Friday, October 15, 2021

The People who Inspire Us

The other day, I got some folks on social media upset with me when I said that I never understood the popularity of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, who are basically famous for being famous.  A number of fans of Kim K leaped to her defense-- even though I wasn't really attacking her. They told me she has done great work in prison reform, to cite one example. As I understand it, that's a fairly recent cause for her; but no matter how long she has done it, I'm certainly glad she is using her wealth and fame to do some good in the world.  However, that wasn't my point.  I was just musing about how some celebrities (both male and female) have no particular accomplishments other than being well-known, and yet they are adored by millions of folks -- and I can't understand why.  

I am sure that the folks who took me to task for insulting her (or seeming to insult her) are sincere when they say they find her inspirational. But I must admit I don't share their views. I generally don't find most celebrities to be inspirational. Entertaining? Yes. Nice people, in some cases? Yes. But inspirational? Not usually.  I spent four decades in media, as most of you know, and I met my share of famous people-- movie  and TV stars, radio deejays, athletes, and many well-known musicians. I've got lots of great memories and lots of great stories. But very few of the folks that I met were a source of inspiration for me-- even if I was impressed with their achievements.

There were a few exceptions, of course. The three members of Rush are an inspiration to many of us-- these guys worked their way up from nothing, spending long days and nights on the road perfecting their craft, and when they did become famous, they remained the same down-to-earth, kind people as when I first met them. They were charitable before, and they remained charitable-- but they rarely let anyone know. I also found Dolly Parton inspirational for the same reason-- she too worked her way up from nothing, and even after she became a household name, she never really changed who she was.  When I met her, she was remarkably humble; she never acted like someone who takes herself too seriously. 

But for the most part, while there have been a number of celebrities I liked and admired, I've generally found my inspiration from people most of you have never met-- and probably have never heard of.  Last week, I gave a talk for the Antique Wireless Association, about the women of early amateur (and commercial) radio. If you didn't see it, it's here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kw5PbqtLuis&t=2241s  Most of these women never became famous. Most never became rich. But their contributions to broadcasting were often groundbreaking. I never forget that I am standing on their shoulders: if they had not had the courage to pursue what was a mostly all-male profession, the industry might never have opened its doors to me years later. 

I find what my grandparents did very inspirational-- imagine the challenges of coming to a new country, where you don't speak the language; escaping prejudice in the old country and trying to create a better future for your children in a land where you don't know anyone and you aren't always welcomed. What my immigrant ancestors did never made them rich or famous or popular. But thanks to their courage, and the determination of my own parents, I'm able to tell this story.

Most of all, I find inspiration in people who have spent their lives trying to make the world a better place: the teachers, the social workers, the folks who advocate for human rights, the first responders... these are people who don't believe it's all about them, who are determined to do their part because it's the right thing to do... even when it seems nobody notices.

SO, that's all I meant. Yes, I applaud the great athletes and the famous performers. But every day, quietly, the good deeds of people who receive far too little appreciation keep our world going. And without any insult intended to your favorite athlete, movie star, or YouTube celebrity, I wonder why as a culture, we often praise the already-famous and ignore the folks who are really doing what matters. So, to all the folks who are making a difference, my thanks and my gratitude. Perhaps you'll never become famous-- but then again, maybe you don't want to be.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Message on the Shirt

Several days ago, I saw an article about country singer Jason Aldean, his wife, and their two kids (ages two and three).  I admit I'm not a fan of country music, but I always like to see what celebrities are up to, given that I teach courses in popular culture. So, imagine my surprise to see the Aldean family proudly modeling a line of anti-Joe Biden shirts, a line that includes a shirt that reads F*** Joe Biden (with the word spelled out). 

Before some of my conservative friends get upset with me ("You wouldn't complain if it were a pro-Biden shirt!" or "You wouldn't complain if it were a F*** Trump shirt!"), let me repeat what I said on social media as soon as I read the article:  Actually, I would complain. And here's why:  the Aldeans have two kids, who are two and three years old. They did not ask to be models. They did not ask to be representatives for their parents' political views. In fact, I'd be surprised if they knew much about Joe Biden, other than the (obviously) hateful things they've been taught. 

I am absolutely fine with Jason Aldean disliking Joe Biden. I am absolutely fine with him expressing his views on politics, or any other topic he wants to discuss. Ditto for his wife. But they are adults. They (theoretically) know why they believe as they do. I may not agree with their beliefs, but I respect their right to have them.

However, as parents, they should be setting an example, and using their kids to sell political merchandise isn't the kind of example that's good for those kids. What they are being taught at a young age is to hate a guy who never did anything to them, a guy who doesn't even know them. They are being apprenticed into a worldview where one side is good and the other side is evil, where a shirt that expresses strong views against the current president is considered an adorable thing for a little kid to wear.          

But it's not. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't think little kids should be involved in the political battles of their parents. I think little kids should be... little kids. They should be playing with their toys, learning the ABCs, helping to walk the family dog... and learning how to be kind. Evidently Jason Aldean and his wife believe they are teaching their kids a valuable lesson, but I think they're teaching them the wrong one. 

In the world today, we have enough hate, enough divisiveness, enough pointless social media arguments, enough angry talk shows, and more than enough myths about how "our side" is the best, and everyone on "the other side" is the worst. Why do kids need to learn this? Why can't they learn respect and tolerance? Why can't they remain innocent, just for a little while? Too often, society forces kids to grow up too fast. Parents shouldn't be accelerating that process. And the way I see it, that's exactly what the Aldeans are doing. And I wish they wouldn't do it.        

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Let it Be

As I am writing this, it's nearly time for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For Jews all over the world, it's a day of self-reflection, fasting, prayer, and communal worship; we ask for God's forgiveness, and we pledge to do better in the year ahead.  Because of the pandemic, many synagogues are still limiting attendance, and many are also offering online services. Last year, my husband and I virtually attended services at the Aventura Turnberry Synagogue in North Miami and the Central Synagogue in New York City. Agreed, it wasn't the same as being there in person, but the services were beautifully done and we was grateful to watch them.  

There is one other thing I do every year on Yom Kippur: I not only refrain from eating; I also turn off all my devices for that 24-hour period. No computer. No email. No checking my phone for messages. No engaging in discussions (or debates) on social media. I put it all aside for that period of time. 

You may have heard of a "media fast," and in times like these, I think it's a useful exercise.  As we have all become increasingly more attached (addicted?) to our devices, many of us can't imagine going without them for a few minutes, let alone an entire day. I know people, including students of mine, who check their email constantly. I know people who are perpetually looking at their phones-- even at lunch with friends. (Maybe I'm just a curmudgeon, but I can't imagine what is so urgent that one has to constantly keep an eye on that phone... I mean, if you are a doctor who is on-call, I totally get it; but if you're eating lunch with friends, why not focus on the people you're sitting with?)

So, I'm about to turn off all my devices. It's an interesting experience, going old-school.  I find it makes me more aware of what's around me. Sometimes, I go for a walk and watch the birds; sometimes I spend time reading (I have a number of books about religion and spirituality, and it's nice to read them without any other distractions). I chat with my husband.  And sometimes, I just sit and think. Given the many electronic stimuli we're all accustomed to, doing this may sound boring, but I can assure you it's not.

Research shows that while our devices are convenient, they have also changed us-- sometimes for good, but sometimes not. And while the Day of Atonement is my good excuse to turn everything off, it seems to me that we could all use a day when we go outside, appreciate the natural world around us, and stop worrying about the emails and instant messages we might be missing. 

And so, despite the busy and pressure-filled lives so many of us lead, I invite you to engage in your own media fast. You may find yourself noticing things you previously took for granted. You may at first feel annoyed, but you may also find that it's nice to not have to worry about returning messages or arguing about something on Twitter. Sometimes, it's nice to just step back. Sometimes, it's nice to just enjoy the peace and quiet. Sometimes, it's nice to just let it be.       

 

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Garden to Nurture and Protect

For the past few months, I've been part of a webcast called the Rush Deep Dive (you can find the episodes on YouTube). Each of the participants analyzes a song from a Rush album-- usually a deep track that isn't as well known, but we think it should be. This past week, we did a Fans' Choice episode, where the audience told us some songs they wanted us to discuss. That's how I had the opportunity to delve into one of my favorite Rush songs ever, "The Garden."  If you aren't familiar with it, there's a beautiful live version here: Rush "The Garden" Live in Dallas. And you can see the episode where I discussed "The Garden" here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J952UN4vEOQ&t=2169s 

The timing for discussing this song was perfect: it's the month of Elul on the Jewish calendar, and during that month, it's customary to visit the graves of our deceased loved ones, to remember them, and to promise to do good deeds in their memory. So, a couple of days ago, I visited my late parents, and some of my relatives. (It's also a custom to leave a small stone on top of the grave marker, so that others will know you've been there.) But I also visited some very old graves that looked like nobody had been there in years. Perhaps there was no-one left to visit, or perhaps the relatives had moved far away. So, I stopped by a few of them; and as I stood there, I wondered about who they were during their life.

It made me think about who gets remembered, and who does not. And it made me think about the lyrics from "The Garden." The metaphor of life as a garden has been used in literature many times, and I've always liked it.  In Neil Peart's lyrics, he writes about how "The future disappears into memory, With only a moment between, Forever dwells in that moment, Hope is what remains to be seen."  Despite how difficult things can be sometimes, we want so much to be hopeful. And during our life, whether it seems that way or not, we all have many opportunities to make our garden beautiful, to make it a gift we can leave to others. 

Neil writes, "The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect..." And isn't that what matters most? Material goods come and go. Our possessions come and go. But if we are loved and respected, if we have a life that is worthy of love and respect, that is a life well-lived. And it is up to us to "nurture and protect" our garden, so that the next generation will look at it and be glad they experienced it. And they will nurture and protect their own garden, making their own life a place where love and respect can grow.

I am sure those people I visited, those people I never knew, tried to live that kind of life, tried to leave the people they loved with something valuable, something worth remembering.  I know for a fact that my parents lived that kind of life. Neil lived that kind of life too.  And that is why it is so important to remember those who contributed to us. That is why it is so important to make the time to appreciate what they gave us, what they left for us.

The other day, someone said to me that my legacy would be that I discovered Rush. It's certainly something to be thankful for, and I'm glad I played some small part in their success. But to be honest, I'm not sure I want that as my legacy. When I die, assuming anyone does remember me years from now, I hope they will say I tried to be an ethical person. I hope they will say I tried to be compassionate. And I hope they will say I did my part to make this world a better place.  That is what my parents taught me to do. That is what Neil invited us all to do: "the way you live, the gifts that you give... In the fullness of time, a garden to nurture and protect." 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

When the Walls Are Closing In

I've had a difficult time sleeping the past several nights, and maybe you'll think I'm being foolish. But what is happening in Afghanistan is really bothering me. I'm actually surprised at how intensely it's affecting me.  I follow world news fairly closely, and at times something will happen that truly saddens me, or even makes me angry.  But it rarely keeps me up at night like the resurgence of the Taliban has done. 

I've been worrying about what will happen to Afghanistan's women and girls, especially in Kabul.  I can only imagine how scared they are right now.  I know it's not the same thing, but I keep thinking about the 1930s in Nazi Germany, how my ancestors must have felt knowing that Hitler was on the march, aware that the nice, modern lives they had been leading were about to end... how frightened they must have been, how helpless, nowhere to run, and few if any ways to escape.  

I'm not being overly dramatic. The Taliban are well-known for their casual brutality. Their version of religion does not include music or art or movies, and it does not allow for women to have an education or a career. Of course, there is nothing in their scriptures that forbids education for women. There is nothing that forbids many of the things they insist must be banned. But it doesn't matter. This isn't logical. It's about power. And it's about using an extreme interpretation of religion to subjugate women and girls once again.

I guess that's what bothers me the most--that these men think they have the right to do it.  While I've never encountered extremists like them, I've certainly seen powerful men who believed they could do whatever they wanted-- men who thought it was perfectly okay to hit their wife or girlfriend, men who thought it was fine if they harassed or even sexually assaulted a woman, men who believed their daughters didn't need an education. And in many instances, I've seen men who knew better or saw their male friends behaving badly, and they said nothing. 

In Kabul, where women and girls have enjoyed the benefit of having choices and making decisions, they are about to return to lives that are very restricted, where the men call the tune and the women are expected to be obedient... or face the consequences. I wonder why so many men seem to be okay with this. In a way, it reminds me of when I was growing up in the 1950s, a time when women had few options and no matter what we wanted to do, we were told that "girls can't do that." There were few male allies back then. Few men spoke up on our behalf.  I wish they had. 

Maybe that's why this is so upsetting: agreed, I'm not in the same situation, but believe me, I understand feeling trapped. Fortunately, I managed to get through it and my life was never in danger.  But the fear and the depression I felt were very real.  I can only imagine how the women and girls in Kabul are feeling right now, and I wish there were something I could do. I wish there were something the world could do. No, not another military intervention-- I'm among the many who believe we stayed in Afghanistan far too long. But it would be nice to see some of the men--the husbands, the fathers, especially men in neighboring countries--stand up and defend these women and girls, before they lose their futures, before they lose their hope, before they lose their lives...      

Saturday, July 31, 2021

When The Cruelty is the Point

I still remember how many times my parents told me not to make assumptions about other people. They said unless I had walked in their shoes, I had no right to judge them. Similarly, those of us who have studied journalism are taught "Don't get out in front of the facts"-- in other words, don't guess, don't speculate, and if you don't know what occurred, don't claim that you do. That too is good advice. More people should follow it, especially these days.

The other day, I had the misfortune of reading some of the comments that were made when champion American gymnast Simone Biles decided to withdraw from competition at the Olympics, citing her emotional health.  The reactions were textbook examples of passing judgment on someone that the commenters had never met, and being cruel in the process. Suddenly, these folks were all experts on her behavior, eager to verbally attack her for what she had done to let them down.  What bothered me the most was that some folks had no compassion towards what she might be going through. They were just angry that she might cost the USA a medal. So they called her a coward. They called her gutless. They said she was letting her country down. And in some cases, they made remarks about her race.  

I saw similar disturbing comments when the four officers testified at the Select Committee hearings about the January 6th Capitol Insurrection. However you feel about politics, and however you feel about who won the election, these men did not deserve to be attacked, tased, beaten, or threatened with death. And the Black officer who testified absolutely did not deserve to be called the N word repeatedly by members of the mob. These officers were doing their job, protecting the building and protecting members of congress (from both parties). Yet the rioters subjected them to repeated assaults, and most showed no remorse.

That night, on Fox News, the officers were accused of "putting on a performance." On social media, they were called vile names and accused of being weak. Two of the officers, who were emotional about what they had endured, were relentlessly mocked and called cowards (along with other names I won't include on this blog-- sad to say, even the former president called them vile names). Nowhere was anyone willing to show even an ounce of empathy towards these officers. Their courage was ignored, in favor of intentional cruelty-- insulting and blaming them for the injuries they sustained. 

I have never met Simone Biles. But I had watched her perform numerous times, and been amazed by how talented she is. Like many, I was eager to watch her compete (even though, frankly, I don't think the Olympics should have been held during a pandemic that refuses to end). But when she said she couldn't do it, when she said she felt overwhelmed, when she said she had to put her mental and emotional health ahead of leading her team, I just hoped she'd be okay. Depression (and I believe that's what she has) is a very misunderstood illness. It deserves a lot more respect and a lot more understanding. And for those who thought insulting her was okay, shame on you.   

I have never met the four officers who testified at the Select Committee. By their own accounts, several are longtime Republicans, and several have voted for Democrats. But when they are on the job, their political views don't matter. Their duty to the constitution and to protecting the members of congress comes first. They helped save lives that terrible day. They did not deserve to be assaulted. The rioters made a misguided effort to stop our democracy from functioning, and these officers put their lives on the line to make sure our democracy survived. People of good will should thank them for telling their stories. Nobody should mock them or insult them or doubt their courage.

And yet, here we are, in a world where too many folks think it's okay to ridicule people they've never met... to ascribe negative motives to them or blame them or lash out on social media, just because they can. I keep hearing my parents saying "don't judge someone unless you've walked in their shoes."  I doubt the folks lashing out at Simone Biles ever competed at an Olympics. I doubt the folks lashing out at those four officers ever defended the Capitol against an angry mob. It's so easy to be a know-it-all when you don't have all the facts but you do have an audience of like-minded friends egging you on. 

I hope Simone Biles gets the support she needs. I hope the four officers know that most of us respect what they do. And above all, I hope that the folks who are showing such a lack of empathy will take a breath and think about what they're doing. At some future time, they may be the ones who need understanding and compassion. And they may be surprised to find that no-one has any to give.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Try a Little Kindness

I read a newspaper article yesterday that really bothered me; and no, it wasn't about politics. It was about breakfast. Or more accurately, it was about a restaurant that serves breakfast every day. But recently, the customers have been acting so rude and angry and insulting that the servers were driven to tears. One customer was angry because he wanted to place an order but the restaurant hadn't opened yet and he was asked to wait. Another group of customers were furious because they couldn't have the table they wanted. Some were irate that the young and inexperienced servers weren't bringing the food fast enough (like many restaurants, this one is short-handed, as they only re-opened recently and are still hiring staff).  

Long story short, after one outburst too many, the managers decided to close down for a day, to treat their young (and very demoralized) staff to a "day of kindness." When the managers posted about it on social media, they found that numerous other restaurants have been seeing the same kinds of behaviors from customers. Because of the pandemic, there's evidently a year's worth of pent-up frustration from the public; and employees at restaurants are bearing the brunt of it.  

To be honest, I find this puzzling.  Agreed, nobody likes to be kept waiting at a restaurant. Agreed, not having the table you reserved waiting for you is annoying. And so is having a server who seems to be inexperienced. But I've seen folks scream at servers at a coffee shop for giving them Sweet and Lo instead of Equal. I've seen folks get outraged when the line was moving too slowly, or when someone's favorite flavor of doughnut wasn't available. 

I know we've all been through a terrible year, and many of us are now able to get back out there. I, for one, am grateful. I, for one, am happy to be vaccinated and able to see my friends again. And frankly, as a cancer survivor, I have to say that if the worst thing that has happened to you is someone made your drink wrong or didn't bring your order as quickly as you had hoped, then it's still not a bad day. (Trust me: having a cancer diagnosis is much worse.)    

I think it would be good for everyone to observe a "day of kindness." Instead of screaming at the server, or mocking the host, or insulting the manager on social media, how about considering that they may have been through a lot this past year too, and they may need some time to get things back up to speed. I understand that many of us are feeling stressed, but how about putting things in perspective-- sometimes, a little understanding goes a long way.

My mother, of blessed memory, used to say, "You get more flies with sugar than you do with vinegar." Yes, I know, it's a cliché. And when you're having an aggravating day, it's hard to keep that sentiment in mind. We've all been impatient or curt or discourteous at one time or other.  But wouldn't it be nice if we all decided to follow the Golden Rule and treat others the way we'd like to be treated? It might not get you your breakfast any faster, but it might make the world a little less angry, and a little bit calmer. And the way I see it, that's a result we could all benefit from.