Being Ourselves

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One of the hardest things in life is to be brave enough to be yourself

—-Bradley Cooper to Lady Gaga before their performance at the Oscars

It seems as though the whole world is suddenly in love with Lady Gaga. In the movie A Star Is Born she shed the outrageous costumes and makeup that has always been so much a part of her onstage persona and instead looked into the cameras in all of her natural glory. Without gimmicks or electronic orchestrations she simply sang and showed the world her inner beauty and vulnerability and strength. It landed her an Academy Award for her music and allowed her to come close to winning one for her acting in her screen debut. I suppose that we all love the movie both for its tender story and for the truth that in those celluloid moments a true star of enormous merit was born and her name is Lady Gaga.

I like pop music and I have enjoyed rocking and singing along with Lady Gaga in hits like Telephone, Bad Romance, and Alejandro. I smiled at her goofy costumes that I never thought she actually needed to attract attention. I liked her music just as it was, but I suppose that in today’s market there have to be ways of standing out from the crowded field of would be artists. It was when I heard Lady Gaga sing a duet with Tony Bennett that I first understood what astonishing talent she had. She stood next to him in a black evening gown reminiscent of the 1940’s and without much more than the accompaniment of a piano sang a torch song that displayed her voice as never before. Later she sang the National Anthem and both surprised and thrilled the crowd with the realization that she was much more than just a flash in the pan of music.

Still, it was other information that I had learned about Lady Gaga that made me a dedicated fan, someone in her corner for the long haul. I was tutoring students at a local high school when I met a sweet young man who was struggling not just with mathematics but with all of the kinds of angst that torture teenagers. He was trying to find himself and to determine the direction in life that he truly wanted to follow. He was a bright and reflective individual who constantly considered probing questions about the world and his place in it. He worked hard to improve his knowledge of math, but also was dedicated to critically thinking about life in general. He often spoke of both his fears and his dreams and I enjoyed being of small help in his journey of self understanding.

At one point he had an opportunity to apply for a spot at a conference for teens sponsored by Lady Gaga. He asked me to write a letter of recommendation for him which I was more than happy to do. Not long after he excitedly announced that he had been chosen to participate in the gathering of young people from across the United States. I was happy for him and felt that the committee that selected him had been wise in noticing how earnest he was to learn more about coping with our human condition.

The student returned to our usual tutoring sessions with a renewed spirit not just about his academics, but also his feelings about himself. He glowed with a new confidence and spoke of how inspiring all of the sessions had been. He showed me photos with the friends he had made and breathlessly described how he had surprisingly been tapped as a leader. Then he talked about Lady Gaga and how she had motivated him and all of the kids to love themselves and be proud of whomever they were. He showed me a video of her speaking to them that was so encouraging and understanding. He felt as though she understood the struggles that he and the others had been enduring. He noted how her concern for them showed in her facial expressions as she seemingly spoke to each of their hearts.

When I listened to him and then to Lady Gaga’s words I felt her compassion and sensed her wisdom. I understood why he believed that she was targeting him with her gaze and her advice. She was not a star pandering to her audience but a human with a generous heart hoping to help heal those that where broken or confused. It was a moving experience for me to see just how much she really cared about the teens who had come to find some kind of solace from her.

I’ve since learned that Lady Gaga is from a big happy Italian family. She enjoys old fashioned Sunday dinners with them and is unabashedly proud of her heritage. She is a sensitive soul who worries a bit too much and like many is sometimes her own worst critic. All of her natural beauty and talent and vulnerability came through in her movie portrayal under the direction of Bradley Cooper. What we saw on that big screen was as though a butterfly was emerging from a cocoon and we rejoiced at the wonder of it.

I suppose that most of us are romantics at heart. We enjoy a good love story and A Star Is Born is certainly one of those, but it is also a story of illness and addiction. I believe that given her real life efforts to help those who struggle it is little wonder that Lady Gaga’s role as an unconditional lover was a perfect part for her. Every aspect of the wonderful person that she is burst from the screen and into our hearts.

As we watched Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper perform at the Academy Awards we witnessed a personal chemistry that may be the love of friends, the love of collaborators or perhaps even a bit of romance. Whatever it was came directly from Lady Gaga’s heart and Bradley Cooper’s belief in her. It was so true and good and devoid of guile that like my student we felt as though she was sending us all a personal message, telling us to be brave enough ourselves. There is nothing quite as beautiful.

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Let’s Stop

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The idea of harassing another human being has always been repugnant to me. When I was in the fourth grade I had a teacher who should never been in the profession. Her method of managing the classroom was known for its terror and humiliation. I despised what I saw her do and heard her say even at the young age of nine.

In middle school I witnessed some of the boys making fun of one of my female classmates to the point that she literally broke one day and had an emotional meltdown. My all time favorite teacher came to her defense in a manner that inspired me. I would never forget the deft way in which she taught all of us that bullying behaviors are never acceptable. She literally stopped the practice in its tracks and restored the young woman’s self esteem and status in the process. I so admired the idea of speaking up for someone who is unfairly being targeted with ugliness.

As a teacher I made it my focus to watch for instances of students being emotionally or physically torn apart by the kind of mob rule that constitutes bullying. I was unwilling to look the other way, or to justify such behaviors even when the object of derision was not a particularly likable person. I fought many such battles again and again, sometimes even with my colleagues who took a general dislike to certain individuals. Something in my personality found constant harassment for any reason to be horrific.

I’ve made it well known that I do not care for President Donald Trump. He himself has the horrific habit of making exceedingly offensive remarks about anyone whom he perceives to be out of step with him. His boorish behavior is a turnoff and embarrassment to me. I cannot accept him as simply being someone who is using his bully pulpit to fight for certain causes. A leader can be strong like Theodore Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln without demeaning others in the process. Nonetheless, I believe that far too many in our society have reacted to our president with insults and anger that is as disturbing to me as any utterance that Trump has made.

I have been particularly concerned by the taunts hurled at Melania Trump and her son. I do not know the First Lady nor do I have any idea why she chose to marry Donald Trump. As a matter of fact, it is really none of my business or anyone else’s to concern ourselves with such things. What I do see is a stunningly beautiful woman who carries herself with great dignity and kindness. I also note that many of her efforts to be thoughtful are thrown in her face.

From the very beginning Melania Trump has been overly criticized at every turn. When she showed up for her husband’s inauguration wearing a modest and lovely blue suit it was suggested that she had copied another first lady. Her attempts at decorating the White House for Christmas were ridiculed as being weird and creepy. When she wore high heels to flood ravaged Houston there were those who wondered how she could have been so tone deaf. Her recent visit to Africa was covered not for the compassion that she displayed but for her choice of wardrobe. It seems that because she committed the sin of marrying Donald Trump she will forever be found inadequate and even repulsive.

I have to admit that I was a huge fan of Bill Clinton. After his liaison with intern Monica Lewinsky the luster wore off for me. What bothered me most was that his wife, Hillary, stood by his side. I argued that she should have left him like any honorable woman might have done. I spoke of this with my mother, and in her wisdom she argued that none of us will ever really understand the dynamics of a relationship between two people. She further insisted that it’s not our place to do so. She defended Hillary’s choice to stand by her man, and urged me to worry about my own household.

I think that my mother was absolutely right. It is not up to any of us to judge another because of the ways in which they choose to love. Such things are actually a kind of mystery to anyone on the outside looking in. So it has been with countless first ladies including Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and now Melania Trump. Often their love for their husbands seems incredulous to us because of the unfaithfulness that they have had to endure, but they were in fact able to overlook seemingly insurmountable flaws in their spouses. They should not be insulted because they remain faithful to someone that seems to betray them. They have their reasons.

The latest travesty aimed at Melania Trump should be soundly criticized by anyone who is of good heart, and most especially by all women. A rapper named T.I. has made a video that features a Melania look alike wearing a raincoat like one for which the First Lady was shamed. The model enters what appears to be the Oval Office, climbs on a desk, takes off the coat, and dances in the nude. If all persons of  even moderate decency do not find this utterly offensive, then I worry about the future of this nation. If we do not demonstrate respect for all people regardless of their beliefs, then I fear that our children are learning lessons that will not bode well.

It’s well past time that we all speak out whenever we witness the unfair degradation of anyone. If we rationalize bullying of any form or just laugh as though it is a joke we are complicit in allowing harm to fester in our midst. If we might unite in one common cause it should be to insist that this sort of thing should never be allowed. It is not funny nor is it justified. Let’s stop! 

A Fit of Nincompoopery

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According to the dictionary a nincompoop is a silly or foolish person. Nincompoopery refers to the beliefs and behaviors of a nincompoop. It is folly, stupidity. With a tip of the hat to Nero Wolf who first proposed the turn of the phrase, I submit that each day Twitter becomes the locale of many “fits of nincompoopery.”

Let’s face it, how much of great worth can be stated or argued in only one hundred forty characters? The comments are generally so terse that they might be interpreted in dozens of different ways, and therein lies a great number of the problems. Add to that the trolls lurking under the Twitter bridge and the so called discussions often become quite nasty, festering like plastic bags for perpetuity. Many a soul has lost a job or been revealed as a scum bag because of an outburst of tweets that might better have been left unsaid. We now live in a world of instant verbal arguments among strangers who somehow erroneously believe that they are doing no harm. It all reminds me of the back and forth that I sometimes heard among rival groups of fourth graders when I was teaching elementary school long ago.

Sure it’s a free country and all that, but frankly I’m becoming quite weary of the vast numbers of degrading tweets, particularly when they come from people who should know better than to let their fingers run afoul of common decency. We all see and hear things that make us angry, but generally control our temptations to lash out. There is a certain level of immaturity associated with outbursts that are hurtful to other people, so I find myself wondering when we lost our sense of decorum.

We have Roseann Barr, who has never seemed to know when to keep her mouth shut, losing a popular television series over rash racist observations. There is a New York Times journalist who seems to think that there is nothing particularly wrong with hurling invective at white men. The director of the highly successful Avengers series was recently fired over troublesome tweets and jokes made many years ago. Of course there is also the embarrassing aspect of the President of the United States making a fool of himself and the country far too many times with his late night rants. Regardless of the defenses being suggested in these cases, we somehow have a sense that something is going terribly wrong, particularly when we accept such behaviors as normal.

Freedom of speech is an important aspect of our Bill of Rights and certainly insults between adults are nothing new, but the more frequent incidence of such behavior is bothersome to me. I prefer a bit of propriety in public. If two people wish to engage in verbal fisticuffs in private, so be it, but why do we now seem to actually encourage public verbal executions, and even sometimes get down in the mud with the perpetrators?

Believe me, I do not wish to indict certain individuals or political persuasions because quite frankly there is plenty of criticism to go around to all sorts of people. I’d just like to encourage everyone to be careful about rapid responses that are hurtful and ugly. Those kind of things have a nasty way of coming back on us, but more importantly we need to rise above the muck and grime as a way of life. Nobody ever wins an argument with invective, and most often it’s not even necessary to attempt to do so. What does it really matter if someone disagrees with our beliefs? Why should we feel compelled to put down individuals with whom we have a difference of opinion. The likelihood that we will actually make a difference in their thinking is slim to none. Indeed what will probably happen is that we will make them even more enraged.

I refuse to be that person who gets pulled into verbal battles, and I think that we would all do well to walk away when a fight of words seems imminent. I learned long ago as an educator that ignoring nincompoopery is the quickest way to shut it down. Most people who engage in such shenanigans are just looking for an audience and I refuse to give them one. Perhaps more of us should consider bringing in the crickets whenever someone is being outrageous.

As a society we still have not yet learned how to deal with social media successfully. We forget our manners and too often neglect to take a deep breath before reacting. We have people using our outrage to stoke their own egos. We don’t have to play their game.

I am slowly learning how to move quickly past comments and tweets that make me feel uncomfortable. I choose to let them just lie on the ground seemingly unnoticed. I am seeing more and more evidence that lots of folks are following the same routine. The most egregious remarks that I see are frequently going without response, which is the way that we might all shut them down.

There is a flock of mockingbirds living in the trees in my backyard. They chatter day and night, but I have learned how to turn off the volume in my head. Now I scarcely hear them even though they are still there. I’m doing the same with Twitter.

   

Save the Children

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When my mother was only three or four years old her mother had a mental breakdown. The full details of the event are sketchy, but the certainty of what happened to my mom is very clear. The little tyke loved her mama and felt safe with her. When medical personal came to the house, restrained her mother, and then drove away in an ambulance the child that my mother was felt confused and betrayed. This event had a lasting impact on her that was so traumatic that it haunted her the rest of her life. She often spoke of the disdain that she felt for her father whom she held responsible for what she viewed as the imprisonment of her mom. She insisted that her mother had been a good woman who did not deserve the horrific treatment that befell her. Unlike her older siblings she was never able to accept that her mama had been very sick and in need of treatment. She had been so very young when she was torn from her mother’s loving care that it impacted the very essence of her thinking. The scars left by the separation never healed.

My youngest daughter endured a similar situation that was less dramatic but nonetheless frightening to her. When she was not yet three years old my husband contracted a fungal disease that required hospitalization and a long regimen of chemotherapy. Our family was thrown into a kind of chaotic state when we learned that the disease was often fatal. We spent months in a new routine of hospital visits and uncertainty. Years later my girl endured a bought with severe anxiety and depression. Her psychiatrist asked what had occurred at around the age of three that had seemingly caused the her to have an enduring sense of uncertainty and fear. He noted that something had so affected my daughter that she had buried deep seated emotions that were finally coming to the surface and causing her despondency. It was shocking to learn that something that had happened more than a decade earlier that was seemingly resolved had such a profound affect.

Young children see and hear and feel far more than we sometimes know. They are aware of what is happening around them to a larger extent than we imagine, but they do not always have the capacity to interpret the interchanges with their environment, particularly when the security represented by a parent is taken from them. They are unable to fully express the need for the warmth and love of a mother or father that is so essential to their healthy development. It is critical that they have all of their most basic needs addressed, and there is generally no better person to do that for them than a parent who genuinely cares for them. So much of the basic personality is formed during early childhood and every event plays an important role in development. As children we all cling to our parents and look to them to supply our most essential needs. When that relationship is suddenly severed children lose all sense of safety. Unless they are carefully counseled and loved the event will have a lifelong impact.

My father died when I was eight years old. People often marvel that my memories of the days following his death are so crystal clear. I am able to vividly recall people, conversations, the weather, and most of all my own jumbled feelings. I was far more aware of what was happening that the adults around me ever imagined. That being said, without the maturity of adulthood I am certain that I often misinterpreted my situation, and not in a good way. I became a fearful child, someone unwilling to take risks. I was afraid of people and life. It would take me twenty or more years to overcome the shock and awe of the sudden loss of someone that I so loved, and I became a somewhat neurotic and sad little girl. It was only through my study of childhood development and my association with truly caring people that I was able to eventually lay all of the demons that had so haunted me to rest.

For these reasons I am both appalled and concerned for the welfare of immigrant children who are currently being separated from their parents. I realize that we have laws, and the adults who come here illegally are breaking them. In that regard there are many needed discussions regarding the issues, but it seems certain to me that taking children away while their parents are being processed is deeply wrong. The consequences of such inhumane decisions will impact these little ones for decades. The trauma that our government is inflicting on them is morally untenable, as anyone familiar with children understands. In spite of efforts to provide food, beds, education, games and other such amenities to care for them the one thing that the little ones require is missing. They must have their parents to feel secure. What we are doing is so egregious that we simply cannot justify the actions with by quoting laws or even the Bible. We must know that we are bending the truth and God’s word when we attempt to do such things.

I love my country and believe in its innate goodness. It has of late been overtaken by an incivility that is toxic. There seems to be an attitude that winning is more important than being just. The good people in our midst are being pushed aside by bullies, and the ideals of honor and respect are all too often being eschewed by those who insist on all or nothing in their political dealings. As citizens we must join together in the common cause of decency, following the lead of heroes the world over who insist on standing for what is right rather than what will make them popular. We must end the ugliness by demonstrating our best natures. Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of our country. We can no longer allow tactics that so scorch the earth. If we don’t save the children of the world regardless of the circumstances we are doomed to a dark future. Our best hope is in finding our natural goodness again and doing what we know to be right.

Taking One For The Team

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A little food for thought… A group of twelve wolves:  The three in front are old and sick, they walk in front to set the pace of the running group lest they get left behind. The next five are the strongest and best, they are tasked to protect the front side if there is an attack. The pack in the middle are always protected from any attack. The five behind them are also among the strongest and best; they are tasked to protect the back side if there is an attack. The last one is the LEADER. He ensures that no one is left behind. He keeps the pack unified and on the same path. He is always ready to run in any direction to protect and serves as the body guard to the entire group. Just in case anyone wanted to know what it means to be a leader, it’s not about being out front. It means taking care of the team. —-Ivan Ginsberg

The best bosses that I ever had were quiet leaders. Sometimes it was not until they had gone that those of us who worked for them understood the full extent of their greatness. They were the kind of men and women who rarely tooted their own horns, but rather proudly shined the limelight on their employees instead. They sometimes took the heat in our defense without mentioning the troubles that they were willing to endure for us. They were low key but ferociously loyal to the team. The success that they sought centered on finding and developing the individual strengths of each member of the group. Often their guidance helped us to find talents within ourselves that we didn’t even know we had.

In particular I recall working in a school that had a less than sterling reputation. It was one of those places where people were reluctant to go. The employees were thought to be mediocre to bad. Public opinion of the place was abysmal. A new principal infused life into the place without hiring a single new person. His secret was quite simple. He made a point of providing each individual with special responsibilities based on their particular skills. He turned followers into leaders. He made former weaklings feel strong. Before long people were flocking to the school from all over town to see what miraculous things were happening, when in fact the only real change had been in how the system was run. The talent had always been there and this man was able to make it work.

There is a current trend to see the brash and boastful as the sort who should lead us. We tend to favor those who sling the most hurtful insults or fire the most people. We view arrogance as power, when the truth is that such individuals are actually harmful. They are the sorts who will leave us stranded and responsible for our own safety when danger lurks. They mouth caring platitudes, but when push comes to shove they are all in for themselves and toss us to our enemies.

Years ago my husband worked in a start up company created by a man who literally sucked the air out of any room that he entered. His focus was more on his own needs than those of the business and its employees. At the grand opening party I met his mother. She was a sweet lady who was nervous about the impression that she was making. She did not want to ruin the event for her son who was doing his best to avoid her. She confessed to me that he had only asked her to attend for the optics, otherwise she felt that she was somehow an embarrassment to him. At one point he walked over to her and stealthily suggested that she had been there long enough and needed to just go home before she messed up his big moment.

I remember thinking that he was a horrible man for treating his mother so poorly and I silently worried about my husband working for him. My forebodings were right on target. Within months the organization began to fall apart as the man slashed and burned the cohesion of the team. Eventually there was almost rebellion among the employees and my husband was among those who left in complete frustration. For all of his fanfare the arrogant boss ended up being all hat and no cattle. There was nothing behind his words other than his own insecurities which ultimately led to the business failing rather quickly.

Loyalty is rarely produced by intimidation. A great leader understands the importance of seeking a common purpose and using individual talents in that pursuit. When there is an atmosphere of respect and gratitude for each contribution people are eager to work for the cause whatever that may be. When we feel safe we are able to ascend to higher and higher levels of actualization. When we see that each person is valued we are willing to take risks to become more and more accomplished.

The downfall of organizations or governments can be traced again and again to a kind of megalomania that pits one person against another, breeding paranoia and unhinged competition. Enron had been a good place to work until Jeff Skilling unleashed an atmosphere of winning at all costs that lead to cut throat tactics and deceit. The mentality of firing the bottom fifth of producers each year created a chaos that encouraged lawlessness. In the end the employees were left for slaughter.

One of my former students has started a very successful business. I have noticed with pleasure how often he gives credit to his employees and demonstrates his gratitude for their hard work. He understands that his job is to be the leader by following behind and taking care of the team.

There are entire educational programs designed to teach individuals how to to manage organizations. A great deal of social science has been dedicated to researching teamwork and leadership. The one thing that all conclusions have in common is the realization that working together in a spirit of mutual respect is critical, and it is the leader who makes or breaks the system. If we want to drain the swamp of any group that is not working, we must first find a leader who is willing to work with the group.