Monday, January 15, 2018

Into the Great Wide Open

My daughter is a big fan of Conor Oberst, and this morning she mentioned that the songs of his that seem the most positive to her are the ones that most people call bleak or depressing.


 I told her I thought that the way you heard a song had a lot to do with your own perspective on life.

That reminded me of a conversation I'd had with my sister long ago. She'd described Tom Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open" as negative and depressing, and I'd been surprised. See, I heard the sad story, the way things didn't go as expected, but I also heard, "The future was wide open..."

 Sure, I recognized the ironic use of the same phrase to portray endless possibility and endless blank space, but...well...what IS endless blank space if not endless opportunity?

At least, that's the way I've seen it for most of my adult life. And, when I had that conversation with my daughter this morning, I'd have told you that was still the way I saw it.

Sometimes, internal changes are the hardest to see.

The past 15 months have been quite a journey, more filled with change than any in a very long time. In the few months following the last presidential election, I said goodbye to two of the people I counted among my closest friends. The reasons were very different, but both were of that devastating nature that makes you wonder whether you ever really knew a person at all, and whether they ever knew you at all. That kind of discovery can make you question whether you can trust your own judgment about people. When it happens twice in three months, with people you've thought you were close to for more than a decade, it makes you pretty certain that you can't.

During that same few months, my daughter, who has been the focus of most of my adult life, turned 21. Shortly after, she broke up with her longtime boyfriend. It was a good choice for her, but one more big change, since he'd become a part of my family.

Quick summary: LOTS of new space in my life.

Just a few months earlier, I'd have seen that as a positive. See, as much as I love the people in my life, there's a significant part of me that's always yearned to be left alone to write. There's never been any question in my mind about what I would do with my "empty nest" years. But, there's always a glitch.

In the midst of all this, I had a "cardiac incident" of the "your blood pressure is on the verge of destroying your heart--get it down NOW if you want to keep functioning relatively normally" variety (as if I haven't been working fruitlessly toward that particular goal for nearly two decades).

The future wasn't looking so wide open. In fact, my health problems have always been the one obstacle I haven't been able to and didn't believe I could overcome.

I had a lot of work, and it was work I liked. I just kept raising my rates and it just kept rolling in anyway, and first I was booked a week out and then two and then a month, and then I was turning work away. It wasn't challenging work, but that was okay--I knew I could do it well and it paid well, and, though I didn't realize it at the time, I may have been afraid to commit to anything too challenging because something medical might crop up again.

It came anyway, as things do when the time is right. I'm working on a book about a legal/social issue I've felt strongly about for more than a decade. There's another interesting book with an interesting client waiting in the wings. A well-established company reached out to me to work on legal tech thought leadership pieces. My long-time favorite client wanted to re-up our work together.

I said yes to all of it and started cutting back on blogging and websites and the work that had been my bread and butter. But, I had a sense of anxiety I've rarely had about work before. I examined each project and couldn't find a reason. I'm confident in my ability to do each well. I'm not overbooked. They're all things I want to do.

Still, every time I passed up a website job or phased out a blogging client, that sense of anxiety reared it's head.

Until today.

Because this morning, I told my daughter that the way you heard a song depended on your outlook on the world. And, this evening, while I was fighting with all my might not to accept a safe and familiar website job, I opened Spotify and clicked on the "daily mix" they'd created for me, and the very first song they played was "Into the Great Wide Open."

I laughed out loud, as I always do when the message is so blatant.

The future IS wide open, and I don't need to hedge my bets.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

You're Better than You Think You Are

If you happened to be awake and on the Internet in the early morning hours of October 2, you probably saw a non-stop stream of people offering help to strangers in the middle of the night. People offered rides, shelter, water, food--even their own blood--to anyone in need.

I've written before about how we see the best in people in the midst of a crisis or in the wake of a tragedy, how having life abruptly stripped to its essentials reminds us of what's most important. This time, it occurred to me that people aren't really different in those moments at all. They've simply been shaken free of distractions and remembered who they truly are.

If you stood in line for hours to donate blood in the wake of the Vegas shooting, you care about human life--even the lives of strangers.

If you had power during Hurricane Sandy and you threaded an extension cord and power strip out your front gate and left a note that anyone who needed to charge a phone or other device was free to share, you understand that even small contributions can make a huge difference to people in need--and you're willing to make those contributions.

If you immediately responded to the more recent round of hurricanes with donations to organizations working on the ground, you understand that providing relief to those in crisis is important--and you're willing to back that understanding with your wallet.

If you offered a place to sleep, or food, or water, then you don't like to see people hungry, thirsty and tired due to circumstances beyond your control--and you're prepared to do something about it.

This time, when the crisis ends, try to remember those things about yourself. You don't have to change your priorities or try to be a better person or anything so just have to remember who you are.

Every day of your life, you'll encounter a person who is hungry or thirsty or frightened, a person who needs a ride or just an encouraging word. Every day of your life, there are people in the world whose lives could be changed in some small (or huge) way by a small effort or contribution on your part. Every day of your life, you will meet a person on the street (or in the grocery line or on the telephone when you're angry because your cable doesn't work) whose day can be immeasurably brightened or darkened by the way you speak to him or her.

In those moments, don't tell yourself that you should care. Don't try to be better than you are. Instead, remind yourself that you DO care--that when confronted with those very same needs in an attention-catching way, you cared more about strangers than your comfort, keeping your car clean, whatever other plans you had for that money, getting a good night's sleep. That's who you are. Sometimes, that person gets buried or distracted by day-to-day life, responsibilities, stresses, even the quest for a new toy. But, when the chips are down and we see inside you, you're a person who stands for hours in the Vegas sun to give his blood to a stranger.

Don't forget that. Let us see that person every day.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

It's the End of the World as We Knew It...

and I guess I feel fine. Life is good. But, I'm experiencing a rare bout of nostalgia.

Thursday night, changing clothes, putting on make-up, using grape-scented spray to make our hair even bigger, walking the mile from our dorm to Otto's.

Yesterday afternoon, DeKalb historical photographer Brad Oropeza (who also happens to be my daughter's boyfriend) called me from the corner of First and Lincoln Highway to tell me he was watching the building formerly known as Otto's being reduced to rubble.

The bar has been closed for a long time, and I hadn't been inside in much longer. Music had changed, Cosmopolitans had been invented, and life had gone on.

I've passed by that building, sitting quiet and empty, hundreds of times over the past couple of years. That slice of the world as we knew it ended long before they started knocking down the walls, and sometimes it made me a little sad to see it dark and cold. But, I generally don't give much time or attention to the past.

For a moment on Monday afternoon, that changed.  I looked at the pile of broken brick and stone where I'd sat down on the stairs and laid out every student ID, credit card and library card for the bouncer who didn't want to accept my state ID, and I saw my friends half a lifetime ago. I felt the familiar floor under my feet.

The things that happened there were for the most part not significant. A strange man disbelieved me when I told him my name, because a Tiffany song was playing when he asked. A friend fell on our way in the door, early and totally sober. The place was nearly empty at 8 p.m., and we persuaded her that no one had seen--but hours later, someone passing by said, "Aren't you the girl who fell?"

I cried over a friend I wished were more. Our table cleared when "I Melt With You" started to play. I walked away and left a beautiful but arrogant Greek soccer player standing alone on the dance floor. A man on the sidewalk outside sang "You are So Beautiful" to me. I did watermelon shots for the first time on the evening after another big first.

It was only a year. An academic year, in fact, not a full one. But, it was the year I turned 21. A year when the world was unfolding in front of me in exciting and unpredictable ways, and the dark, crowded bar was filled with music and people and sights and smells that were familiar and comfortable. It's been 29 years to the week since I graduated, and yesterday I found out that a lot of ghosts had been living in that abandoned building.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Last Train to Clarksville

It's the end of the summer of 1990. I'm 24 years old and driving from Georgia to the Chicago suburbs in my 1979 Mustang, accompanied by my 16-year-old sister, my friend Kim, and a toy poodle. Somewhere along the endless, multi-state stretch of Route 65, we see an exit sign for Clarksville, Tennessee.

Naturally, we decide to get off the Interstate and go looking for the train station. I'd like to blame this on my sister. Not only was she a huge Monkees fan as a child, but just this week she argued that they'd "held up." I can't, though. We were all equally eager to visit the famous train station and...take pictures? Sing? 

Our hopes were dashed, though.

After searching in vain for the train station or a visitor center--remember, there was no GPS or even Google in 1990--we spotted a bearded man walking down the street and pulled over. I rolled down my window and asked, "Can you tell us where the train station is?"

My sister says she still remembers the expression on his face. It only held for an instant, and then he laughed and said, "There's no train station here."

We laughed at ourselves as we made our way back to the Interstate, but I think we were all more than a little disappointed. It wasn't that we didn't get to SEE the train station so much as the sad news that it wasn't real.

27 years and dozens of hilarious retellings of this story pass.

It's Easter Sunday of 2017 and I'm sitting at my mother's kitchen table with my mother, my sister, my 21-year-old daughter and my daughter's boyfriend, who is a photographer specializing in historic sites (this becomes important later).

Well, not much later.

We tell the story. 

My sister says, "The look on that guy's face!" 

I look to my right, and I see that look again. This time, it's not followed by laughter. Instead, my daughter's boyfriend quietly passes me his cell phone.

This is on the screen:

Yeah, that's the historic Clarksville train station.

Unbelievably, this story that's been making us laugh (and others laugh at us) for nearly three decades just got funnier.

My sister and I had just been discussing a weekend trip around my birthday in June, and it's decided. We're going to Clarksville. We're TAKING THE TRAIN TO CLARKSVILLE. Maybe Kim (who I've seen only once in those 27 years) will want to MEET US IN CLARKSVILLE. 

On the way home, I say to my daughter, "So, there's a train station in Clarksville. This is the best thing that's ever happened to me."

"I'm glad to hear that," she says, "Because it could have been the worst."

This morning, just before I started to write this post, I consulted Google to get a picture of the train station. In the process, I learned that although there IS a train station in Clarksville and there IS a military base not far away, the writers of that song didn't know either of those things at the time. The original draft used "Clarksdale," which was a stop on their own train line, and they changed it because Clarksville sounded better.

We're going anyway.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

January 24, 2017 in America

Earlier today, an online friend asked me to lie to her and tell her I thought we were all going to be okay. She’s an intelligent woman and not someone I’d think of as a head-in-the-sand type, and I’m pretty sure she knows I’m not going to lie. But, her comment made me think about what I’ve been putting out into the world for the past couple of months. So, this post is part balance, part mea culpa. None of it is a lie.

I do believe that we are at greater risk for both nuclear engagement and terrorist attacks on American soil than at any point in history. I also believe these potential conflicts, should they arise, will have a devastating impact on the world as a whole. I can’t sugar coat that, and those are risks I think most people aren’t taking seriously enough, so I tend to reiterate them.

I can count on my thumbs the number of times in my adult life that I’ve been able-bodied and clear-headed and entirely unable to think of a productive step to take. That’s the position I’m in now, and it’s beyond uncomfortable for me. It’s downright frightening.

In the wake of the election, I knew exactly what to do, from working with the faithless elector movement to providing legal research to some important (but ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to set things right. If our current administration starts bar coding Muslims or making good on some of our new President’s other insane promises, I know how to fight that.

I do not know of a single thing I, or you, can do to minimize the chances that Donald Trump will provoke a war out of ego and inexperience, nor that his anti-Muslim rhetoric will convince the Muslims of the world that we are their enemy. I’m not a marcher. I need direct, productive action steps. The uncharacteristic sense of helplessness I feel in not having an action step regarding these all-important issues, I think, makes me sound more alarmist than people are accustomed to.

That’s real.

But, it’s not the whole story.

I believe the vast majority of Republicans are not insane. The current legislature will undoubtedly make many decisions we don’t agree with and some, like the swift changes to health care legislation, will have a significant impact on millions of people. But, we can fight bad law. It’s happened before and it will happen again—at any point in time, our legislature seems wrong-headed and destructive to some of us. The current state of the legislature is, from my perspective, very bad news. But, it’s not cause for panic. When people say “he has both houses of Congress,” I don’t think that’s accurate. Paul Ryan and his ilk are not my kind of legislators, but they are not Donald Trump.

I believe that people with more information and more power than you or I are doing their jobs. That includes the U.S. intelligence community. These are people who—again, political beliefs aside—have devoted their lives to the security of the United States of America. They know more about Trump’s ties to Russia, his history and his financial dealings than we do, and if they conclude that he is under the influence of Putin, colluded with Russia or is otherwise intentionally acting against the interests of the country, I do not believe they will stand by and allow that to continue.

I am connected with a network of more than 120,000 attorneys who are committed to fighting to keep this country what it was meant to be—and, of course, there are many others who don’t happen to be part of this group. Members of this group started the faithless elector research, provided research assistance for the elector lawsuit in Colorado, uncovered the 50+ electors who were not legally entitled to serve in that capacity and started the early research on standing to file suit on the conflicts of interest issues. Others are teaching workshops to allow attorneys in other fields to step in and defend protesters, provide immigration assistance and fill other emerging needs.

Many of them, like me, are in a state of uncertainty. We’re mourning, angry and frightened just like every thinking person in the world. But, we don’t stay this way.  Our nature and our training is to analyze and act—and we’re just one group.

I am also very encouraged by the response from the rest of the world. Although it makes me physically ill to see other countries protesting the inauguration of the U.S. President in the same way they protested apartheid and the Tienanmen Square massacre, I am heartened to see that both citizens and governments around the world are prepared to act, and that they seem to see clearly that it is an individual and not our system or our people that pose a threat.

When tragedy and danger strike hand-in-hand, it’s disorienting. But, the initial shock passes. History says we’re a resilient people, and that once you get our collective attention, we can move mountains.

Meanwhile, our new President seems wholly preoccupied with his inauguration numbers and convincing himself that we don’t really disdain him as much as it appears. There’s a lot of criticism flying about that, but I’m happy to see it. The longer he remains distracted, the more time he invests in tweeting about his television show and persuading himself that a lot of people came to his inauguration, the less damage he’s doing. And, while he’s arranging for ringers to make it seem like what he says is well-received, intelligent, competent people around the country are shaking off the shock and mobilizing.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

In Defense of Rural America

Let me be clear from the outset: I am not defending anyone's decision to vote for Donald Trump. If you know me in any context, you know that I am working day and night to try to prevent Donald Trump from becoming President. I respect differing viewpoints, but I believe there is a line where the question crosses from one of differing political views to one of character.

In theory, it's very black and white to me: a decent human being does not vote for someone who has threatened to force all Muslims to register with the government, who has suggested that Mexicans are rapists and criminals. That's an easy concept, in the abstract, and I have seen it voiced loudly, frequently and often viciously among the people at my side in the trenches over the past weeks.

I get it.

But, I'm burdened by reality.

I've lived in the rural Midwest for most of my adult life. I currently live in a county that went 59.32% for Donald Trump, and I suspect that number would have been higher had Gary Johnson not been in the running. During the years that I lived in the suburbs, one of my primary life goals was to get back to this small town. There were many reasons for that, but one of the most significant was the way people treated one another.

I heard what you just thought. I can see it in your head, that lily white little Mayberry town where everyone treats each other well because they're all exactly alike.

23.5 percent of my little Mayberry town is Hispanic. Our public schools were in the first wave of testing dual language education. Though the numbers are smaller, we are also home to African Americans, Asians of various descent and a small number of native Americans.

On my block alone there are whites, blacks, Mexicans and two Muslim families whose national heritage I do not know. By and large, no one gives a crap. And yet, there is a kind of ingrained racism in many.

My daughter works in a farm store, and several times each week someone--usually an older farmer--makes a snide comment about how he has to select English on the card reader. This is America, isn't it?

It makes her blood boil to the point that I fully expect that one day she will quit or get fired as a result of one of those conversations. Yet, having lived among these particular people for more than ten years and people like them for longer, I can tell you with absolute certainty that if any of them had an elderly Mexican neighbor who didn't speak English, the vast majority of those crochety old farmers would bend over backward to help her.

It was in this town that my white, agnostic-Wiccan blend daughter met her autistic, Mexican, paganish boyfriend while they were both volunteering for a Christian charity that embraced them both with open arms.

I've heard that kind of dissonance described as hypocritical, but I think it's something else entirely. The person standing next to you is a person, regardless of race, color or creed. You hear the things he says and see the way he behaves and share a laugh with him, and it's impossible to miss the fact that he's more like you than he is different. You don't assume a man is lazy when he's working beside you--you observe that he is or is not. You don't apply statistics from possibly-biased news sources to determine whether the single mother who lives next door to you depends on welfare--you see her leaving for work in the morning. In the face of three-dimensional humanity, those superficial characteristics like skin color and marital status fade into the background.

Black, white, Christian, gay, Muslim, Hindu, Middle Eastern, Mexican, straight..those are concepts. It's easy to attach a stereotype to a concept, or to seize hold of the stereotype that's offered to you. In theory, it shouldn't be. In theory, the idea that black men are criminals should clash in your mind with the fact of the black accountant down the hall at work who plays chess with you during lunch. But concepts are different from individual human beings around them--just like the concept of a person who would vote for Donald Trump is different than the individual humans around me.

That doesn't make the things they say okay. It doesn't make the fact that they've elected a crazy man who seems to hate everyone except the President of the Russian Federation to the presidency okay. But, it does bear thinking about, because while that war is going on between the minorities and liberal activists on one side and the guys in white rural America who bitch about the card machine but don't think much about race when confronted with an actual human, the real enemy is largely unattended.

The guys who voted for Trump not believing he could do what he said, taking it as the same kind of rhetoric as bitching about the card reader, believing he'd be a change and another career politician was the last thing we needed--they're an easy target. But, they're an easy target because they're not suited up for battle. They're just going about their lives. They're guilty, perhaps, of not thinking things through to their logical conclusion, of making decisions in the abstract, of not considering those individual human who will be affected. They're guilty, perhaps, of focusing too exclusively on how they and their families will be affected and not giving enough consideration to the world at large. That's wrong.

But, it doesn't change because we villainize them. It doesn't change because we force them down off the fence and onto the other side.

There are more good people in this country than there are bad We can't spare any.

I haven't come to writing this post easily. Like many of you, I woke up on the morning after the election feeling like I'd been transported into a strange and hostile territory. I didn't feel entirely safe going outside, and I'm a white professional. That hasn't magically disappeared. I don't know how to tell which of these people around me is part of the "he says what we've all been thinking" brigade. It troubles me deeply that I might unwittingly be sitting next to someone who has been secretly thinking those things.

But here's what I know: these people around me, people the returns say overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump, have been by my side stocking shelves in the food pantry, Christmas shopping for children in need, feeding the hungry, raising funds for any number of important causes, running food drives and coat drives and making nursing home visits and donating books and...(you get the idea) to help people of all races and religions.

And, they're people who take the time to listen. People who don't mind giving you a ride even though you live ten miles outside town. People who will offer you their umbrella to take with you, or the coat they're wearing.

They're imperfect, like all of us. Some of them have big things to learn about the world beyond the borders of their little towns and the harm that casual, theoretical racism can do. But we're at war. And, we have limited resources. Do you want to go to war with the guy who bitches about the card reader and then drops off a nice big check to the soup kitchen serving the Mexican-dominated trailer park, or with the ones who spray paint slurs on walls and assault people who don't look like them and gather together in back rooms to work out a viable plan for registering Muslims?

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Flipside of Empowering Racists

I've heard a lot of concerns voiced over the past several months about how Donald Trump's rhetoric has empowered racists to come out of the closet and vent their hatred. To a degree, I view that as a positive sign: if that kind of poison is roiling around in the brain of the person sitting next to me on the bus or working in my office, I want to know about it.

Others, though, have rightly pointed out that it is dangerous. The racism that's been unleashed isn't just about people outing themselves because they finally feel like it's acceptable to be a bigot--there's also violence. It's clear that more people are at risk since Trump started saying those things racists believe everyone was thinking, and especially since the election created the impression that the majority of Americans agree with him.

But something else is happening, too.

Something I've seen congratulated and celebrated again and again at an individual level, but not recognized as a trend.

Good people are coming out of the closet, too. People who used to mind their own business are speaking up for a colleague when a racist comment is made. People who haven't mentioned a gay brother or Muslim son-in-law in social media because there was just no reason to make waves have recognized that if those things make waves, the problem lies with the other person.

They're often small acts--a comment made, an action reported, a disagreement where they once would have remained silent. But they're spreading. Just as racists and sexists and xenophobes and whatever it is that we call people who get unduly fussed about other people's sex lives are increasingly showing their true colors in public, so are those who recognize that humans are humans...and that the broken ones are those who can't see that.

Those bigots who are feeling liberated right now may just be in for a surprise.