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.     

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Why Are Teachers Being Demonized?

Not just anyone can be a teacher. In fact, it's an old and tired myth that "those who can, do; those who can't, teach." I can tell you from experience that teachers are some of the most well-trained and qualified professionals you will meet. And yes, most teachers are folks who not only can, but they do-- every day.  Most teachers have a minimum four-year degree. Many also have a master's, or like Dr. Jill Biden (and me), a doctorate. Many have certificates in areas of specialization. And some come from other professions but decided they wanted to be teachers. 

As a profession, teaching isn't especially lucrative. In lots of cities, it's quite low-paying, in fact. But folks don't become teachers to get rich. They do it because they love kids, and because they love the opportunity to help kids to learn. And while, like every profession, there are some teachers who probably should have gone into a different line of work, the vast majority of the teachers I know are dedicated, hardworking, and caring. 

Too many teachers work in underfunded school districts, in old buildings without any modern conveniences like air-conditioning or computers. They frequently have to pay for school supplies out of their own pockets (or go to crowd-funding sites like my personal favorite, DonorsChoose.org). And often, they are much more than educators; often, they are a combination of motivators, tutors, and even counselors when a kid is in crisis. 

But instead of increasing the funding for schools or helping to modernize the buildings or even giving teachers much-deserved raises, some politicians have decided that teachers are the enemy. I notice with dismay that in a number of states, the majority of which are dominated by conservative legislators, politicians have decided that teachers cannot be trusted, that teachers are indoctrinating their students and teaching them all the wrong things. 

I'm not sure what these politicians are basing this on, and I strongly doubt they've consulted with any of the teachers they are now criticizing.  In fact, I've read some of the bills that these state legislatures are proposing (or passing): they are telling teachers what they can or cannot teach, and what they can or cannot discuss. It's a dangerous trend, and it's not getting enough attention. But it should, because it is going to affect kids' education-- and not in a good way.

One proposed bill would fine teachers as much as $5,000 for talking about racism or sexism in the classroom. Numerous other bills, several of which have already been signed into law, ban the teaching of something that nobody I know in any elementary school, middle school, or high school has been teaching-- so-called "critical race theory." Teachers are also being told to avoid any discussions that would "demoralize" or be "divisive." And they are being told that certain historical facts must either be downplayed or avoided altogether, so as not to upset anyone. (One proposed law would ban any classroom discussions that could cause "psychological distress." By that vague definition, almost any subject could be restricted-- who knows how someone will react to it?)

As a college professor at a private university, I don't have to worry very much about politicians micro-managing my classroom. But I have many friends who teach in public schools, and they are feeling like political pawns. They don't understand why they are suddenly being accused of stuff they would never do. They don't understand why they are being treated with such disdain, and why people who are not teachers are telling them how to do their jobs. And above all, they are afraid that if one student complains (about almost anything), it could put those jobs in jeopardy. 

This has happened at other times in eras past, when one group or other has decided that X is too controversial and must not be taught. Okay fine, I understand the desire of school boards to supervise the curriculum. But letting politicians (from any party) determine what goes on in the classroom is not helpful. I know there are issues we are grappling with as a country, but forbidding these issues from even being discussed, allegedly to "protect" students, doesn't protect them at all. And frankly, I find it offensive that politicians believe their judgment should take priority over what teachers already know how to do. As I said, I know a lot of teachers, all over the country. The ones I know care deeply about their students. The ones I know are skilled professionals. These teachers deserve our respect. They deserve our gratitude. But now more than ever, what these teachers don't deserve is to be demonized by politicians-- the majority of whom have never taught a class in their lives.                     

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

In Praise of Fathers

If you are a Rush fan, as many folks who read my blog happen to be, you know that one of the things I always liked about Alex, Geddy, and Neil was that they were family men. That's unusual in the music industry.  But on the occasions when I saw the guys with their families, it was obvious to me there was a genuine bond. Living the life of a rock musician meant each of the guys was out on the road a lot. But I knew they loved their wives and kids. And I knew they loved their parents.

I was thinking about parenting this week, partly because Father's Day is coming up, and partly because of the sad news that Neil's dad Glen lost his battle with cancer the other day. I would be lying if I said I spent a lot of time with the Peart family over the years, but when I did speak with them, they were very warm and very courteous, and I liked them a lot.  I last saw Glen and Betty in person during the after-party at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. It was so obvious to me how protective Neil felt towards them. And when Neil passed last January, Glen and I exchanged emails several times. Glen was a dear human being, and it is no cliché to say that he will be missed. 

Society has long stereotyped what a "good" father is. If you watch old movies or old TV shows, you see fathers represented as men who make a respectable living. Men who know how to keep their kids in line. Men who are tough during a crisis.  Even in our modern and somewhat more egalitarian world, where men sometimes help with dinner or change a diaper, fathers are still expected to know how to fix stuff around the house, and to be the problem-solvers. 

My father, and I am sure Neil's father, and many fathers of that generation, were taught that version of fatherhood. And of course, there's nothing wrong with making a living or knowing how to fix something. But there's a lot more to being a good father. I think fathering is about ethics: it's about teaching one's kids to be honorable human beings and to do the right thing. I can certainly say that even though I never really got along with my father, he was an ethical person, and that was something I admired about him. 

By all accounts, that's how Glen Peart was too-- an ethical person.  And based on my conversations with Neil, he too respected that quality.  I still remember a conversation I had with Neil in 2010, when he told me he wished he had been around more for his daughter from his first marriage, and how determined he was to not repeat that mistake with his young daughter Olivia. When he retired from Rush to spend more time with his wife and daughter, I know how serious he was about that... how much he wanted to be a positive presence in Olivia's life-- not just a paycheck, but a person who was there for her.  

The other day, I found a letter my father wrote to me back in 1970, when I was away from home,  attending a summer institute at Indiana University. The words seemed a lot like my mother's, but the sentiments were definitely my father's. He said he was sorry we weren't getting along, and he said he wanted us to try to communicate better.  Over the years, periodically, we'd stop speaking to each other, and then we'd resume after a while. He never fully understood my need to move away and pursue my broadcasting career. But he learned to accept it. I'd like to believe he was proud of me.  

If you saw the movie "Beyond the Lighted Stage," you know that Neil's family had to accept the fact that Neil preferred a career as a rock and roll drummer, rather than working in the parts department at his father's farm equipment store. When Neil had a chance to become a member of Rush, his dad could have stopped him, but Glen understood how important being a musician was to his son. And so it was that both my dad and Neil's dad sent their kids out into the world with a strong sense of ethics to serve as a guide in difficult times.

And as we come to another Father's Day, I send my love to all the fathers who are willing to listen, the fathers who spend time with their kids, and the fathers who are willing to accept it when their kid chooses a different career path from the one that was expected. I send my enduring thanks to my own father, of blessed memory, for the lessons he taught me, lessons I still use to this day.  And I send my condolences to Neil's family: Glen did a fine job as a father; and how well Neil and his siblings turned out is certainly proof of that.