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We are every one of those 50 shades of grey…

Yes, I’ve seen the movie and bought and read all the books. I am 50 Shades of Grey literate. I watched the live debut in London yesterday afternoon, on the internet, complete with the red carpet walk, and interviews with the producer and the writer who said she never dreamed she would be at a debut of a movie made from her books.

I thought the movie would not live up to the books, such as they are.  Regardless of the success, or not, of the movie, the success of the books cannot be denied – if you judge success on books sold and money made.  100 million women anticipated to have read it.  The formula these days seems to be in writing trilogies and in something that lends itself well to images, blogs, and social media – to hype the hype.  50 Shades has all of this.  The book – as in any book – brings images to mind. Images that are as private as the image of each of us reading the book – in our easy chairs, in bed, late at night, on our computers, or ipads, hidden in our offices, or even reading on our cell phones, if we didn’t want to have the book in the house.

As the movie has come closer to opening, we hear a variety of words – anticipatory giggles, “when are you going”, “are you going with your husband”, “…with your boyfriend”, or “with the girls”?  We hear angry words, mainly from women.  Women talking about violence towards women, disrespect, abuse, and challenging each other to boycott the movie on behalf of the cause of feminism.  Or we hear psychologists talk about the damage it will cause to young girls.  We hear little from men.  They say it’s a chick flick. And they don’t know what it’s about.

The Valentine’s Day opening was moved to the 13th, so ladies could go with their lady friends and still have their date nights on the 14th.  Would couples attend together?  Would there be giggles?  Shifting in one’s seat?  Sighs of mutual acknowledgement? Nods to each other when we leave the theater?  Rushes to our cars?  Would we post our thoughts on Facebook? Or would we be as quiet as we were in the private time when we read the book?  Alone with our thoughts.  With our ponderings. With a smattering of confusion.1423712148300The theater was filled.  Mainly women, but a few with male dates, too.  We began with quiet applause, as if we had all been waiting a very long time in our lives.  Popcorn at the ready, we snuggle down.  Women in sweat pants and comfy clothes, no dress-up needed. There is humor in this film.  Mainly it is comedic timing and natural instinct by Dakota Johnson.  Jamie Dornan does not meet our expectations of Mr. Grey as neatly.  How could any actor meet what each of us had imagined and created in our own minds?  A little too slim.  Curling up of the upper lip makes him always appear as about to giggle. Shoulders not broad enough. Though his hands are striking, and brought about an audible gasp from the audience as he clasped a table edge.

In my opinion, the movie is not about BDSM or violence against women.  Or degradation. Or disrespect.  It simply isn’t about any of that.  It is about the fantasy.  The fantasy of what women – mainly older women – might think about – sometimes.  Maybe it’s even an offering of a fantastical thought, should the woman have run fresh out of them. The exploitations that may roll around in one’s mind, while the reality of acting upon any of it would equal the chagrin of a couple watching mid-core porn in a hotel room. Really, honey? But we might think about it. We might.

So, just what is the appeal of all of this experimental sex?  What were the sexiest moments?  Were they the riding crop, or were they by the piano listening to him play a haunting melody?  Were they the necktie around her wrists, or were they taking her up on an air glider, a day completely planned by him, from beginning to end?

bill-clinton-monica-lewinsky-affair-ftrAs I sit writing this I am listening to some “national expert” talking about the grave damage this movie will do to young girls….and I think about Bill Clinton and his declaration of “I did not have sex with that woman”.  I think about how oral sex replaced intercourse by definition for young girls in an instant.  And how a “goodnight, I had a nice time” with a kiss, became lost to the acceptable act of quick oral sex.  One sided, I would add.  How has HPV been spread exponentially?  By young people – men & women – believing an STD could not be spread this way. Because this is not sex.  The president said so.  Talk to young women today.  The sexual act, for many of them, is about their performance with their man.  Not about receiving pleasure, or sexual skill of their partner.  It is yet another giving act – much like making dinner, and doing the laundry. And if the money equation is tipped on the male’s side, even more.

50 Shades of Grey is fantasy.  Speaking as a feminist, I believe men probably don’t get it (nor will they take the time to read or watch), so we need to tell them how we are feeling about it.  It is not the black and white of sexual pleasure.  It is the grey of our lives, of our minds, of our exhaustion.  It is the grey of our feelings – of what might be, or could have been.  It is a lifetime of fairy princesses and handsome princes, with broken promises for our lives, watched when we were very young. To be followed next by Donna Reed and Lucy and Laura & Dick Van Dyke. We have the ‘right’ to equal pay and our careers.  Yet our “before” lives and responsibilities remain largely intact, too; just with more stacked upon it, very little removed or replaced. Many of us do all of this while also being the sandwiched caretakers of our aging parents. And still we hear we aren’t doing enough and that we need to “lean in” and do more. Be more.

1246217_1373593008227_fullThe fantasy is freedom. It is putting our shoulders down and not worrying about what is for dinner or the buying and cooking of it, or where we will go if we go out (pick the restaurant, arrange for the babysitter, get the concert tickets, call the friends).  It’s not worrying about buying our own car, or servicing it. Or paying all the bills.  It’s not even thinking about what we will wear.  It’s about looking good, being fit, being healthy, being taken care of. It is a fantasy of release.

But as the books and the movies are clear to reveal, the control in this fantasy is always the woman’s.  She realizes it herself, half way through. Nothing is done to her she has not consented to, or actually asked for.  Her inquisitiveness did take her a little too far, but sometimes that happens with a safe situation and a mind free to wander.

This movie is not for the young, and certainly not for tweens.  Much damage has already been done by an ex-President, and what we watch on our televisions every day. Sex mixed with violence is power.  Not sex.  50 Shades of Grey is none of those things.  It is mature content, for a mature life.  It is a gentle, ‘what if’. It is not a blonde princess spinning on the ice singing about her true love. It is, however, fodder for conversation between couples about that private part of their lives.

765d00dde9d4099d_reese-on-setThe fact that this movie is about to enjoy success at a time when the popular movies are showing some of our more famous female actresses at their worst – no makeup, abused, beaten, raped, going through physical challenges, etc. is an interesting coincidence.  This time, we seem to want another fantasy. In the yin and yang of life, this time we want to be the woman offered an easier life, love, and consensually great sex (and of course we want control).  But sometimes we also want to be seen as the woman who has been torn to the ground and has risen again, scathed and damaged, but alive, and the wiser for it, too. A survivor.

We are a complicated hot mess. We are not black and white.  We’ve earned every one of those fifty shades of grey.

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“We” are not amused…

It is almost a knee jerk reaction.  I hear a politician tell us “I need you to…” or “I will be asking for this in my budget…” and I’ve already had a gut reaction to the start of the sentence, such that I really don’t hear what comes after that.  I imagine myself on that podium, saying that sentence.  And I realize that the word I would be so hard for me to utter.  In writing, yes, I can use it.  But in speaking?  To a group?  No, I just sticks in my throat.  But why?

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Linguistically, there is the use of the royal “we”.  First, made famous by Queen Victoria when a vulgar joke was told in her presence. When she replied, “we are not amused”, she “clearly intended to speak on behalf of the other ladies whom she knew were equally offended.” Later, used by royalty to note the collective body of a politically organized nation – most commonly used as a term of separation – them and those – we and they – the intelligentsia and the peasants.

The use of pronouns such as I and we are called functional words.  When used by politicians, the choice can mean the difference between claiming authority and creating community.

There are even studies done about one’s mental state and the use of these functional words.  More people who are suffering from depression use I as opposed to we or they.  Kind of fascinating.

Having spent almost an entire career in the world of nonprofits, I learned quickly that the use of we was, indeed, to build community. And not at all spoken like the “royal we”.  What seemed so odd, at first, became rote.  “We hope you will…we ask you…we thank you.”  Sometimes I felt almost like turning around to see who else was standing there with me.  Never the bolder use of I.  Never as though the individual, the staff member, even existed, except as a title of function, certainly not a separate person. What mattered was the greater good, the cause.

I would like you to donate a major gift towards research.” Imagine! “I would like you to?”  “We need you to donate a major gift towards research.”  OK, but who is the we?  The we is you – and me – and collectively, all of us.

So, staff were in the background, writing the words, designing the photo opp, poised with conductor’s baton, or wind up key, if you will.  It was an adjustment – to deny one’s self – personality – personae – to become invisible.  But soon I came to understand the benefit of this group-being. So, for 20 years I was on behalf of and quite content in that role.  It was deemed to be a best practice of success for a nonprofit.

Today, the role of staff in a nonprofit is quite different.  Today the staff member is often front and center.  Someone whose life has never been touched by the disease du jour is speaking at a podium about the tragedies of some type of cancer they’ve never had.  Often, the volunteers or ‘survivors’ are right there, and willing to speak, but they are not invited to do so.  It is the staff member’s job now.  One they may truly love and be dedicated to.  But one with distance built all around it. Between community – and cause.

All this goes through my mind when I hear the word I spoken by an elected official, over and over again.  What is the purpose?  It must be to reinforce one’s role of power, surely not to build a sense of community – not to sing kumbaya with the people at all.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vo9AH4vG2wA

I think about the organization I worked for and how the tagline, or slogan, it used, changed over the years, reflecting part of this new word order. “We’re fighting for your life.”  Outwardly focused. Inclusive. Involving. Engaging.  “I’M not fighting for your life.  YOU are not fighting…WE are fighting.”  Kumbaya. Exponential engagement!

Today, that slogan has morphed to several others, with degrees of warm and fuzzy. “Learn and Live”  (don’t listen to me and you’ll find out for yourself);  “Your Life is in Your Hands” (it’s up to you, do what you want, you know what you need to do)’ and, today, “Life is Why”. (we’re tired of giving you all the reasons why – you should know why by now).

We have made today’s politicians into caricatures of themselves.  The media has done that.  And we expect it now.  We tweet about the color of the Governor’s jacket and how her hair looked on any one day.  Our obsessiveness would lead one to believe that we have relegated them to use the “royal we”, yet we have created a new level beyond that. Today politicians ask us to do things, to support things, in first person.  I need you to do this.  There is leadership in that, and a sense of authority, but I suggest there is no sense of community or coalition building.

If I were the speech writer I would reserve the authoritarian use of “I” for select moments of crisis.  Rather, I would bring back the royal we, the friendlier we.  For, “it’s all in our backyard”, isn’t it?  It’s not your backyard, or my backyard, it’s ours.  How might we all better respond if we brought back the use of the plural personal pronoun?  Just as your mother saved the use of your middle name for “those times” when obedience meant right now, and no discussion, politicians might command a more communal sense of engagement with the use of we, forgoing the assertive first person singular pronoun for crisis and woe, for that time when “we are not amused”.

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50 years ago it was Kitty Genovese who couldn’t breathe…

As the tragedy of the death of Eric Garner and the call for action and justice, has played out nightly with demonstrations coast to coast, and cries of “Black Matters” and “I Can’t Breathe” have entered into our cocktail chatter and business conversations, I can’t get the thought of Kitty Genovese out of my mind.

Do you remember Kitty? 

Kitty was a 28 year old woman. She worked as a waitress. One night, around 2am, she was murdered – stabbed and raped – right outside of her own apartment – by a 29 year old man who said he simply went looking for a woman to kill “because they didn’t fight back”, he later revealed. Kitty fought. She screamed. It was a loud, disruptive incident. Yet – no one called or came to help Kitty. Over 37 people later said that they were aware she was being attacked. They had heard her screaming for help.  Each person believed someone else was doing something. Calling for help. Rushing to her aid.  Yet, no one did.

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The social psychological phenomenon became known as the “bystander effect”, and, Kitty had her immortality, in the study of the “Genovese syndrome”, which continues to this day in colleges all across the country.  Literally, books have been written about Kitty – and the syndrome that bears her name.

While a student at Providence College, I studied social psychology.  I became rather fascinated by the development of group consciousness, group mentality, and “diffusion of responsibility”, and the “bystander effect”.  How could it be that one or two people would have more probability, individually, of helping someone than a group would?  How does the instinct to act become dissipated when they see themselves as members of a group?

We see this demonstrated with Kitty, yes.  We also see this on our college campuses when we talk about rape and sexual assault.  Often, the worst take place in fraternities or at parties, where society’s boundaries morph to the new society of the moment.  Where actions one person would never think about, much less act on, become the group’s behavior, and the individual becomes but one cog in the wheel that has been set in motion, with its own outlying concepts of right and wrong, its own shady sense of rules. As but one cell of the whole, the power to pull away is exponentially difficult.

The collective brain often rules.

The study of this has led to some good things.  It only took 25 years or so for CPR training groups to realize that there was a fatal flaw in step #1 – “call for help”.  How many of us were first taught to shout at the downed person, “are you all right” and then to shout out into the air or the group gathered, “call 911″!   Groups that were forever tweaking their CPR compressions, breaths, etc, heard about this, studied it and realized it was true that sometimes no one called for help – each thinking another member of this newly identified group had done so.  New instructions were written that when you called for help you should specifically select one or two people – looking at them directly and address them with a powerful order.  “You! Get help – Call 911 – now!”  What did this do?  It charged the specific person with a specific action.  The burden to do something – to move – was extremely powerful – and effective.  Some others in the group may act, too, but assuring that one person carried the full weight of that charge is now known to be crucial in a successful “chain of survival”.

How can this study – these concepts – help us better understand what happened to Eric Gardner – and offer critical retraining to our police officers?

We know his name.

Daniel Pantaleo. He is the police officer who put Eric Gardner in a fatal choke hold. But do you know who Justin Damico is? He’s one of the other officers. There were four others, too. There were also four EMTs/paramedics.  All told there were 10 “first responders” engaged with Eric that day.  And a score of others watching. The five police officers were given immunity to testify about the choke hold actions of Daniel Pantaleo.  The EMTs were suspended for their lack of lifesaving efforts at the scene, though they were later put back into duty.

Yes, Daniel Pantaleo was the officer who performed the fatal choke hold.  But there were four other officers there in that heap on top of Eric.  Did anyone say, “hey, back off a little, I think you’re killing this guy?”  Was that even a whisper? Or did the “diffusion of responsibility” have a powerful effect to have five officers believing that their actions were justified – there was no individual cry-out because there was no individual any longer – just ‘one of the five’.  Add onto this the layer of Eric being black. Add on to this the layer of poverty – all of this was happening in a poor section of the community.

What questions and answers can the study of group phenomena bring to retraining? Another group has used this information to help stop wrong side surgeries. Collective conscious thinking has been responsible for operating room errors when there was an assumption that the surgeon was cutting into the right appendage of his or her patient – even in the face of serious doubt or question.  It is a strong phenomena that makes an individual, maybe someone low on the hierarchy in the room, frozen from questioning, from saying, “wait, let’s check this again”. It is hoped that by retraining, and allowing all members of the group to have equal voice, this can change. To be effective, there must be a real promise of no repercussion, even if the person is incorrect, and all members of the group must believe that, to be so empowered.

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Did those officers, did Justin, and the four others, and David – approach Eric – with individual decisions that they were going to make this day one Eric would never forget – they were going to take this guy into custody – and if he resisted, they were going to kill him.  Right there, on the street, in front of groups of people, and while being film?

The overlay of race and poverty.

Did race – and bigotry – and fear – and poverty overlay these dynamics making the situation beyond salvation? Of course.  Exponentially so. So, yes, we need to do our cultural education and racial education, and our retraining.  We need to also restore the power of the individual to question tactics, protocols, and moments when common sense has gone haywire. Shoot to kill? Arming our police force like they were at war? Match our law enforcement to the diversity of the community? Teach individual responsibility and empowerment?

“I can’t breathe!”

There were lots of people around Eric.  Lots of people cried out.  But the most important ones who could have stopped it – the officers, themselves – didn’t hear.  They were bonded by a powerful magnet creating one new entity, made even stronger by fear. Each, by their silence to the others, reinforced the actions – the holds, the knee into the back, the smashing of Eric’s face into the cement – the fatal choke hold growing tighter and tighter.  They could no longer see with their own eyes, or hear their own thoughts – and they certainly did not the 11 cries from Eric – “I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe! – I can’t breathe!

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5 o’clock in the Rainbow Room

It could be a sound, a scent, a photo.  Music.  Memories flood.  At unexpected times.

As an occasional professional fundraiser, I get acceptance into a world that I don’t live in, and I don’t come from. Yes, there are beautiful homes, and cars. Shoes to glance at.  Amazing jewelry – new or heirloom – I wonder. It is a world I have great respect for. I see the dedication of time – the sacrifice it takes – to maintain that.  I hear their thoughts about ‘legacy’.  It usually comes when children are grown, educated, getting married. Before they become grandparents. It’s a time when ‘how will we be remembered’ is all important. A time when their contribution to a cause will be life changing for people they will almost never meet.

They depend on someone like me to make the right partnerships for their interests. Do they want a naming opportunity, where their family name will be emblazoned on a building or a brick in a wall?  Sometimes they want anonymity completely. My work, moreso years ago than today, took me to meetings in beautiful lunch clubs (used to be men’s clubs), and the occasional trip for a particularly important planned giving opportunity.

Today I do little of that. But the other day, as I sat in my home office, working in slippers with my cat by my side, I saw the first flakes of snow falling.  And a story about the concert series at The Rainbow Room.  So attuned to sensory cues, it only took that visual, a snippet of music, and the memories flooded.

 

A cold winter’s night. In New York City. Early dinner. Top of the world at Rockefeller Center. The Rainbow Room. Round parquet dance floor with small dinner tables surrounding it. Floor to ceiling windows. A grand piano.  We’ve stepped into a movie.

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So quiet so early. I wonder if they are really open. It’s only 5 o’clock. We’re seated to one side. The candle is lit in this always dim-to-dark room. Our napkins are gingerly laid in our laps. It’s business, but we’ve let ourselves have time for enjoying a little bit of the town, as I obliged the request. “Surely we can have dinner in a nice place; and maybe Radio City?”  “Thank you, whatever you like. Yes, we should have some time off.”

He selects the wine. We wait for it to be served. I feel some motion in the room and I look out the window where skyscraper tops meet my eye. I see that it’s snowing. But it wasn’t snowing on the ride over. It was cold. But not cold enough for snow. When our waiter comes back with the wine he comments on our conversation. “Yes, it’s snow.  But it’s only snowing up here – on the 65th floor.  If you took the elevator down right now it would not be snowing at all at ground level. The snow evaporates on its way down to the street.”  Even more special, we have a private snowstorm, and I wonder if it was ordered for the occasion.

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There is another couple in the distance, across the dance floor. They lean in to each other across the small cocktail table. She’s wearing winter white. He’s almost imperceptible in the dark, except for the sparkle from his cuff link, when it catches the light reflecting off the crystal chandelier.

It’s the 90s. I work too hard. Travel too infrequently. Relax in elegant settings so rarely.

My meal is selected for me. I think nothing of it. I am doing nothing; responsible for nothing. I make no decisions, or recommendations.  I absorb. My shoulders come down and I settle in.  I could be in Paris, or Istanbul, or Shanghai, I think.  But I’m only in New York. On the 65th floor. In the snow.

While we wait, a dark man enters towards the piano. He is wearing tuxedo and tails with a white crisp shirt. His hair is as black as the black of his suit. He skillfully moves the piano bench without making a sound. He slips in front of it and does that little flourish to kick out the tails, and sits down. He has no sheet music. He simply sits. Still.

I feel a little dizzy by it all. And then I realize that the floor is rotating – the very slowest rotating floor I’ve ever seen.  One that the waiter can comfortably walk across to serve the food. And I wonder if he ever loses a table.  But then he just has to count “four tables to the left of the piano” and it would be right where he left it.

The piano man’s fingers are placed on the keyboard and he flutters out some pleasant notes, and then begins to play – quietly, ever so subtly. He closes his eyes. I find I’m soon closing mine, too.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWUBCgzOxMY

I sigh, and catch myself, wondering if that was loud enough to hear. My dinner partner and I exchange looks and words as our minds compete to find the memory box first. What is the tune being played for us? Pretty soon, one of us comes up with it – it is the theme from Prince of Tides. From the movie by that name whose closing scene was filmed right where we are. I know so many versions of that music.  But the piano makes me think of Lori Line. And it is so beautiful. There comes a moment when ‘something’ is called for – applause? a smile? a laugh? a tear? – we look at each other again. And he asks. Would you like to dance? I wonder if the man with the cuff link across the room can see the spark(le) from this man’s eye. Yes, yes, that would be what one should do, I think – and say.

He formally takes my hands, in proper position, and we dance.  I breathe in the cologne, close to me now, the scent I’ve smelled so many times across a board room, driving to a meeting, passing me by. We dance slowly, in proper cadence and position. Until the moment when he pulls me closer and wraps his arms around me, like a woman my age might dance with a man my age. It is all right I tell myself. It is, just about, perfect, I say over and over in my mind.

The piano player plays the long form, and it goes on and on. I wonder if he’s doing that just for us.  Yet, as it comes to a close, we both know that it was much too short.  Much too brief. Much too quickly did the door open and close.

Our dinner is waiting for us and we notice that the waiter has quietly placed covers on our food and refilled our wine.  As we walk to the table he comes by to uncover what we are here for – to eat. A quick glance up at me, a not-quite smile. He does not look at the gentleman at all. My napkin is placed once again in my lap. And I pick up my fork.

We eat quietly, as if something very special has happened here on this night of work, with a little time off for pleasure. I drink more wine and notice the couple across the floor has left. And it’s not snowing anymore. I can’t see the spires on the tops of the buildings. It’s all misty and foggy now.

The pianist has finished playing something else that was lovely, I’m sure. And taken his break. The floor no longer turns. It is only 7 o’clock.

The gentleman pays the bill though I don’t see a bill presented or payment made. We walk across the dance(d) floor. My coat is placed on my shoulders as we walk to our waiting elevator for two. My ears pop as we go slowly from 65 to ground. We say nothing. He looks down. I pull on my leather gloves. He does the same. I see the sparkle of his cufflink, and notice the lines on his face. Suddenly he looks very tired. His cologne surrounds me. I breathe it in very deeply.  In a moment the doors open to a blast of cold winter air.

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The Prince of Tides was released on Christmas Day in 1991

It starred Barbara Streisand and Nick Nolte

The movie was based on a novel by Pat Conroy published in 1986

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“I am ever so much more than twenty. I grew up long ago.”

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“Peter,” she said, faltering, “are you expecting me to fly away with you?”

“Of course; that is why I have come.” He added a little sternly, “Have you forgotten that this is spring cleaning time?”

[Wendy] knew it was useless to say that he had let many spring cleaning times pass.

“I can’t come,” she said apologetically, “I have forgotten how to fly.”

“I’ll soon teach you again.”

“O Peter, don’t waste the fairy dust on me.”

She had risen; and now at last a fear assailed him. “What is it?” he cried, shrinking.

“I will turn up the light,” she said, “and then you can see for yourself.”

“What is it?” he cried again.

She had to tell him.

“I am old, Peter. I am ever so much more than twenty. I grew up long ago.”

“You promised not to!”

“I couldn’t help it.”

Today I spent some time with a friend from high school.  He and I share about 35 years of not being friends – the years between high school and a few years ago, when, through the magic of Facebook, one of our first reunions happened. We’ve caught up with each other.  Many of us now peruse our Facebook pages – like opening a “this is your life” book, we click on photos and watch the years unfold.

Whoosh! I see a blond haired lad with an impish grin and I see my friend, but then I realize – silly – that’s not him –  it’s his son.

I suppose I’ve been feeling a bit like Wendy did lately.  Facebook has had a way of condensing my life.

A few weeks ago, my friend, Mike, was chatting (on Facebook, of course) about helping his sister start a food truck business, resurrecting his old family recipes from his family’s iconic community restaurant.  I knew that my artist clients were holding an exhibit and wanted to have some food options for their patrons, so I suggested that he set up outside the building.  The building, an old Armory, is right next to “our” high school.  So on this crisp fall day, with a chill in the air, we found ourselves sitting together at a little picnic table area he had set up, right in the shadow of our high school.

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Whoosh! He’s a football player.  With a golden floppy head of hair, a swagger and a drawling, Texan style voice. He’s a little bit of a trouble maker, but then he’d flash his white-toothed, full faced smile. His eyes would smile, too, with a sparkly twinkle, just like an animated commercial.

He has a floppy head of grey hair, but the sparkle and smile are fully intact.  His impishness, too.  His age shows most notably in his manners.  He is extremely polite and helpful to older people, very respectful, and even moreso with children.  His second career is a prison guard.  Somehow that work has made him, what, gentle?  A gentle, impish, funny, handsome man.

We talk about the little catch in our step – me with my hip – he with his back.  We sit at the picnic table and talk about meatballs and sauce and memories of the city we grew up in.  We sit in the shadow of our high school, where, some 40 plus years ago we graduated and parted company for most of those years.  Many of us who have re-met on Facebook know we will always be friends, now.  We will share the joys of children’s marriages and grandchildren being born.  We will share the sorrows of deaths that are already beginning to happen.

What made this so surreal?  Sitting close and looking squarely at each other?  The shadow of our youth towering over us now?  Being in the city we grew up in and all the things that used to be somewhere? Talking about the boarded up Armory with pigeons siting in the broken windows? Reminiscing about family recipes? I started to think about my mother’s sauce and how Portuguese linguicia was her secret ingredient and how could I have forgotten until this very moment of recollection.

Whoosh! That whirling tornado funnel of thoughts again – and a snippet of my life – graduating, college, an accident, jobs, marriage, divorce, babies, deaths, career changes and challenges, children growing up and adult jobs, retirement planning, reconstructive surgery talk…and then – whoosh – I’m back, sitting at the picnic table.

A week ago both my children were hired for their “dream jobs” – within two days of each other.  And they even have binders of benefit plans for me to look at. So I tell them – grab all that matchy pension stuff – buy that long term care policy.  Trust me.  I know they don’t know about a lot of things that I know too much about.

Whoosh! I see them heading to age 30 and I have the panic about their lives that I have about my own.  You have to plan. You have to do it right.  If you do it better than me your life will be better than mine is now.  Listen.  Never mind. Just trust me. Trust me.

There’s a nip in the air.  The leaves are falling.  Soon winter will come.

One day there will be gentlemen for my daughters’ hands. And every spring it will be cleaning time again. And may there be grandchildren to hear about high school. And football players with golden hair and twinkling eyes.  And fairy dust and Neverland. And thus it will go on.

“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.” Peter Pan

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“We have met the ‘enemy’ and he is us.” – The Parent/Teacher Rift

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The assistant principal of the J.F. Deering Middle School in West Warwick, Subhash Chander, wrote a commentary in the Providence Journal, which ran on September 13th entitled, “Parents must do more than just buy school supplies”.  At first read, I thought – absolutely – excellent points. Well said. But then I noticed the one-sided view that this principal chose to use in addressing parents. And I could actually see a finger waving back and forth, admonishing me, the parent. I started to remember my experiences in my encounters with teachers over the years, when I would ask questions, or suggest something. That awful, tenuous, careful push-pull feel of it all.

Like a presidential rebuttal I feel compelled to respond and ask this of Ms. Chander, “what is a teacher’s responsibility”? And not to plagiarize in any way, I’ll use some of her own phrases. As an administrator are you focusing first and foremost on reinforcing with your teachers, what it takes “to be ready for the school year”?

When sentences begin with, “To parents: The least you can do is start taking an interest….” you’ve already lost the ‘we’re a team’ point.

My children are in their mid 20s now. They were educating in public schools in the Cranston school system. They went on to public university education, then beyond to advanced degrees. They have good jobs, here in RI.

No, I was never a helicopter parent. But, I was always ‘there’ – for events, concerts, parent teacher meetings, etc. I even had a strange few years on the PTO. I looked at homework assignments, provided a good dinner and study time at home, pulled back on extra curricular activities when I could see that was interfering. I did the dreaded dioramas and helped in the equally dreaded poster board presentations. I struggled to understand the new rubrics. I agreed to let my kindergartener not worry about mispronouncing words, as the new reading methods didn’t are about that (don’t ask about a 20-something’s pronunciation faux pas, to this day). I gave up on the old math of memorizing “times tables” to the new math (have you gone to a farmer’s market and watched the young people struggle to make change from a $10 when you have spent $5.71 – watch it – it’s the “new math”). That “better way” of doing math far exceeded my ability to understand and keep up at some point around middle school.

They excelled academically and are thriving as individuals. Given a poor teacher year or a year fraught with unresolved school issues, they managed to get through pretty much on their own resolve.

My visits to the schools were few. But they were almost never well received; my requests never greeted with openness and a ‘spirit of cooperation’. Teachers were unavailable, unaccommodating, wouldn’t look you in the eye, didn’t return phone calls, for the most part. Of course, there were a few outstanding gems, to be remembered for a lifetime.

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This principal writes, “To Parents: the least you can do is take an interest in your child’s education” – let me write this: “To Teachers: please take an interest in your student’s life”. Talk to them. Ask them on a daily basis what they do outside of school. Ask them what’s important to them. Don’t ever assume they have all the support they need for academic excellence. Ask them if they need extra help. In talking to your student, please let them know that you will stay in touch with mom and dad. And do it. And when you talk to the parents, do so in a friendly and inviting way – do not stop maintaining those connections, even if you find parents are very busy and may not have the time to talk to you when you can talk to them. After all, these days, it is easy to stay in touch with parents using electronic media.

Always remember that you are accountable. And that teaching effectively is your primary responsibility – and you will be reviewed on your performance. I have no doubt that you are busy and overworked and under resourced.

Think of ways to welcome parents to your classroom – establish a hotline if that works well for you. Teach your students to respect education and of course the people who teach them every day. Provide an environment in the classroom that fosters respect for all people. Show your students that you respect their parents, too. Never disparage your student’s parents, or home situation in front of your student.

As teachers it is imperative that you share your student’s educational journey not only as “the teacher”, but also as “a person”. Let your students feel that you are their best support in education. Encourage them to discuss anything with you, that they don’t need to hide the fact that they may need something they are not getting in the classroom or at home; let them know you are right there for them. Create an environment of open discussion around topics related to education. Create that environment with your students’ parents, too.

Yes, “children who are ready to learn are easiest to each.” Remember, parents who are welcomed and know what they can do to help can be your best advocates. Know that some parents will fail their children, and be ready to help support these young people as best you can; it is not their fault. Nothing could be more valuable than ensuring a promising future for your student through education. After all, this is why you chose to do this for a living.

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Here is the link to the original op ed, and it is printed in its entirety, below…

http://www.providencejournal.com/opinion/commentary/20140913-subhash-chander-parents-must-do-more-than-just-buy-school-supplies.ece

The back-to-school frenzy is over and schools have finally opened. Kids have gotten their wish lists taken care of and parents have spent or overspent their budgets in their desire to get their children ready for the new school year. The students are back to the classrooms after a gap of almost three months and teachers are ready to roll out the new academic year.

Are the children ready for the school year?

This is a question that baffles all at the end of every long nonproductive vacation. What does it precisely mean to be ready for the school year?

Because few students faced serious intellectual challenges during vacation, the teachers are going to have to design remedial course work to prepare them for the curriculum. It is every teacher’s wish that the summer vacation would be devoted to some productive academic activities. During the summer break, learning invariably takes the back seat and a sizeable chunk of the year is devoted to unproductive activities only remotely related to education. Hence many students end up losing one-fourth of a year’s worth of education. Staying stagnant and inactive for three months, a child’s brain is sure to regress.

Do the parental responsibilities end with the provision of school supplies?

Education of children is a complex matter and cannot be entrusted to specialists alone. True, teachers are entrusted with this responsibility and paid for it. But children’s education is a joint responsibility of parents and teachers. Teachers cannot fulfill this responsibility singlehandedly.

The majority of the teachers do fulfill their professional obligations to the best of their abilities, but children spend a good part of the day at home or in their communities. That is where parents have a role to play. By doing little things, parents can make a significant contribution toward the success of their children in school.

To parents: The least you can do is start taking an interest in your child’s education. It starts with talking to your children on a daily basis about whatever transpires at school every day. Never think that your children have grown up enough to handle their educational responsibilities on their own. The more involved you become in your child’s education, the more successful your child is going to be.

In talking to your child, please stress that you will stay connected with his or her teachers. No matter how unwelcome children find your visits to, or contacts with, school, do not stop maintaining those connections. These days, it is easy to stay in touch with the teachers using electronic media.

Always remember no one is more accountable for the education of your child than you as parents. You do not need to be a college graduate in order to help your child become a responsible student. All you need to remember is that education is important for all, and as parents it is your prime responsibility to continue to inculcate love of learning relentlessly.

I have no doubt that, as parents, you are busy ensuring the supply of things of daily needs and are quite hard-pressed for time. But please note that nothing could be more valuable than ensuring a more promising future for your children through education.

Thus you should establish a hotline with your child’s teachers, and help teachers feel comfortable communicating with you. Teach your children to respect education and the people who provide education to them. Respect for teachers is a cornerstone of successful education. Never disparage your child’s teachers in front of your child.

As parents, it is imperative that you share your child’s educational journey with them at a highly personal level. Let your children feel that you are their best support in education at home. Encourage them to discuss anything and everything with you as this way they will learn not to hide things from you. Create an environment of open discussion in the house around topics related to education.

Remember that children who are ready to learn are easiest to teach.

Subhash Chander is assistant principal of the J. F. Deering Middle School, in West Warwick. He is a former professor of English in India.

Ice buckets and broken hallelujahs…

Is there a coincidence that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has played out in such a dramatically successful way – literally all over the world – at the same time we have been victimized by some of the worst news stories in recent memory?  Piling up on us so rapidly, it seems surreal.

Beheadings!  Good Lord…the thought.  And threats to our world, right here, in the USA.  Threats this time that aren’t about bombing buildings; threats that look quite different indeed. Evil does walk on this earth. And it tapes itself and goes on YouTube for the world to see. And – we – watch.

Ebola!  Spreading wildly and uncontrollably – watch the maps, watch the countries turn “red” with notations of new outbreaks.  No known cure.  A doctor and a nurse in full white and plastic protective bubbles.  Will they live or will they die?  And when – but not if – will it be that someone flies to our shores on a jet plane and infects thousands. And they will. And will this potential drug work? And if it doesn’t, will this be the plague to wipe out millions? And so on….

Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!  Almost in the dead center of our country – Ferguson, Missouri. A young black man, perhaps guilty of shoplifting a few cigars, maybe shoving someone, or having a scuffle with law enforcement, maybe even a little high, gets shot dead with 6 bullets riddling his right side, starting with 2 in his head, and down his right arm that witnesses have said was raised in the universal “Hands UP! Don’t Shoot” symbol. And his body lays in the street for 4 hours; with his parents watching the flesh of their flesh, and the blood of their blood oozing into the hot pavement.  No white sheet gently shrouding him.  No priest saying words and drawing crosses.  He just lay there, getting stiff and cold, in the heat.  And the world in Ferguson ignited like a match carelessly flicked onto anxious, hot embers of a community who has had enough – a world which now sings back “We are Michael Brown”.  And how did we get here?  I think back to the race riots in the 70s, when white girls were afraid to walk on the very white East Side of Providence.  When flames of anger made it unsafe.  When young black people tossed rocks out of cars, and more, at sheer desperation of their lot.  Of their life.  Not a lot of guns and knives back then…but rioting and fighting and fear were weapons enough.

Israel and Gaza in their non-holy war, blowing each other up in the sacrilegious name of religion.  Picking up pieces of dead children, men, women for quick funerals, ‘as required’.  Then calling for “ceasefire” so all can cleanup.  But at halftime, someone launches a rocket, and we’re off again. Like some insane WWW fighting match, but there are, and will be, no winners here.

Putan-esque horrors in Russia & the Ukraine, reminding me of the ominous music in elementary school, when we would watch those videos, in our dark classroom, of the Red Dragon and the spread of Communism, surely “coming to a country near you”.

Deport them!  Illegal children rushing over barbed wire and fences, wading through streams, and now just walking in and over to law enforcement saying – here we are, arrest us, give us a court date, and my God, we’re home free…we’re home now, we’re in A-me-ri-ca.  And they disappear into our states on hot buses and trains. Wide eyed they go to the light of their cold and broken Hallelujah.

We’ve pretty much lost sight of the children.  And the Ukraine is bubbling in our minds.  Israel & Gaza, for this week, nowhere near the front page. What has captured us in this time of such woe?  What has given us joy at this hot and humid summer’s end?

The Ice Bucket Challenge. A moment in time. A silly, personal action that we share with millions on social media, inspiring laughs all across computer tops, iPads and iPhones – in a nanosecond.  The Ice Bucket Challenge existed before this summer.  It has popped up every once in awhile for different charities and causes.  But this year.  This year was so different.  An obscure disease – actually called an orphan disease – afflicting “only” 30,000 people in these United States.  Maybe the small numbers reminded us of how we feel against the global times we live in and the hopelessness we carry around with us to effect any change at all.  In a time when we surely feel like pulling up our drawbridges and watching out very carefully for just our own.  A time when for some inexplicable reason purchasing four cans of Dinty Moore beef stew to put in the basement next to the two cases of Poland Spring water seemed, well, proactionary.

But there was this thing you could do.  This cold bucket of ice thing.  And you could dump it over your own head.  Shock your own self.  And take a video of it.  And share it.  On YouTube.  And all the rest. And call out your friends – and your not so friendly friends – hey, I’m making you do this, too.  Ha!  And then go to your computer and donate money – lots of money – to this writing, over $70 million dollars, nationally.  Approaching $1 million in the state of Massachusetts, alone. And it’s spreading around the world.  Israel, Gaza, the Ukraine, probably not.

And for two or three weeks the little worlds we live in threw buckets of ice water over our heads.  A personal moment of control over this bombardment of grief in our world.  Have you done it?  Even on a really hot day, it jolts you.  It’s as if the memories of a beheading, of a boy lying in the street oozing blood into the pavement, of dirty, homeless children flooding this land of made-up dreams, of rockets red glare, red dragons, and bleeding eyes, were put out of our minds and our hearts for just a little while.  We took control over our mental anguish and turned it positive, and joyful, and helpful, and hopeful.

A bucket of ice.  Who knew?  Who knows the power it will have on inroads to a cure?  But in each of our small worlds, magnified on the screen of social media, we took control, we chose to laugh, we chose to do something rather dramatic, rather beautiful – we chose to be the essence of who we can be, each one of us.  We chose peace for a moment or two, or maybe because we shared it in those nanoseconds, the peace lasted a little longer. And in our gigging, shivering, wetness, how beautiful are we!

And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: Rev:19:6