Sunday, February 28, 2021

Whatever the Next Thing Is

Let me start by saying I'm glad that more and more people are getting vaccinated against COVID. My husband just got his appointment, and I was really happy for him. (I haven't been able to get mine yet, but I'm sure it will happen soon). Once enough of us are vaccinated, we'll finally be able to get back out there and try to resume our pre-COVID lives. That's certainly good news. 

But I've been thinking about what my life has been like during the pandemic. For many people, myself included, life has largely been lived on Zoom. That's where I teach my classes, mentor my students, have faculty meetings, and talk with my boss. For months, about the only places I've gone outside of my home are grocery shopping, getting gasoline for my car, and the occasional doctor's appointment.

And it occurs to me that I've lost my conversational skills. Those little social rituals we all take for granted-- like chatting with folks in line at the coffee shop, or stopping to talk with someone on the way to a class, or making small talk while waiting for the bus... a lot of us haven't done any of that in a year. In fact, I am not sure when the last time was that I just chatted with another human, for no reason other than that the two of us were in the same place, waiting for the same thing.  

I'm not sure I know how to do it anymore. And no, I'm not trying to be dramatic. Of course I know how to talk to people-- I do it for a living. But that's my point: I know how to teach an interesting class (or at least I hope I do), or be a guest on a podcast, or get interviewed by someone who is seeking my expertise as a media historian. In other words, I know how to make work-related conversation.  Casual, friendly conversation, not so much.

In fact, I find when I try to do it, it comes out all wrong.  I feel awkward, and overly self-conscious, as if I need to choose my words carefully. I don't think I'm alone in this. I've been reading some articles about how isolated many of us have become; and how ill-at-ease many of us feel about what the future holds. So, will we all be able to just transition back into whatever  life we had before the pandemic? I doubt it, given how many of us have lost someone to COVID. And even if we haven't lost someone, we've certainly lost the life we had before. And nobody is really certain what kind of life will come next.

I think about my late mother, who truly was a brilliant conversationalist. She was the kind of person who could adapt to just about any circumstance.  I have the feeling that she'd adapt to this one too. But I'm not sure I will have as easy a time. I've always felt out-of-place at social gatherings. (Nobody who knows me believes that-- they've seen me as a public speaker or an educator or heard me on the radio, and I'm very confident under those conditions; at social gatherings, however, I never seem to know what to say.)  At least before the pandemic, I got some practice making small talk. But it has certainly been a while since I've had to do it, and now, I'm worried that I won't be able to re-learn whatever conversational skills I had before.

Perhaps you share my sense of feeling out of balance, of worrying that what you have to say will get taken the wrong way by someone else, or that you'll unintentionally offend someone, or that whatever social skills you used to have are really in need of an upgrade. As someone who uses words for a living, I am sure I'll be fine at my job-- I adapted to online teaching, and I'll adapt back to being in the classroom.  But so much has changed in a year. Society is so different now. And all I can say is I hope I'll be able to make the transition to whatever the next "new normal" is.


Monday, February 15, 2021

What's My Age Again?

As many of you know, Valentine's Day was my birthday;  I turned 74. Given my family history, with so many of the women on my mother's side dying of cancer, I feel incredibly fortunate that I'm still here, and able to enjoy some birthday cake for yet another year. 

I don't know what to say about being 74. I mean, to my students, I probably seem "old," and compared to the average person who is 18, I probably am. But I don't think of myself as a "senior citizen," whatever that means. I just think of myself as Donna, living in a world where the concept of aging is being redefined.  

When I was growing up, people retired at 65, and the idea of continuing to work into your 70s (not because you had to, but because you wanted to) was still not common. At a certain point, older people were expected to be content with golfing or playing cards or watching TV-- not that there's anything wrong with any of those things. But American culture seemed to have the idea that older people didn't have much to offer after a certain point, so they might as well leave the stage and spend their time taking up a hobby.  

And while we were all taught to respect our elders, the "elderly" were not revered-- I recall how comedians made jokes about folks of a certain age who were all supposed to be senile. (Not sure you could make those kinds of jokes today.) It was youth that was worshiped, leading even some people in their 40s (especially women) to lie about their age or undergo cosmetic surgery to keep looking young. Society back then was especially hard on women who didn't "age gracefully." And to be honest, I'm not sure we're more accepting now, although these days, even men feel pressured to look youthful.

So, here I am trying to negotiate a world that says I'm too old, while acknowledging my need to continue being relevant. That's why I got my PhD when I was 64. That's why I reinvented myself as a professor. That's why I keep doing research, and why I even turned down a sabbatical: as long as I have the energy and the ability, I want to keep trying to make a difference. I can't imagine retiring. I can't imagine not being out there.

Maybe I shouldn't think that way. Maybe at my age, it's time to do a little less. But doing less has never made me happy. There are people I want to mentor, and more research I want to do; more new information I want to discover, and more new subjects I want to teach. I hope I'm still doing a good job as a professor-- you'll have to ask my students about that. And while I can't pretend I'm in my 30s, I hope I can continue to prove that someone in their 70s isn't quite over the hill yet.

For those who reached out to wish me a happy birthday, I'm grateful.  I hope to make the most of my 74th year, and perhaps a year from now, I'll be able to write a blog post to celebrate my 75th. I've had an interesting life-- a lot more so than was ever predicted for me. Many of the folks I knew growing up didn't have high hopes for me; perhaps I've exceeded some people's expectations. But I haven't exceeded my own yet, and there's still so much that needs to be done. I look forward to doing my part, this year, and for however many more years I have.           

Sunday, January 31, 2021

In Search of a Normal Life

I've always been fascinated by the history of words; from the time I was a kid, I always wondered where a word came from, how its meaning changed over the years, and when it acquired its current meaning.  Take, for example, the word "normal." These days, it generally means something that is "usual, typical, or expected." But as any student of history can tell you, what was considered normal in times past might not be considered normal today. 

For example, a century ago, health books said it was not normal for girls to participate in sports. Parents were advised that sports were normal for boys, but if girls were allowed to play, they would acquire masculine traits.  Meanwhile, it was considered normal for kids as young as twelve to work full-time in factories, even around dangerous machinery.  And it was normal for upper-class women to wear long skirts and corsets (having a slender waist was the goal), while upper-class men were expected to wear a frock coat, a vest, and a shirt with a stiff collar.

But while it's interesting to look back on how society's idea of "normal" has changed since the 1910s, let's consider what has changed since just last year.  In February 2020, few of us were thinking much about COVID-19. In my typical week, "normal" meant sitting in traffic as I drove to my teaching job at Lesley University (about twenty-five minutes from where I live). It meant hanging with students who wanted to talk, taking them out for ice cream (or cookies), attending faculty meetings, and sometimes going over to a nearby library to do some research for an article I was working on (I have always done a lot of free-lance writing). 

A year ago, I never thought anyone except my husband would see my messy home office, and that was okay: as a media historian, I have lots of reference materials, old magazines and books and other rare memorabilia; and while I know where most things are, I'm sure my filing system would look a bit chaotic to a stranger. But now, my home office is where I teach my classes. I've  organized it as best I can (even installed a Baby Yoda to be in the shot when I Zoom or Skype), but I am sure Room Rater would give me a 2 or 3, rather than a 10. Still, it's normal for me these days to teach online and try my best to educate (and entertain) students, many of whom I've never met in person.

I'm still not sure how to define "normal" in February 2021, but some people seem to have found a way. For example, whether you like our new president or not, he seems kind of normal to me--and I mean that in an old-school way: he doesn't call people names or Tweet angry messages day and night; he goes to church once a week, he likes bagels, he likes ice cream, he enjoys playing with his dogs or spending time with his wife. In other words, he has a predictable and low-key routine-- even if he's now doing it all from the White House rather than from his home in Delaware. 

I too have tried to create a predictable and normal routine, but things still feel very much out of place. I miss giving people hugs. I miss visiting old friends and taking them out to lunch. I miss going to a movie or seeing a play. I'm glad I can Zoom or Skype with people (I gave a talk several weeks ago to students and professors in Karachi, Pakistan, which was a lot of fun), and I'm glad I can reach out to friends and colleagues on social media. I'm encouraged that slowly, people are getting the COVID vaccine. But somehow none of this feels "normal," even after almost a year. You'd think I'd be accustomed to it by now. After all, I'm often told this is the "new normal." Of course, I'm happy to be alive to see it. I know things change, and I know I can adapt to those changes. But frankly, I still miss the old normal. And I don't think I'm alone in that.       

 

Friday, January 15, 2021

"What Does Democracy Mean to You?"

My maternal grandfather came to America in 1910. He was from Lithuania, and by most accounts, things were not very good for the Jews there. So, he came to a country where there was supposed to be more opportunity, more freedom. And he carved out a life that was better than what he would have had if he'd stayed in the Old Country. He never got rich: he was a tailor, and he lacked the kind of education one needed to move up. But he was hopeful that his children would do better than he had done.  That was typical of the immigrant experience: immigrants who came here hoped they could build a better life for their kids.

What made me think of my grandfather was a video I saw earlier today, from retired Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman. He spoke of how his father brought him and his brother here from Russia, in search of that better life, with more opportunity and more freedom. And he spoke of how much he loves this country even now, despite the turmoil, violence, and chaos we've seen over the past few weeks. Even though he was forced to leave the military, through no fault of his own, he remains hopeful: he is finishing up his PhD, while serving as a board member at the Renew Democracy Initiative, a non-partisan, non-profit organization whose mission is "dedicated to empowering the public to uphold constitutional principles in their civic behavior.

I admit I wasn't familiar with RDI, but I began seeing a number of short videos on Twitter today from some well-known people in media, politics, and entertainment, all taking what Lt. Colonel Vindman referred to as the "Renew Democracy challenge."  In a Twitter post, he wrote, "During a dark time, we need to showcase the best of our democracy. Share a short video about what democracy means to you & nominate three friends to do the same!"  I watched some of the videos, and while I decided not to make one myself, I thought the question was worth answering.

To me, democracy means my life is not subject to the whim of one man or one political party or one ideology.  As someone who likes to think for myself, I don't want to be told what to think or who to vote for. Thus, I don't want to live in a country run by an all-powerful, autocratic ruler who cannot be replaced, and whom everyone is forced to obey.

To me, democracy means acceptance:  even though I am a member of a minority religion, I am free to observe and celebrate my faith, with no fear that the government will ban my beliefs (nor imprison me for the way I worship).  Similarly, even though I may disagree with my political leaders, I am free to express those views, including on this blog. The First Amendment promises freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and many other rights that folks in some other countries don't have. I value those rights. I don't take them for granted. And I would hate to lose them.     

To me, democracy means that even in the worst of times, people can build coalitions and work together to make positive change. Yes, we are going through a difficult and contentious period of time, and some people want to overthrow our government or do harm to those they disagree with. But I refuse to give in to despair, even though the events of the past week have horrified me. I know not everyone agrees with the folks who attacked the Capitol; I know not everyone sees violence or hatred as the answer. In fact, there are millions of us are willing to put our differences aside, to try to move this country forward.

So, there you are.  I invite you to consider what democracy means to you, and I'd be eager to hear what you have to say.  Now more than ever, we need to remember how important democracy is, and we need to teach our kids why it matters. Lt. Colonel Vindman is right: it's a good time to defend the democratic ideal-- not with violence or threats, but with the determination that we will be part of the solution... not part of the problem.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Turn the Page: Saying Goodbye to 2020

Thomas Neal Cartmell died yesterday, after a long battle with cancer, at age 72. If you're a fan of classic rock, you know him by his performing name-- Alto Reed-- and for his outstanding work with Bob Seger. As a member of the Silver Bullet Band, Alto was the sax player on one of my favorite mid-1970s songs, "Turn the Page." (You can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GONmFCkCGCc)

I find myself thinking about that song a lot since Alto passed-- many of my friends are musicians, and it's an excellent depiction of what life was like on the road back then.  If you were a relatively unknown band, like Rush was in those days, you spent long hours in your tour bus, driving from city to city, day after day. The famous bands had elegant and comfortable buses; the up-and-coming bands, not so much.  It could be a lonely and challenging way to make a living: sometimes, the fans liked you, sometimes they didn't, yet you had to keep going. "And you don't feel much like driving, you just wish the trip was through..." 

Much to their surprise, Rush found a home away from home in Cleveland, where fans loved their music and eagerly came to their concerts. But in other cities, the reception wasn't as warm. Still, the guys persisted, never giving up, never slowing down, determined to bring their music to as many fans as possible. (And since I was speaking about Bob Seger, it's interesting to note how at one point in March 1977, Rush found their path intersecting with his, as they were his opening act in New York City. I remember it well.)


In 1987, Rush had their own song called "Turn the Page," a different song, of course, but the lyrics seem to speak to this moment: 

"Every day we're standing
In a time capsule
Racing down a river from the past
Every day we're standing
In a wind tunnel
Facing down the future coming fast..."
 
Tonight, all of us are facing down that future. Most of us will welcome it, because 2020 was such a brutal year and we're ready to say goodbye and good riddance to a year that took so many important people from us (including our beloved Neil Peart)-- thousands dead from COVID-19, so many celebrities and iconic figures gone; it's a world where it often seems anger and resentment are on the rise, and where kindness and compassion are in short supply. It's an insecure and uncertain world, with a future that holds no guarantees. And at times like these, what comforts many of us is music, friendship, and the faith that things will get better.
 
It would be easy to succumb to despair, given all that many of us have been through. But I look at us as survivors. We made it through a horrible year, and we're still here, despite the losses and despite the pain and despite the disappointments. In the end, it was the human connections that got us through 2020. I'm sure many of know know what I mean: even when we couldn't be there in person, we found ways to reach out through social media, or through Zoom or Skype, by sending a card, or by picking up the phone and calling. We encouraged each other, and we shared each other's lives as best we could. And we made it to the end of 2020.
 
And now, as 2021 arrives, I hope and pray that things will be better than they were in 2020. So much loss, so much sorrow, so much pain for so many people-- surely the year ahead will be better. If I could give all of you a hug, I would. If I could thank you all individually for being there for me, I would. And if I could give you a round of applause for coming on this journey and reaching the end of a difficult year, I absolutely would. We made it. The new year is here, and I'm ready to turn the page. I know you are too.  Happy new year.     
   

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Keeping Things In Perspective

As many of you know, I'm a cancer survivor. In fact, assuming I'm still here on the 17th of December, it will be six years since I had my surgery. And even on the days when I'm feeling frustrated by pandemic restrictions, or when some minor but annoying thing goes wrong in my life, I remain eternally grateful to be alive.

When I was a kid, I vaguely recall someone (perhaps it was my parents) reminding me that whatever I was upset about, there were people who had things much worse. That always seemed like such a cliché, and at the time, it also seemed really unhelpful.  But since my recovery from cancer, and since the ongoing Coronavirus crisis, I've found it's actually a sensible way to look at life. 

These past few months have been quite a lesson about keeping things in perspective: some of my students have endured periods of homelessness, or they can't attend classes regularly because they lack the technology at home. In fact, some of them have parents who are unemployed and the rent is due.  Meanwhile, I have colleagues who lost family members to COVID, and I have an older friend in assisted living who isn't allowed to have visitors. My musician friends still can't perform anywhere, and I know so many businesses that have had to close.  Whatever my problems are, they are nothing compared to any of that.

As I write this, my husband and I just observed another night of Hanukkah at our home, lighting the menorah by the window, to shine some light on the darkness outside. And all over my neighborhood, everyone else has put up their Christmas lights-- in the midst of such an insecure and difficult time, it's nice to see some beautiful decorations.  

It's also nice to know that there is a vaccine for COVID and soon, lots of people will be able to get it. Perhaps in the new year, the pandemic that has impacted so many lives will finally be under control. To be honest, I won't be sorry to see 2020 end; I'm sure lots of you would agree with that. But in spite of everything, I try to focus on how fortunate I am; that's worth remembering when I'm having an aggravating day.  And I know this year, more than at any other time, that so many people have things a lot worse than I do. 

And so, in this holiday season that is very different from previous years, let me wish you, my readers, health and happiness, love and light.  Even in times like these-- especially in times like these-- we all need a reason to celebrate; and I pray that you will have lots of reasons (and lots of celebrations) both now and in the new year ahead.  


Monday, November 30, 2020

Being Fair to the Facts

I just read a newspaper article that really irritated me. It was about a social studies teacher who was familiarizing his students with how American elections worked. Nothing unusual there-- I studied that back when I was in high school, five decades ago. But when he told his students that Joe Biden had won the 2020 election (a well-documented fact), many of his students got upset with him. They began telling him about election fraud, about corrupt voting machines, that thousands of dead people had voted, plus there were illegal ballots; and above all, Joe Biden couldn't possibly have won because he stole the election from President Trump. 

Needless to say, the teacher was not amused, but he wasn't entirely shocked. Living in a red state, he knew that students heard these sorts of things at home. Plus, given the world of social media, it was all too easy for students to encounter many inaccurate claims. As a teacher, he was known for being non-partisan; thus, he figured his job was to correct the kids-- and to show them fact-checking sites that refuted their assertions. Over all, he just wanted his students to know what happened, no matter which party won. So, he showed them how votes are tabulated, who counts them, the safeguards in the system, and why their assertions were inaccurate. And he told them that in the 2020 election, Mr. Biden had received more votes-- both electoral votes and popular votes. 

But that did not satisfy his students. They kept defending the president, and repeating what he had said. They kept insisting that there was "massive fraud," that Pres. Trump had been robbed, and that he had actually won.  And then, some irate parents began complaining about the teacher; one parent even demanded that their kid be taken out of the teacher's class immediately. In other words, the parents wanted the teacher to stop telling students anything that contradicted what the president was saying-- even if those claims were false.

If you were teaching those students, what would you do? I've heard versions of this story from a number of teachers, all of whom were advised not to be "controversial" and not to teach anything that students (or their parents) would perceive as partisan. But that seems like an impossible task, since no matter what a teacher might say, there is someone who is bound to be offended. And in this case, things are complicated by the constant presence of Mr. Trump, continuing to assert that he was robbed, continuing to stir up his supporters, and continuing to cast doubt on the election (and on the electoral process).      

I have been very disappointed that this president persists in spreading baseless accusations. He has every right to be upset that he lost, but the fact remains: he lost. And spreading misinformation on partisan TV channels and websites is horrible for our democracy.  I hope he will concede, as others have done before him. And I hope he will admit there was no fraud and no cheating-- there was simply the fact that someone else won the election. Meanwhile, all over the country, teachers and professors are left to pick up the pieces, as Mr. Trump tries to make his own ego feel good, while doing real damage to the public's faith in our democracy. Conservative media are also being very unhelpful by giving Mr. Trump's false claims a place to be heard: yes, their audience loves it, but again, the harm to our democracy could be lasting.  

I don't know when it became controversial to teach that the person who got more votes was the winner of the election. There have been many times over the years when I couldn't believe that candidate X didn't win and candidate Y did... but I was never tempted to deny reality or avoid telling my students what the facts were (whether I liked those facts or not).  2020 has been a brutal year in numerous ways, and I am one of many who won't be sorry to see it go. But I hope we can also put an end to the ongoing effort by this president and his enablers to insist that facts are not facts, and to insist that only Mr. Trump's version of the truth is what matters. It doesn't. He lost. I understand he wishes that he won. But he didn't. And it's time for him to accept that fact, so the rest of us can move on.