Friday, April 27, 2012

TV’s Measure of a Man

Television has a neatly packaged way of projecting what it means to be ‘a man.’ That can put a lot of pressure on men to be a certain way, and it comes with some fairly high expectations. Some of them are based firmly in reality; others are far-fetched fantasy. So what’s the true measure of a man? Despite what TV has instilled in me over the years, I have come to understand there is no single meaning of manhood. Yet television works hard to insist there is.

Growing up, I learned that to be a man was to be like rancher Ben Cartwright, the fictional patriarch from the hit TV drama “Bonanza.” Ben always did the right thing. He could throw a punch, shoot a gun and ride a horse with the best of them. Ben always knew the right thing to say and do and was never wrong. The show’s writers saw to that. As a youth, I believed if I behaved as Ben Cartwright, life would be easy. Or at the very least I’d be looked at as a man. In retrospect, I think my dad did too, along with most of the rest of America’s men.

Fast forward to today. Ben Cartwright and “Bonanza” have been replaced by Leroy Gibbs and “NCIS”.  On that TV series, Agent Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is a criminal investigator. Like Cartwright, Gibbs can throw a punch and shoot a gun. I haven’t seen him ride a horse but he can certainly drive a car with the best of them. But television dramas have matured. So unlike Cartwright, Gibbs isn’t right all the time – he’s only right when it counts. The show’s writers see to that. Times change.

Over the years, images, role models and signifiers associated with fictional men like Ben Cartwright and Agent Gibbs have affected me in ways so deeply rooted that I had rarely stopped to examine them. Lately, I am coming to realize these one-dimensional characters are damaging to the extent that they create inadequate measures for all the ways and means for being a man. TV dramas aren’t the only medium that tries to tell me how I need to act in order to be considered a man. It’s also on “Sports Center,” in most movies, as well as magazines and online. Typically, images associated with manhood involve fast cars, fast women, looking buff, making quick decisions and remaining emotionless (except when angry).

I have begun to question why I think the way I do about being a man. More and more, I’m coming to the conclusion that many of my most deeply engrained arguments about what it means to be one are flawed. Or at the very least prejudiced by a belief system that the media has worked long and hard to embed in me.

TV’s version of a man doesn’t wash with the complex realities of my own personal life. I’m not always right, even when it counts. I don’t go around throwing punches or carry a gun. I pull weeds in my mom’s yard’s flower bed; I volunteer around the community, and wash dishes after dinner (okay, throw them in the dishwasher). I also mountain bike, work out at the gym and read military-inspired novels by Tom Clancy. In short, I am a man in full – one that eclipses media’s portrayal of who I should be. So why do I continue to often feel so inadequate?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Breaking Bread Breaks Down Barriers

I’ve always believed that breaking break is a sure-fire way of helping see people different from one’s self in clearer, more realistic ways. This conviction came to life for me last weekend during a breakfast meeting I attended that was held at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Mich. Dubbed the Interfaith Breakfast, the annual affair was initially established partly in the name of world peace. Yet (and not with some measure of irony), it is held each year to host men of war.
These guests of honor are Fellows of the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, DC, and largely consist of international high ranking military officers from countries around the world. For the last 5 years the Islamic Center of America has hosted a breakfast for them prior to their return. The NDU is the premier center for Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) and is under the direction of the United States Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Each year the Fellows are embark on 15 trips to 20 states around the country. The purpose is to show these future world leaders the diversity of America. This year, 57 persons from 52 countries participated in the one-year, invitation-only fellowship.
The Interfaith Breakfast at America’s largest Islamic mosque rounded out the group’s visit to the Detroit area. It was preceded by a week-long visit to the area, hosted by General Motors and Ford Motor Company. The annual morning event is an opportunity for the interfaith community in the region to meet these distinguished guests and also for the military officers to see the diversity of America, in terms of cultures, religions and color. According to organizers, previous participants have found America’s diversity to be an unbelievable dream, adding that all too often Americans take their richly diverse nation for granted.
Prior to the breakfast, guests at the mosque removed their shoes to enter the building’s sanctuary where prayer is conducted. Beneath the impressive domed structure, a female facilitator led a Q&A discussion, sharing information about the mosque in particular and American Muslims in general. For instance, the group learned that like some other forms of religion, Muslim women may have leadership roles and positions, with America especially leading the way in this practice.
The keynote speaker during the actual breakfast was the local imam. In the Sunni ‘branch’ of Islam under which the people of this Dearborn mosque worship, the imam is a leader of an Islamic community. Over breakfast, the imam discussed the meeting’s theme: for people from differing places to ‘know each other.’ He also made reference to their holy book, the Koran, mentioning facts I was unaware of – like the story of Adam and Eve being within its pages, and that Jesus is mentioned more than 120 times. The imam also pointed out that the Koran devotes an entire chapter to Jesus’ birth mother, Mary.
I listened in relative astonishment at these revelations and wondered how many of my fellow Americans were aware of this information. I learned even more about Islam from the people at my table. My biggest take away from the breakfast was something I suspected all along: Muslims are like Christians in more ways than not – especially those born in the U.S., and that we share many of the same values, such as love of family, peace, and respect for others. They also love their home, America. Their biggest hope is to be judged less as a group and more as individuals. That seems a common theme these days.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Conversation is a Two-Way Street

I have a friend named Danny and he’s a genius. Certifiable. He even passed some test that let him join a geniuses-only club. I have a lot of respect for Danny. He’s an amazing husband and father, and boy is he quick. In conversations, Danny can understand the essence of something so fast when I’m talking that he usually finishes my sentences and gets to the end of our conversation before I even reach the middle. It’s astounding how much he knows and how much he comprehends in so short a time.

That can be a problem. Not his high level of comprehension, but his impatience when I can’t keep up with him. And I’m not the only one. I’m sure he doesn’t mean it, but he can rub people the wrong way because he tends to dismiss people slower than him. There are times when we’re interacting that I end up feeling marginalized. I may not be as quick as him or know as much, but that doesn’t mean I can’t contribute; I’m just not able to get thoughts out as fast as he can.

Recently, I spent a weekend with relatives. One of them, Vicki, is developmentally challenged. That makes her slower than most. At one point, a group of us were in the kitchen. Everyone was more or less paired up talking and I was on the fringes listening to the conversation closest to me.

After a moment, I realized Vicki was standing next to me. She asked a question. I answered her quickly and resumed listening to my other cousins’ conversation. Then she asked another question. Again, I rushed my response without being fully present. A minute later it hit me: when I spend time with Vicki, I’m the one who is quick. And I was doing the same thing to her that my genius friend does to me.

After a moment, I ushered Vicki onto the sofa where I gave her my undivided attention. I got curious with her. I asked how she was feeling. I inquired about work – what she liked and disliked about it. I asked how things were going with her roommate, and which home-staff caretaker she likes best and why. And I listened closely. After a time, we noticed folks in the kitchen were out of their chairs; it was late and time to call it a night.

My conversation with Vicki was filled with insights, opinions and perspectives similar to the ones going on in the other room. They were deep, sometimes emotional and ultimately meaningful. Granted, the dialog was a bit slow, but I felt my cousin came away feeling she’d been heard. For me, our conversation was as rich and satisfying as any – once I placed myself into a mental space that met the person I was talking to where she was.

How often do we enter discussions with a child, teen, co-worker or other adult from a place that truly doesn’t meet the person halfway? Why are we so quick to place the responsibility for ‘keeping up’ on the other person and then blame them for an unsatisfying outcome? Next time you’re in a discussion that feels unproductive, try being more patient and get curious about what the other person thinks. You may find what they have to say is worth the extra time you spend.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Teeter-tottering in a Sandbox of Racial Prejudice

Our community embodies what I consider a largely apathetic posture when it comes to public demonstrations in support of social causes. However, last week, between thundershowers, the Hundred Hoodie March was successfully conducted here. And I’m grateful for it.
The rally, organized by youth interns from the Urban League of Battle Creek, helped raise awareness of the now infamous incident last February in Florida in which an unarmed African American teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by white Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
By my count, 115 people across a swath of races, ages and backgrounds participated in the peace march. It culminated in uplifting speeches at the Sojourner Truth Monument where themes of truth, justice and the American way rang throughout. Initially, the event filled me with a deep sense of pride about residents speaking out collectively around an issue.
But as I listened in the cold, my mood cooled. I asked myself, how can you gun down an unarmed person and be seen as ‘standing your ground’ when you were following that person, and law enforcement suggested you not to? I also wondered had anyone else considered if, prior to the shooting, the person who was killed might have been the one ‘standing his ground’? He was, after all, being followed (harassed?) by a complete stranger. What role did race play in the immediate aftermath? What role is it playing now?
My inward spiral continued. At a time when the President of the United States is African American, when Colin Powell, a black man, once served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when Denzel Washington is one of the top box office draws in movies – why am I still often viewed with suspicion by some white people?
I present largely as a button-down, middle-aged, middle class, middle of the road kind of guy. Yet almost each day, if I let it, I could be made to feel like I have a scarlet letter branded to my forehead: ‘S’, for Suspect. It tends to be a fact of life for African-American males. For the most part, I can ignore the ‘suspect’ gaze folks throw me; it’s something I’ve learned to live with. Even so, sometimes when my guard is down and I least expect it, I’ll catch that look. And it bothers me.
Sometimes their face casts a flash of alarm. Other times the expression is a warning that seems to signal; ‘I’m watching you…’ Typically, it involves a close encounter: walking into a coffee shop, hiking in the woods, entering a business, leaving a store, boarding an elevator, crossing a street... in short, anyplace.
Despite it all, I remain hopeful, thanks to random acts of kindness from countless white strangers – like the elderly lady at Finley’s who held open the door for me(!), the guy who tossed me a grin for no other reason than because we shared the same sidewalk, or other simple but human gestures like the grocery clerk who asked me how my day is going, because she really cared.
Please consider this an invitation and not an indictment: it’s time to open up regarding concerns and perceptions about race. Granted, it’s not an easy subject to discuss. But it’s not impossible either. Let’s stop pretending the problem (on all sides) doesn’t exist just because it’s easier to retreat to places where you can avoid it. As the Trayvon Martin episode proves, the issue will only surface again and again.