, it will be your responsibility to teach it back to someone else.

All my love,

Mom

 

Zelda Fitzgerald: Flapper. Artist. Author's Wife.

historical woman

In our ruggedly individualistic culture, I often wonder: what is it like to be famous because of the person you’re married to? To appear in the press, go down in history books, as “so-and-so’s wife”—to never, ever be mentioned without your spouse as starting point or explanation? In some ways, I think it must be harder even than being a nobody, like the rest of us. At least we can pretend at the idea of absolute autonomy, that we achieved what we have on our own. Even if you’re nobody, you are your own nobody. You’re second to nobody.

Zelda Fitzgerald, whose life reads like an exciting tabloid drama (and who, clearly, would make the best E! True Hollywood Story), is one of those, a Somebody’s Wife. Her Somebody is renowned Jazz Age novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. You know, The Great Gatsby guy. That book you had to read in high school that you still kind of remember and is now a Baz Luhrmann movie. Their life together was glamorous, whirlwind, tumultuous, and ultimately short-lived. It reads like an American Greek tragedy. And while F. Scott had some tough breaks, I have to say, I really feel like Zelda had it even tougher.

Zelda Fitzgerald, born Zelda Sayres, came from a prominent family in Alabama. There were senators, judges, etc. amongst the men in her family, so she was definitely your classic, privileged Southern Belle. However, it seems Zelda was a little, I don’t know, spunkier than her fellow SBs: drinking, smoking, seeing boys. That might have been why F. Scott was so taken with her upon their first meeting—he probably recognized a kindred spirit.

As soon as F. Scott’s first novel, Tender Is the Night, was published, he and Zelda were married. In no time, they were the It Couple of the 1920s New York (and later Paris) party scene. They drank. They cavorted. They spent money. They fought. It was all very Great Gatsby. Also, as you probably saw in Midnight in Paris, they were friends with many other American artistic luminaries: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas.

As her husband’s star was on the rise, Zelda threw herself into her childhood passion, ballet. It was a little late in life to start a career as a dancer, but for a while she devoted herself wholly to the art. It didn’t come to anything. Later, she would also take her shots at both painting and writing. The gist is, she seems to have been pretty good at all three. But what kind of career could the hard-partying wife of a super-famous hard-partying author really expect to have?

And eventually, even her role as Famous Wife wasn’t going too well. The drinking and fighting started to dominate a little too much of the couple's time. They both had drinking problems; they both had affairs. Zelda’s emotional health declined. She did one stint in a sanatorium (old-timey rehab) before checking into a psychiatric facility, which she was in and out of for the remainder of her life. She died in 1948, in a North Carolina hospital, trapped in the building when a fire burned it down. Terrible way to go, and first on my list of two tragic famous people psychiatric ward deaths (the other is composer Robert Schumann).

Only more recently has interest in Zelda’s artistic output been renewed, both her paintings and her 1932 semi-autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz.

Zelda’s story, for me, brings to mind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s amazing, amazingly creepy short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which a confined housewife slowly goes mad in the room where she spends most of her time, and which was based on Gilman’s own experiences with mental illness and marriage. Zelda and Gilman’s heroine are different, sure—one was stuck indoors in the 1890s, the other was liberated and living it up in the 1920s literary party scene—but that stifling quality of being forever in the shadow of your male partner, constantly searching for that space that through your accomplishments you can call your own, seems in line on an emotional level with that more, perhaps, timeless female struggle. Maybe that’s why Zelda’s story still resonates today.

Lessons from the workplace...(part one)

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, Late nights at the office have had me thinking about work recently.  This year actually marks ten years that I’ve been in the work force, and in many ways I feel like almost no time has passed by at all.  I feel that there is still so much learn, and there are so many jobs I’d like to have before I would feel that I truly have the experience to be considered qualified.  But then, I look at our incoming summer interns, or the candidates that will be starting with firms here in the fall, and I know that to some degree, I’ve also come a long way.  I was that young too at one point, starting out with nerves and anticipation.

With that in mind, I’ve thought of a few things I’ve learned from some of my best mentors along the way---things I definitely didn’t know when I first started:

  • Check, check, and double check: First lesson from my first boss and I still use it today.  Of all the things that we do at work, no matter what the field, when you are new at doing them, or do them a lot, or do them tired, or have others help you do them, the bottom line is that you have to check it . . . check it again . . . and then check it once more.  Just because you “thought” something got done, or got done right, doesn’t mean that it did.  And no matter what the reason, often times you’ll find yourself being the one to explain something that didn’t.  You’ll be tempted to skip these steps, and you’ll regret.  Just check, check, and double check.
  • Don’t turn down a job you haven’t been offered yet: Same job, different boss for this one . . . It can be easy to imagine ourselves doing lots of different things in life---and that’s a good thing.  But it’s also just as easy to picture yourself not doing a lot of things . . . you don’t want to live somewhere . . . the pay wouldn’t be right . . . your skills wouldn’t be right. But you’d be surprised at how much can change between initial conversations and then actual offers.  Don’t limit your own opportunities before someone has had a chance to offer them to you.
  • Always leave the door open: Workplaces and clients and colleagues will come and go.  Sometimes on good terms, and sometimes on ones much less so.  When you’re ending a work relationship, if you have things to get off your chest about how things weren’t how you thought they would be, be sure to think twice.  End the relationship as diplomatically as possible, since the chances that you will work with that person or organization or brand or chain are high, and only getting higher the more interconnected we become.  Don’t let things you say professionally (or personally for that matter) come back to haunt you.
  • You’re not above anything:  One of the best feelings at work is the one you get when you’re promoted.  Not only does it usually mean you a make a bit more, but it’s a huge validation of your efforts.  When that promotion comes, just remember that it doesn’t make you better than others who were passed over, or who haven’t yet had theirs.  A promotion is an earned acknowledgement of your work but it’s not a free pass for all the things you’d rather not do.  Sometimes, the best way  to lead your team is to work right in the trenches with them.  Don’t put yourself above any tasks, since you never know when you’ll have to start from the bottom up again.
  • Will you live to work or work to live? Work is a funny thing . . . you will end up in all likelihood spending more time at work than you do anywhere else, including home.  But work will likely always have trade-offs between you might be passionate about and what the job actually entails.  You’ll have to pick the right balance, but just remember than in addition to finding work a fulfilling way to spend our time, it is also what pays the rent, what puts food on the table, what buys us our leisure and hobbies, and what will do the same for your own children.  At some point, the lifestyle you want will also dictate the work you need to get.

All my love,

Mom

 

Leela and Lois: The Strong Female Character in the Male-Centered Animated Comedy

strong female characters

I watched an episode of “Futurama” recently (this isn’t an uncommon occurrence), and in it the whole staff of the Planet Express is stranded on a barren island that has begun to go through robo-evolution, starting with prehistoric robot sludge and yielding robot dinosaurs and then robot cavemen in a matter of hours. Fry, Leela, Amy, Hermes, the Professor, and robot Bender are reduced to wearing tattered clothing and sleeping in a cave. Leela and Amy, in particular, come out looking a little Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., practically busting out of their rags—yet when they’re kidnapped by a couple robo-cavemen, like modern, empowered women, they take care of it themselves while the (generally weaker) male characters equivocate about going to save them.

This was kind of “Futurama” in a nutshell for me. Leela’s bodacious bod and the extent to which it is occasionally revealed is a small reminder that this is a male-created series with a largely male audience. Yet on the whole, I find Leela to be a really positive, self-sufficient female character, particularly in what can be a male-centric genre. For comparison, let’s look at “Family Guy.”

Seth MacFarlane’s pop reference-laden, kinda fratty animated series has a lot in common with “Futurama.” Their demographic target audience is roughly the same (“Futurama” is a little nerdier). They’ve both been on since the late ‘90s, with a hiatus in the middle (“Family Guy” went off the air between 2001 and 2005; “Futurama”’s was longer, between 2003 and 2010). They’re both, essentially, cartoons for adults.

I find that “Family Guy” has moments of real brilliance, particularly in its early episodes. I love the observational humor on human behavior, and some of the culture references are hilarious. It can be really, really smart. But it can also be really, really stupid—and worse, it casually drifts into racist, misogynist territory pretty regularly---see worst repeat offending character Glenn Quagmire. In that, the show's humor is a clear reflection of the personality of its creator, Seth MacFarlane—see the controversies raised by his Oscar-hosting turn earlier this year for evidence. He lives to provoke, even though his non-provoking material could stand perfectly well on its own-- see his awesome turn hosting “Saturday Night Live” last fall, for evidence of his talent.

The main female character on “Family Guy,” Lois, isn’t a bad representation of womanhood per se. She’s pretty tough, fairly well drawn character-wise, and often the voice of reason. But, besides for the fact that she’s surrounded by often offensive material, she also ultimately falls short compared to “Futurama”’s Leela.

Why is Leela awesome? Well, for starters, she’s a statuesque purple-haired one-eyed mutant in a tanktop and combat boots. She can kick the ass of any other character on the show. She’s the object of affection for the dim-witted protagonist, Fry; she only occasionally returns these affections, you know, when she feels like it. But there’s something really sweet and authentic in their relationship, and in Fry’s devotion to her. It’s not just lust, nor is it perfunctory or idealized. Throughout the series, Fry is really, believably in love with Leela.

In fact, the nature of Fry and Leela’s relationship is a microcosm for the overall tone of the show. While “Futurama” definitely deals in gross-out humor and sophomoric jokes, the core attitude is never mean-spirited and almost never offensive (I only say “almost” because while nothing comes to mind, nothing is never offensive, right?). The characters, no matter how colorful, have a genuineness—their hopes, their actions, their relationships.

Also, there has been more than one “Futurama” episode that’s been an actual, real tearjerker. One of these is an episode in which the foster home-raised Leela discovers that her birth parents are below-ground-dwelling mutants who gave her up for adoption in the hopes of giving her a better life, and with whom she is reunited after years of separation. The episode ends with a montage of young Leela growing up, going through various life situations, and in all of them, unbeknownst to her, her mother and father are watching over her, looking out for her, and occasionally plucking her from imminent danger. It’s pretty much as heartwarming as TV gets.

So not only is Leela kick-ass in the vein of Buffy, Starbuck, and the Bride, she also belongs to a cartoon universe that treats its characters with sweetness and respect—as much as is possible with animated screwup robots, lobster people, mutants, and cryogenically frozen humans. All of this is pretty sorely lacking in its male-centric, purposely-offensive “Family Guy” counterparts (see also: South Park, American Dad, Daniel Tosh’s horrible Brickleberry). In my books—both the feminist one and the general one-- “Futurama” wins every time.

Addendum: A quick Google image search to find a good Leela picture for this post has yielded a further discovery: that no matter how awesome and feminist a character Leela is, the reception of her by the largely male audience can still be as creepy and fetishizing as anything. It was actually really hard to find a non-sexual image. Sigh. I guess it still beats Family Guy rape jokes.

A Sibyl Without a Quandary

Asking For It with Sibyl

The last few weeks, my Sibyl inbox has been empty.  I was tempted to conclude, "My work here is done.  Everyone is fixed."  Then, I encountered a whole bunch of pretty flawed and twitchy humans who could use a good Sibylizing.

Therefore, I'm going to provide you all with a little encouragement to write in your quandary to Asking For It, for Sibyl to answer.

Six Reasons You Should Write In to Sibyl:

1.  You haven't got it all figured out.  I know you---you're not even trying to pretend you have it all together.  So write to me about the things you're grappling with, and I'll help you cut through the fog and see it all more clearly.

2. The act of writing out the quandary and sending it in has helped some of my readers find their own answers, simply by sitting with it in that conscious way.  I've received follow-up emails that say, "thank you for your answer to my question---it confirmed what I was thinking, even while I was still writing it to you!"

3. Interactive columns between strangers are pretty rad.  People who don't know each other, offering wisdom and care for no money exchanged is a powerful thing.  Be a part of this random act of artful kindness.

4. We're a dying breed.  Sugar is on hiatus.  In the last few months, we've lost Dear Abby and Dr. Joyce Brothers.  The advice columnist, once called the "agony aunt" colloquially by Brits, is a classic way for women to show up for one other publicly, with the cloak of anonymity protectively in place.

5. Your friends are tired of hearing about this issue you are obsessing about, and you can’t afford more therapy.

6. Don't you have to see your family this summer?  Yeah.  Write to me about that.  Aren't there weddings you need to attend that you feel weird about?  Write it in.  I don't care how long and rambling your letter about your ex may be.  I can take it.  And your story could really resonate with another person, and help them just by hearing that someone else is experiencing that situation, too.

It's a powerful thing, knowing you're not alone in this world.  Sibyl is listening.

Lessons from Chicago...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Sometimes when I travel for work, I have that sensation of needing to get outside right then and there.  Often when I travel, the routine involves heading from airport to hotel to office, and then back in reverse again, that it seems like I can go days without fresh air.  It happened to me again most recently in Chicago.  Outside of the huge wall to wall windows in the hotel room, I felt that I had to get some sunshine and fresh air, even if it meant working on my project until late into the evening.

I hopped out and started heading down the street, and came across the boat tours that go up and down the river and out onto the lake.  I bought myself a ticket, catching one of the last available ones for the day and had a just an hour to myself to take in the architecture and the breezes of the city and I realized:

  • Water is our most precious resource: Most of what Chicago grew to be as a city is due to the remarkable possibilities of having both a major river and a major lake.  And it’s that same lake that provides the water that comes right out of every person’s faucet, drinkable at that.  So much of our fortunes are tied to water; when a city is blessed with this kind of resource twice, it’s absolutely our job to take care of it.
  • It’s always colder on the lake: No matter how  the weather of day, you can always find a breeze on Lake Michigan.  On hot days, it’s a welcoming cool down; on cold days, it chills to the bone.  If you’ll be going on the lake, dress for it.  You won’t regret the extra sweater.
  • A good city plan both endures and adapts: As a city, Chicago is fascinating.  But what’s most fascinating is how the city’s plan has expanded and contracted while keeping its core intact as times and needs have changed.  Every city should have a plan, and every plan should do the same.
  • Public art is a public treasure: For some, art means expensive paintings that hang in dark corners of homes and museums.  But Chicago does a fantastic job of putting art “out there”.  Right in the middle of downtown. . .right in the middle of a park. . .right next to the lake.  In Chicago, where you can find people is also where you can find some of the best works of art.  They fit so seamlessly into the cityscape that sometimes we don’t necessarily notice that they were likely a huge investment on the part of the city in order to put them there.  Appreciate the efforts that cities make to keep things interesting and beautiful for the public benefit.
  • Surround yourself with smart people: While on the boat, I was thinking of how different life would have been if I had chosen to go to school there versus elsewhere.  I remember when I visited a noted university there to make my final decision, that it was the first time I realized that I was surrounded by extremely smart people everywhere I looked.   I liked that feeling, and I knew I would be smarter because of it.  I ended up choosing another place for my education, because it was a better fit for the future, but ever since then I have never stopped looking for strong qualities in others to surround myself with.  Other people’s strengths shouldn’t be intimidating, they should be something to learn from.

All my love,

Mom

Meet the Local: Sydney, Australia

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we meet Ben, a hometown enthusiast who has figured out the key to his happiness.

Meet the Local Sydney

What do you like about the place you live?

A million things.  Sydney is a terrific place.  It’s a very active place mainly because we have such a great climate, even in the winters.  You can always get out and about and be in the sun.  And there’s just tons to do---the bush isn’t far away, and the whole coastline is beach beach beach beach . . . It’s a really active lifestyle.  There are a ton of musical festivals every summer, there are pop up bars left right and center.  I quite like that Sydney is geographically quite disparate as well.  There are little valleys and basins and beachy areas that have different sorts of people so it’s not one flat lump; it’s a really interesting sort of tapestry.

What don’t you like so much?

A current gripe of mine is that Sydney and Australia as a whole is a very, very big nanny state.  There are rules and guidelines for everything.  As an example, I contribute so much money to the council coffers in the form of parking fines and speeding fines---it’s just silly little things.  They’re trying to make you behave a certain way---and it’s a terrific standard of living, don’t get me wrong---but you have to play within the rules.  It gets a bit stifling, a bit claustrophobic.  If you’re not of that mindset, if you’ve experienced different things, if you’ve been to third world countries, you just find it a little annoying.  It feels intensely civilized---a little too civilized, personally, for me.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

Two pieces of toast with butter on them, and Earl Grey tea.  It used to be coffee, but I’m trying to stick to one coffee per day and I need to get over that 3 PM wall, so that’s my coffee time.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m called a Community Manager.  I work for a company called Yelp, and as a Community Manager for Yelp I do a couple of things.  I throw parties, I teach people to use the website, I write a newsletter that goes out every week (I particularly enjoy writing, so that part is really appealing to me).  They often refer to it as the unofficial mayor of the city.  You know the places that are opening, you get asked so many times: where’s the best place for tourists, or for dates, or to enjoy a summer’s day, or for a bush walk?

My job is very important to my sense of self.  I used to work in advertising agencies in the corporate world and then I got to the point where I was making ads for a living and I did everything I could outside my work life to avoid ads---I just hated them---so there was that weird disconnect there.  It was really good money, but everyone was polluted, was whinging about not having a life, and working too hard.  It was the same sort of record on repeat.  I’m a natural optimist but I heard myself getting into this really negative mindset.  So I quit my job and was looking for something else, and then Yelp came along.  I really like the idea of setting my own schedule, and try new ideas.  Being able to have that freedom is really nice.  It has a real people power, which is what I was looking for after the corporate world with everyone just chasing money.  There was a lot of talk among my friends at the time going back to when you’re young, when you have to go to school and get good grades.  Why?  To get into university.  And then you have to do well at university---why?  To get a good job.  And then you have to get a good job---why?  To earn money.  And then you’ve got to get promotions---why?  To earn more money.  Money is just the root of all evil.  What we’re doing at the moment, it’s not the antithesis of that, but it’s more about community, being hyper local.

What do you do for fun?

I like being in nature, so I play a ton of sport. Swim and surf and beaches are so close that every weekend I go for a swim.  I really like music; I go to a lot of music festivals.  I read a lot.  I really enjoy writing.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I’m trying to buy an apartment in the city right now, which is shockingly difficult.  I think we’re the second most expensive city in the world right now to buy real estate – a half a million gets you nothing.  So I moved back home with my mum to try and save, otherwise it’s just an untenable position to be renting and trying to buy.  So I see my mum a lot.  My twin sister lives in Denver, and my brother lives in London, so we’re quite spread out, but we Skype at least once a week, maybe twice.  And we try to have at least one family holiday a year, where we all meet up in some destination.

 What’s your biggest dream for your life?

I want to keep traveling and I want to write, whether it’s for my own amusement or professionally.  Other than that, it’s fairly simple.  I don’t want to invest in properties or anything like that – I just want a house I can live in and a life in the sun, a family at some point down the track, definitely a dog – a pug – and that’s it.  That’s pretty much it.  And to live somewhere I can be in touch with nature.

 If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I really feel an affinity for second and third world countries, where the boundaries are a little bit looser and you can do more things.  You can go shoot a gun in the hills if you want, you can take a car and drive wherever you want, you can camp wherever you want, because the land is free – not everyone owns every single inch of land like they do here.  So somewhere like Mexico or Morocco would be incredible.

 What are you most proud of?

This might sound quite trite, but I’m quite proud of figuring out what makes me happy and adjusting my life to follow those lines.  I’ve figured out that the more simplistic life is, the easier it is to be happy.  If you have worries and stresses and bigger things to look after, you can’t focus and you can’t really get true happiness.  The people that have the least are the happiest.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I’m a massive optimist, I can see the good in anything, so I think I’m probably a nine.  I was probably around a seven before.  The downside of being a natural optimist is that you tend to stay in situations longer than you should because you can always see the good in them, even if they’re crap.

The change happened over the course of a year.  I had a really shitty year a couple of years ago where my dad died.  He’d worked so hard to provide for the family and it was really, really sudden.  He was riding a motorbike in the Himalayas. He was a mild mannered accountant, and he went on this trip of a lifetime and didn’t come back.  That was when I sort of found myself at a crossroads, asking myself if the corporate life was right for me.  My dad was a self-made man, an immigrant from Pakistan.  He came here with nothing and built a whole life up and all of the sudden, things were taken away.  So it sort of gave me a bit of immediacy and made me value my time a bit more.  I realized you can work and be happy at the same time – so that was my epiphany.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

 

Lessons from Philadelphia...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

I don’t know Philadelphia well, but your father does.  He studied for his Master’s degree there. Yet when we visit, we always seem to discover together something that’s still new to him, and this time with you with us, it was an entirely different perspective. I’m so happy that we were able to spend the day there together as a family, and as we took in the sights of the city, I hope you remember the following:

  • Principles and ideas are important: Philadelphia was home to our Declaration of Independence, and to the Constitution, and physically home to many of the men that made those two historic documents possible.  The ideas that they stand for, and the words chosen to represent those ideas were carefully chosen.  In fact, so carefully, the documents still stand today as meaningful, governing foundations.  Every generation has the opportunity to make that kind of lasting, revolutionary impact if they choose their principles, ideas, actions and words carefully.
  • Remember brotherly love: Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love because the greek roots of the city’s name mean just that.  But the idea that the name stands for should be part of any city.  A city is always home to many, and in that sense, we’re always a sort of family for each other.  And we need to look out for our fellow residents in the same way that we would for a younger brother or sister, an aging parent, or any family member.  Similarly, we need to look out for and celebrate the success of others in the city as well---like a cousin that wins a race or an uncle who's finally built his house.  A city can never work well if it only feels like home for a few.  It has to feel like home for everyone.
  • Bringing your own is usually better: We love to eat in restaurants in Philadelphia because of the many places that allow you to bring your own wine.  For many places, it has to do with the way the licensing for alcohol is structured, but it’s become part of the cultural experience of eating out in the city.  We go out for the experience of going out, but some experiences just turn out better if we’re able to bring part of our own choosing into it with us.
  • Be prepared to always be an outsider: In a famous stand in Philadelphia, known for some of the best cheesesteaks in town, there is a sign that displays---“You’re in America, Please order in English”.  No surprise, it caused controversy and still does.  People either strongly support it, or they are vehemently against it.  Where you stand is for you to decide---but given how much our iterant lifestyle has us move, the sign was a bi tof a reminder that you will constantly know what is like to be an outsider.  Even though we speak the language here, eventually we will go places where we don't.  So those signs will also be for us.  Because we don’t speak the language . . . because we don’ t know the options . . . because we get the process wrong.  It will happen, and you’ll feel left out.  Some things will always be easier, and frankly, more appropriate, if you do things “their way”.  Some things, if we stick to our core, will be more important to do “our way”.  You’ll have to figure out where the balance is for yourself, but the balance is easier if you are prepared for that feeling.  And when you’re visiting somewhere new, at least make an effort to meet people as close to their way as possible.  Hopefully, as good hosts, they are trying to do the same for you---but remember, the only that's in your control is your own.
  • Not everyone is lucky enough to be grateful for their freedom: Here in the US, we take our freedom, and the liberties and responsibilities that come with it for granted.  For many people, they haven’t known another way.  But visits to the many historic places around Philadelphia will remind you that those liberties are in fact very special, and continually come at a cost.  Not everyone has the luxury of such sound governing principles---be grateful for them, and improve upon them.  No one said that the work of implementing freedoms, rights and liberties is ever done, or that the work belongs to just a few.  It belongs to everyone.

All my love,

Mom

What the Bechdel Test Says about Your Favorite Movies

strong female characters

Strong female characters—or even mediocre female characters—can be in short supply in Hollywood, on both the big and small screens. It’s something I’ve become more aware of as the years go by, and it's a bit dismaying. Recently, I’ve discovered that one of the best quick-view gauges by which to determine whether a film has adequate female representation is the Bechdel Test. Named for comic strip author Alison Bechdel, who with a friend devised the criteria back in the 1980s, the test has three really simple steps. First, are there two (named) female characters? Second, do they ever have a conversation with each other? Third, is their conversation about something other than a male character?

If the answer to these three questions is yes, it passes the test.

These three incredibly simple rules, amazingly, ruled out almost every single DVD on my shelf, including some of my favorite films. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Nope. The Lord of the Rings? Not even close. (And that is in spite of the fact that they proportionally really blew up Arwen’s role from Tolkien’s original text.) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? No, because apparently Jeannie and her mom only talk about her troublesome brother Ferris.

It wasn't surprising to me that some of my more man-centric favorite films---The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, In Bruges, The Lord of the Rings---wouldn't pass. But even films with seemingly more positive and more frequent portrayals of women missed the mark in that they were still, ultimately, male-centric.

Blockbusters like the Batman series and The Avengers fail with flying colors (though there’s some dispute over whether The Dark Knight passes, as there is a scene where a female detective is forced at gunpoint to call another female character. Kind of a sad excuse for passing, if so). The only sure bet that a film will pass seemed to me to be if the lead character was a woman—but even that was called into question when I looked up The Little Mermaid (come on, Disney! Not surprising, I guess, when the character's sole motivation is marrying her prince).

The conclusion is that, despite all of the forward progress we’ve made, there are still some substantial holes in our cultural fabric when it comes to diverse and frequent media representations of women. Ensemble casts tend to be “rounded out” with one major female character; all-male leads segment off the female characters into the roles of wife, co-worker, mother, where they all exist only in relation to the male(s); or, as the test rightly points out, when the women do convene they end up talking about that male character.

Does your favorite movie pass the Bechdel test? Is it important to you that it does? Obviously it’s not necessary for every film, but it would be nice to see films outside of certain genres, or outside of the “chick flick” realm of films targeted directly at women, where two female characters talk to each other about things that concern them besides men.

Lessons from Monticello...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, You won’t find a shortage of wisdom coming from our Founding Fathers.  After all, they broke with every tradition of their time to put together one of the greatest homes for the freedoms that we enjoy.  Is it perfect? Not always, but just because something is an ongoing work in progress, doesn’t it make it irrelevant.  It just makes it something you have to do your part to improve.

But I’ll leave the lessons on democracy for the history books.  When we visited Monticello last week, the home of Thomas Jefferson, I first bristled at the fact that one could see the house only as part of a guided tour.  But in the end it turned out to be so valuable because seeing his home while hearing about who he was as an individual person brought forth its own lessons:

  • Time spent in Paris is time well spent: Jefferson went as an Ambassador (well, as a “Minister”) and had some of his most formative ideas when in Paris — whether it was the structure of his house or his meals, he was inspired in so many ways.  Time in Paris isn’t always easy but it is nearly always formative in some way.
  • A home is a place of learning too:  The house at Monticello is full of books and portraits and ideas that Jefferson didn’t necessarily agree with but the presence of those items invited discussions and opportunities to teach, especially as the house was full of visitors and children.  Having these items wasn’t about endorsement but about discussion, and about teaching individual different ideas so that they could formulate their own.
  • “Meat is a condiment …to the vegetables that constitute my principal diet”: Good health comes from eating good vegetables.  You can eat meat or other indulgences, but when you count the balance of your day, make sure that vegetables and fruits constitute the bulk of what you consume.
  • We will always live at the mercy of water:  Many people find themselves at water’s mercy because they live too close.  Jefferson found himself at water’s mercy because he was too far from a natural source for his farm.  So there were years of drought and years of difficulty, and the farm always had concern about water front and center.  I say this, not because you will likely be a farmer (though one never knows), but more to remind you to mindful of the power and importance of water.  It should be respected, and also taken care of – one of life’s luxuries is constant access to clean and reliable water.  People's lives will always depend on it.
  • If you don’t invent it, adapt it: Thomas Jefferson wasn’t necessarily a noted inventor — but he was a master of taking things he saw used once and adapting for his own needs.  For example, Jefferson had tweaked the polygraph machine (the original copier) which was designed to enlarge or scale drawings, to produce copies of his letters, so that he always have one for himself.  It’s okay if you didn’t come up with the original idea, the real question is always how will you use what you have to make it your own?
  • “Avoid taverns, drinkers, smokers, and idlers and dissipated persons generally… and you will find your path more easy and tranquil.": Jefferson gave this advice to his nephew, as he pursued studies in Philadelphia and it couldn’t be more true today.  Avoid those who attract and promote trouble, especially as you figure out your own path.  The tranquility of mind you’ll gain, you’ll use as you navigate your own way.

All my love,

Mom

Anna Comnena: Byzantine Princess, Crusades Chronicler

historical woman

I first became acquainted with this historical woman of the day because she was one of the only sources for describing a bunch of historical men. Isn’t that the way the historical cookie always crumbles?

Anna Comnena (1080 – c. 1153) was a Byzantine princess, the daughter of Emperor Alexius Comnenus I, and an eyewitness chronicler of the First Crusade and some of its most prominent Crusaders. In fact, it was her dad that invited those European macho men out East in the first place. It goes like this:

A SUPER SHORT SUMMARY OF THE FIRST CRUSADE Seljuk Turks were expanding out of Central Asia and into what we now know as the Middle East. The Byzantine Empire (Greek Orthodox, concentrated in modern day Turkey, capital Constantinople) started getting nervous. Though loathe to request help from Western Christendom (you know, Europe), who were Catholic, and probably kind of a pain about it, Alexius Comnenus finally felt like he had no other options. “Come over here and help us out, guys,” he said to the Pope. “We’re all Christian brothers and stuff.”

Pope Urban II got excited, because as usual the Church was having a lot of problems in Europe, and having one big CAUSE tends to make problems disappear (or at least go temporarily invisible). So he made this big speech in 1095 and announced that everyone should go on Crusade to the Holy Land. Your soul would get saved, yada yada yada.

So Crusaders poured out of what is now France, and Germany, and England, and Italy, and walked/rode horses all the way to what is now Turkey, and some of them killed a lot of innocent people on the way in what were probably fits of zealotry and testosterone, and then the leaders got to Constantinople by 1097 and (mostly) pledged loyalty to Alexius. They had cool names like Godfrey and Baldwin and Bohemond. Anna provides descriptions of all of them in her chronicle.

But they really wanted to do other things besides just save the Byzantines. Like what was in it for them? So they poured into Syria and Palestine and set up Crusader castles and some of them stayed for like a hundred years or more (their progeny, of course. Though I do like to picture like the Indiana Jones guy sitting around in a fortress in the mountains crumbling to dust). Oh and they also killed more people.

The end. (Until the Second Crusade.)

---

Anyway. Anna provides the only Byzantine-eye view to this whole saga, in a chronicle she wrote of her father’s reign, the Alexiad. In this she reminds me of Dmitri Nabokov or Christopher Tolkien—forever in their father’s literary shadow, translating his old stuff, writing down reminiscences, safeguarding his estate. Celebrity fathers, ya know?

But Anna was more than just a woman who wrote about men that historians care about, though this is probably why her memory has been kept alive so long. She was also accomplished and educated, serving as a physician in a hospital her father had built for her, specializing in, apparently, gout.

She also had designs on the throne. At the age of fourteen she married Nicephorus of Bryennium, and as her father approached death, she conspired with her mother Irene to have her husband named the next emperor instead of her good-for-nothing brother John. However, she was outmaneuvered, and on his deathbed Alexius blessed John as his successor.

Later, she was busted for conspiracy to commit regicide or its twelfth-century Byzantine equivalent, and spent the rest of her life in a convent. This is where she hunkered down and wrote the Alexiad. Which ended up not being a bad use of her time.

So as a woman of the medieval Byzantine court, she was able to carve out an occupation, some expertise, a decent education (although she was forbidden from reading classical poetry because it was indecent), and even came thisclose to becoming Empress, courtesy her own ambition and wile. We don’t know a ton about her, but what we know is pretty impressive.

Though why do these stories always have to end in a convent?

Mother-in-law May I

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

My husband and I met our senior year of college and got married a few years later. We've now been together for almost a decade and I still feel lucky that we happened to meet and that circumstances allowed us to grow as people and build a life together. Our families, both immediate and extended, are an important part of our lives. We hang out with our siblings often and we're happy that our two-year-old daughter can experience the joys of a close family.

Here's the problem: From the earliest days of our relationship, my husband's mother wasn't warm or welcoming to me. Maybe it's her personality; maybe it's that my husband is the oldest of 5 and she didn't have experience with how to treat potential new members of the family; maybe it's that she and I just didn't click because we're incredibly different people with very different approaches to the world. At this point, I'm obviously part of the family, so I don't think she realizes that my perspective is colored by how she treated me for the first few years of our relationship, basically until we were married.

In many important ways my mother-in-law is a generous person who certainly has the best of intentions. I recognize that and I want to focus on it, especially since my daughter adores her. Unfortunately, when we're together for extended periods of time, like family trips, I find myself getting increasingly annoyed and frustrated. We're always going to do things differently. She's always going to correct me. She's always going to insist that she's right about everything. I can't change that, so I just need to accept her and not let all these little things bother me. Any tips?

Thank you,

Throw Grandma From the Train?

 

Dear Throw Grandma From the Train,

Recently, I went to a panel discussion of faith leaders who are seeking non-violent resolution of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank.  The theme that kept coming up was forgiveness.  I rose my hand, and asked my burning question, the one I keep returning to in my life, “How do you love people that are hard to love?”  The answer I got was to try to find the humanity in that person, to separate their actions from who they are, someone worthy of love and in need of care.

I think that is what you've been trying to do with your mother-in-law.  You've been trying to see the bigger picture, be the bigger person, just enlarge everything until it all doesn't bother you anymore.  But it's not the big things that get us, with those people that are hard to love.  It's the little, petty, constant shit that wears on us until we just can't take it anymore.

I actually don’t think the key here is accepting your mother-in-law.  It sounds like some of the things she does to you are simply unacceptable.  It is not okay for her to just decide not to like her daughter-in-law, and to correct everything you’re doing in your home.  It’s okay for you to be really frustrated when she does those things to you.

But you’re right that you need to let go of them, after you feel your feelings around them.  Another thing I heard at this discussion is that holding onto resentment is like eating poison, and expecting the other person to die.

So my advice to you is: stop trying to accept your mother-in-law.  Put all of those acceptance efforts towards yourself.

Accept the way you love your husband.  Accept it so much that it can never be questioned, never be swayed even the tiniest bit by your mother-in-law.  Let it live in the swing of your hips and in your thoughts when the two of you are apart.  Love the shit out of the way you love your husband.

Accept the way you run your household.  Accept your habits, even the ones you secretly think are gross.  Accept your home just as it is.  Accept your choices for food and work and daily routine.  Meditate on your imperfections, embracing all the very things about you that she criticizes.

Accept your parenting.  Celebrate your relationship with your daughter.  Let your acceptance for how you are raising your child ooze out of you to the point that your mother-in-law’s comments about it are deflected, as if your love for your daughter is suit of armor, gleaming and true.

I say all of this as a person who has gone toe-to-toe with her own mother-in-law several times over 13 years.  Early on, I realized this woman was never going to understand me.  But she didn’t have to, because her son did.  I realized this woman was never going to agree with me about most of the choices I made.  But she didn’t have to, because I wasn’t asking her permission or even her opinion.  I brazenly made mistakes, apologized when necessary, kept my distance when I needed to, or called her every week when I felt the desire.  I know for a fact that she doesn’t accept me as I am.  But I am certain that she respects me, and even loves me.  And the reason for that is that she knows I’m not waiting for her approval, and I love her even without it.

So, you have to be your own existential detective.  What are you insecure about?  Is your mother-in-law putting her finger in some open wounds?  Then do more work in those areas, until you can shine out your acceptance of yourself so boldly that she’s blinded by it.

And for the rest, for the hurts she’s inflicted on you in the past, and the ones that she’s sure to incur in the future, forgiveness is the only sane option.  Not just acceptance, but deep, life-altering forgiveness, that does indeed bring your mother-in-law’s humanity to the fore so her actions lose their sting.

The way to love people that are hard to love, like so many mother-in-laws, might just be to love yourself harder.

Love,

Sibyl

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