Privilege

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IMG_E1701I’m on the campus of an Ivy League college so that my daughter can attend a soccer camp for high school girls.

The above statement reeks of privilege. How many teenagers with some promise in the field of soccer are able to travel to and attend such a camp? How many parents can afford to take the time to bring them? Furthermore, our daughter’s skill has been developed over years of participation in expensive club soccer, an opportunity unavailable to many youngsters in America.

I’m not trying to apologize for my ability to give my child opportunities or advantages. But neither can I ignore that many of the things my family takes for granted in our lives are the result of white middle class privilege. Conservatives may roll their eyes at the idea of “white privilege,” but recognizing the pervasive influence of race and social class on upward mobility is well overdue in our society.

Americans like to think our democracy assures that the American Dream is equally available to anyone willing to work hard. But the limitations put on some Americans, particularly African Americans, date back to the days of slavery. With a legacy of enslavement, brutal treatment, being denied an education, and Jim Crow laws keeping the races separate, black Americans have never been able to catch up to whites in terms of equality of opportunity.

The separate and unequal world of African Americans comes to light in the excellent Showtime series The Chi, a show set on the south side of Chicago. In the series, characters struggle to make ends meet and often find that the only way to make real money is to “hustle” – that is, to find illegal ways of making money. They live in a blighted neighborhood where gangs control various streets and a gangster mentality even infiltrates the lives of impressionable middle schoolers. And even those who tow the line with gainful employment and an attempt to raise morally upstanding children find their loved ones victimized by the random violence on the streets.

It’s hard to square the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story of American opportunity with today’s world in which black youngsters working a paper route have the police called on them for no reason other than the color of their skin. Young black men, in particular, live under a cloud of suspicion that would make any white person positively murderous with rage if they were to experience it. For instance, filmmaker Daveed Diggs recalls that when he was in his 20s, he was pulled over by the police about 36 times in 3 years.

I’m not trying to suggest that whites apologize for being white. However, we need to support efforts to even the playing field, such as affirmative action and police reform. We need to make a serious investment in minority neighborhoods to bring true economic opportunity. Most importantly, we can’t sit smugly in our white privilege and insist that we’ve gotten where we are purely by dint of hard work.

I feel incredibly lucky to be able to afford my daughter opportunities in life that will, I hope, lead to success and happiness for her. All I’m asking is that as a society, we work to make opportunities available to all, regardless of the accident of their birth.

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Put HPV on Kids’ Vaccine Roster

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originalWhile the anti-vaxxer movement has mostly targeted childhood immunization such as MMR and TdaP, there is another recommended vaccine regimen that tends to make parents uncomfortable: the vaccine to prevent human papilloma virus, or HPV. The reason for our discomfort is that HPV is contracted through sexual activity, and we just don’t want to think about our precious 12-year-old having sex (11-12 being the target age at which to give the vaccine series).

But if you think your child will ever have sex in his or her life, it’s a really good idea to have them immunized for HPV since the virus is incredibly common. In fact, without vaccination, most sexually active adults will contract HPV at one time or other in their lives.

The reason for vaccinating against HPV is that certain strains of the virus are known to cause cancers of the reproductive organs and the throat. HPV can also cause genital warts, which is uncomfortable and painful to treat. So while the HPV vaccine is mostly touted for girls, boys should also be vaccinated.

Naysayers will argue that giving children a vaccine against a sexually transmitted infection will encourage promiscuity. But given how widespread the virus is, even if your child remains a virgin until marriage, his or her partner may still be infected and pass along that infection to a spouse. I have also heard parents argue that the vaccine has not been proven to be safe. But millions of children have received the HPV vaccine with no serious adverse effects.

Physicians who treat common gynecological cancers such as of the cervix see great promise in the HPV vaccine. While the vaccine won’t prevent all such cancers, it will greatly reduce the number of people who develop them.

Getting our kids through childhood in one piece is only part of our responsibility as parents. We owe it to them to provide as much protection for their future as we possibly can. The two-dose HPV vaccine regimen is a relatively painless way to help them stay healthy as they mature into young men and women.

Yes, there are plenty of shots to be gotten through in childhood. But with a dose of humor and a Sponge Bob bandage, we can make the HPV double shot part of the “going to the doctor” routine.

The Nature of Comedy

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2000px-Emojione_1F602.svgI’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes something funny. In a previous post, I extolled the comic genius of John Mulaney, a stand-up comic and former writer at Saturday Night Live, whose shows have had me in stitches. But when I shared one of Mulaney’s comedy specials with my husband, he barely laughed. Clearly, he and I have different ideas about what makes something – or someone – funny.

Then the other day, I decided to read the comics in my local newspaper. As a child, I liked to check out the “Peanuts” comic strip and “Family Circus.” I also spent my hard-earned allowance money on “Archie” comic books. But I find that the humor in comic strips is more understated. In my recent perusal of the “funnies,” I didn’t laugh or even chuckle once reading the likes of “Dilbert,” “Peanuts,” or “Baby Blues.” Comic strips are more wry social commentary than entertainment designed to make you laugh out loud.

The comedy I love most is the kind that revolves around family life. Whether it’s the zany and unpredictable relationship between Lorelai and Rory on The Gilmore Girls, the antics of the Pritchett clan on Modern Family, or the challenges of being an upper middle class family that’s only Black-ish, the everyday ups and downs of family life make me laugh with rueful recognition.

That is the secret of my favorite comedians as well. Both Mulaney and Jerry Seinfeld mine their childhoods as well as their current relationships for laughs. Ditto with Chris Rock, whose short-lived but hilarious series Everybody Hates Chris detailed the daily humiliations and deprivations of Rock’s childhood.

I often wonder what comedians’ families think about their using their intimate relationships to get laughs. In the wonderful new series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the main character achieves success in stand-up through her no-holds-barred description of everything that is happening to her in her personal life. When her horrified husband, an aspiring comic himself, catches her stand-up act, it’s clear that there will be no “happy ever after” for this couple.

I admire comedians, comic actors, and humor writers. They don’t get a lot of respect as artists. For instance, what full-blown comedy has ever won a Best Picture Oscar? Yet comedy, which is fraught with political incorrectness and subject to the variable tastes of audiences, can be much edgier and make more pointed social commentary than many other genres. There’s something more palatable about biting criticism when it goes down with a hearty laugh.

I think what makes something funny is that embarrassed recognition of our own human insecurities, prejudices, and foibles in the words and actions of someone who is not afraid to “go there.” It’s a way of laughing at ourselves but not at our own expense. I don’t envy the life of a comic. It’s a tall order to follow the dictate of Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain: “Make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh!”

 

 

Goodness: Pass It On

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16351925_GMost Americans would agree that race relations in 2018 are fraught. Stories about police brutality towards minorities, the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of white nationalism: all point to the fact that inequity and tension still define relations between the races. Yet just this week, I read some news articles that tell a different story.

One of those stories was about an elderly white woman in Phoenix who discovered that an African-American man had no place to stay while he waited for his newborn daughter to be old enough to fly home with him. The man had been given custody of his child but had no funds to stay at a hotel for the 7 days required by the airlines for the baby to be allowed on a plane. The woman, a volunteer in the NICU at the hospital, simply told the man, “I’m coming to get you and take you home.” She welcomed this stranger into her home with his tiny infant. The two have promised to keep in touch.

This week I also saw a video wherein a black man sitting in his car encounters a homeless white veteran walking down the road with no shoes. So the black man gets out of his car and chats with the man, asking about his welfare, where he’s going to stay etc., all the while removing his brand new sneakers and giving them to the homeless man. What struck me about the encounter was not just the selfless gesture of literally giving someone the shoes off of his feet. It was the respect and caring in his conversation with a man clearly down on his luck. I’m sure the personal encounter meant as much to the homeless vet as did the new shoes.

And again, the other day I read that after discovering his new employee had walked 20 miles to his new job in Alabama, the CEO of the company offered the new employee his car. Here too the lines of race were crossed with sympathy and understanding, the CEO being white and the new employee black.

These stories give me a bit of hope. While there are many who live with fear and distrust of those who are different from themselves, there are also those whose innate kindness motivates them to reach out and take a chance on someone who has walked a different path in life. I hope our mass media continues to find and celebrate ordinary people working to make the world a better place. And I hope these stories will motivate all of us to pass on goodness wherever and whenever we can.

No Hurry

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It is a pleasure and a luxury not to be in a hurry.

So often in our frantic lives, we find ourselves hurtling from A to B on our To Do lists, scarcely stopping to take a breath. Our blood pressure rises as we wait in traffic or long lines, knowing that precious minutes are ticking by and the day will all too soon be in our rearview mirror.

Time to take a breath.

This past weekend I was on my own. I could sleep in and stay in pajamas as long as I wanted in the morning. I could while away the hours reading, doing crossword puzzles and binge-watching The Chi (That show deserves a blog post of its own!). I took long walks without the nagging sense that someone or something at home needed my attention soon. And even though I had made myself a fairly impressive To Do list, I was relaxed and in no hurry to complete it.

It’s nice to drop something off at the local dry cleaner and say, “No rush” when asked when I need the item back. It’s lovely to drive when a little bit of traffic or a road closure (We’ve been having many in my small town this summer.) needn’t faze me. It’s wonderful to give my attention to small chores and errands that have been nagging at the edge of my consciousness for weeks.

On Saturday morning, I went to an 8 am yoga class. The theme of the class that day was balance, and most of our poses were designed to help us achieve that balance of body and mind. On my way home from the class, in the spirit of calm it induced, I decided that all prisons should offer yoga classes to their inmates. I can’t help but believe that a regular yoga practice would help diminish anger and aggression in those incarcerated.

Tomorrow life will return to a busier pace for me. My family and household responsibilities will keep me on a more pressing schedule. But I hope to hold onto the peace and calm I am feeling right now when there is no hurry.

The Power of a Story

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3722407_070718-cc-thai-soccer-team-imgThe fate of 12 young boys trapped in a cave in Thailand for over two weeks has captivated the world. Daily news about the boys, the conditions inside the cave, and the perils faced by both the boys and their rescuers made for a riveting story. When all 12 boys and their coach made it safely out of the cave, there was widespread jubilation.

Even though these boys are from a country across the world, Americans were on tenterhooks praying for their safe escape. Yet here at home, as many critics have pointed out, young children continue to be separated from their families after being apprehended at our border trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Why the difference?

The Trump Administration has refused access to the media and most other Americans to see the facilities where children and babies wail disconsolately for their mothers. Photos are scarce, and there is no opportunity for us to learn the stories of these would-be asylum seekers. Without their stories touching us, it is easy for us to shrug or turn away.

The power of a story cannot be overestimated. As a literature lover, I have always preferred to learn about history and about real people through fiction – or through riveting memoirs and other non-fiction such as the works of Jon Krakauer. Where the starkness of bald facts can be numbing, a story helps draw us into the experiences of others.

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A good example is the 2014 story of Boko Haram and its kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. The fate of the girls became an international news phenomenon when prominent people, such as First Lady Michelle Obama, took to social media with photos of individual girls who were missing and feared kidnapped by the extremist group. The pressure created by the girls’ story prompted the Nigerian government to go after Boko Haram more aggressively. Ironically, another kidnapping of 100 Nigerian girls by the terrorist group earlier this year has been barely a blip on people’s radar. Without a compelling story, the situation is unlikely to capture the world’s attention.

Since ancient times, human beings have been storytellers. Our oral traditions were our histories. Our imaginations help us to envision the plight of others and give us more empathy. Perhaps if Americans knew the stories of some of the asylum-seekers at our southern border, they would demand a more humane response and the immediate reunification of families. Like the scared and malnourished Thai soccer players in the cave, these children are just like our own. Shouldn’t we care for them as if they were?

 

Gen X Comic Gets the Laughs

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My stomach still hurts. Last night I watched two stand-up comedy specials on Netflix featuring the up and comer John Mulaney. Full disclosure here: I know John’s parents. So it was with a certain knowing glee that I listened to his loving but biting anecdotes about being raised by his stern, devoutly Catholic parents.

John Mulaney has some serious comedy cred. He was a writer for Saturday Night Live for many years and had a short-lived TV series cleverly named Mulaney. And nowadays, he can fill the Chicago Theatre and Radio City Music Hall for his hilarious observations about modern life as well as his reminiscences from the distant Eighties.

I think the secret to Mulaney’s success, besides some clever voice impersonations and a certain controlled mania, is his ability to straddle the generations in appeal. Mulaney, 35, is still young, and he is clearly immersed in the present. For instance, he makes an off-hand joke about how in college, everything is just your own opinion, a knowing mockery of today’s coddled university student. And he even wades into politics in his Radio City Music Hall special “Kid Gorgeous” with a hilarious and extended comparison of Donald Trump in the White House to a horse in a hospital.

But for my money, his funniest and most endearing stories involve his childhood, which seem to echo my own years as a young Baby Boomer with Depression-era, hard-line parents. He describes sitting on a sofa with his mother and eating Triscuits in dead silence. And he horrifies the youngsters in the audience by describing how his cold-hearted dad could go through a McDonalds drive-thru and pick up only a coffee for himself. (The irony in his jabs at his father are that, physically, John is a Chip off the old block.)

The helpless and trapped nature of childhood are a theme in Mulaney’s comedy, including the description of a “stranger danger” assembly that served to scar a generation of young kids for life. Or the adult size XXL t-shirt he was forced to wear as a nightshirt.

Many of Mulaney’s references speak directly to the generation known as Gen X. He riffs on the plots of such movies as  The Fugitive and Back to the Future. He references his Aladdin wallet. And most memorably, he reminisces about meeting the future president Bill Clinton in 1992.

I’m sure the Yale-educated lawyers who raised John Mulaney are bemused by his choice of careers. But I would say that those of us seeking some comic relief in these troubled times are lucky to have Mulaney’s irreverent, witty, and hilarious take on life to make us laugh.

My stomach still hurts.