The Death of Shame

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Growing up Catholic in the Sixties, I was more than well acquainted with the concept of shame. “Shame on you!” was a common reprimand to children who stepped out of line. As I got older, I started to see the propensity to shame people as a negative thing. And it can be. Making people ashamed of their natural feelings and inclinations leads to a low sense of self-worth.

Nowadays, however, I think we’ve completely lost the sense of shame to the point where we can hurt and abuse others and still go about our normal lives without any sense of contriteness or trying to rectify the situation.

The #MeToo movement exposed the sexual predation, harassment and assault perpetrated by many men in the public sphere. From Harvey Weinstein to Bill Cosby to Matt Lauer, we were horrified to discover how many powerful men have used their position to prey on women (and in some instances men). The behavior of these men -ranging from sexual remarks to nudity to sexual assault – was rightly denounced, and the perpetrators seemed to pay a price. For a while.

Take the case of Charlie Rose. Not long after he was fired from CBS over allegations that he paraded around naked in front of female interns and made inappropriate sexual comments, a report came out that Rose had been shopping around a comeback show in which he interviewed men who, like himself, had been accused of sexual harassment and predation. In other words, he had the audacity to attempt to profit off of the very heinous behavior that made him temporarily slink away from the public eye. My initial thought was, Have you no shame?

Little by little, however, these men will weasel their way back into the world of entertainment because we live in a world without shame. Not long ago, I read a story about an appearance by comedian Louis C.K. at a Chicago nightclub. (“No apologies, no notes at Louis C.K. show,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 21, 2019) C.K. had been exposed (pun intended) for his propensity to masturbate in front of female colleagues behind the scenes of his standup shows.  During his Chicago show, C.K. alluded to the allegations against him by proclaiming that everyone had a “thing” that would be embarrassing if others found out about it – as if his behavior was a harmless peccadillo and not a case of harassment. He painted himself as a victim, alluding to the fact that he used to sell out giant venues and was now playing to a small crowd. No shame indeed.

I guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised that famous men seem to have no sense of culpability for their own actions. After all, our current president bragged on video about grabbing women “by the pussy.” If ever there were a poster child for a world without shame, it’s Donald Trump.

Our society seems to have a high tolerance for the misbehavior of men, especially white men. For example, despite allegations of rape against Brett Kavanaugh, he was confirmed to the highest court in the land. Victims are consistently doubted and put on trial as if they were the perpetrators of harm. Even when we choose to believe the allegations, we seem to have a need to forgive and forget, thus allowing predators to get away with their actions and survive, if not thrive.

And that’s a shame.

 

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Sharing DNA Does Not a Family Make

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web_ready_gathering_final_kondrichLately I’ve been seeing stories about people seeking out others whose mothers were impregnated with sperm from the same donor – ostensibly looking for “siblings” they didn’t know they had. There’s even a new TV series called Almost Family, the premise of which is that a young woman discovers that her father, a renowned fertility doctor, used his own genetic material to impregnate many of his patients. This news sends her reeling and in search of biological half-sisters and other half-siblings running around unbeknownst to her.

I object to the idea that sharing DNA makes someone a part of one’s family. Aside from medical considerations such as the need for matching bone marrow or a kidney, there is no real family connection between people conceived in the sterile confines of a medical facility with sperm from the same donor. And the implication that somehow “blood is thicker than water” is a slap in the face to adoptive families such as my own.

I have three biological children conceived, luckily for me, the old-fashioned way. I loved the early bonding I was able to have with them, loved being able to nurse them and know them from even before they were born. I recognize the emotional pull of wanting to have one’s own biological children. And I truly understand why couples go through the rigors, expenses, and discomforts of fertility treatments.

But I also have a daughter adopted from China when she was eleven months old. I missed her very earliest days and the ability to breastfeed her. We had a short adjustment period during which we had to get to know each other, and she had to learn to trust us as her new mom and dad, brothers and sister. Yet today, my closeness with her, my sense of her as my own child is indistinguishable from my feelings for my other three children.

A family is made from shared love and experiences, from late nights comforting a colicky or sick child, from laughs shared at the dinner table, even from fights and defiance and setting boundaries. Families are made, not born, and a tenuous biological connection is fairly inconsequential.

I’m not dismissing the urge for adopted children to wonder about or search for their biological parents. Wondering why they were given away, wanting to know something about the mother, say, who carried them in her womb for nine months is perfectly normal.

But thinking that somehow you’re connected to someone because the same anonymous donor contributed his DNA to both of you? That reduces the idea of family to something mechanistic, impersonal, and ultimately meaningless.

In this day and age, families come to be in so many different ways. It’s unconditional love that makes a family, not the biological origins of one’s birth.

Play It Again, Sam

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My family likes to tease me about my penchant for watching certain television series over and over. How many times, they want to know, do I need to see thirtysomething or Gilmore Girls before I’ve had enough? The answer, of course, is: I’ll never tire of these or many other books, movies, and TV shows.

Repetition is a standard feature of life, starting in childhood. Mom and Dad might not enjoy reading Goodnight, Moon every night into infinity, but their sons and daughters can’t get enough of it. When my own kids were young, they wore out the VHS tapes of their favorite animated movies. They insisted on reading the same books time and again even though we had a gigantic library of selections.

Children’s fixation on repetition is actually important for their development. Repetition helps them learn. It not only helps them practice new skills, but it actually strengthens connections in the brain. Remember having to memorize poems or Shakespearean soliloquies? It may have seemed dull and pointless at the time. We saw no future in which we would suddenly launch into, “Friends, Romans, countrymen . . .” But our teachers knew something we didn’t. Rote learning is good for our brains.

Beyond practicality, rereading favorite books or rewatching favorite movies and shows is comforting. It connects us with certain feelings and thoughts from times past. I can’t read a Curious George book without picturing myself in the children’s section of my childhood library, unable to read just yet but still eagerly poring over the pictures of George and his friend, the man with the yellow hat. Watching season 7 of Gilmore Girls reminds me of the summer before my oldest daughter went off to college, and I still get teary-eyed thinking about it.

“Play it again, Sam” is actually a slight misquote from the classic movie Casablanca. In the film, Ilsa asks the piano player at Rick’s, “Play it, Sam.” And at the end of the film, Rick simply tells Sam, “Play it.” By sheer repetition, though, the line stands for an iconic moment in an iconic movie.

So have no fear of playing it again, reader. Whatever it is, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy it just as much as, if not more than, the first time around.

Generation Gap

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WoodstockThe other day my teenage daughter sat at the kitchen table and started reading off a list of 100 famous movie lines: everything from “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” to “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” A few were vaguely familiar to her. But for the most part, she had no idea where most of the lines came from or what they meant.

“How is ‘Rosebud’ such a famous line?” she demanded. She also wanted to know why Humphrey Bogart was the speaker of so many famous movie quips. As she went down the list, occasionally she asked me to replicate the intonation of the line as it was spoken in the movie. But it’s hard to convey, say, the hair-raising quality of the little girl in Poltergeist when she turns away from the television and says, “They’re h-e-e-e-re.”

My husband and I realized right then that we had failed to indoctrinate our children in the all-important canon of memorable films. Indeed, in so many areas – music, theater, television, history – there’s a generation gap between our own experiences and knowledge and that of our kids.

Much was made of the so-called generation gap during the 1960s. After the hardships and deprivations of two major world wars, members of the “Greatest Generation” were cautious, conventional, and level-headed. They enjoyed the economic well-being of the Fifties and saw it as a result of hard work and sacrifice. Self-expression was not valued as much as order and peace.

The Baby Boomers, children and grandchildren of the Greatest Generation, were born into relative peace and prosperity. As they grew up, they chafed at the older generation’s insistence on conformity and favored freedom and experimentation. Hence, the social unrest, drug use, and wildness of the hippie generation.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the famed three-day music festival in the farmland of upstate New York. There have been all kinds of retrospectives on Woodstock and what it represented to the people who were there. Interestingly, my daughter has been captivated by Woodstock and has spent hours with my husband watching a PBS documentary on the subject. She even had a conversation with a family friend who was at Woodstock, and I’m sure in her mind she was comparing his experience with her own immersion in Lollapalooza a couple of weeks ago.

The friend explained that he and many of his friends had planned to meet at the festival, but that, in the days before cell phones, there was really no way to connect with them once he’d arrived at Woodstock. There were hundreds of thousands of people amassed on the Yasgurs’ farm. Security consisted of volunteers with no weapons at all simply trying to convince the crowds to be cool. When food ran out, people from nearby farms contributed produce, and festival-goers themselves prepared and served the masses.

Although it’s definitely not my cup of tea to attend a huge music festival, there was something magical about the way Woodstock unfolded. Many of the greatest musicians of all time performed there. The PBS documentary showed footage of Jimi Hendrix rocking “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his guitar. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young performed live for only their second time on the Woodstock stage. It was music history in the making.

It’s hard to describe to young people what it was like growing up in a different era. Mine was one less saturated with media and technology. My kids can scarcely believe that my husband and I would be out and about on our bikes all day long without any contact with our parents. Now if they don’t pick up their cell phone on the second ring, I immediately go to DEFCON 1!

I think it’s great that my 18-year-old daughter has become interested in the past, especially the recent past as experienced by her own parents. After all, we are not only creatures of the present but of the accumulated past, the men and women and events that came before us. And learning about that past is one way to bridge the inevitable gap that each generation experiences with the one before.

More Than One Thing

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lastblackman1.0The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a quiet movie that is playing at only a handful of select theaters. Most critical reviews are focused on its treatment of San Francisco and the woes of long-time residents displaced by gentrification. But I took something else away from the film.

In a scene towards the end of the movie, the main character Jimmie Fails gets up to speak at a showing of his best friend’s improvisational play that has turned into a de facto memorial service for a neighbor recently shot dead. In describing his complicated relationship with the man, Kofi, Jimmie says, “Everybody is not just one thing.” That line stayed with me long after the movie ended.

Everybody is not just one thing. We tend to categorize people and judge them by superficial characteristics: looks, clothing, manner, speech. In Last Black Man, a group of young men in the neighborhood stand around swearing and insulting each other, pushing each other around, acting the tough guy. But when Kofi dies, the most belligerent of the group collapses into the arms of the very same man (Jimmie’s best friend) whom he has relentlessly mocked in the past.

In our increasingly polarized society, we need to remember that people are complex. Take Donald Trump, for instance. I myself have had very little good to say about our current president. And I don’t feel like he’s a good man. But I do not know Donald Trump personally. He may be a loving husband and father. He may be a good friend. His public persona is not the whole of Mr. Trump or of any of us. So it would behoove us to think carefully about labeling and name calling and ascribing hateful titles to people, something that, ironically, Mr. Trump does on a regular basis.

We should also hesitate to paint all members of a group with the same broad brush, whether they be Wall Street bankers or migrants at our border.

All of us are afflicted with the same infuriating, confusing, and glorious infirmity: the human condition. The Last Black Man in San Francisco portrays this reality beautifully. There are no clear villains or heroes in the movie. Instead, we get an up close portrait of a friendship and of the life of two young men navigating the new realities of their beloved city and trying to find their own place in it.

Let’s remember that we are all many things and afford each other the respect deserved by all human beings.

USWNT Strives for Equity

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The other day I did a Google Images search for the U.S. Women’s National Team that is poised to bring home the World Cup on Sunday. To my chagrin, the very first image that greeted me was a shot of Alex Morgan in a bikini. Here is a professional soccer dynamo who has scored over 100 goals in her career, including 2 in the 2011 World Cup and 6 in the current contest, being reduced to a sex object. (An image search of the U.S. Men’s National Team yielded no corresponding beefcake photos.)

Sexism also seems to be at the heart of the pay differential that the current USWNT is challenging with both FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation. The USSF has been claiming that men’s soccer yields higher profits and therefore higher payouts to male players. Yet the “U.S. women’s team generated more revenue for the federation from 2016-18, bringing in $50.8 million compared to $49.9 million by the men’s squad.” (“Pay dispute resurfaces as U.S. women prepare for World Cup final,” Reuters, July 3, 2019)

The lawsuit against the USSF argues that in addition to the pay differences, women’s soccer gets inferior treatment in publicity, travel and training conditions, and medical attention as compared to the men’s team. Yet the women’s team has been far more successful in the past several years than the men’s team has.

During the semifinal game against England the other day, when Carli Lloyd made her way onto the field towards the end of the game, she was greeted with rock star level adulation. The two-time Olympic gold medalist, FIFA Women’s World Cup champion, and 2015 & 2016 FIFA Player of the Year is just one of the superstars that have made this year’s Women’s World Cup such an exciting event.

It’s disheartening to me that in 2019, almost 50 years after the historic Title IX legislation that addressed inequities in education and athletics between males and females, women athletes still have to fight for better pay, working conditions, and respect.

The women on the USWNT are our daughters’ heroes. Let’s give them their due.

Divas in Cleats

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When the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team takes the field against France today in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, millions of fans will be cheering for their own red, white, and blue team. If France were to win the World Cup this year, it would be the first time that both men’s and women’s teams from the same country held the championship at the same time. (Sports Illustrated, June 3-10, 2019) But I’m placing my bets on the irrepressible U.S. team.

The U.S. women came out roaring with a 13-0 trouncing of Thailand in their 2019 World Cup debut. Critics assailed their “running up the score” against a clearly overwhelmed Thai team, and many questioned the U.S. players need to celebrate each goal with such glee. But these soccer divas left no question in anyone’s mind about their dominance on the world stage.

The word diva has developed negative connotations, conjuring images of difficult and temperamental female stars. And certainly some Americans might take issue with Megan Rapinoe’s strong anti-Trump stance. But I refer to the USWNT as divas in the original sense; the word comes from Latin and literally means “goddesses.”

Women’s sports are infamously underpaid and under-appreciated, especially team sports. Despite the fact that the USWNT scored more goals in one game than the U.S. men’s team scored all season, professional female soccer players in America make a fraction of the money their male counterparts make. Even in the World Cup, the $30 million in prize money for the women’s tournament looks pitiable when compared to the men’s $400 payout. (SI, June 3-10, 2019) In fact, the discrepancy in pay has been an underlying topic during this year’s Women’s World Cup. Let’s hope the excitement and dazzle of the women’s performance in the tournament leads to an improvement in gender pay equity.

I have watched more soccer games in my lifetime than I ever dreamed I’d see. All of my four children at one time or another have played the game. And my youngest is determined not only to play throughout high school, but to find a spot on a college soccer squad. My daughter has been working relentlessly toward that goal: sacrificing time with friends, getting up early, traveling to tournaments and soccer clinics across the country, keeping herself physically fit and mentally hungry.

I’m delighted that my daughter and countless other girls and women are getting a front seat to the greatness that can be achieved by a group of women out on a soccer field. I’m thrilled to witness the strength, athleticism, and camaraderie that the U.S. women’s team has displayed on the world stage.

Regardless of the outcome of today’s match between the U.S. and France, I will have only one thing to say about the fearless women of soccer: “Brava!”