Leave the Gun AND the Cannoli – Grab a Book

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We are all so very angry today.

If you’re not for us, you’re a-gin’ us.

We are all so righteous and we are angry that the “other” cannot concede our obviously correct point of view that we spew vitriol on social media and to our friends.

Stupid President (either the current or the past, depending on where you stand). Stupid Congress. Stupid Bigot, Stupid Racist, Stupid Sexist, and Stupid Snowflake Liberal.

The truth is, we are as unable to see others’ truth, as they are to see ours.

This kind of anger and frustration leads some to pick up a pen, others to pick up a gun.

The solution might be to read a good book.

A 2006 study cited in a recent Wall Street Journal article says that psychologists in Toronto found a connection between reading fiction and being more sensitive to others.

For people who read fiction (and it seems that it had to be fiction) that transported them – the kind of transport that jolts you when the book ends and you find yourself back in your room – there was an increased ability to see the world through others’ eyes.

Another study three years later reproduced the study but stripped away variables like age, gender, stress or loneliness, and English fluency. They found that fiction readers had higher levels of empathy (and, interestingly, better social networks in real life).

A later study in 2013 refined the findings down to genre – literary fiction that requires the reader to figure out characters’ motivations using more subtle cues had the most empathy. It seems that trying to figure out what the flawed protagonist is going to do next is good practice for trying to read our fellow humans.

A much-loved quote from the movie, “The Godfather,” is to “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” While I love pastries, we might all be better off if we “Leave the gun AND the cannoli. Pick up a book.”

 

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Grateful Enough? Thanks!

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Every morning, I try to meditate. I don’t actually meditate every morning, but I’ve read that it helps, so I try.

Part of that meditation is an accounting of the things I’m grateful for, because I’ve read that helps, too. Helps with what, exactly? Well, helps to make me the calm, accepting person I always wanted to be. There’s a whole industry around gratitude journals.

Gratitude is a good thing, right?

Because the opposite of gratitude is entitlement, i.e. “Why should I be grateful? I deserve this!” I worked hard to be sure my daughter never felt that way, and she couldn’t even play with toys she received until she’d written a thank-you note to the sender. I am suspicious of people who don’t write thank-you notes. When I was hiring, it was the people who wrote thank-you emails or, even better, notes, after interviews whom I favored.

But now, the scientists who study such things say that some people aren’t wired to be thankful. The ones who are the most independent feel like being grateful means they owe a debt of gratitude, and they are profoundly uncomfortable with owing anybody anything.

I get that, because I will go to extreme lengths to return a book or a loan. I have not run for office because I can not stand the thought of asking for money. It’s funny, when I did public relations for causes, I could easily ask for support for the good cause, but asking for myself? Just can’t.

Gratitude interventions – like the popular gratitude journals — don’t work for everyone, despite the marketing, according to the psychologists. Not everyone benefits from forcing gratitude.

But gratitude is still important, even if we’re not wired for it. The psychologist in the story about the gratitude research says that he would, “worry that people who are uncomfortable with gratitude and with receiving gifts may be undermining their interpersonal relationships.”

So, how do we balance the importance of gratitude with the need to be independent and strong?

Maybe we ought to share some of that gratitude with ourselves. For example, “I am so grateful to be published, because a lot of talented people are not. But I am also grateful for my own talent and perseverance that led to my being published.”

Maybe the secret is giving credit where it is due, not with arrogance, but not with false modesty either.

Oh, and thank you for reading to the end. I’m grateful.

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The Blame Game

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Female executives are no longer wearing big shoulder pads; they’re shouldering blame instead.

I was wondering why in the recent election between two flawed candidates, the accusations seemed to roll right off the male candidate’s back while the female candidate was repeatedly investigated, exonerated, investigated again, exonerated again. And it wasn’t because the accusations against the male were false…we heard him on tape saying things he later denied.

So why did the vitriol seem so much harsher against the female?

I found what I think is at least a partial answer in a recent study of female CEOs. The media often is accused of having a liberal bias. But there’s another bias that may have played a role.

According to a study by the Rockefeller Foundation and public relations/research firm Global Strategy Group, females receive a disproportionate share of blame, at least in the media. The study says that almost 80% of digital and print media stories about companies in crisis blamed the CEO when the CEO was female; only 31% of the stories blamed male CEOs in similar situations.

Another difference? Like the “What are you wearing” red carpet question that seems to get asked only to actresses and not actors, the news stories talked about the female’s personal life in 16% of the stories and 78% talked about her family and children. For the men, a personal life was mentioned in only 8% of the stories and none mentioned family and children.

Now, certainly in the presidential campaign, both candidates trotted out children and spouses and personal lives. But, if it seemed that one candidate’s flaws were described as foibles or “locker room talk” and another’s were crimes that should result in “locking her up”…well, maybe the media had a hand in that.

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Breathe

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(Editors Note: This appeared originally as a blog in Skirt Charleston magazine)

The symbol for oxygen is O2.

I like to think of it as “Oh, to…” as in, “Oh, to be able to stop and take a breath!”

It sounds ridiculous to forget to breathe. You don’t have to think about it. Breathing is just natural.

But sometimes, I need to remind myself.

There was always a moment, when I got home from work, that my daughter would want to launch into the rapid-fire recap of her day. From an early age, I taught her…just wait.

Let Mama breathe.

Give Mama that bubble of time, just five or maybe 10 minutes, when I could shuck the stress from the day like an ugly snakeskin. Silence. Breathe. Let my chest rise as I pull in air. Loudly exhale out, letting the shoulders sink.

And then, the “How was your day” could start.

This is the reason you put on your own oxygen mask before turning to your child in the next airplane seat. Because you have to be able to breathe if you want to have anything at all to give someone who depends on you.

The day could be full of the slings and arrows of nasty clients, jealous coworkers, kamikaze commuters. And the nights could be off-the-rails races to fit in dinner, bath, storytime, dogwalking, meaningful conversation, and the occasional – okay, more than occasional – glass of wine.

But for just a few minutes, I could breathe. In. Out.

Later in life, I attended a challenge course. We had to climb a 30-foot telephone pole, stand atop a platform at the top that was no bigger than a personal pan pizza, and then leap into space.

Of course, the whole time, we were harnessed in, safety lines monitored by the seasoned challenge leaders.

But it didn’t feel safe. Once you crested the telephone pole, there was no place to put your hands. You had to stand, 30 feet up and balance on a pole that – how did I not notice this before? – swayed ever so slightly in the wind.

From below, came encouragement from the rest of the class.

“You can do it!”

And then, the leader, well-versed in the sudden cowardice and panic I felt: “Breathe, Helen! Slow breaths, now! Just breathe.”

Just breathe. In. Out.

Not quite bravery as I sucked air like a starving man, but at least the panic receded.

I looked around at the beautiful sage-green mountains, laid out before me. I pushed down on my trembling thighs and straightened from the frightened crouch. Slowly, but I straightened until I was standing.

And I breathed. In. Out.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Breathe.

 

Rape

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This is a blog about rape. One that is in the news. And mine.

Two different rapes.

If you are following the story of Nate Parker, the African American man directing the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” you will know two things: there is a buzz about the black-themed movie making a mark in overly-white Hollywood; and there is a hum about the details of a rape case in his past for which he was acquitted.

This is not about the movie, which I plan to see, by the way, and which I hope is wildly successful. This is about the rape – or maybe the alleged rape.

The details are that Parker was accused in 2001 of raping a young woman when they were students together at Penn State. Parker was acquitted. The woman killed herself in 2012.

To this day, Parker maintains his innocence, but in a statement, he says he should have had more empathy for the young woman as he tried to clear his name. Empathy is always in short supply when women, alcohol, and rape mix. Even in the recent Stanford rape, which had witnesses pulling the rapist off the victim, the judge somehow was more worried about the damage to the rapist’s reputation than to the victim.

But rape does damage. Lasting damage.

The accuser in Parker’s case killed herself. Her sister, Sharon Loeffler, issued a statement, printed in Variety Magazine, saying, “I know what she would’ve said, and that would be, ‘I fought long and hard, it overcame me. All I can ask is any other victims to come forward, and not let this kind of tolerance to go on anymore…These guys sucked the soul and life out of her.”

Blaming the victim is not new. When I was in college, most rapists never saw themselves that way.

Best-selling author Laura Lippman discussed the issue on her Facebook page today, saying, Last year, among a close group of friends, we were discussing with some bafflement why men we knew, guys we considered to be very evolved, were so vociferous in their defense of Bill Cosby. One participant in this conversation…said he had belonged to a fraternity at a large state university in the early 1980s and, by the standards of today, a large number of his fraternity brothers had committed rape, having sex with incapacitated women who could not provide consent. I was in college at the same time and, yes, I’m afraid that’s true. Pass out at a frat party? Unless you were a virgin wearing a chastity belt, whatever happened next was considered a presumptive risk on your part.”

I remember those days. I was raped in those days.

I worked in a music venue during college and it was common to befriend the members of the bands. One happened to live in my neighborhood and, after the post-concert party with coworkers, he offered to drive me home. Sounded good to me. And, giggly with alcohol, I helped him unload his instruments at his apartment before he was going to bring me to my place. And, sure, a goodnight kiss wasn’t out of the question.

Was the rape that followed my fault? I thought it was. I know I said no with force – I was on a break from the Pill and pregnancy was the worst consequence I could imagine – but how forceful was I, with alcohol making my limbs noodle-loose? Couldn’t he have mistaken my panic for being coy?

No. In hindsight, no.

But, then? I just didn’t know, and I knew my mother had raised me to never give ambiguous signals because boys would be boys: beasts who couldn’t control their libidos. As a female, I was supposed to be in charge of the morality. So, no rape report.

I had a strong family. I had friends. The bruises and tears healed. I had the resilience to eventually trust again, to get over the shame.

It was rape. I marvel now that I ever questioned that.

And my daughter? I raised her to be strong, to be unafraid to ask for what gives her pleasure, and to be equally unafraid to fight like hell to put the brakes on what does not give her pleasure.

As for Nate Parker, he says, “All of this said, I also know there are wounds that neither time nor words can heal. I have never run from this period in my life and I never ever will.”

I believe him, and I will see the movie. But I hope he goes beyond regret to teaching other young men about the lifelong implications of “boys being boys.”

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Tribe

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The good stuff about being an only child:

–being the only one to lick the batter off the beaters

–not having to wear too many hand-me-downs

–growing up to have your parents become your best friends

I loved being an only child. Oh, there was a brief time when I urged my mom to adopt a playmate for me, but mostly I loved being the dreamy bookworm who had no problem talking with adults.

My parents moved away from our extended family when I was 8 so I learned to create my own Tribe. As I grew older, I started forming a family of choice: dear friends whom my own daughter would grow up to call “aunt” and “uncle.”

Still, my parents and I were a tight unit with our own memories and jokes, an exclusive triad. Even after marriage and the birth of my daughter, my parents were the curators of my childhood stories.

And then my mom died three years ago and my dad died last month.

And then came the bad stuff about being an only child:

–the knowledge that there is no sibling who can miss your parents in the same way you do

–the realization that no one can vouchsafe a memory that is starting to fade a little because no one else was there when the memory was made

–the understanding that mysterious papers or objects found in old safety deposit boxes will never be explained because you didn’t know about them and you didn’t know to ask

And that is when the Tribe steps in. They say you are stuck with the family you get, but my family by choice chooses to let me in, to fly across the country so that I have my Tribe with me at funerals, to call and to let me say ugly, hateful things or nothing at all, depending on where I am in the grieving process.

An aunt at my dad’s funeral – not one of my more tactful aunts – said, “Now you know what it feels like to be an orphan.”

Orphan as in without parents, yes. But orphan as in alone in the world?

The Tribe won’t let that happen.

Not Alone

 

Eccentric

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“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.”

From “Warning,” a poem by Jenny Joseph

“If you’re trying for eccentric, you’re well on your way,” my husband says, when I tell him I may just use a parasol today, a funky electric blue umbrella I bought in China to keep the glaring sun off in the Forbidden City.

What he sees as eccentric I see as practical. The sun is out and I am walking quite a distance, but rain is forecast. I want to protect my skin, but I know a heavy rain will ruin most of my hats. So, a parasol seems the perfect solution. At the last minute, reluctantly, I stow the parasol on the off chance that the Charleston Fashion Police are patrolling.

For a minute, I forgot Iris Apfel.

I have always adored Iris Apfel, the 94-year-old style icon who dresses like nobody else. I’ve never met her, but I feel like she’s a friend.

“If you put something together and it doesn’t look so good, the fashion police are not going to come take you away,” Iris has said. “And if they do, you might have some fun in jail.”

I have had many style ideals, whether or not I actually achieved them. Hot and sexy when I was younger, professional but still sexy when I was in my 30s. Classy when I was in my 40s. And now, in retirement? I think I’m heading for eccentric. I’m transitioning from Hot Mama to Earth Mother. My shoes are flat so I can walk. My purses are small and cross-body so I can have my hands free for coffee or dogwalking. And my hats are big. Bright color makes me happy. I dress not for my husband, not for other women, but at long last, for me.

“When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else,” Iris says.

Iris would have worn the parasol.

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