Thursday, September 15, 2022

Making Time for Compassion

I've been thinking a lot about religion these past few days-- and not just because the Jewish New Year will be here soon. What made me think about it is a news story many of you have heard about-- how Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, shipped a planeload of "illegals," most from Venezuela and Columbia, up to Massachusetts. He claimed he was doing it because Joe Biden has an "open borders" policy and it's time for Democrats in "sanctuary cities" to share the burden of all the illegal immigrants pouring across the border. 

(Of course, if this was about punishing Democrats in Blue States, Massachusetts has a Republican governor, but that's evidently beside the point. Also beside the point-- Pres. Biden has never spoken in favor of open borders, and like all previous presidents from both parties, he has struggled to control the flow of desperate people trying to get into the United States. Meanwhile, for years, Congress has been unable to get together on a solution to what everyone acknowledges is our broken immigration system. But I digress.)  

Supporters of Governor DeSantis applauded his action in flying the migrants up to a Blue State. He was praised on conservative talk shows too. Republicans politicians were almost gleeful at the thought of owning the libs by dumping lots of "illegals" on their doorsteps. Similarly, supporters of Texas GOP Governor Greg Abbott applauded when he shipped thousands of migrants up to New York and Chicago and Washington DC, all to score cheap political points, and to energize the Republican base, rather than addressing the root causes of the surge of folks at the border. (And no, it's not because there's a Democrat in office-- Republican presidents have struggled to find an answer too-- ask George W. Bush.)

But here's why I was thinking about religion. Many of the folks who were the most gleeful about seeing the "illegals" get shipped to the Blue States were folks who claim to be religious. They attend church, they quote scripture, and based on what I see on social media, they frequently pass judgment on everything that's wrong in society. And they have no sympathy for "illegals"-- they want them all shipped back to their countries, even the folks fleeing persecution or running from gangs. They seem to share the view that these immigrants don't deserve to claim asylum; they seem to believe that these are criminals who, in the words of a certain former president, are "bringing drugs; they're bringing crime; they're rapists..." 

Agreed, there are bad apples in every bunch. But the hungry and exhausted men and women and children who arrived in Martha's Vineyard, an island community nowhere near the big city of Boston (where the migrants were told they were going), did not seem to be criminals. They seemed to be people in search of a better life. Should they have crossed the border illegally? Probably not. But that is a bigger conversation, and as I said, it's one that politicians have been avoiding for several decades. Meanwhile, here they were, with no warning. By some accounts, Gov. DeSantis even hired a videographer to take photos of the chaos that he seemed to hope would occur upon the plane's arrival. More cheap political points-- but beneficial for his reelection campaign.

No chaos occurred, however. Instead, there was compassion. People of all religions and all backgrounds leaped into action and welcomed the new arrivals. People fed them and sheltered them. People made arrangements for a Catholic mass, and for medical care. Of course it wasn't an ideal situation (contrary to myth, Martha's Vineyard isn't just a playground for the super-rich... there are lots of residents who are far from wealthy). Of course people were concerned about whether they had enough resources to help. But all of that was put aside as everyone focused on doing the right thing.

So, perhaps that's the lesson: sometimes, being religious isn't about finger-pointing at those who are breaking the rules, or being gleeful when your perceived enemy is suffering. Sometimes being religious means showing the same love and understanding you would want God to show you in a time of crisis. I know we need to find a solution to the problems at the border, but I can't believe any God would want to punish people whose crime was seeking a better life; and I can't believe any Scripture would encourage us to hate or mock such people. So, welcome to Massachusetts, whoever you are. I'm sorry you were treated with such disdain in Florida and Texas. And I pray this will be the start of better things for you. And as for the folks who are applauding your struggles, I wonder how much mercy and compassion God will have for them when Judgment Day arrives... 

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

A Touch of Grey: Some Thoughts on Aging (and Ageism)

There's a commercial for a nutritional drink called Boost in which a woman says, "Age is just a number. And mine's unlisted." Every time I see that commercial, it reminds me how even in 2022, women are taught that they shouldn't discuss their age. In past generations, women were even told to lie about it-- to say they were younger than they actually were. Actresses always did this: evidently, studio moguls didn't want to hire a woman who was "too old."

It was a factor on TV as well-- older men were distinguished. Older women were... invisible. And if you think I'm exaggerating, look at your local or national news: chances are if the person doing the weather is a guy, he's conservatively dressed in a suit and tie; but if it's a woman, she's wearing a sleeveless dress (even if it's winter), and more often than not, the dress is tight enough to show that she has sex appeal (even if she also has a degree in meteorology). Agreed, things have improved a little from a generation ago when guys could be balding and paunchy and still be on TV, while women had to look eternally young and cute if they wanted to get hired. Today, there are a few veteran female reporters and anchors who are older, but very few of them look their chronological age. Nor are they supposed to.

What brought all this to mind was a recent story from Canada, where a widely-respected and very popular CTV news anchor named Lisa LaFlamme was fired. All across Canada, people wondered if her age (she's 58) was one reason. And then, there was her hair. During the pandemic, like many of us, she wasn't able to get to a salon for a good haircut, nor was she able to color her hair. So, she began anchoring the news with grey hair. Somehow, the republic didn't fall. Viewers who liked her before liked her with her natural hair color. But evidently, this was upsetting to some folks in management. Also upsetting: when everyone came back to the office again, she decided to continue wearing her natural grey hair, rather than getting it colored. 

This shouldn't have been controversial, but for some folks, it was. Of course, her managers insisted that wasn't why she was being fired-- it was a business decision, they were taking the newscast in a new direction, etc. etc. But her fans put two and two together and came to the conclusion that she must have violated the unwritten taboo about women on TV not being allowed to look "too old." There's a segment of the viewership (and perhaps even the ownership) that still expect us to be "eye candy," it seems.

In Boston, in the 1980s, veteran news anchor Shelby Scott had something similar happen to her. I was quoted in an article about it in the Boston Globe recently, after she died: folks who remembered her called her an outstanding newswoman, a respected voice in Boston news... but back in the 1980s, when she reached her mid-40s, she was suddenly removed from anchoring in favor of someone much younger. And her male bosses defended the decision, saying it was time for a new direction (which is code for "it's time to hire a younger female"). Interestingly, the only people who defended her were other women who had encountered the same attitudes.

I understand that TV and movies are visual, and whether you're male or female, looking good on camera matters. But who gets to define "looking good"? I have watched lots of guys who are not exactly movie-star handsome, but they are informative and interesting. The same standard should apply to women. Having watched Lisa LaFlamme, and veteran reporters like Judy Woodruff and Christiane Amanpour, I find them personable, and they're comfortable on camera; but more importantly, they write well and they know their stuff. So, they have a few wrinkles. So, Lisa's hair is grey now-- why does any of this matter? Are we still stuck in the belief that women in media are not allowed to age? And if that's where we are, could someone please tell me why?

Monday, August 15, 2022

What Happened in Vinton (and why it matters)

I've never actually been to Vinton, Iowa, but I feel as if I know something about the place-- in fact, back in the late 1990s, I wrote a historical article about a momentous event that happened there: the first radio station ever owned by a woman went on the air in the summer of 1922-- WIAE in Vinton, owned and operated by Marie Zimmerman (and built by her husband, city electrician Bob Zimmerman). Not much was digitized in 1998, so I did my research old-school. I located living relatives and wrote letters to them, I looked through reels of microfilm, I contacted several Iowa newspapers, and I called the Vinton Public Library, where I chatted with the reference librarians. The folks at the library were very kind, and very helpful. They were also very interested in my research. Marie Zimmerman was one of the many forgotten women in the history of radio, and since she was from Vinton, the library was eager to see a copy of the article I was writing. Later, they even posted it on their website.

Fast forward to the spring of 2022, and all across the country, a well-organized group of conservative parents has been demanding that certain books be removed from libraries-- not restricted, but removed entirely. In some cities, these folks have demanded that specific books, those that allegedly have a "liberal agenda," be taken off the shelves:  books about Joe Biden or Barack Obama or even Martin Luther King, books about combating racism, books about LGBTQ issues, and books about sex education. When librarians did not comply, some folks simply checked those books out and then refused to return them. 

But at other libraries, the staff found themselves barraged with hateful phone calls, threats (including death threats), and online abuse; they were accused of hating America, of promoting pornography, of indoctrinating children, etc. etc. Some staff members, including several library directors, got so intimidated by the relentless abuse that they resigned. And some libraries even closed-- perhaps that was the goal all along.

I wish I were making this up, and I am sure some of you may think I'm exaggerating. I'm not. In city after city, this same thing has been happening, which is why I'm firmly convinced that this is all part of an organized effort to control what is in libraries, and keep certain ideas away from the folks who might benefit from learning about them.  

Much to my disappointment, one of the communities where the campaign of threats and intimidation occurred was Vinton, Iowa. As one publication reported several weeks ago, "The [Vinton Public Library] went on a temporary hiatus after a series of heated public board meetings, where angry community members blasted the library for its LGTBQ children’s literature and kids’ books by first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris." Community members also demanded that gay staff members (or those who "seemed" gay) be fired; and since the community was predominantly Christian, they insisted that the library must carry more Christian books.

Don't get me wrong-- I'm fine about libraries carrying Christian books, or Jewish or Hindu or whatever else (including books by atheists). I'm also fine with parents wanting only age-appropriate content for children to read. But I am not fine with censorship. I am not fine with parents saying a library cannot carry books about people whose religion is different from theirs, or whose politics they disagree with. Nor am I fine with saying that someone who might be gay should be fired, or that books about gay people be removed. And above all, I am absolutely not fine with angry and hateful phone calls or online smears directed at hardworking librarians. So, the Vinton Public Library was forced to close, depriving kids, and parents, of books and computers and quiet spaces to study-- how is that a good outcome?

But this is where we are. There are some folks who believe they have a right to scream at librarians or force libraries to shut their doors, or try to get certain books banned. Of course, the effort to ban books isn't new, and both sides have done it over the years; it has also occurred in countries all over the world, and it usually does not end well.  Censoring books, or censoring ideas-- even ideas that are controversial-- that's a slippery slope. When I was growing up, I am sure my parents didn't want our local library to carry certain books, but I can't imagine my parents, or anyone from that era, screaming at librarians or trying to close libraries down. As someone posted on the Vinton Library website, "If you have a closed mind, you get a closed library." And that seems to be exactly what we are getting these days. 

Sunday, July 31, 2022

To Boldly Go Where No-One Has Gone Before

I was still a teenager when the original "Star Trek" made its debut in 1966. It was on NBC, and although I watched some of the episodes, I admit that I wasn't a big fan of the show. To be honest, I much preferred "Star Trek--The Next Generation," which debuted almost twenty years later. But there was something I did like about the original "Star Trek"-- it had what we today would call a multicultural cast.  I also liked the fact that the cast members were not all stuck in stereotypical roles. In many TV shows of the 50s and 60s, minority characters were either depicted as not very smart or unable to speak good English.  And women were still either secretaries or housewives; and especially in comedies, they were frequently depicted as somewhat scatterbrained.

But "Star Trek" was unique for its time. Yes, the main character was a white male (Captain Kirk), but the crew of the Enterprise included a Vulcan, a Russian, an Asian, a Scot, and a Black woman. And it was the Black woman who was unlike any other characters on TV in the mid-60s. Her character's name was Lieutenant Uhura, and the woman playing her was Nichelle Nichols. She was born Grace Dell Nichols, and most viewers were probably unaware of the fact that she was a talented singer, stage actress, and model. But I'm sure they noticed that on "Star Trek," she was not anyone's servant (one of the few roles given to Black actors and actresses). Nor was her character written in a patronizing way. Rather, Uhura was the ship's communications officer, someone well-versed in science, who was also capable of taking control of the helm when needed. 

Perhaps she was not aware how much her presence meant to young Black viewers-- Whoopi Goldberg recalls watching her and being delighted to see a Black character in an important role. And Dr. Martin Luther King was aware of Nichelle Nichols too-- when she wanted to leave the series for a role in a Broadway play, Dr. King personally encouraged her to stay with "Star Trek," because, he said, it was so important for Black kids to learn that they could be anything in life-- even someone on a star ship, or a doctor, a professor, anything. And so, she continued on as Lieutenant Uhura.

Of course, not everyone was happy she was there: America was still in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and some southern affiliates of NBC were uncomfortable with any show that had an interracial cast; one scene from 1968 evoked some controversy, when the plot called for her and Captain Kirk to share a brief kiss. But for the most part, her role was well-received, and greatly appreciated. It even led to her doing some work for NASA, helping to recruit Black and female employees, some of whom became astronauts. She also appeared in other film and TV roles over the next several decades.

Nichelle Nichols died on July 30, 2022, at age 89. Agreed, she wasn't a real science officer nor an astronaut, but her presence in the cast of "Star Trek" did what Dr. King hoped-- it created new possibilities. At the beginning of the original show, it talked about how the voyages of the Enterprise were about seeking out new worlds: to "boldly go where no man has gone before." I prefer the revised version from "The Next Generation"-- to boldly go where no-one has gone before. The way I see it, having a dream, creating a possibility, embarking on your life's latest adventure...this is something anyone can do. For many years, women and people of color were told those dreams and possibilities didn't apply to them. Today, they do, and characters like Lieutenant Uhura paved the way. Rest in peace, Nichelle. And thank you.     

Friday, July 15, 2022

Can AM Radio Be Saved?

When I was a kid, I dreamed of owning my own radio station. I had no idea what it cost to buy one, but it seemed like the best of all possible things to acquire-- after all, radio was a central part of my life, and I knew lots of other kids who felt the same way. We all loved rock and roll, we all loved listening to the deejays, and many of us enjoyed going to record hops and hearing the local bands perform. Owning a station seemed like such a cool thing to do, something that would make a lot of people happy.

In the 1950s and 1960s, top-40 ruled, and AM radio was king. Every city had live and local stations, and the deejays often made appearances at local businesses. I remember getting my first car and driving to Paragon Park, about a half-hour from my home. Paragon was a popular amusement park back then, but more importantly, WBZ Radio sometimes did live broadcasts, direct from their "Sundeck Studio." I was so excited to watch my favorite deejays in person; and as a college radio deejay, I did a couple of remotes too, from the quadrangle at Northeastern University in Boston. FM hadn't taken over yet. Many people didn't even own an FM radio, and most cars only had AM.  Perhaps the audio quality wasn't the best, but the signals carried a long distance, and whether you were listening with your portable radio or listening with your transistor, AM radio could accompany you everywhere, kind of like a best friend. 

These days, it's all different. If you turn on a station on the AM band (something few young people ever do), all you hear is angry political talk shows, foreign language programs, religious broadcasts, and lots of news and sports. Some AM stations do still play music, but increasingly, it's songs for people over 60, since research says they are the only ones who still listen. Everyone else long ago migrated to FM, or to the internet, streaming audio, and YouTube. Many AM stations have gone dark-- owners have just given up and pulled the plug.

But does it have to be that way? Maybe I'm naive, and maybe I'm a dreamer, but I want to believe that AM could still make a difference. For example, if you put a live and local station on the air, play interesting music, have strong ties with your community, and give the listeners something worth listening to, they might just give you a chance--even if you're on the AM band.  Anecdotally, I'm told some AM community stations are doing that-- entertaining the public, giving local bands a chance, providing something unique for their community. And people seem to like that.

I understand the media environment in 2022 is not the same as in the 1960s. I understand that most young adults haven't listened to AM in years. But what if we gave them a good reason to? What if we brought back radio that had entertaining personalities and was fun to listen to? It might not work everywhere, but somewhere, in some city, there's a signal going to waste, and some good people who want to make that signal mean something. I still want to own a radio station, because radio changed my life; and I don't want to give up on AM just yet, even if all the experts say the odds are against anyone succeeding. So, what do you think? Is it too late for AM radio? Or can AM radio be saved? I welcome your opinions. I've already told you mine!        


Thursday, June 30, 2022

How Shall We Pray? And Where?

I have a friend who is firmly convinced that I'm going to burn in hell because I'm Jewish and haven't accepted Christianity. It's what her church teaches, and she sincerely believes it. Every now and then, she feels obligated to witness to me (for my own good, as she sees it), but since I used to be chaplain and know my Bible fairly well, I'm usually able to hold my own in any debate about scripture. We've managed to stay friends in spite of this theological impasse (we have many other things in common); but I know that deep down, she keeps hoping she'll find the right verse to persuade me to see "the truth." 

But she won't. The problem, of course, is that her truth is not mine. I respect her beliefs, and I have nothing against them. I simply wish she could understand that I really like being Jewish and I have no wish to accept some other religion. Unfortunately, there are a lot of folks who share her belief that the Jews need to convert, and I've met quite a few of them over the years. Some are very assertive about it, like the missionaries who go door-to-door, or the high school kids who called me a "Christ-killer" and pushed me down some stairs.

On the other hand, I've met some folks who were much kinder and gentler about it. They just assumed that everyone would be fine with Christian prayers or Christian symbols, and they were stunned (or offended) if anyone objected. I grew up in the era when there was still prayer in public schools-- it was always Christian prayer, followed by a Christian hymn.  And if a Jewish student ever asked about that (as I once did), the answer was that this was what the majority wanted. There was no expectation that those of us in the minority would be included, nor any understanding of why this morning ritual (in what was supposed to be a public school) might seem like imposing one religion and ignoring all the others. 

What brought this back to me was the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of a high school football coach who likes to engage in Christian prayer at the end of a game, surrounded by his team (and sometimes by players from the other team). The conservative Christian judges in the majority seemed okay with this. They said it was not imposing Christianity on the players, since they were not being forced to participate. Except, they really were. Imagine if one of the kids on the team walked away and didn't join the prayer circle. Imagine if one of the kids thought a football field isn't a place for a prayer circle. I suggest that such views would not have been warmly welcomed-- by their coach or by others in attendance.

Many years ago, I too was told if I didn't like the Christian prayers and songs, I could leave and come back-- but you tell me, dear readers, how I would have been treated by the other kids if I had done that. Yet here we are, decades later, with a Supreme Court that seems oblivious to the harm it might cause by allowing the football coach to do something he wants to do and potentially turn anyone who disagrees into a pariah.

I know some of you will think I'm being anti-Christian. I'm not.  I just don't think public spaces, like football games, are the right place for religious ceremonies-- from anyone's religion. Frankly, I don't think God cares who wins the football game. And I don't think God wants us to make a public show out of our piety-- I vaguely recall Jesus saying something in the New Testament about those who pray loudly so that others will see them; he recommended that we pray quietly and privately, so that only God sees us. The judges on the Supreme Court who voted to weaken the separation of church and state probably think they did a wonderful thing. But on behalf of those of us from different faiths than the majority, we wish they had thought more about being inclusive and tolerant, and less about imposing their "truth" on everyone else.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

A Special Afternoon in Hollywood

I remember reading online once that "just about anyone can get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; if you've got the money, you can get one." That isn't true, and I know from firsthand experience. It's actually a complicated process, and certain very specific criteria have to be met. There's a formal proposal you have to make (stating why you believe you meet those criteria); there's a committee that gets together and considers your proposal; and if you are chosen, there are fees that need to be paid (for example, there needs to be crowd control, security for the celebrity or celebrities, etc). Then, you have to choose a date and plan the logistics. Bottom line: it can take months... or even years, and no, it's not just a matter of paying someone some money. 

I sincerely believed that Rush deserved a star on the Walk of Fame. I also believed they met the criteria: they had millions of fans, a long career, and numerous achievements in the music industry.  And, to be honest, I was frustrated at the disrespect the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was showing the band. No matter how hard I tried to persuade the judges at the Rock Hall, there was a group of them who had never liked Rush's music, and who refused to take them seriously. I knew this was as annoying to the fans as it was to me, and so it was, in 2007, that I decided to champion Rush for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

It would take three years and a lot of hard work before it finally happened. I had some wonderful folks working with me, especially Kevin and Keith Purdy, two brothers from St. Louis who were devoted Rush fans; and there were also a number of other folks who helped-- we were determined to get this done, because in our view, no rock band deserved a star more than Rush. So, we created the proposal, working with amazing folks in Rush's management (including the legendary Pegi Cecconi), and we kept on gathering momentum until things finally came together. And at 11:30 AM, on June 25, 2010, Rush was awarded their much-deserved star.

I was both surprised and flattered when Pegi asked if I'd come up and give a short speech as part of that ceremony. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, and if you want a copy of my speech, I still have it. I meant every word I said, and when I finished, Alex and Geddy seemed very moved by it. As I spoke, I looked out at the large crowd who came to share that special day. Neil wasn't there, nor did we expect him to be (he was there in spirit, of course), but his wife and daughter were, as were Geddy's family, and many other friends and relatives. It was Neil's friend Craig who took this photo of me and the guys standing by the star (below). I still remember what a sense of gratification I felt, knowing I had played a part in honoring this amazing band.         

And here we are in 2022, twelve years later, and it is as emotional for me now as it was then. Yesterday, I reached out to Kevin Purdy to ask for his recollections. Like me, he remains amazed and impressed by how many fans showed up, and gratified to have fought for this project until it reached its very successful conclusion. And I know for a fact that even now, people come from long distances to see that star, to get a photo taken, and to feel that sense of pride in being a part of the world-wide community of Rush fans.  It was a very special day, and one I doubt I will ever forget. And if you were there too, you know exactly what I mean.