Jussie and Donald – Flip Sides of Same Coin

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Two surprising things happened this week. First of all, the completed Mueller report supposedly found no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Even more surprising, all charges were dropped against Empire cast member Jussie Smollett for faking a hate crime. While the factions of people who support either of these two men could not be more different, the wheels of justice actually turn for them in exactly the same way.

Donald Trump has gotten a pass on allegations of sexual harassment and assault, unscrupulous and fraudulent business dealings, and the use of campaign funds to pay off porn stars. His clear attempts to derail the investigation into Russian collusion have been treated as rightful exercises of executive privilege. Why has Trump gotten away with vilifying war heroes, mocking the disabled, and denigrating women? He is a powerful celebrity and has friends in high places. For heaven’s sake, he’s got an entire news organization in his corner, deflecting his misdeeds right and left like a tennis ace and redirecting the outrage at their perennial whipping post, Hillary Clinton.

Smollett also has friends in high places who worked on his behalf to help him wriggle out of detestable and criminal actions that would send ordinary people to prison. I’m sure his two days of community service were wrenching and difficult, and that $10,000 forfeit of his bond must have hurt terribly, since he reportedly only makes 6-10 times that per episode on Empire. Not even the lead prosecutor is claiming Smollett to be innocent. Still, we can’t have our celebrities do jail time, can we?

It amuses me that people are calling for the heads of Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and other rich parents who schemed and cheated to get their kids into elite colleges and universities. They were only doing what well-connected people do: leverage their money/influence/celebrity to get ahead and, when their misdeeds become public, weasel out of them.

There have been exceptions, of course. Martha Stewart did time for lying about her financial dealings. And Bill Cosby was actually convicted and sent to prison for sexual assault. But for the most part, rich and famous people just get away with behaving badly.

There are still investigations pending about the business dealings of Trump and his children. I’m skeptical that anything will come of them. We have a different set of rules for the famous and well-connected. Until that changes, we can assume Lady Justice is peeking under that blindfold.

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Church and State

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In recent months, two high-profile Trump Administration officials have suggested that Trump’s presidency was ordained by God. In interviews with the Christian Broadcasting Network, both White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that God wanted Donald Trump to be president to further the faith-based causes in which Christians believe.

These kinds of statements are a disturbing intrusion of religion upon government in the U.S. While Sanders and Pompeo are entitled to their religious beliefs, the fact that they are at high levels of the U.S. government makes their comments inappropriate and indicates a willingness on the part of the Trump Administration to defy the Constitutional separation between church and state.

At the very beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump moved to ban people from Muslim countries from entering the United States. It was a transparent bone tossed to his base of white, anti-immigrant Americans. It was also a nod to the religious right that helped elect him despite his less than savory moral character.

Over the past few years he has named an unapologetically religious Secretary of Education who is determined to see private (read, “parochial”) schools get the benefit of U.S. tax dollars. He has praised statewide efforts to have the Bible be used in public schools.

The rhetoric of the Trump Administration has been heavy on condemnation for the persecution of Christians by ISIS in the Middle East. I agree that such persecution should be called out and even acted against wherever possible. But there has been no such outcry in this administration about the mass killings of Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar. I think it’s obvious why Trump has chosen to champion the rights of the former over the latter.

Members of the Christian right keep crying about their religious freedoms being trampled upon. If anything, the Trump Administration is working overtime to assure the ascendancy of Christianity over any other religion in the United States. This is the antithesis of what the First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Many countries in the world are theocracies. There is one established religion, and if one practices any others, he or she risks prosecution, imprisonment, or even death. One of the reasons that religion thrives in America is that our right to practice our religion free from government interference has been enshrined in our Constitution. The separation between church and state is a fundamental principle that is being flagrantly ignored by this administration.

It’s time people of all faiths – or no faith at all – stand up and demand that our leaders adhere to this basic freedom that makes our country great.

 

Self-Centered

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file-20171123-6020-aa3n9nThis week I have had dozens (if not hundreds) of negative and mean-spirited thoughts. I have had to stop myself from posting nasty comments on Facebook and sending scathing emails that might make myself feel better but also might hurt someone else. The only thing standing between me and this vitriol is a little book of reflections I’ve been reading each day of Lent.

Today’s reflection by Mary DeTurris Poust, a Catholic writer and employee in the Diocese of Albany, New York, was about “looking out for #1.” I think what’s at the heart of most negativity is an elevation of the self over others. We may not be technically selfish. That is, we may give generously to charity, take care of our families, and help friends in need. But at the heart of our lives, most human beings are self-centered. We simply have a hard time seeing things beyond how they relate to ourselves.

It’s not without good reason that a common sarcastic remark people make is, “It’s all about you.” It’s an effective chastisement to remind us that the world does not revolve around us. And it’s necessary because our human nature leans toward the self-involved. I guess part of this is an instinct for self-preservation. We find fault with things and people we feel might harm us or, at the very least, not do us good. We grasp at material things for ourselves for fear that we will be left without. Even our good deeds are sometimes an effort to bring honor or renown to ourselves.

Poust reflects, “What would it take to flip that, to soften our hearts and open our minds to the stunning fact that everyone – from our most beloved family member to our most despised enemy – is grappling with some deep-seated insecurities, issues, heartaches, and suffering?”

We can start where we are: in our own families and communities. Instead of lambasting our child for being irresponsible, we can find out what he/she needs to be better organized and prepared. Instead of diatribes on Facebook or Twitter, we can refrain from our need to have the last word. We can try to be happy instead of envious of friends whose fortunes seem to be greater than our own. We can treat cranky neighbors or even strangers with compassion, realizing that they might be in some physical or psychic pain.

I’m not going to lie. It’s not easy stepping outside of oneself and thinking of others first. We need guides and inspiration. For me, prayer and reflections by spiritual mentors are great reminders of how I should be living my daily life. And in the public domain (even on Facebook!), there are heartwarming stories of ordinary people making a difference in someone else’s life.

The greatest calling we have is to die to ourselves and spend our lives in service to others. That is the path toward true happiness in this life. That is the way to center ourselves rather than being self-centered.

 

 

 

Londonderry Air

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Derry-Girls-Ep-2-2054-1068x623In honor of the wearin’ o’ the green and all things Irish today, St. Patrick’s Day, I’d like to recommend a hilarious Netflix comedy called Derry Girls. The comedy series was not on my radar until my very Irish friend Maura recommended it on Facebook. In no time at all, I had binge-watched my way through the trials and tribulations of four teenage girls and one male English cousin living in Derry, Northern Ireland, in the 1990s.

The featured teens in Derry Girls have a delightful mixture of innocence and bravado as they navigate the social scene in their Irish Catholic enclave. They don’t realize how economically disadvantaged they are until they try to sign up for a school trip to France and find out that none of them has a trust fund, and in fact they are all quite poor.

But their economic and social limitations do nothing to cramp their irrepressible style, and each episode features new shenanigans and repercussions from their parents and their school. The girls (and cousin) attend an all girls Catholic high school presided over by a scene-stealing nun, whose dry wit and jaded attitude make her the perfect foil for both troublemaker and goody two shoes alike.  When the girls fall for a dreamy young priest, Sister’s facial expressions alone are priceless.

It seems unlikely to find humor in a show about a divided country that pitted Protestants against Catholics and in which car bombings and assassinations were commonplace. Indeed, toward the end of Season 1, things take a darker turn and only deepen the viewer’s appreciation for the life-affirming and youthful spirit of these young people.

So grab a pint of Guinness, put your feet up, and enjoy an episode or three of the fabulous Derry Girls. Your Irish eyes won’t be the only things smiling!

 

Motherhood Blues

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“But being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always and never by herself.”

Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior

I love the paradox in the statement above. It perfectly captures one of the downsides of staying home with young children. Although it has been more than 10 years since I was in that position myself, I can remember it as if it were yesterday.

When my first child was born in 1990, I found the experience overwhelming. Each moment was fraught with worry. Was I doing things right? Was my daughter okay? Why would she not stop crying? Having made a less than graceful exit from my body, she was still part of me. No matter how bone tired I might be at times, I felt no one else could care for her.

For me there was no question of returning to my teaching job. I was a stay-at-home mom for better and worse. And there was lots of “better.” I loved the hugs and snuggles of my babies, their happy laughter, the cute way they walked and talked. It was so thrilling to see their first steps and nurture their first words. (Later on I would jokingly lament, “Why did I ever teach them to talk?”)

But being an at home mom can also be isolating. There were many days that due to circumstances beyond my control, I never made it out of the house – heck, never made it out of pajamas! Even a simple trip to the bathroom required me to ascertain the safety of all tiny parties in the house. By the end of the day, I wanted to roll up the gymnastics mat my body had become and just go to bed. Or else I would pounce the moment my husband walked in the door, thirsty as I was for adult conversation.

Mind you, I was raising my little ones from a position of privilege. It was my choice to stay home and be their primary caretaker while my husband shouldered the burden of providing financially for us. So many mothers are not able to have such a luxury. In the novel Flight Behavior, the mother is a young Appalachian woman who got pregnant at 17. Without the ability to attend college or even work outside the home to better her situation, she is stuck within the stifling confines of motherhood and poverty. She loves her children and delights in their individuality. But her sense of self is slowly eroding.

There are untold numbers of women in this situation. Being a teenage mother is one of the biggest predictors of future poverty for herself and her children. Without much disposable income, these moms don’t even have the wherewithal to get away every so often. It’s hard to rediscover who you are as a woman when your number one identity is being a mom.

Looking back over my life, I have absolutely no regrets about the fact that I “retired” at age 32 to care for my children. I’m sure many women feel as I do about such a choice. Still, I understand the source of all those Facebook memes about mommies needing wine. It can certainly be disheartening to be always, yet never, alone.

 

Just Say No to Teenage Drinking

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Teens-Drinking-at-a-PartyThis morning’s Chicago Tribune had an article about New Trier officials’ alarm at the increase in binge drinking by their students, as reported anonymously in a survey the students complete annually to gauge teenage health and safety. As national underage drinking rates go down, New Trier’s has gone up.

Recently my teenage daughter told me she wished my husband and I were more “cool” about underage drinking. Apparently many teens’ parents tolerate and even expect a certain amount of drinking on the part of their high school kids. Many parents reason that it’s safer to have kids drink under their supervision. They feel it will lead to more responsible drinking in college.

But as New Trier assistant superintendent says, “All of the research shows it doesn’t work that way.” (“New Trier officials: Binge drinking grew exponentially,” Chicago Tribune, March 11, 2019) According to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, “Adolescents who attend parties where parents supply alcohol are at increased risk for heavy episodic drinking, alcohol-related problems, and drinking and driving.” (Celia Vimont, drugfree.org, Oct. 1, 2014)

It’s difficult as a parent to take a hard line on the issue of teen drinking. Our culture is very accepting of it, popular movies depict it, and it has come to be seen almost as a rite of passage for teenagers. And teens can find ways of sneaking alcohol unbeknownst to even the most vigilant parents. Yet the research is clear. As Stevenson High School’s substance abuse prevention coordinator Cristina Cortesi states, “We know all of the studies find the number one reason kids don’t use [alcohol] is their parents.” (Tribune, March 11, 2019)

As parents, we want our children to be happy and healthy. In the short term, our teens may hate us for holding the line on teenage drinking. But we need to take the long view and realize that it is their prosperous and happy future that should be our goal.

 

Fact or Fiction?

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During Oscar season, I noticed that many of the nominated movies featured real people: pianist Don Shirley in Green Book, Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman, author Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and, of course, the late great Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. The film Vice told the story of the Bush years with uncanny performances by Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W., and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney. The Favourite, though a work of fiction, depicted Queen Anne, a real life historical figure. Even Roma was a thinly disguised autobiographical story of director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood.

In the Trump era, truth is certainly stranger and more riveting than any fiction could be. Each news day features a revolving cast of characters in the White House, manic tweets from the president at all hours of the night, investigations, accusations, and counter accusations. Fox News has become little more than Trump’s mouthpiece, and suddenly fictional stories like Wag the Dog, Being There, and, most ominously, 1984 have become eerily prescient.

Yet the world of fiction still holds a fascinating allure. While the MPAA favored reality film in its Oscar nominations this year, superheroes and their villains dominated the box office. Such films as Venom, Aquaman, Deadpool 2, Ant Man and the Wasp – as well as the latest sequels in such franchises as Spiderman and The Avengers – all made tidy profits for the movie studios at a time when theater audiences have been dwindling. The smash hit Black Panther, the first black superhero movie, was even nominated for Best Picture along with numerous technical awards.

Our appetite for escapism will always co-exist with our interest in real life drama. And the intersection of the two is often the key to unlocking truths about the human condition. I’m thinking particularly of dystopian and science fiction. These genres take us into the future, but they are really making commentaries on the present. I recently read Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel, The Hazards of Time Travel, which depicts an authoritarian North American state in 2039. The main character, who has the temerity to ask questions and think for herself, is sent back to 1959 Wisconsin for “re-education.” As I read the book, I couldn’t help thinking about the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The manipulation of truth, control over the media, and other horrors of Oates’ fictional future feel ominously close to American society today.

Fact or fiction? Either way, our interest in stories may be the key to saving civilization. As long as we are able to think and feel about the human condition, we will continue to question and challenge the status quo. In the legendary words of Abraham Lincoln, “you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time: but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.”

As we venture into another presidential election cycle (God help us!), let’s hope Honest Abe was right.