Lean In, Breathe Out

Two women have reached the forefront of womanly consciousness and have thrown upheaval into the feminist movement. Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayers have pitted feminist against feminist in an ugly battle that asks the age old question, “Can Women Have it All?”

While I hate to be the harbinger of good news on the Republican side, there have been some moments of clarity on the right that need mentioning. The instances where several key Republicans have come forward in support of gay marriage, the dinner meeting with the President to speak actual words that might result in actual progress, and the culmination of Rand Paul’s filibuster that sought to ask an important question about President Obama’s drone policy, all deserve credit. And while I hate to pause my disdain for anything Rand Paul, and I could pick up the gauntlet laid by the left in mocking him with the two sentence answer Paul received (in a word, nope, won’t attack Americans here) or focus on the potty break that stopped him from coming close to Strom Thurmond’s epic filibuster (“In the end, Rand Paul did not hate U.S.-citizen-targeted drone strikes as much as Strom Thurmond hated the idea of black people voting.”) I won’t. Because pointed questions, from anyone, are a good thing. And sometimes more important than the answers themselves.

So while the Republicans regroup and do some soul searching, I turn my eyes to the feminist movement, which has gained momentum after a rabid election year that saw attacks on Roe. v. Wade, too many disparaging definitions of the word “rape,” the vote of 138 Republicans against the Violence Against Women Act, and the ERA coming back into the conversation.  It seemed that women put the “Mommy Wars” on hold to unite under a shared cause that was strong, smart, and timely.

Yet, two women have reached the forefront of womanly consciousness and have thrown upheaval into the movement. Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayers have pitted feminist against feminist in an ugly battle that asks the age old question, “Can Women Have it All?” According to Sandberg, in her memoir/advice book that answer is yes, if they are willing to “Lean In.” Where women juggle the emotional minefield of childrearing and career management, Sandberg advises confidence above all, and the stretching of one’s belief in herself to know that she can accomplish what the men before and beside her have. There are sacrifices and weak moments of self-doubt, but nothing that can’t be worked through. As the COO of Facebook, she know from what she speaks.

At the same time, another high profile woman executive has made headlines by banning telecommuting in her company. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, issued what some women are interpreting as a stunning blow to mothers. By limiting her own maternity leave to a harsh two weeks post partum, Mayer has invited scathing criticism from women.  Yet Mayer brings up an important topic: if women want to be treated the same as men, should they be subject to the same limitations?  I could bring up the fact that women and men bring different, albeit equal, qualifications to the table and that historically men have unfairly benefitted from this patriarchal system. To take away the things that make possible women to balance work and family life moves the progress of women in the workforce backwards, not forward. This isn’t an equalizer as much as a destabilizer.

But I won’t.

What I will discuss is the way in which thoughtful, savvy women have brought insightful critique to these two women and have felt the result of a backlash of their very own. This backlash against those who are taking up pens to defend Mayer and Sandberg is creating a splintered movement much like the shattered remains of the GOP. Which begs the question: Are women the new Republican party?  Where once there was a cohesive group of thinking women, there is a degeneration into intolerance and  obstructionist douche-baggery normally reserved for the GOP.

Time Magazine gives prime placement to the debate, featuring Sandberg on the cover framed by the headline, “Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Successful.”  The New York Times Book Review this Sunday gave “Lean In” the cover treatment as well, fanning the flames of conflict by assigning Anne-Marie Slaughter to write the review. Slaughter earned her own place in the (patronizingly termed) Mommy Wars with her Atlantic piece in 2012 entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” placing her at opposing ends of Sandberg, leading to gossip that the two were enemies.  The enemy trope turns out to be a bit hyperbolic, however, as Slaughter concedes many points to Sandberg. While she still maintains that women might not necessarily be able to overcome work/life obstacles just by sheer ambition, she’s thoughtful. Respectful. Calm.

Would that I could say the same for Anna Holmes, whose New Yorker piece summarily finds and rips apart critiques of Sandberg’s book one by one, accusing most of the writers of pieces critical of Sandberg of “not having cracked open the book.” She takes Jodi Kantor and Maureen Dowd to task for publishing an unfinished quote by Sandberg that made her seem arrogant.  The partial quote, taken from a PBS documentary “Makers: Women who make America” provided the fodder from which column inches were inked: “I always thought I would run a social movement,” she was reported to have said. The rest “-which basically meant work at a non-profit. I never thought I’d work in the corporate sector” – provides a context that makes Sandberg sound less self-important and more likable. The damage, according to Holmes, had already been done, by causing women to take up their pens as swords to tear down Sandberg. As such, Holmes responds in kind, calling out every mainstream critique of Sandberg, as a “galling” “pile-on.”

All this makes me yearn for a time that seemed almost quaint, when Hilary Rosen’s glib comment last April that Ann Romney “hasn’t worked a day in her life,” opened up the proverbial can of worms, causing countless moms everywhere to look up from Fifty Shades of Grey on their iPhones to consider, again, just how to quantify the work of the stay-at-home mother. What makes these debates endless and unresolved is simply because they are unresolvable. With women making up the majority of the population, stretching across the socio-economic stratosphere, with roots laid down in the North or the South, in urban sprawls or flat country, there will be more differences among us than similarities. There will be language gaps, and ideological gaps, physical gaps, and yes, little overlapping where ambition is concerned, even in defining just what ambition is and how it manifests itself in the interests and abilities of different women all across this land.

But what pushes the progression and evolution of all of us as human beings are the questions we raise. Often more important than whatever the answers might be. We’d do well to remember that, and to take a cue from the indignant scrambling and infighting of the Republican party: that divided, we fail. We have far bigger threats than each other.

Meeting The Media

I hope journalists have faith that their best judgment merits attention. It’s not elitist to expect people to have minds worth stretching.

The Huntington Chamber of Commerce held a “Meet the Media” breakfast where Long Island and metro-area journalists talked about the year’s biggest story, the least reported story, and how to get a press release seen as a story. This was interesting. What got me, though, was when they wrestled with what they must do to be relevant themselves.  This is what I’d encourage:

Important Over Popular. I realize advertisers probably put undue emphasis on social media, but please let’s not have the peanut gallery dictate what’s covered.  I have Facebook, LinkedIn, and friends who forward things inspiring, appalling or fun to argue with. I dig Digg. I even have Twitter followers, though I’ve yet to tweet. We cherry pick and pontificate, yielding finely niched popularity contests, personal statements, and less than civil, questionably educated debate. Should journalists participate? Sure. It’s a good place to connect and study people. This isn’t journalism, though. It’s the public square.

One local newspaperman pointed this out to his fellows, and I hope others will agree: You are the journalists. You are trained to uncover truth, draw attention, and provide context. Be savvy, but don’t pander to lowest common denominators or outspoken niches. Rise above, shine a light, and lift rocks where no one has looked. Wield your critical thinking skills, access to information, experience and judgment. Connect the dots, break it all down and serve up what you think people need to know. The masses will follow.  

Good News and Bad News. We count on journalists to administer bad news. However, many otherwise intelligent people willfully ignore the media because time with it leaves the impression that the world is fully corrupted and likely a lost cause. Why? Editors know train wrecks sell.

One journalist made a point about this that was sharpened by the silence that struck before people realized his example was hypothetical: Were it revealed that the homeless girl from Brentwood stole her Intel-Semi-Finalist Winning Project from some kid in Jericho that would draw huge response. If that happened, journalists should burst our collective bubble. Thank God, it hasn’t.

Fortunately, the journalist’s point was dual. His example also showed the value and occasional front-page caliber of good news. Despite the lack of a gallows draw, everyone knew exactly who he was talking about. It was Samantha Garvey who, in the face of disheartening adversity, had the support and initiative to succeed. It is the best thing I’ve read in a while. Following the story as it brightened, I purchased a “real” newspaper to hug.  It was at least as important as ever-impending doom and gloom. Samantha moved people to reach further and open wider. Some found faith in humanity, which can be hard to come by. Others found faith in themselves. Some stepped up to help that girl and her family, generating stories of their own.

Headlines and Detail. It’s true. Few can afford to pay attention. Even those with a capacity to focus have lots to keep track of. I don’t just read local media. I like regional stuff, and world stuff, and diverse trade stuff. I’m an existentialist egghead seeking to cover all perspectives. Sometimes you’ll even catch me reading tabloids and pondering overexposed life. Mostly, I’m striving to reconcile competing worldviews in search of my own piece of truth. That’s a lot of news. I have a full life to live around that. Often I’m limited to headlines and first paragraphs, grateful for whoever invented the inverted pyramid.

This doesn’t mean I only want one paragraph. Rather, it makes me even more reliant on journalists who get the full scoop. Those who at least link source material come across as open, educated, and respectful of intelligence. Maybe you don’t see too many stats showing people clicking through long articles, but I suspect those who do use them fully, and cite the heck out of them to others. These diehards are your experts, teachers, advocates and students. They include a critical minority that leads thought, and gets things done. A journalist who can fill a few pages well has probably also got a better grasp on what those first paragraphs should say.

If paper’s too expensive for that many words, fine, and even poets like me don’t want journalists wasting space with flowery nothings. Arrange front pages to facilitate skimming and conserve words elegantly, but please don’t cut to fit shrinking attention spans. We’re dumbed down to the bone already, thanks. Give us substance.

Bottom line? I hope journalists have faith that their best judgment merits attention. It’s not elitist to expect people to have minds worth stretching. We don’t need news based on what we already think we know, what the average blowhard’s willing to compute, or what will freeze attention in shocked stares. Yes, there are liars, thieves, fools and fouler things. We shouldn’t whitewash that, or minimize the media’s watchdog role. However, striving heroes and successes need spotlights too, preferably in a balance that mirrors reality. We must be warned, but also educated and inspired.

It’s unfortunate that news seems to be weighted on scales used for entertainment more than those used for academic contribution. Yes, great teachers employ both – and journalists ARE the ultimate continuing education machine — but shouldn’t we lean just a little bit more toward the latter? I think so.

Occupy Wall Street: “You Should Have Expected Us”

By not asking for anything in particular, they are inclusive of every person and every idea in general. In modern-day parlance, this movement is “open source.” Anyone can add to it, alter and improve it.

San Francisco has it. So does Boston. It’s heading to Phoenix, Chicago and even making its way across the border to Toronto. “It” is the movement the media only acknowledge when it shuts down a bridge or broadcasts police brutality. “It” is the movement that Glenn Beck claims will lead to “gas chambers, guillotines” and “millions dead.”

The Occupy Wall Street protest is now in its third week. It’s stubborn, plucky, organized and here to stay—weather and cops be damned. For the third week in a row I am dedicating this space to an undertaking so captivating it has garnered grassroots support throughout the country despite obvious and ignominious attempts to stamp it out. Forgive me as I provide some context to my preoccupation by regurgitating a segment of this column written only days before the occupation began:

Those in my generation lost the chance to capture the spirit of revolution by looking the other way for a decade. We bought homes, started families and tried to return to ordinary lives during otherwise extraordinary times. We slept. Younger generations have substituted Haight-Ashbury with Facebook and protests with Twitter. In their frenetically hyper-connected lives they are ironically disconnected digital beings living a purgatorial existence that knows neither revolution nor responsibility. In fairness, how exactly would one protest genetically modified foods, the derivatives market or the carried interest tax loophole?

As it turns out, America’s youth is keenly in touch with its rebellious nature and wholly capable of harnessing it through social media and on the ground. Moreover, it seems, they know exactly how to protest derivatives and tax loopholes. Occupy Wall Street is not an exercise; nor is it a group of out-of-work malcontents and spoiled brats as some pundits and commentators would have you all believe. But given the disgraceful job my colleagues in the “traditional” media have done covering the last three weeks, it’s little wonder there is such a misconception about the protest or the character of the protestors themselves.

Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and other hack, ratings-hungry news operations have done their level-best to seek out the most outrageous or ill-informed members of the movement in an effort to discredit the entire affair. This has served only to embolden the members of the occupation and play directly into the hands of the organizers who are able to maintain their underground “street-cred” while pointing a finger at corporate media with righteous indignation. It’s one of several ingenious ploys (or anti-ploys depending upon which side of the barricade you reside) being exploited by Anonymous, the group at the heart of the protest.

Most of the news reports and the people I speak with about Occupy Wall Street have the same question: “What do they want?” It’s little wonder why the reporting has been so poor because the question itself fails to grasp the meaning of the gathering. Asking “What do they want?” is placing the cart before the horse. It’s not that it’s a bad question; it’s simply impossible to answer. The purpose of Occupy Wall Street is to begin a dialogue among disconnected citizens and encourage a process of self-discovery. Although they have posted a declaration of principles that lists pernicious policies and highlights social and economic inequities, it only serves to provide the framework for the discussion.

But behind this grassroots and organic process is an organizational brilliance in the restraint shown by Anonymous and the surreptitious group in charge of the demonstration on the ground. By not asking for anything in particular, they are inclusive of every person and every idea in general. In modern-day parlance, this movement is “open source.” Anyone can add to it, alter and improve it. It’s why dimwitted reporters have a hard time grasping it and why renowned authors such as Chris Hedges and Jeff Sharlet have been here to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with young people in Ron Paul tee shirts, Vietnam Veterans, union construction workers, lawyers and even some Tea Party activists. They have managed to truly make this the “people’s movement.” Or, as they say: “We are the 99%… and so are you.”

Life In The Park

As for life in Zuccotti Park, the scene is rather surreal. Between the time I first visited the encampment on Day 4 and Day 18 on Tuesday of this week, a mini-city had emerged. Rules of conduct are posted along the walls of the park. There is a media center, a volunteer booth, food line, barrels of drinking water, a compost pile, rows of books and a tobacco-rolling station. They even have their own newspaper, the Occupied Wall Street Journal. Every evening at 7 p.m. there is a General Assembly meeting where the faithful gather to air their grievances, plan for the days ahead, and coalesce some of the more substantive ideas that have percolated throughout the long days of demonstration, learning and discovery.

In the morning I caught up with Julian, who had casually greeted me on Day 4 with a warm and comfortable smile. Upon hearing of the protest, Julian had purchased a one-way ticket from Oregon to attend the occupation. He couldn’t say how long he would be there, only that he planned to stick it out as long as possible. This time around, Julian had the look of someone who had spent the better part of two and a half weeks battling sleeplessness and, at times, punishing weather. He was grittier and weary, though he claimed to have finally snagged a decent night’s rest.

“I would say this has far exceeded my expectations” he said, a hand-rolled cigarette tucked behind one ear and a scraggly beard adorning his tired face. “The growth of the movement speaks to the level of despair in this country and desire for change,” he said, as he greeted another volunteer who clapped him on the back and hung close for our conversation. When I asked whether he had booked that return ticket yet, his warm smile returned as he said, “I decided to keep the next six months to a year totally clear.” Politely, he then excused himself and settled in behind the volunteer table. Julian was all in.

I spent the next couple of hours weaving my way between citizen journalists, musicians, poets, activists, union workers and teachers. Another familiar face from the first week was Gio Andollo, an artist and musician from Harlem who has spent “some part of the day, every day and usually nights” at the protest since it began. He too is committed to occupying Wall Street for “as long as it takes,” and thinks the protestors have “done a really good job of diffusing potentially violent situations.” Gio, like so many of those involved in the Occupy Wall Street protest, is disappointed with the media coverage but shrugs it off. “What we’re trying to accomplish here doesn’t lend itself to media-friendly sound bites,” he says. But unlike others who cry foul at the blatantly misdirected coverage of the protest, Gio is somewhat sanguine. “It’s just a matter of time before even politicians start paying attention.”

Ironically, across the plaza a group began to gather around two men who clearly stood out from the crowd. Lo and behold, politicians had finally found their way to Zuccotti Park to engage the activists in person. City Council Members Daniel Halloran (R-Queens) and Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan) took center stage for a while to participate in the ongoing dialogue with Wall Street occupiers. Halloran, a self-proclaimed Libertarian Republican, told those around him that he supported their “constitutional right” to gather in protest, but the only way out of America’s economic mess was to “elect better people” to office and “get out and fucking vote.” He touched on hot button issues like diminishing the influence of the Federal Reserve and putting “teeth back into anti-trust regulations,” while Rodriguez, no stranger to controversy and an early supporter of Occupy Wall Street, said, “Wall Street should contribute more,” instead of the city having to “cut agencies and education.”

Despite advocating for things over which neither councilman has control, they caused a stir by at least engaging in the conversation. But their presence only highlights the lack of support and involvement from the elected federal representatives who have stayed as far from the protest as humanly possible. But then again, as Gio pointed out, it’s just a matter of time.

The “Occupy” demonstrations sprouting up around the nation illustrate the strange and uneasy predicament we face. On one side, we see a group of disenfranchised Americans taking to the streets to raise awareness of an increasingly inequitable economic system by exercising their First Amendment right to gather peaceably and protest their grievances. On the other side of the spectrum are charlatans like Glenn Beck, who is warning his ever-dwindling flock of minions to stock up on food and guns because young people have decided to mobilize against the government—pretty fucking hilarious coming from a false-wannabe-prophet who organized his own march in D.C. against the very same government.

Here’s the funny thing. The smallest step back from the fray only serves to highlight our similarities rather than our differences. Like diminutive points on an impressionist painting, there is room in America for every color, from the muted tones of conservatism to the most colorful hue of progressivism. Independent of one another they inevitably clash, but when blended together on the artist’s canvas the true portrait of America is revealed—but only from a distance. In Zuccotti Park, Anonymous may have just emerged as one of the great impressionist masters of our time, portraying America at its finest and capturing the single greatest expression of democracy to occur in my lifetime.

9/11 x 10

If these words are abrasive, then perhaps you are still asleep, immune to the truth that there are those who have capitalized upon America’s grief by plunging our youth into two unforgivable wars and plundering our coffers with misguided economic policies that fattened the wallets of a pitiful few at the expense of the trusting many.

The “Baby Boomer” generation was coming of age when President John F. Kennedy was gunned down on Nov. 22, 1963. It was the first defining moment of a generation that would bear witness to a series of culture-shifting events over the next decade; events that included the Vietnam War and the assassinations of other iconic figures such as Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Beginning with that fateful moment in Dallas until the final withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam 10 years later, America would never be the same.

Today, as we reflect upon the decade that transpired since the seminal moment of the new millennium, those of us who belong to the generations that followed the Baby Boomers find ourselves in a state of malaise and slow-moving transformation, unsure of our place in history. The  Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks should have been our awakening. Instead, it is as though we were collectively numbed and placed in suspended animation. Our grief is still palpable but our actions have been muted and confused—our hopeful innocence resting silently beneath the rubble.

This week we will be inundated with remembrances of that horrible day with many waxing poetic about America coming together and paying homage to our unity. This is not one of those essays. For me, 9/11 is when it all fell apart. The sight of it, the smell of it… It’s all right there. The sick feeling in my gut never left—didn’t even dissipate. Tragically, the ensuing decade haunts me now as much as the day itself.

Hopefully, Sept. 12, 2011 we can begin putting the pieces back together again. Recall, however, how tumultuous the healing process can be as the decade that followed the end of the Vietnam War was rife with unrest and discontent; an unfortunate harbinger for the decade ahead.

From JFK’s assassination until the withdrawal from Vietnam, the “Hippies” of the Sixties and Seventies were on the right side of liberty. They were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. They protested the war and railed against greed and corruption. They challenged conventional wisdom and raged against the machine. They had no children, no responsibilities—only outrage and determination. In defining themselves they redefined America and over time naturally found themselves in charge.

And then it happened.

Over the next few decades the revolutionaries came to embody the status quo. The generation that fought racism, unjust wars and corruption began suffering from selective amnesia. After years of excess and living high on the hog, the Baby Boomers now control the world’s purse strings, and they’ll do anything not to let go.

When 9/11 overwhelmed our nation, we looked to them. Instead of offering guidance they led us to war. Twice. They assuaged their own guilt over the mistreatment of soldiers returning from Vietnam by teaching us to revere service during wartime. Yet they were too cowardly to allow photographs of those who returned home in pine boxes. They called those who spoke out against war “unpatriotic” even though it was this freedom that defined their youth. They famously told us to spend, not save, even though the “Greatest Generation” saved enough to support them after World War II. All we had to do was stay vigilant. Say something if we saw something. Shut our mouths and fall in line.

And since Wall Street was attacked it too became sacrosanct. Only it wasn’t Wall Street that died that day. It was people—people who deserve more than the resurgence of unrestrained capitalism and who are worthy of being remembered for all that liberty truly stands for. Like helping our fellow citizens in their time of need—not vilifying the poor while lining the pockets of the rich; or establishing just and equitable laws that protect every American—not just those who can afford to be protected.

If these words are abrasive, then perhaps you are still asleep, immune to the truth that there are those who have capitalized upon America’s grief by plunging our youth into two unforgivable wars and plundering our coffers with misguided economic policies that fattened the wallets of a pitiful few at the expense of the trusting many. Their triumphant legacy? Our food is unrecognizable, the air is poisonous, and our jobs are overseas. America is fat, polluted and broke. After a solemn decade of reflection upon the chicanery of those who promised to defend our freedom it is time to speak out on behalf of those who are asleep but desirous of truth and those who are awake but unsure of how to speak it.

To be clear, I am not defending the inaction of my generation—the so-called Gen Xers—merely proffering a reasoned explanation of our latent response. When the Baby Boomer generation was jolted from the post-WWII cocoon in 1963, they were young and restless. Their enemies were clear, defined and from within. Racism was overt and ugly. The draft was omnipresent. The Vietnam War was televised, and someone you knew was either there or going. When 9/11 came, our enemies were nebulous and far away. They attacked innocent people and our way of life, instilled fear in our hearts.

Because the enemy wasn’t from within, we had no choice but to heed the call of our leaders who assured us our path was righteous. Only it wasn’t. We began on the right foot by giving chase to our enemy, sealing them off and punishing their leaders. Then, with the wind of public sentiment at their backs, our leaders pulled off an imperialist coup in a blood-for-oil campaign, squandering trillions of dollars and sacrificing thousands of American lives and tens of thousands more Iraqis and Afghanis.

Today, the charlatans in government who call themselves leaders are turning Americans against one another. They have ratcheted up the partisan dialogue to such an extreme many Americans believe that unemployment benefits, infrastructure spending and a health care bill that doesn’t take effect until 2014 are to blame for the failing economy instead of two decade-long wars, historic tax breaks for wealthy Americans and the destruction of oversight in the financial markets. All of this after George W. Bush decided to liquidate the nation’s entire surplus upon taking office.

The same Baby Boomers who fought against this type of irresponsible government have borrowed and refined the playbook in order to protect themselves. Their fear of growing old and losing what they have accumulated, ill-gotten or otherwise, is so acute they are actually trying to tell us that poor people and funding for Sesame Street are the reasons Social Security and Medicare might not exist for us.

So, why have subsequent generations been unable to coalesce as Boomers did when revolution beckoned them? The answer to this is far simpler than the remedy. Those in my generation lost the chance to capture the spirit of revolution by looking the other way for a decade. We bought homes, started families and tried to return to ordinary lives during otherwise extraordinary times. We slept.

Younger generations have substituted Haight-Ashbury with Facebook and protests with Twitter. In their frenetically hyper-connected lives they are ironically disconnected digital beings living a purgatorial existence that knows neither revolution nor responsibility. In fairness, how exactly would one protest genetically modified foods, the derivatives market or the carried interest tax loophole?

America’s youngest citizens have a long and troubled road ahead littered with greed, incompetence and willful ignorance. It is on them to connect beyond the invisible walls of social media and discover the revolutionary spirit that defined the Boomers, but eluded the Xers, and overcome the sordid legacy we jointly bequeath to them. In doing so, they will truly honor the memory of the people who perished on 9/11, rise above those who would do us harm and piece together what remains of our lost decade.