August 2019

Sunday Reflection – Little Boxes

Recently, an actor promoting a TV show was asked about being in a Marvel movie, and he said he saw those films as being “for grown male nerd childs”. And when some Marvel fans got upset, he proceeded to double down and claim that is was just his “belief”.

Now, on one hand, this particular person is known for playing up the role of cynic for his career, and this is probably part of that.

On the other hand, I can’t help thinking about someone promoting the idea that it’s possible to believe that a certain kind of story or narrative is only “for” a certain group of people. Because to me that’s not really a belief.

You can believe that the stories in Marvel movies are underwritten, or juvenile, or silly. But can you really believe who an audience is?

This is something that’s a bit sensitive for me, as a woman who has long loved things that are considered to be in the male domain. And the truth is that women have always been interested in things like video games and action movies. But we were always told that it wasn’t “for” us.

I was catching up on Twitter and someone posted a fabulous story about introducing her 75 year old grandmother to playing Dungeons and Dragons. For those of you who are unfamiliar, DnD is a type of table-top role-playing game where a DM (Dungeon Master) plays the role of narrator and guides players through a collaborative make-believe scenario. It’s traditionally seen as part of the domain of the geeky and the young.

The granddaughter was marveling at how easily and quickly her traditional, non-English speaking grandmother took to role-playing, and how fully and happily she embodied her character of a forest-loving little gnome.

All of this is to say that I think anyone should be able to like anything that they want to like. That you can absolutely believe that something isn’t for you, but it’s a small-minded thing to believe that you can decipher who it is for. That you can see the inner workings of all people to know who is drawn to what.

It’s so easy to fall into stereotypes in this world, but we all should know better by now. A grandmother can like playing role-playing games, a Black woman can write comics, a gay man can direct an action movie, and a non-suffering artist can create a masterpiece.

Art is for whoever wants it. It’s not for the rest of us to decide.

Amplifying Voices – Like Stories of Old: The Philosophy of the Fall

As much as I dislike YouTube as a company (and I hope this lawsuit against them from LGBTQ creators is successful), I do have to admit that via the platform I have been able to find a number of really amazing and creative channels.

One channel I really enjoy is called Like Stories of Old, with a creator who looks at the life lessons that can be gleaned from cinema.

Stories can be such a powerful framework for human thought, and I think all of us have experienced stories that have helped us gain new perspective or tap into emotions we can’t always easily express.

This is one of the shorter videos on the channel, but covers a movie that I think about frequently, called The Fall. Along with being one of the most visually stunning movies I’ve ever seen, there is so much depth to the content of the story. And Like Stories of Old does a beautiful analysis.

The (Im)Balance of Power

I was twelve years old when Disney released their animated version of Beauty and the Beast. I utterly adored this movie. I was the perfect age for a charming fairy tale story, and still young enough to believe in the idealized happy ending narrative.

My favorite part was always the very beginning. There was something about the combination of David Ogden Stiers deep-voiced narration, the beautiful score, and the stained glass images that seemed utterly magical.

It was a movie that was highly acclaimed at its release, and is still beloved. Yet over time, partially thanks to the advent of YouTube and a number of channels that rely on nitpicking movies to gain followers, people started to talk more about plot holes in the movie. I use the term “plot hole” loosely here, as I don’t consider something being unexplained the same as a flaw in the story, but others do.

Anyway, two of the biggest complaints were that 1) the beast was technically a child when he was cursed, and 2) all of the servants were also cursed. To many, this seemed unnecessarily cruel on the part of the enchantress.

For me, personally, these things weren’t actual issues. Anyone who’s read their fair share of fairy tales knows that it’s not about the particulars, but the overall moral of the story. Yes, the enchantress cursed a child and all of his servants and then disappeared, but let’s face it, the fairies and witches in fairy tales are not there to be likeable – they’re there to move the plot into motion. And who’s to say the enchantress was perfectly good? Maybe she was having a really bad day. Maybe she didn’t like rude little children. Who cares why, when it makes for a good story?

Well, apparently, Disney cares. Because when they remade Beauty and the Beast into a live action version in 2017, they decided that both of these things needed to be addressed.

The first item, the age of the Beast, was solved by making him an adult when he was cursed.

The second item was “explained” by these lines of dialogue:

Belle: But he’s cursed you somehow. Why? You did nothing. 

Mrs. Potts: [ashamed] You’re quite right there, dear. You see, when the Master lost his mother, and his cruel father took that sweet, innocent lad and twisted him up to be just like him, we did nothing.

Let’s sit with this for just a moment.

The servants were cursed to be household objects because they didn’t stop their master, a literal king, from abusing his child. Should we think about how that would have gone for a moment?

A Servant enters the throne room, nervously turning his cap in his hands. He is shaking with fear.

The King frowns at being approached by an inferior. “WELL,” he barks. “OUT WITH IT!!”

The Servant doesn’t dare make eye contact. “Sir, most royal majesty. We’ve noticed that you’re treating your son…”

At the mention of his son, the King turns red with rage. He gestures to the guards. They rush in and pull the Servant away. He is never heard from again.

Or, maybe it should have gone like this:

The servants are all huddled around the table in the kitchen. One of the maids is crying as they speak softly about the poor Prince and his terrible father. 

Finally, the Cook has had enough. She slams her fist on the table. “That’s it!!! I’m calling Child Protective Services!!!…in two hundred years, when that becomes a thing!!!”.

In all seriousness, please do tell me, how would you expect a group of servants to interfere with the behavior of a King?

What we have here, dear readers, is a power differential. And it matters.

I just love the view from up here...

Now, who’s to say, maybe the enchantress thought the servants should have set off a revolution to save the Prince. It was France, after all. But to call this an explanation of why they were punished is to be deliberately naive about what power dynamics mean for the people on the bottom.

(And yes, I get that Disney is using modern mores in their movie, and promoting the message of speaking up when something wrong is happening. But they did it badly.)

On the surface this may seem trivial. But this kind of naivety is representative of something extraordinarily common. Whenever someone talks about the treaties signed between Indigenous populations and the American government as anything other than a tool of oppression. Any time someone claims that Thomas Jefferson had a romantic relationship with Sally Hemings, despite her being his literal property. The fact that people write romances between Nazis and Jews. Complaining that people who work two or more jobs should “just find higher paying work”. The idea that people who are part of marginalized groups can just “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”. Whenever people criticize a person of color for not speaking up about the harassment they’ve endured. Any time people blame a woman for not leaving an abusive relationship.

If you do these things, you’re not paying attention to the power.

Well, what are you all complaining for? Come up if you want to come up!

On August 7th, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided seven poultry plants in Mississippi, and arrested 680 workers on suspicion of not having legal documentation. Now beyond the fact that ICE planned for the impact on the local community as well as they plan for anything, which is not at all, there are some interesting facts to consider here. 

The first is that although there appears to be clear evidence that the plants knowingly were hiring undocumented workers (and good grief, they have to have known), there is minimal doubt that the owners and managers will face very little consequence. They rarely have in the past. 

The second is that these plants were places where the workers, together with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, were attempting to increase union activity, had fought to hold the companies accountable for racial and sexual harassment of Latina workers, and were generally trying to improve conditions for people working in a very difficult and low paying job.

Now we can’t say for sure that Koch Food Inc deliberately called in ICE officials to scare their employees into staying quiet. Maybe the decision was exclusively at the federal level. But there does appear to be a connection between a company being investigated for worker abuse, and a company being raided by immigration.

The result? Employees don’t speak up, about wage theft, abuse, harassment, or unsafe conditions. And the owners and managers, with maybe an occasional slap on the wrist, go back to business as usual.

Yeah, we don’t know for sure. But look at who has the power.

I don't know why you're all acting like this is so hard...

There’s a famous quote from the movie The Usual Suspects that says, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.“.

When you start to recognize power differentials, it’s amazing just how much effort those with the most power put into trying to convince everyone that the differentials don’t exist. Every company that claims diversity and inclusion is their top priority while covering up employee abuses. Every politician who says he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body while promoting policies that hurt marginalized communities. Every millionaire who asserts that he truly cares about the world while balking at raising minimum wage for their workers. Every man who tells his wife that she’s just being too darn sensitive, after the millionth time she’s had to pick up the slack at home.

There’s so many people with so much power and privilege, and they want to convince us all that we are imagining everything. That we are all equal, and it’s just our own flaws that keep us back.

And in the end, that’s the real fairy tale.

Awww, bummer! Guess y'all didn't want it bad enough!

Next post, we’ll talk some more about power differentials in the workplace.

Sunday Reflection – Gratitude Check-In

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude this week. Last weekend, I was struggling to tap into my feelings of gratitude, so it was interesting timing to see this interview between Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert. Both men have experienced a great deal of loss in their lives, and engage in a really fascinating discussion on suffering, faith, and humanity. I highly recommend watching the whole thing, but here’s a clip of what Colbert has to say about gratitude.

I can’t say that I completely agree with Colbert on the idea of being grateful for everything. In some ways that feels like a bit of a privileged position. However, I do really admire his perspective on finding the gift in what has been lost. It’s an objectively terrible thing to lose someone you love, and yet, it does enable us to tap into a deeper aspect of humanity. We can empathize and support one another if we understand that we are not the only one who suffers.

So today, I am grateful for conversations like this. I am grateful for people who are vulnerable and open. I am grateful for people who choose empathy and who use their empathy as a power for the greater good. And I am grateful for all of my experiences, good and bad, that have made me the person I am today.

Amplifying Voices – Hannah Gadsby: Three Ideas. Three Contradictions. Or not.

Comedian Hannah Gadsby rose to prominence this past year due to her amazing comedy special on Netflix, entitled Nanette. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t yet had a chance to see it, but I will say that she takes the rules of comedy, and deliberately breaks them to send a message to her audience. It means that there are moments of discomfort, and it’s on purpose.

There are some who have criticized her show as not being “real” comedy. Most of these people are the sort to loudly exclaim that there should be no rules in comedy, and that it’s bad for comedians to be “politically correct”. Yet when a woman, in particular a lesbian, non-gender-conforming, neurodivergent woman, has the audacity to do things differently, suddenly rules about comedy are paramount.

Of course with this kind of criticism, it’s not about the art itself, but rather the gate-keeping of who gets to participate. Who gets to control the room. Who gets to tell their story.

This Ted Talk by Gadsby is another example of why I like her so much. She once again takes a very specific, set format, and refuses to follow the rules. It’s a great reminder that value comes from what makes us think – not in how perfectly it conforms to expectations.

Sunday Reflection – Finding the Balance

I haven’t done a gratitude post in a while, and I started to write one. But I got stuck.

Normally it’s a quick and easy post to write. I have so much to be grateful for in my life, and I do believe that gratitude is an important tool in dealing with the challenges of our current world.

And yet, today, I just couldn’t find the words.

A long time ago, I read a great book called Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. It was around the same time that I first started experiencing serious anxiety, where the feelings would hit out of the blue. My natural inclination was to always push back at how I was feeling, to talk to myself about how ridiculous I was being. And it was this book where I first came across the idea that you didn’t have to fight your bad feelings. That pushing back just made the fight last longer. That you could acknowledge, accept, and just let them pass through. And it for me it works.

I do still forget, often, and need to remind myself to practice this. Even today, I was trying to force myself to write something about gratitude. I was telling myself to push through the hesitation. But like all feelings, I think having a day where I just don’t feel like being grateful is ok.

So often we minimize feelings to good and bad, but it’s really about degrees. About balance. All feelings have validity, and all feelings can be taken to extremes. But pretending they’re not there doesn’t help.

So today I got a gentle reminder that my feelings are ok. I’m accepting where I am, I’m letting the feelings pass through, and maybe next weekend, I’ll be ready for that gratitude.

What’s Left to Say?

I have a number of different leadership topics I’m working on for the blog, and originally was hoping to post one of those this week. But when you’re coming off a week with three separate mass shootings, and dozens of lives lost, somehow talking about workplace equity feels inadequate.

There is a connection, of course, as white supremacy infects every aspect of our culture. And I’m sure I’ll get back to it soon. But today my heart hurts and I just can’t do it.

There’s a lot of really eloquent writing out there on the systemic issues that are causing our problems with gun violence, and how it’s connected to a lot of other societal problems as well. There’s a lot of great advice about how to keep advocating for change. There’s a lot of powerfully and fiercely written criticism for those who keep diverting from the core problems to try and shield their racist and xenophobic beliefs.

Honestly, at this point, what is there to say about all of this that hasn’t been said?

I know what the problems are. I know what I can do as a concerned citizen, as insufficient as it may feel. I know that I’ll keep speaking up about racism, sexism, homophobia, and all the other endless biases that damage people every day. 

Yet none of that stops the hurt.

One of the worst feelings in the world is the feeling of powerlessness. The realization that no matter what you might do or say, no matter how hard you are fighting to climb the hill, that at any moment someone can appear in front of you and boot you right back down. That your ascent wasn’t really a climb, just a temporary lift on a see-saw that is about to drop the instant the person on the other side has a better offer. 

That moment where you realize that despite having logic, and reason, and empathy on your side, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because there are people in this world who long ago traded in their soul for cash. 

That you can live in a country where the vast majority believe something needs to be done, and nothing happens, because we don’t have enough money to matter. 

I’ve never been religious. I was raised in a household with parents who encouraged me to make up my own mind about what I believed. Because of this, there have been various times where people raised in a religion have expressed surprise at who I am as a person. I still remember one woman at college, who asked me how I could be a good person without believing in god. Similarly, when a couple of Mormon missionaries started stopping by one summer and were invited in by my roommate, they expressed how if they didn’t believe in a god, they would be out in the world doing whatever they wanted all the time. 

I’ve never been offended when I’ve heard these things. It’s been more bemusing to me. Because to me, what these people were saying was that their choices in life weren’t really their choices. That they were doing anything good to get extra credit, and not because it was the right thing to do.

And I can’t help but think of this when I see yet another politician paying superficial obsequiousness to a faith, all while lining their pockets from corruption. There are people in this country who would trust them over me, because of what they say about their faith. But what about their choices?

Like how politicians love to talk about prayers. So many prayers. Every shooting, every tragedy, there are the prayers.

I’ve always taken the word pray very seriously. I know people who use the word in both spiritual and religious contexts. Some people think of it as talking to a deity, others to a universal force of some kind. 

I don’t ever use the word to describe my own actions. When people ask for prayers, I’ll tell them I’m thinking of them. For me, that’s the agnostic version. I hope, I think of, I send out good vibes. But to me, praying means invoking something more, and I don’t know if I believe in something more.

And it occurs to me that I, the non-religious, heathen agnostic, take praying more seriously than these politicians. Because when these people, who have real power and ability to create change, talk about praying, it is the most hollow of actions. They use prayer as a tool, as a device to play the role of the faithful, to look pious and concerned. And it is meaningless.

When it comes to belief, I don’t know for sure, because no one does. I suspect there’s more in this universe than we are capable of understanding. However, the truth is I don’t believe in god, and I don’t believe I get punished or rewarded after this life. 

I make the choices I make not because I fear consequence, but because certain things matter to me. Kindness matters, empathy matters. Taking care of people matters. Doing the right thing matters. It’s not about the next life, it’s about this one.

So how do we keep moving forward? I won’t lie, this weekend has been hard. Politicians love to talk about the mental health of shooters, but they never stop to think about the mental health of the rest of us. That there is a tangible, real, trauma that occurs to all of us when mass tragedies occur. That there are people every day now wondering if they’re going to be shot at work, at the concert, at the movie. That it becomes cumulative, and each time a little bit more overwhelming.

And this is just for me, a white woman. I can’t even imagine the daily toll if you are Latino or Black or Indigenous in this country. To know that if you were buying automatic weapons in vast numbers, suddenly gun control would become a major concern for conservatives. To be afraid to rely on emergency services if you are a victim, because of what it might cost in the end.

I don’t have any strong answers, because I’m sad, and when I’m sad my cynicism tends to overwhelm my hope.  I do know that writing this helps. Letting myself feel helps. Listening to music helps. Walking along the ocean and breathing in the air helps.

So this is one hope that I can be confident in. I hope you take care of yourself. I hope you remember we need all of us in this fight. I hope you unplug when you need to, be creative when you need to, go out in nature when you need to. I hope you surround yourself with people who live with love. I hope you let yourself feel the anger and sadness, but also the purpose and determination.

It’s about our choices.

Sunday Reflection – A Place for Kindness

“I wanted to show a projection of our own world that was kinder, show how much people can grow and the capacity with which people can love when they are not fearing for their lives.” 

  – Dan Levy, Interview with Entertainment Weekly, 6/9/19

 Last week, I was affected by watching a show I admired make an unfortunate storytelling choice. This week, I’ve been thinking about the antithesis to that.

So much of the media we consume has an obsession with “drama”. Tortured relationships, violent outbursts, people dying in horrible and unexpected ways.

I do believe there is room for all stories, and a wide variety of story types can have value. And yet, sometimes I wonder at why so few stories want to talk about kindness.

For sure, there is a great deal out there for children. The fact that Sesame Street is still on the air after fifty years shows that kindness still matters to people when it comes to what their kids consume.

But what about for us adults?

I quoted Dan Levy above, because when he created the TV show Schitt’s Creek (yes, that is the real name), he deliberately set out to tell a story where you would see LGTBQ people in a small town experiencing zero homophobia. In addition, his main characters, who started off in a fairly shallow place, have developed and grown to be better people just by learning to be a part of their family and loving each other.

From the success of shows like Schitt’s Creek, The Good Place, and Queer Eye, I think I’m not the only one starved for some representations of kindness and acceptance out there. Drama will always have a place, and shows like The Handmaid’s Tale still have something to say. But over time, I do hope that more creators and developers remember that there’s more than one way to tell a story. Not every couple needs to break up, not every child needs to be traumatized, not everyone needs a grim ending. Stories with the best of kindness, compassion, and love have value too.

What’s the best story you’ve read or watched about kindness?

Amplifying Voices – The ADA vs Domino’s

Today’s Voices post is a little different, in that I’m not highlighting one particular writer or speaker. Instead, I want to talk about the current court case involving Domino’s and the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

You can find a more thorough write-up of the case here, but essentially a blind customer is suing Domino’s for having an inaccessible website. Domino’s is trying to argue that the ADA does not apply to websites, since it was written prior to the role that the modern internet plays in our lives.

Recently, a federal appeals court agreed with the plaintiff. However, Domino’s is now petitioning for this to go to the Supreme Court. And in our current political climate, this could have a huge impact on the lives of many disabled people. Domino’s is being supported by a number of large retailers, all of whom want to fight accessibility online.

Now, I don’t eat at Domino’s, because I like pizza that’s actually good, but a company fighting something like this speaks volumes from a cultural perspective.

The cost of updating their website is estimated to be about $38,000. Domino’s reported a profit last year of 362 million.

Making your website more accessible for the disabled tends to be good for everyone, as creating an improved and more inclusive design helps all customers.

And more accessibility means more people to use or consume your product, which means more money coming in.

So why are retailers fighting this so hard? Why have so many companies always had such a hard time with the ADA?

As with most things, it comes back to politics, bias, privilege, and a lack of true leadership.

All bias has a certain element of the ridiculous, but this is especially so when it comes to disability. 61 million adults live with a disability in this country. Most of us, if we live long enough, will be disabled at some point. Most of us, some day, will need accommodation. Even if this were not the case, making life accessible for the disabled is not a burden. It’s a responsibility. And Domino’s, like many corporations, wants to be above responsibility.

If they’re above taking care of their customers, I highly suggest their customers be above ordering from Domino’s.

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