Leap of Faith

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It’s February 29, a date that won’t come along again for four years. Those who were born on this date have the rare excitement of celebrating their actual birthday (and joking that they are only 10, 15 etc. years old).

Although Leap Year was designed to help keep our sense of time congruent with the Earth’s rotation around the sun, I think it would be a good idea to use Leap Day to try something new in one’s life. Whether it be a new sport or hobby, a social engagement, religious practice, or something as simple as starting to read a different genre of book, today would be a great day to take a leap of faith.

I grew up craving safety. My parents, who lived through so much deprivation, uncertainty, and grief, raised their children to get good grades, stay out of trouble, and get a solid, respectable job. Nothing wrong with that. Yet in some ways, I wish they had encouraged us to take risks, to realize that failure isn’t fatal, and to follow a dream that may have seemed unrealistic at the time.

Last night as I watched the 88th Academy Awards ceremony, I felt inspired by the many artists there who had worked their whole lives in a creative field with little certainty or job security. Even some of the characters in the nominated films represent real people who fought against the odds to do something great. The Best Picture winner, Spotlight, for example, depicts the painstaking, unglamorous process of uncovering a major sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. One of the actual reporters who worked on the Spotlight expose attended the Oscar ceremony. He must have felt great satisfaction as he mounted the stage with the director, actors, and producers who helped bring his story to the big screen. More importantly, he must have felt vindicated for months of overcoming other’s disbelief as well as resistance from the justice system when the Boston Globe was finally able to break the story – and the silence around child sexual abuse by priests.

Although we may not all be able to achieve something newsworthy or momentous, we all have the ability to change things up in our lives. Life is about growth, and growth can only occur with change. So how about making a small leap this Leap Day? That leap may lead to a big and wonderful change in your life.

 

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Allergies and Empathy

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This morning I read a news story about a seven-year-old boy who was forced to deplane with his family after he had a serious allergic reaction to the dogs that were on board. This incident angered me for two main reasons. The first is that there are a growing number of passengers who insist upon bringing pets on board airplanes, and this trend poses not only a nuisance, but a health threat to other passengers.

The other thing that bothered me about this story is that as the family gathered their belongings to deplane, other passengers started to clap. Apparently, someone’s serious health issue was interfering with their enjoyment of the traveling experience.

I am no stranger to the lack of empathy that surrounds allergies. My son was diagnosed with life-threatening peanut and tree nut allergies at the age of one, and he has spent two decades struggling with asthma and taking inordinate care to make sure the food he eats won’t kill him. This is not an exaggeration. Yet I have found people to be singularly unsympathetic to allergy sufferers. Many parents, for example, complain that they must refrain from sending nut products in their children’s lunches due to severe allergies. Clearly they have never had a child in school who had to sit at a special table away from his friends in order to be safe at lunchtime.

People make comments such as, “How come there are so many food allergies now? When I was young, I didn’t know anyone with a food allergy.” The implication is that this is somehow fake. I even had a good friend who didn’t really believe my husband was severely allergic to cats. She was convinced it was all in his head.

Perhaps the problem is that a person unacquainted with allergies has no experience with how debilitating and even dangerous they can be. I have even noticed how in movies, allergies are used for cheap laughs, and the audience cracks up at the swollen tongue or hives of the victim. I have had far too many emergency room visits with my son to make that even mildly entertaining.

Allergies and asthma seem to be on the rise, and medical researchers don’t really know why. But the public should know that these medical conditions can lead to death. Let’s have a little empathy for those afflicted.

The Real Harper Lee

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News of Harper Lee’s death last week has made fans of To Kill a Mockingbird both sad and nostalgic about one of the most perfect pieces of literature ever written. In deceptively simple prose, Lee portrays the weighty themes of character, intolerance, compassion, and personal responsibility. Ultimately, the story of a courageous lawyer in the Deep South and his two young children touches upon our universal humanity, and the necessity to “climb into [someone’s] skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee has been an enigmatic figure for the past 60 plus years. Her failure to publish another novel after the phenomenal success of To Kill a Mockingbird and her famous reluctance to grant interviews gave her a certain mystique over the years. Last year, however, with the publication of Go Set a Watchman, a supposedly recently discovered manuscript of hers written before TKAM, Lee’s name was once again in the news.

Many speculated that Lee’s new lawyer was taking advantage of an old woman who had had a stroke and possibly suffered from dementia in order to cash in on her fame. Certainly, the book can’t hold a candle to To Kill a Mockingbird and to my mind, was never really meant to be published in its current form. People were also outraged that their beloved character, Atticus Finch, was portrayed as racist in Watchman. 

All this press reawakened my interest in Harper Lee and led me to read her excellent biography Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields. Lee’s life story portrays a young girl who did not fit the mold for females in her time and place, an acerbic wit who struggled to fit in during college but eventually found her niche on the University of Alabama’s satirical paper, The Rammer Jammer. It describes her friendship with the egomaniacal Truman Capote, who hurt Lee badly by failing to give her credit for her invaluable assistance on the ground-breaking book In Cold Blood, which she helped research and write.

As most people assume, the beloved character of Atticus Finch is based on Harper Lee’s father, A.C. Lee. But from Mockingbird,  I learned that the Atticus who so disappointed critics of Go Set a Watchman is much more like A.C. Lee, who held very conservative views on black rights until around 1962, the date To Kill a Mockingbird was published.

Furthermore, both Lee’s father and her sister Alice constantly pulled Nelle (her given name) back to Monroeville and into their insular world even as Lee tried to make a writer’s life for herself in New York City. Although she never wanted to be the center of attention, Lee did make significant friendships and even had a platonic affair with a friend’s husband.

Like most human beings, Harper Lee was a complicated individual with strengths and weaknesses. Yet she gave us the great gift of her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. And for that, we can be eternally grateful.

Much Ado About Nothing

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The brouhaha surrounding the news that President Obama would not attend the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s funeral is business as usual for the Republicans. Perhaps to deflect attention from the fact that Mitch McConnell was making pronouncements about replacing the justice while the bed in which he died was still warm,   the Right has been denouncing Obama’s decision to attend the memorial service at the Supreme Court but not the funeral mass.

Oh, the outrage! This is just the latest tempest in a teapot from conservatives who look for ways to attack the president on a nearly daily basis. In fact, there is little precedent for presidents to attend the funerals of Supreme Court justices. For example, according AboveTheLaw.com’s Joseph Patrice, “it’s really not out of the ordinary for a president to not attend the funeral of a Supreme Court justice,” and “recent history reveals a mixed bag when it comes to attending these funerals.” He cited the fact that neither President Clinton nor Al Gore attended the funerals of Harry Blackmun or Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Nor did President Bush or Dick Cheney attend Byron White’s funeral.

But Scalia was a sitting justice, outraged Republicans rant. Yet other than Bush’s attendance at Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s funeral, there have been very few sitting justices to die while on the Court. Before Rehnquist, the last time a sitting justice died was when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, and he merely sent flowers to the funeral of Justice Robert Jackson. (Chicago Tribune, 10/13/54)

Furthermore, former clerk for Justice Scalia and a fellow Catholic Ed Whelan stated that President Obama had made the right decision with regard to Scalia’s funeral. “For Catholics, a funeral Mass is first and foremost a funeral, not an event of state,” Mr. Whelan said. (New York Times, 2/18/16)

There are so many important matters to be addressed in our country, but this isn’t one of them. So give it a rest, Republicans.

 

Netflix and Chill?

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My husband wants me to do it with him every night, sometimes for two or three hours. Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoy it every bit as much as he does. But I’m exhausted. And sometimes I just want to read my book. I’m referring, of course, to watching episodes of Homeland on Showtime Anytime.

The advent of the DVR; streaming services such as HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, and Netflix; and the plethora of high quality programming have created the ideal conditions (or perfect storm, depending on your outlook) for binge watching TV shows. So every time my husband and I finish an episode of the five-season series Homeland, we look into each other’s eyes and whisper, “One more episode?”

Binge watching is a completely different experience from watching regular television. In the old days, before the invention of the VCR, families would gather around their televisions in great anticipation for their favorite show, holiday special, or movie premiere. So watching, for instance, How the Grinch Stole Christmas was a once-a-year event. The Wonderful World of Disney would broadcast a movie each Sunday night, and no one could get tired of endless repetitions of Snow WhiteBambi, or Pinocchio. Even ordinary television series were must-see occasions, and people planned their evenings around such viewing.

With videotapes and their descendants, DVDs, as well as TiVo and eventually services such as Apple TV, a wealth of entertainment became instantly available. And it just keeps getting easier and easier to watch TV for hours in the comfort of one’s home. Remember going to Blockbuster Video to pick out a movie? Remember having to fast forward through the commercials?

In the past, and still today in many cases, viewers would have to “tune in next week” for the next installment of their favorite TV show. The anticipation was part of the fun. Now we have entire seasons of a television series popping up at once on Netflix, and we tend to go through the episodes like a box of popcorn at the movie theater. Call me old-fashioned, but this style of TV-watching eliminates some of the magic.

Still, it’s hard to stop progress, and I must admit that it can be fun to gorge myself on a particularly good television series. At the same time, with so much good TV to watch, who has time to Netflix and chill?

 

A Safe Space

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In the past few months, protests have roiled college campuses as many students have become fed up with a system that fails to address racism and cultural insensitivity on the part of both students and staff. From Yale to Missouri to the Claremont Colleges in California, these students have assembled to demand change and, in some cases, to force college administrators to resign.

Many in the media have decried what they see as political correctness run amok, particularly in the demand for “safe spaces” on campus for students of color and other minority groups, such as gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals. While I agree that creating these permanent safe spaces for minorities is a bad idea, I disagree on the reasons put forward by these pundits.

Critics of the safe space movement argue that students these days are too sensitive and should not be coddled. I disagree. When students are subjected to racial epithets, culturally denigrating costumes, and exclusionary attitudes, they are not being babies. College administrators need to be firm about disciplining acts of bullying, whether they be physical or verbal. A young woman subjected to leers and catcalls, a Hispanic or Asian student told to go back to where they came from, or a student mocked for his or her sexual orientation all deserve to be protected from such bullying.

Critics will argue that these prejudices exist in the real world, so students may as well get used to dealing with them. I have news for these critics. Minority members are all too familiar with discrimination in their so-called real lives by the time they get to college. There is nothing wrong with a college fostering some sensitivity towards people’s differences.

Another argument is that minority students’ demands have shut down debate and true academic inquiry on college campuses. While there may be cases where students have gone to extremes in their definitions of hate speech, for the most part, students just want to be respected. There is a big difference between an argument in a college course over a racially sensitive issue, for example, and hurling racial slurs at each other.

Whites need to concede that most colleges intrinsically cater to their culture. Because whites are in the majority on most college campuses, white culture is seen to be the norm while other cultures are looked upon as different or even alien. A case in point is the protest that erupted over Claremont McKenna College’s dean of students referring to “the CMC mold” in an email to a Latina student. (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 17, 2016) The dean meant well. She was trying to explain her determination to assist minority students, but her language betrayed the reality of many college situations. There is a “mold” that non-white and non-heterosexual students do not fit.

All those things being said, I think designating permanent safe spaces on campus for individual groups is a mistake. For one thing, all students should have access to all campus facilities. It’s not right to say that a certain space is only for, say, Asian students to congregate in. I also think providing so-called safe spaces puts the administration in the business of promoting segregation. While I firmly believe individuals have the right to associate with whomever they want, I don’t think such segregation should be encouraged by the college administration.

All colleges should be safe spaces in which students of varying races, religions, cultures, and sexual orientations should be able to explore, learn, meet, argue, and grow as individuals. College administrators should absolutely address students’ grievances, and I applaud these young people for standing up for what they believe in.

Our society seems to be at a crossroads. On the one hand, we have our first black president, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of gay marriage. On the other hand, we have frustration and underemployment for many middle class Americans. It’s not hard to see how such uncertainties can create a backlash as we look for a scapegoat. But our colleges are a key part of our future, and we need to pay attention to the needs of all students, regardless of background, if we are to continue our tradition of excellence in America.

 

Dress Code Double Standard

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school_dress_codes-e1452017832686As part of her middle school volleyball team, my daughter needs a pair of navy blue spandex shorts to go with her uniform. While ordering them online, I asked her if she would like an extra pair for practice. She responded that the girls were not allowed to wear them to practice because they would distract the boys, who share the gym for after school practice.

This is just the latest example I’ve noticed of a double standard when it comes to school dress codes. Most of the restrictions fall on girls and seem to imply that girls’ dress is too sexually provocative. This is wrong on a number of fronts. First of all, it makes girls self-conscious about their bodies. When a first grader is told that her sundress is inappropriate and forced to cover up (houstonpress.com), she is getting the wrong signal about her body. Even older girls, who mostly just want to follow current fashion, are not trying to be sexually enticing. Furthermore, the stated intention of many of these rules is to avoid a distracting environment for boys. Such policies imply that boys are wild animals who can’t control themselves.

Girls and their parents are fighting back, however. For example, a high school student in Kentucky produced a film titled Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code, which led her high school to reexamine its gender-biased dress code. Similarly, a group of middle schoolers in New Jersey started a campaign #IAmMoreThanADistraction to draw attention to the issue. (neatoday.org, 1/6/16) And parents at a Chicago area middle school protested that a ban on leggings and tight yoga pants was sending the wrong message to girls and excusing boys’ sexist or predatory behavior. (HuffPost, 3/19/14)

There’s nothing wrong with expecting students to dress appropriately for school or to disallow threatening or derogative messages on clothing. But issues of inappropriate dress should be handled on a case by case basis instead of applying wide-ranging, strict rules that unfairly target half of the student population.

The tight spandex shorts girls and women wear for volleyball help their movement and performance on the court. They are not made for the titillation of males. I’m not sure why, but my daughter’s coach backed down from his prohibition of spandex shorts at volleyball practice. After all, these same girls will be wearing the spandex as part of their team uniform during games. Why should that be deemed appropriate when the same garb at practice is not allowed?

I plan to attend my daughter’s games and cheer on the fabulous, athletic girls on her team.  They will impress by their bumping, spiking, and setting,  and not by their spandex.