Costumes and Controversy

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71BQabb5+rL._SL1500_It’s Halloween, so that means time for more skirmishes in the culture wars of the new millennium. Readers of my blog are familiar with my opposition to Indian sports mascots and dressing up in ways that demean racial and ethnic minorities. But even I am shaking my head at some of the clothing choices deemed cultural appropriation these days.

The latest controversy surrounds dressing up like the Disney animated character Moana, from the movie of the same name. Moana is a spunky Pacific Islander whose quest to save her people forms the plot of the 2016 feature. The controversy arose when a blogger wrote about why she wouldn’t allow her white daughter to dress up as Moana for Halloween. It wasn’t right, she reasoned, to appropriate the dress of a non-white culture. But Moana is a fictional character, and wearing an outfit that looks like the one in the movie is hardly demeaning to anyone.

Disney has made a real effort in the past few decades to present heroes and heroines from cultures other than the dominant white Anglo one. Shouldn’t we be encouraging our little girls to admire and emulate characters from other cultures? The blogger even questioned whether allowing her brown-eyed, brunette daughter to go as the ice queen Elsa might be sending her the message that only blonde, blue-eyed women are desirable. That is way over-thinking the process of selecting a Halloween costume, if you ask me.

Even in the realm of ordinary fashion, culture warriors are taking the issue of cultural appropriation to ridiculous extremes. Can we agree that there is a huge difference between dressing in blackface or Indian war paint and wearing hoop earrings? Apparently not, to some. Not long ago, a group of Latina students at Claremont McKenna College protested that white women should not be wearing hoop earrings, which are part of Latina culture. Similar arguments have occurred over white women styling their hair in cornrows.

The term cultural appropriation has taken on a very negative connotation, and I myself have used it to describe demeaning depictions of minorities by whites. But in a way, cultural appropriation is an integral part of the American experience. As we have welcomed immigrants of various races and ethnicities, we have also come to appreciate and incorporate styles, cuisine, music, and art from these various cultures.

On Halloween and every day, we should be respectful of others from varied backgrounds and identities. There are some very clear cut instances of white people trashing the cultures of ethnic and racial minorities. It’s kind of like what has famously been said about pornography: You’ll know it when you see it. A little common sense and sensitivity are called for so that we don’t start to compartmentalize and segregate ourselves into a narrow definition of what constitutes our culture.

 

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Lake Time

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IMG_7684.JPGThis weekend finds me and my family (well, the three of us still at home) relaxing at the lake. Not the Great Lake Michigan but one of its smaller cousins that dot the landscape of western Michigan. It’s the last hurrah of summer, and it feels right to be in a place that lends itself to lazy days and grilling burgers and reading good books (for me, Anthony  Doerr’s exquisite About Grace).

Yesterday I stood at the water’s edge and let the sound of water gently lapping at the rocks lull me into a sense of peace. The sunlight glittered across the lake, and the occasional speedboat made loops in the water, pulling a skier or tuber or even a wakeboarder, who balanced with seeming ease in the waves being churned up by the boat in front.

The lake has a certain smell: slightly fishy and peaty. Dampness seeps into the screened-in porch, where I usually curl up with my book and a glass of wine. The breeze rustles the pages of the book and ruffles my hair. Even doing nothing, I work up an appetite and hungrily chow down a delicious burger cooked by my husband, the grill master.

Boats and water and sand are not my favorite things. I’m too afraid of accidents and drowning to enjoy water sports much. But the lake itself, from a safe distance, is mesmerizing. At sunset, I love nothing more than to sit on the dock and watch the sky turn pink and purple over the water.

The lake is mysterious. Even a small one is host to innumerable slimy plants and fish. When I was young, I loved catching minnows in a bucket or feeling them brush my ankles in the water. I would scare myself by holding my nose and plunging under, eyes wide open, staring into mostly black nothingness. At night, I’d dream of gliding under water searching for something, but never finding it.

It’s easy to imagine that the outside world does not exist when I am here at the lake. I plan to enjoy that illusion for as long as I can before real life draws me back into the hurly-burly.

America the Beautiful

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At Sunday Mass, our closing hymn was “America the Beautiful.” It is by far my favorite patriotic song, and like many people, I think it should be our national anthem.

As we sang the familiar hymn, I really paid attention to the words in the song, and some of them particularly struck me in light of our current political climate.

“God mend thine ev’ry flaw.” We Americans certainly have our share of these. Yet we look to our system of government to right every wrong, address every injustice. It’s a lot for our Constitution to live up to. Americans on both sides of the political aisle disagree as to what those fundamental rights, freedoms, and privileges should look like. The song goes on, “Confirm thy soul in self-control,/Thy liberty in law.” Americans everywhere would do well to remember the limits we impose upon ourselves in the name of decency and respect for others.

“O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,/Who more than self their country loved,/And mercy more than life!” Most Americans cherish the self-sacrifice that members of our Armed Forces make to protect us and keep us free. What jumps out at me in the lyrics above is the value placed on mercy. We are a tough, individualistic culture. We value hard work and self-determination. But sometimes we forget to have compassion for those less fortunate. We fail to understand that even in America, everyone does not have equal access to the American Dream.

“O Beautiful for patriot dream/That sees beyond the years.” Unfortunately, living for tomorrow is not our strong suit in America. We look for instant gratification, get rich quick schemes, and creature comforts for now. We seek the easiest path without looking at the long-term consequences. This is especially apparent in the way we approach environmental issues. Our leaders would do well to “see beyond the years” when forming public policy. As Americans, we can forgo some present pleasures for future security.

“And crown thy good with brotherhood/From sea to shining sea.” There is so much packed into this iconic line. Our concern for our fellow human beings is not what it should be and what we as a nation have been known for in the past. I think about the government of France reaching across the ocean with the beautiful gift of the Statue of Liberty, as a token of its admiration for American heart and generosity. But here within our borders, there are hatred and prejudice, selfishness and greed. Our sense of brother (and sister) hood is lacking.

The words “from sea to shining sea” struck me with special resonance after this last presidential election. There was so much pitting of urban elites against ordinary rural citizens, liberals on the coasts against seemingly more humble Middle Americans.  The fact is that our American values apply to all of us, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, rural, urban, suburban, black, white, brown – the list is endless.

This week as we bask in our Independence, let’s take to heart the words of the song and work to make this truly America, the beautiful.

 

Summer Reading List

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With the waning of the school year and the lengthening of days comes a desire to relax and destress. What better way to do so than with a good book? Here are some recommendations for your 2017 summer reading list.

  1. The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan. Kwan writes hilariously about the exploits of the very rich in Singapore and mainland China. His first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, exploded on the scene in 2013 and spawned the equally brilliant continuation of the series, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, the latter of which just came out in time for my own beach reading. So do start the trilogy before Crazy Rich Asians, the movie, comes out.
  2. The Bruno, Chief of Police series. Author Martin Walker is a serious man. But his mystery novels about the Perigord region in France are delightful excursions into the wine, cuisine, and idiosyncrasies of small town France – all with a mystery thrown in to keep the plot humming.
  3. The Cormoran Strike thrillers by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. When Rowling published The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym in 2013, her cover was blown and the novel became an instant best seller. But deservedly so. Her deeply flawed but somehow lovable detective Strike and his assistant Robin solve troubling and sometimes gruesome murders in The Cuckoo’s Calling and subsequent thrillers The Silkworm and Career of Evil. If you are looking for Harry Potteresque fantasy, these are not for you. But for heart pounding thrills and intriguing characters, you can’t go wrong with this series.

While I love book series, there are also some great stand alone novels to consider adding to your list.

4. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. My husband complained that I laughed out loud too frequently while reading this novel during a beach vacation. Bridget’s haplessness, terrible track record with men, and general knack for embarrassing herself help make her an endearingly flawed character any modern woman can relate to.

5. The Saving Graces by Patricia Gaffney. I picked this book up off of my sister’s coffee table some years ago and could not put it down. It’s a story of female friendship and the hardships such friends can help us get through.

6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. Semple lampoons upper middle class life in Seattle, Washington, as well as the corporate culture of Microsoft, while at the same time giving us an eccentric but sympathetic middle-aged character in Bernadette, an artist and mother who is coming apart at the seams. Semple has written a newer novel that I have not yet read titled Today Will Be Different. Indeed.

Lest readers think these works lean toward women-only interests, I must also reiterate my fondness for all things Harlan Coben. Start with Deal Breaker, and make your way through the entire Myron Bolitar oeuvre in one summer.

And for male middle-aged angst, look no further than the novels of Jim Kokoris. My favorite is still his very first novel, The Rich Part of Life, about a widower and Civil War re-enactor who wins the lottery.

So get thee to a bookstore or a library and pick up some fun summer reading. It’s the perfect escape.

Best Laid Plans

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For the past nine days, I have had the privilege and the pleasure to accompany my son and his college football team on a tour of Ireland and Scotland, complete with a visit to the iconic Guinness Storehouse and a friendly game of American football against the Scottish East Kilbride Pirates.

I have nothing but admiration for the logistical and sheep-herding talents of our tour guide, who has been responsible for getting 50 people on and off our motor coach for visits to five different cities on two different islands. We have seen everything from the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher on the southwest coast of Ireland to the awe-inspiring Croke Park, one of the biggest sports arenas in the world, to the charming and ancient city of Edinburgh, Scotland, a city with its very own medieval castle. We have been fed, housed, and otherwise looked after with consummate professionalism and unfailing friendliness.

The ancient lands from which my ancestors descended are some of the loveliest places I have ever seen. The verdant fields dotted with peacefully grazing sheep. The mysterious islands shrouded in fog. The mountains and rocky coastlines. The charming little rural cottages and the Georgian row houses in the big cities. The rivers winding through these tiny countries that formed the lifeblood of commerce and sustenance for the people, as well as made them bombing targets during the World Wars.

We have had the good fortune to learn from our history buff of a tour director so much about the past that has formed the British Isles into what they are today. It was one thing to be somewhat aware of the sectarian violence that has marked many periods in Irish and Scottish history. But it was quite another to see in person the partitions that still separate Catholics from Protestants in Belfast, Northern Ireland – or to witness the Orange marches asserting Protestant dominance in Glasgow, Scotland. Such estrangement reminded me of the political divisiveness in the United States these days and makes me realize that all countries have conflict and strife of one kind or another.

Yet this trip has been a unifying and bonding experience for us. My husband and I have met and gotten to know so many of my son’s teammates and their parents. We have had great fun with their coaches and joined in on their good-natured teasing of each other. Was some of this camaraderie fueled by pints of Guinness? Maybe. But I have been so gratified to know that my son is living and working among good young men with good people as their role models.

The great Scottish poet Robert Burns once famously wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” But in the case of this wonderful tour, those plans have been executed flawlessly to create an experience that will give us memories to last a lifetime.

 

Mother of All Mothers

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OLFatimaMother’s Day weekend in Chicagoland has been beautiful – mild and sunny, with flowers in bloom, lawns lushly green from abundant rainfall, and even little hummingbirds buzzing around the tree in our front yard.

Saturday also marked the hundredth anniversary of the miracle at Fatima, Portugal, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three young children, two of whom were canonized this past Saturday by Pope Francis.

Whatever one might think about such apparitions at places like Fatima, Lourdes, and Medjugorje, The Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, holds a very special place in the lives of Catholics.  She is considered the mother of all believers, as demonstrated at the foot of the cross when Jesus gestured to his apostle John, “Behold, your mother.”

The cult of Mary has been the source of much confusion and disagreement among Christians. Many Protestants believe that Catholics wrongly worship Mary through their prayers, feast days, and other honors bestowed upon the Mother of God. But Catholic devotion to Mary is not worship. We believe that, through her close relationship with her son, Mary is uniquely poised to intercede for us with Jesus. It is the same reason we pray to the saints: to ask for their continual prayer and intercession on our behalf. So it is natural for Catholics to turn to Mary, the greatest of all saints, for help.

The image of Mary as our mother can be of great comfort to us in our journey in life. Many of us have lost our mothers. Some of us are estranged from family members. All of us have endured pain and sorrow. To lay our cares at the foot of Mary as our spiritual mother is comforting indeed.

This weekend at Mass, we were called upon to bring flowers in honor of Mary, the Mother of God and the mother of us all. Every May, in churches all over the world, statues of Mary are crowned, signifying her place as the Queen of Heaven. This title, too, is steeped in tradition. In ancient Israel, the most powerful and important figure next to the king was the queen mother, as kings had many wives but only one mother. So it is with Mary. As mother of the King, she takes her place of honor next to her beloved son, Jesus.

On this Mother’s Day, I pray for all mothers – pray that they be honored and cared for and valued for their place in our hearts and homes. Happy Mother’s Day!

 

No News Is Good News

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My daughter is on spring break this week, so we are enjoying the beautiful weather in sunny Florida. Yesterday, we spent the entire day at a theme park, away from real life and immersed in the fantasy worlds of Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, and King Kong. So it was jarring to come back to the condo and hear the news emanating from our television set.

When I am away, especially in a relaxing place like Florida, I forget about the outside world. The daily newspaper doesn’t arrive here, and I’m not in my regular routine. Instead, I am slathering myself with sunscreen and hitting the beach or pool with a water bottle and a good book. It’s a great, albeit temporary, existence.

My husband the news junkie never likes to be far away from the world’s events, so I make a conscious effort to avoid the TV and tune out the radio in order to take a break from the news. As much as I care about what is happening in my country and in the world, I sometimes need to get away from the constant strife that is the bread and butter of journalism. After all, I’m not the president, so I don’t need to deal directly with any major crisis that might occur.

Taking a break from ordinary life is restorative. Here I don’t have my mountains of paperwork, house to manage, school schedule to monitor. Relationship drama and family squabbles seem very far away. My biggest decision is what to choose from the restaurant menu. I am separated from home by a time zone, but more importantly, from a mental and emotional zone that, short of a life-threatening crisis, I can choose to ignore for a little while.

Still, there’s no place like home. After a week of lounging in la la land, I will start missing my bed, my neighborhood, my friends, the routine that grounds me, the news that sparks ideas for my writing. But for now, no news is the best news of all.