Monday, June 25, 2012

'Vagina' versus the P-Word

America can be two-faced when it comes to women and sex. A lion’s share of advertising and other media pushes sexual content and innuendo into our homes with the force of a raging tsunami. Simultaneously, we are endlessly rebuked for our immoral ways of thinking about issues related to female gender issues. At the center of it all is the P-word. Some find the P-word detesting; others love it like crazy and use it every chance they can get.
From soap operas to soap ads, we’re bombarded by suggestive words and images. A lot of folks believe, and I count myself among them, our popular culture is devolving. But we live in a free market economy, sex sells and America is buying. Yet when it comes to the most natural things related to women, such as speaking aloud a legitimate word in the course of a human rights (pro-choice/pro-life) discussion, our collective consciousness gets turned on its head.
By now many of us are aware of the incident in which Michigan State Representative Lisa Brown was censured in the legislature for saying the word ‘vagina’. The following day she was barred from speaking about anything on the floor of the House, which caused a firestorm nationwide.
“What she said was offensive,” said Rep. Mike Callton, according to news reports. He reportedly went on to add, “It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”
Rep. Callton’s rebuke of Rep. Brown reminded me of intolerant expressions spouted by Archie Bunker, TV’s fictitious patriarch from the hit sitcom “All in the Family.” Back in the ‘70s, such references to anatomical parts served as fodder for comedy writers as Americans struggled to come to terms with often irrational insecurities about issues like women’s rights.
But instead of berating politicians, we should be thinking about why that word conjures such an inflammatory connotation. Why are we so uptight when it comes to human sexuality? The duality of America regarding sex, especially as it relates to women, is as dizzying as it is conflicting. To quote a line from a movie: ‘Look but don't touch. Touch, but don't taste. Taste, don't swallow.’
This calls into question, at a time when ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ can be uttered with impunity on television and radio, why the word vagina – the correct and proper name for a part of female anatomy – conjures such discomfort among men and women, myself included. Although I don’t find it offensive, I do find it challenging to write it in this column, let alone say it aloud in mixed company.
A few days ago, several thousand people from around Michigan traveled to Lansing. There, on the steps of the state capitol, noted playwright Eve Ensler joined legislators who presented the controversial stage production titled, The Vagina Monologues. A fair number of men attended and participated in the demonstration. One can only guess but my hunch is most folks rallied to exercise their freedom of speech and also support women’s rights.
Which brings us back to the P-word: power. In nearly all facets of American life, who ultimately has the power to decide who gets to say what? An intelligent guess might be: it’s the ones at the top of the political process food chain, as well as those who head up corporations and systems, including the ones that produce, promote and distribute the gaudy cosmetics, sexually alluring fashion and racy television shows. And surprise, surprise; it’s not women.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Soldiers and Suicide: the humanness of it all

 I first read it online, confirmed it in the newspaper, then saw it on TV: the report of the surge in suicides among American military troops. It was even more disturbing to learn many of the suicides taking place are among troops that aren’t even involved in combat. But it was what somebody said at the grocer that filled me with rage.
According to that news story last week, there were 154 suicides among active-duty U.S. troops in the first 155 days of 2012; an average of one person per day. That mark is outpacing the number of American forces killed in action in the Afghanistan conflict – about 50 percent more – according to Pentagon stats.
I consider our military troops the toughest hombres on the planet. Unlike many countries, whose personnel are drafted into service, our armed forces consist of committed young men and women who feel ‘called’ to accept the challenge and serve our country. In my admittedly biased opinion, anyone who suggests the American soldiers who took their lives ‘weren’t tough enough’ needs their head examined. Sadly, that’s exactly what I overheard a guy say in a grocery store. Then I read a similar comment in the paper by an Army officer.
It was revolting to read a Major General quip in his blog that soldiers considering suicide just need to, ‘…deal with your problems like the rest of us.’ Fortunately, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, America’s top military honcho, disagreed with that general ‘in the strongest possible terms.’
I was later enlightened by an Army friend of mine (82nd Airborne Division) who said suicide rates tend to be higher among younger service people. A central cause, he explained, is that recruits are removed from their support systems (friends and family) and thrust into extraordinarily stressful situations. He also stated that while you can make new friends, it’s not the same.
Then he told me about the ‘new guy/gal’ syndrome. The movies got this right: a new recruit joining a unit is not highly regarded. In fact, troops fresh out of basic training have zero status among those who’ve seen action; they’re FNG’s (don’t ask). The result? Isolation which, when combined with stress and absence of a familiar support system, can lead to fateful or even fatal decisions.
Our troops are well-trained but they’re not robots. They are human beings; each possesses varying levels of courage and fortitude, as well as doubts and fears. In the course of their jobs, they’re often ordered to do impossible things. We expect their best under the worst conditions: they make life and death decisions under high stress, with little sleep and often no time to think. Even the strongest person can bend under these conditions. Or break.
There are some among us who view war and military conflict through the lens of old Rambo movies and/or new video ‘shooter’ games. These bozos buy into the utter fantasy that somehow earning a Purple Heart medal will make up for losing life or limb in combat – that it’s heroic to simply ‘shake off’ the aftermath of an IED, like a quarterback who takes a hard sack. But improvised explosive devices pack a bigger wallop than a linebacker. And are decidedly more life-threatening.
I’m not sure why one person bends while another breaks but I do know this: despite the often inhuman jobs they’re given, I believe the men and women serving in our armed forces are among the most human of us all. Let’s try and remember that about them (and vets) as we go about our daily lives.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Pancakes and Magic Johnson

People are always teaching me stuff, from best friends to celebrities. My challenge is to be open to these learning opportunities when they come my way. Sometimes teachable moments emerge as a whisper, like when my friend Cornal once asked a simple question over breakfast.
It was a casual query, gracious in delivery, and not in the least judgmental. Had I not been truly listening, I might have missed the invaluable wisdom he conferred upon to me that morning. As I was about to smother my pancakes in rich creamy butter, he asked simply, “Have you ever tried them without it?”
On any other day my knee-jerk response might have been to ‘sneer and smear.’ But in that moment, the sheer impartiality of his question made me pause and think. Then something profound happened. I considered something I had been on auto-pilot about for as long as I’d been old enough to use a fork. Something I’d never thought about my entire life was now in the forefront of my mind.
I considered: I had never eaten pancakes without butter. My next thought: People do that? Then: Well, it is high in cholesterol. The ‘devil’ on one shoulder smirked: But you don’t have a cholesterol problem. My guardian angel on the other replied: Would it hurt to try?
How often do you hear a person talking but you’re not really listening?
Sometimes life lessons come as a result of not a single word being spoken. One night many years ago, just this kind of lesson came my way. It was from an NBA superstar.
I was waiting in line to attend a lavish celebration in Los Angeles. The evening event was a rooftop affair, and partygoers had to be swept up there by a bank of elevators manned by tuxedo-clad ushers. Hundreds waited as a handful at a time rode up. It was hot and sticky but folks took the shuffle-forward-and-wait drill fairly well.
After a while, I noticed someone standing head and shoulders above the rest of us, literally. It was Magic Johnson. Now this was during Showtime, when the Lakers reigned supreme. Magic was at the top of his game, the world was at his feet, and nothing in L.A. was denied him. After a moment, I realized something amazing was happening: Magic was waiting with the rest of us. Patiently.
At the time I was an editor of a music magazine, and quite aware this act of humility was not one typically associated with Hollywood superstars. More familiar was the scenario of celebs strutting to the front of lines with expectations of A-list treatment, so this moment was not wasted on me. I marveled as the NBA’s MVP waited his turn. Chatting and cheesing, but mostly waiting; shuffling a few steps and waiting again, like us.
After a while, one of the ushers noticed Magic, beckoned him to the next open elevator and then he was gone. As I continued to wait I thought, how easy it would have been for Magic to have used his million-dollar smile and squeeze to the front of the line when he had first arrived.
Watching Magic, with his patient, gracious manner, showed me that although one might have the power to get what one wanted, not to use it recklessly. That lesson, plus the simple yet equally powerful breakfast table experience, is among the memories that serve as guideposts for the way I choose to live my life.
And pancakes: I don’t add butter anymore.

Monday, June 4, 2012

What Are Your Intentions?

Ever engage in what should have been a straight forward interaction but instead felt more like a confrontation? You may have gotten what you needed but the exchange came with the unexpected price of being annoyed and irritated. While the root of such transactional misfires can often be the result of the other person simply being a jerk, sometimes it’s more complicated. This can particularly be the case when dealing with strangers. And what if that person is of a different culture? How much greater is the chance for misinterpretation of intent?
Some say an American is an American. But that’s only half right. Part of America’s strength is her diversity. If you think about it, there are lots of common traditions, rituals and other characteristics that make up our amazing American culture. Delivering a firm handshake, working hard, doing your share – these are shared values and practices most can agree on. The hitch is in how these ways of being play out region to region.
Folks who travel to the Midwest often comment on a so-called ‘Michigan politeness.’ This affable nature can be so inherent in residents that we mostly are not even aware of it – sort of like how many of us don’t notice our Midwestern accent when we speak. 
Cultural traditions across the country can be as different as the geographic landscape that distinguishes each region. Down south, there exists a general sense of ‘casualness,’ with customs that reinforce a more relaxed manner. Contrast this with the northeast, especially metropolitan areas like New York City, Boston or Philadelphia. There, you tend to find more of an urgent, ‘on-the-dot’ culture. Meanwhile, Washington, DC, can be largely defined by its ‘button down’ tradition, particularly when it comes to fashion appropriateness. Southern California (think L.A.), in contrast, is accented by a sense of residents being more ‘laid back.’ And Hawaii? Well, sometimes it can feel like everybody there wears flip-flops.
In most cases, being helpful and friendly can be recognized and appreciated. Other times, sincere actions can be interpreted by outsiders in unintended ways. New Yorkers who are short and abrupt might be deemed impolite by Midwestern or Southern standards. Yet in most cases, from an East Coaster’s perspective, all they could be trying to do is save time and be efficient. Fast walking, fast talking, to-the-point conversation – it’s their culture. Conversely, many New Yorkers might believe his time is being wasted if a Midwesterner attempts ice-breaking small talk.
The same can be true from person to person in the same region. One individual’s attempt at ‘polite conversation’ might be regarded as ‘superficial nonsense’ to her next-door neighbor. Some store clerk’s ‘direct approach’ might be a specific customer’s ‘pushy attitude.’ In some cultures (or even families), loud talk and hand-waving is considered normal and appropriate. In others, it might be considered rude or even aggressive.
Levels of eye contact, tone of voice, slaps on the back, casual hugs - they are all important means of nonverbal communication. Two people may both be on the same page with the big picture but if they are not in tune with how each other is being received, quarrels can result – or worse. Next time you find yourself in what should be a simple conversation that is unexpectedly escalating toward drama, take a moment and try to evaluate the other person’s intent. You may find there’s a cultural disconnect happening that, if addressed the right way, can help get things back on track.