Why Representation Matters

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I finally had the chance to see the blockbuster hit Crazy Rich Asians. I had been so excited about the film ever since learning that Kevin Kwan’s fabulous satire was being made into a movie.

I’m happy to say that the movie version of Crazy Rich Asians was as delightful as I’d hoped. I took my Chinese-born daughter with me, and her reactions after seeing the film highlighted for me why this movie with an all-Asian cast is so important. First of all, she found it gratifying to see so many Asian characters and actors in a movie. More surprising, though, was her comment that she’d like to visit her homeland of China some day.

This was a first for my very American daughter. As much as I’ve tried to interest her in Chinese culture over the years, she has always just wanted to be a regular American girl. She has even complained at times about her Asian middle name. Any time I’ve mentioned a heritage trip back to Anhui Province in China, where she was born, my suggestion has been met with indifference.

Such is the power of representation in popular culture. The characters in Crazy Rich Asians are not stereotypes or relics from a far too distant past. They are rich, modern, fashionable, and subject to the same foibles and machinations as the characters in a Jane Austen novel. At the same time, their Asian languages, customs, and sensibilities are important parts of their characters. In other words, Crazy Rich Asians is not just a version of Dynasty with an Asian cast.

When someone like my Chinese daughter can see herself represented in popular culture, whether in movies, television, books or music, it enhances her self-esteem and widens her expectations for herself. And for whites, minority representation helps tear down stereotypes and encourages us to see people of other races and ethnicities as individuals, not members of a monolithic group.

Years ago when my son was about 4, he asked me, “Mommy, can boys be doctors?” Score one for feminism, I laughingly thought to myself. But the question also gave me pause. In his young life, my son had never met a male doctor, so he wasn’t sure if it was a role that was open to him. I can only imagine how demoralizing it must be never to encounter professionals, actors, or even fictional characters that look like you.

The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians is so much more than just a coup for author Kevin Kwan and director Jon M. Chu. It is a sign, I hope, that we are hungry for stories about all kinds of people from all walks of life in all parts of this great big, beautiful world of ours.

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Road Not Taken

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A Facebook friend posted an interesting article about how most people misread Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken.” The poem has been taken as an ode to individuality, to striking out on one’s own less common path. The final lines of the poem seem to confirm this: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”

In reality, the narrator of the poem acknowledges that the two roads are virtually the same: “Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same,/ And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black.” In other words, neither path was really an untrodden one, and the view that choosing one “made all the difference” is only seen in hindsight. It’s the story “I shall be telling … with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence.” In fact, there’s nothing in the poem that even indicates the choice was the better one – just that it was different.

We would all like to think that our decisions are momentous ones, and we give weight and significance to our choices because we desire more than anything that our life have meaning. The place we live, the jobs we take, the person we marry: all certainly force us to forgo other choices. Our biological children would not exist if we had not made certain choices in the past. While all of this is true, it’s not necessarily the case that we were meant for this path and this path only.

I’m a religious person, and I do think God has an overarching plan for my life. My faith provides an outlook that gives meaning and consequence to the twists and turns on the path I’m taking in life. But that does not mean there are no coincidences. It’s tempting to believe that God is literally putting joys and trials in our way as part of some divine plan for us. But that makes God more of a puppet master than a divine presence. Rather, our belief in God shapes the way we view our experiences. It imbues them with meaning instead of our concluding that, “All is vanity and grasping for the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

“The Road Not Taken” was written by Frost to tease a fellow poet and friend who was notoriously bad at making decisions when they went out walking. (“Robert Frost: ‘The Road Not Taken’,” Katherine Robinson, poetryfoundation.org) But it’s also a meditation on the fact that we all have to make choices, large and small. The narrator in the poem wants to go both ways, but he must choose only one. Like him, we all second guess our choices at times and wonder what our lives would have been like had we chosen the other path.

It’s comforting to realize, though, that however our lives turn out, we have the power through our own beliefs to give them meaning. And that makes all the difference.

Just Be It

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In our current political climate, controversies abound about displays of patriotism – or the lack thereof. Colin Kaepernick’s famous (or infamous depending upon your point of view) decision to take a knee during the national anthem has incited a nationwide debate over such displays. And last week, the Nike campaign honoring Kaepernick’s protest has fanned the smoldering flames just in time for the start of football season.

Also last week, there were protests about the new movie First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon. People objected to the omission of Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon, correctly pointing out that the American landing was a victory in the space race of the 1960s during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The filmmaker’s decision to depict the moment as more of a human achievement than a political one was seen by some as evidence of a namby-pamby liberal sensibility.

Of course, controversy over demonstrations of patriotism in America is nothing new. In the Sixties, many protests against the Vietnam War featured the burning of the American flag. Fierce battles over Americans’ First Amendment rights vs. respect for our national symbol raged. More recently, President Trump has suggested punishment for people who would burn the flag. And so the controversy goes on.

The problem is that it’s one thing to stand up for the national anthem and another thing altogether to be a true patriot. It’s somewhat hollow to wave a flag over the bodies of men, women, and children killed in a pointless and immoral war. It’s easy to plaster a “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on our cars but more important to fight for the safety and dignity of our military men and women, both active duty and veterans. And the sight of the Stars and Stripes is cold comfort to black families who have lost innocent spouses, parents, and children to police brutality.

The other day I noticed that the flags in my small home town had gone up, no doubt to commemorate the devastating losses our country suffered on 9/11. I admired the grace and beauty of the flags lining our streets as they rippled in the breeze. They brought to mind all that has transpired, both good and bad, since that horrible day when terrorists attacked our land.

What I most admire from that fateful day 17 years ago was the outpouring of support for the victims of 9/11 and their families. The courageous acts of first responders. The leadership of then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. The rebuilding of the site where the Twin Towers fell. The tireless advocacy by Jon Stewart and others to maintain the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to help those affected by the horrific act of violence. Sure, people started putting out flags and adorning their cars with patriotic messages in the wake of 9/11. But it was action, not symbolism, that made a difference in people’s lives. It was people being patriotic, not just saying they were.

One of the most iconic photographs from World War II is the Pulitzer-Prize winning shot of marines hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima. The image captures the gritty reality of war, courage, and sacrifice. Some of the flag-raisers were killed in action a few days later. The image has been depicted in movies and made into a U.S. postage stamp.

But it was the selfless sacrifice of fighting for freedom and against tyranny that made the difference – not whether or not the American flag waved from the top of Mt. Suribachi. So as we mourn the losses we sustained on 9/11 and in the ensuing years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, let’s do more to be the patriots we claim to be when we raise the flag or place our hands over our hearts during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Losing My Religion

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I’m heartsick with grief for the sexual victims of men hiding behind the cloak of the priesthood in the Catholic Church. The revelations that thousands of children in Pennsylvania were being abused by priests while the diocesan hierarchy essentially aided and abetted their crimes has truly left my faith shaken.

Growing up, I was taught to deeply respect priests for their dedication and closeness to God, for their role in the Church in persona Christi. My teenage sisters worked in the rectory office and sometimes served dinner to our parish priests. My mother sewed their priestly vestments. To imagine any of these men violating a child in such a manner sickens and horrifies me.

The breadth of the pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church is truly astounding. There seems to be no major diocese in the United States that has not been affected by it. Hundreds of priests and thousands of victims are involved. If this were any other kind of organization, there would be protests in the streets and calls for heads to roll.

Pope Francis has reiterated his sorrow at the horrors of priestly depravity, renewed his plea for forgiveness for the Church’s failures to stop it, and pledged that sexual abuse by priests will not be tolerated and that those in charge will be held accountable. But he has said all these things before. And few, if any, members of the Church hierarchy have been removed from office. Victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests have listened to our pope’s words and found them wanting.

What has enabled the flourishing of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is the all male, celibate priesthood. How else to account for the untold numbers of victims? Yes, other institutions have been found to harbor sexual abusers. But there is no comparison in the number of victims and the longevity of the problem to what has gone on in the Catholic Church for decades.

The Catholic Church must address the epidemic of sexual abuse of children head on, first of all by removing not only the offending priests, but also the bishops and other higher ups who shuffled them from parish to parish and otherwise allowed them to continue to abuse children. It is also time for the Church to allow priests to marry and to welcome women into the ordained priesthood.

I’m not saying that the condition of celibacy causes pedophilia. But I do believe that the requirement makes the priesthood attractive to men who are wrestling with the demons of their own predilection for young children, and they seek refuge there in greater numbers than in the general population. I also think the presence of women within all levels of church hierarchy would make the abuses less likely to be hushed up or tolerated.

It has been extremely difficult for me to attend Mass in my local parish since the latest revelations of sexual abuse by priests came to light. My membership in the Church gives tacit acceptance to what is being done – and more importantly, what is not being done – to address this horrible stain on the reputation of Catholicism.

I don’t want to lose my religion. My faith has been a grounding and inspirational force in my life, and I believe it can still be a force for good in the world. But more of us Catholics have to stand up and demand what is right and good and holy from our leaders. Only then can we carry on the sacred mission for which Christ died on the cross.

Summer’s Lease Up

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Labor Day is a bittersweet holiday. The day is meant to celebrate working men and women all over America and, for most, to provide a day of rest and relaxation. But it also marks the symbolic end of summer. Kids not already in school will go back tomorrow. Morning commuters will once again have to share the crowded roads with back-to-schoolers. And summer vacations are over for families.

It’s still hot outside, of course. Today on my walk, I saw people out on their front porches enjoying the relative cool of early morning. Later on, the neighborhoods will be filled with the sounds of kids playing and the smells of burgers cooking on outdoor grills. A last hurrah of summer.

Soon in my part of the world, the evening air will have a slight chill in it. Then the trees will deck themselves out in glorious colors for one last celebration before the cold winter sets in. Before we know it, we will be huddled inside by the fireplace eating leftover Halloween candy and feeling wistful about our always too brief summer.

I’m not complaining, exactly. I do love the change of seasons in the Midwest – the way nature marks the passing of time. I did miss it when I lived on the West Coast. But I will also miss the free and easy feeling of summertime: sandals on my feet, an easy summer dress, an ice cream cone, and a fun, frivolous book to read.

Farewell, summer. See you next year.

Poetic License

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My car’s Illinois license plate sticker just came up for renewal, and I was disappointed. It was not one of the automobiles slated to be replaced by the updated design being phased in in the State of Illinois. Our current license plate is decidedly bland: a plain white background with the words “Illinois” and “Land of Lincoln” scrolled above and below the license plate number. The new plates have an azure blue sky accompanied by an imaginary skyline that includes both the State Capitol building and Chicago skyscrapers, as well as half of Honest Abe’s visage.

I’ve read that the oldest license plates are being phased out first, so I will have to wait awhile to see the bright new plates on my car. I know the fact that I care this much about getting a new license plate falls under the category of “Get a life,” but I’ve always loved looking at car license plates.

As a child on family road trips, I would play the license plate game to pass the time. This highly complicated game consisted of trying to find license plates from states other than our own. Usually, we had to settle for sightings of Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin or some other nearby Midwestern state. Occasionally, though, we’d see an exotic Texas (Lone Star State) or Florida (Sunshine State) plate. In recent years, I actually saw an Alaska plate and learned that its license plate motto is “The Last Frontier.”

That’s the other thing I like about license plates. I like to learn the mottos or other captions that are used on them. Here are some that I’ve seen firsthand:

Indiana – Crossroads of America OR In God We Trust (Of course, in Mike Pence territory)
Michigan – Pure Michigan (Tell that to Flint residents)
Wisconsin – America’s Dairyland (Bragging Cheddarheads)
Minnesota – 10,000 Lakes (Apparently there are actually more than that in Minnesota!)
New York – The Empire State (Typical New York arrogance)
New Jersey – The Garden State (a bit or irony?)
North Carolina – First in Flight (Ohioans are ticked that NC claims the Wright Brothers)
Massachusetts – Spirit of America
New Hampshire – Live Free or Die (I’m scared of New Hampshirites!)

On a trip to Washington D.C. a few years ago, I did a double take when I saw what was written on their license plates. It actually says “Taxation Without Representation.”

So I will continue to play the license plate game in search of unusual specialty and out of state plates. I enjoy the game so much I’m thinking of getting a vanity license plate that says: LCNS LVR.

What’s on your license plate?

Dog Days

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My college age son really wants a dog. The other day he was regaling me with photos on his phone of all his favorite breeds, most notably pugs. He told me about the pets of various friends and what he likes and doesn’t like about them. He even surprised me with the fact that dogs are actually allowed in his dorm room at school. But he also acknowledged that any dog he were to get would have to live with my husband and me for long stretches of time while he pursues his college and career goals.

As our nest empties, it’s tempting to think about adopting a shelter pet to keep us company. It would be great exercise to have to walk a dog every day. It would be nice to have the unconditional adoration of a pet who wants nothing more than to be petted and fed and loved (kind of like a husband!).

Our town is a dog paradise. Everywhere I go, I see dogs out with their owners on walks, at the park, or sticking their heads out of a car window to catch the breeze. Local businesses put water bowls outside their establishments or offer dog treats for the neighborhood hounds.

Yet I’m hesitant to take on the responsibility of caring for another creature in my life.   Dogs require constant tending, grooming, and attention to their healthcare needs. They cannot be left alone for long periods of time, and travel means finding a pet sitter or boarding situation for them. I don’t relish the idea of picking up a dog’s poop on a daily basis either. And some breeds bring unwanted odors to one’s home or massive amounts of hair that need to be removed from every surface.

Still, I can see the appeal of a cute little French bulldog or a rambunctious, loving Golden Retriever. I can acknowledge the comfort of a dog’s head on one’s lap on a cold or lonely night. Studies show that having a pet can be good for one’s health.

On the other hand, it’s easy to contemplate getting a pooch during the dog days of summer. Not so much fun to consider the frigid below zero days when that same dog will need to go outside every day regardless of the weather. I guess I’ll revisit the idea of getting a dog during the depths of winter when there’s snow on the ground and the temperatures plummet.

For now, I’ll enjoy these dog days sans dog.