2016: Celebrity Serial Killer

2016 has been a wild ride.  It seems like every day there’s news of yet another celebrity death. Every time I see someone who shares my age, mortality becomes just a little more real to me.

I read a list of celebrity deaths for the year – as of today, there were 91 listed on the Legacy.com list and it hadn’t yet been updated to include the passing of Carrie Fisher.

I was struck, though, by who was on the list. A lot of folks whom I’d heard of in passing or in reference, but really knew little about.  There was the 1950’s television actress who portrayed Lois Lane, Noel Neill; Sonny Corleone’s wife, Julie Gregg; actor Michael Massee – whose most notable role still eludes me.  A lot of people who may have been famous or celebrities at some point, but really hard to argue that they are (were) currently.  More to the point, I’m pretty sure (which is my disclaimer that I have no evidence to back this up) there are more people alive today that could be considered “celebrity” or “famous” than at any other point in our history by the standards that would have Noel Neill occupying a spot on a list of “celebrities.”  Consider that for a moment.

No wonder it seems like there’s a celebrity passing everyday – there’s just so damn many of them.  With the proliferation of so much media, it becomes possible for everyone to have their 15-minutes of fame.

Consider  Christina  Grimmie, a young singer who had performed on “The Voice” and whom made a bit of a name for herself on YouTube before that.  She died in a shooting attack in June.  Talented to be sure, but a talent discovered through the wonders of the internet, accessible and high quality digital recording devices. It makes one wonder if everyone who has appeared on “The Voice” could be considered a “celebrity?”

For that matter, is this “celebritifiction” is the consequence of a proliferation of media channels (YouTube, SnapChat, Twitter, The Voice…) or of the media’s belief that we just can’t get enough news so we get it 24-hours a day?  On our phones, televisions, everywhere.  You need 24-hours of news to broadcast if you’re going to broadcast 24-hours a day, so we create it.  We create celebrities because we need SOMETHING to fill 24-hours of news.   TMZ is a media company based entirely on the business of creating celebrity, then reporting on celebrity.

You’d think we’d hit a saturation point with ‘celebrities’ – how many people can you possibly “know,” but yet the plate keeps getting bigger and more names keep getting piled on it.

To be sure, this year has seen bona fide celebrities pass on: Muhammad Ali, Prince, Gordie Howe, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher.  It doesn’t follow, though, that every athlete or singer or actor has a presence that could be considered “celebrity.”   Prince was a singer and famous and was a celebrity, so therefore Christina Grimmie is a celebrity too?

I think we need higher standards of what “celebrity” means.  Anytime a 22-year old is killed it is a tragedy, and perhaps even notable, but it’s really hard for me to consider Grimmie a celebrity when George Michael – who also recently passed – had sold millions of records by the time he was 22.  Just totally different stratospheres.

As I was reading through lists of names, I had to remind myself that there was a person behind each one of them.  No more, no less valuable than any other.  It’s just that they touch different numbers of people.  It’s like the difference between local news and national news: what’s important in one localized area may not be in a larger area.  The car crash along the Jamaica Way in Jamaica Plain is worthy of some note in the Boston media, but chances are Matt Lauer wouldn’t find it interesting.  There’s a place for some additional attention for folks within the public eye, but it just seems we tend to overstate.

I appreciate the Wikipedia approach: “Notable” deaths as opposed to “Celebrity.”  Notable is a more appropriate place to conflate a list containing Muhammad Ali, Vera Rubin, and  Antonin Scalia with one containing Jacky Lee, Tobias de Boer, and Sarah Grant.  Christina Grimmie more appropriately belongs with those considered “Notable” than those considered “Celebrity.”

And so it is then, we allow ourselves the somewhat guilty pleasure of deciding there’s been a rash of celebrity passings this year, by virtue of changing the definition of “celebrity.”

To The American People

“To the American People: Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world. ”

Calvin Coolidge, Presidential message, December 25, 1927

 

The Good You Wish To See

It began with a Facebook post and a text message.

A woman had taken to filling backpacks with daily essentials and would leave them in her car.  When she happened upon someone in need panhandling or sleeping on the street, she would give them a backpack.  There may be a blanket, perhaps some lip balm, whatever.  Just something to let the other person know that someone was thinking of them and wanted to help.

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Rich O’Connell of the O’Connell Valor Fund, Keith Howard Executive Director of Liberty House, and the Mo’s.

My daughter thought this was a good idea, and wondered about ways to do this in bulk.  She took the time to build a shopping list: doing research to find where she could get certain items she could distribute and for how much for how many.  After compiling her list and deciding she had a workable idea, the text came.  She wanted to demonstrate good citizenship to her younger brother and to make a difference in the world.

How to do this? The list she had put together, a relatively bargain priced list at that, still priced the project at about $25 per backpack (including the pack) or about $600.  Then the issue of distribution: how to distribute the packs?  After all, it’s not the safest thing in the world to approach random people on the street and offer things.

This is where some things clicked together.  The O’Connell Valor Fund – one of the subjects of the Morrisseyweb 28 Days of Inspiration – has a ready made network of entities seeking just this kind of support for needy and homeless veterans.  By leveraging the OVF network, we would have a prescreened means by which we could distribute the packs, meaning no potentially unsafe encounters, and a disadvantaged group to support: the Veterans community.

According to the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (or HUD)  estimates 39,471 veterans are homeless on any given night and the Veterans Administration estimates veterans comprise about 11% of the homeless population.  Their top priority for homeless vets?  Secure, safe, clean housing that offers a supportive environment free of drugs and alcohol.

16431588_1481156662-2162Concurrent with the coordination work with the OVF, we began a fundraising campaign to raise money to help offset the cost of building these backpacks: it was clear that the price tag was going to be a little more than we could pull off in short order.  Before the fundraiser was 8 hours old, we had raised enough to know that we could pull this off and began ordering the packs and buying supplies.

On November 30 the idea was hatched.  On December 1 the connection to the OVF had been set in motion to identify the appropriate place(s) to deliver the packs and the fundraising page had gone up, by December 6 most of the supplies had been purchased and the packs had arrived and on the evening of December 9, we set about packing the 24 packs with goods. And on December 10, we arrived at the Liberty House door to deliver them.

We had raised far more than our initial goal, and that allowed us some flexibility with the contents.  To our original list, we added higher quality blankets (this was the big plus!), wash cloths, candy, tooth brush holders, handwritten notes and made 4-female bags with feminine hygiene products: Women comprise 11% of the homeless veteran population, although oftentimes their particular needs go overlooked.

Chic 2 Chic Consignments of Foxborough, MA donated brand new hats, gloves and scarves to each backpack.

The average value of each pack grew from an estimated $25 each, to easily more than $50 with our additional supplies and Chic 2 Chic’s generous donations.

The OVF referred our donation to a small Veterans organization called Liberty House, of Manchester NH. They do terrific work with the homeless Veteran population of Manchester, but more than that they work with the community at large.  What’s more is that they do this in the context of drug and alcohol free housing – just what the Coalition of Homeless Veterans says is the top concern.  They have refused federal funding – and the requisite regulations – because doing so would compromise their mission and purpose: they would have been required to allow drug and alcohol use if a resident came in using.

In the time we were there, several homeless folks came to their door – knowing that if it can be avoided, no one gets turned away.  This was exactly the partner we were looking for – we didn’t want to turn anyone away.  And these packs were exactly what was needed: they can’t give everyone a place to stay, but they can try to help everyone.  There wasn’t anything in our packs that they program didn’t already have – we had perhaps nicer and new supplies, maybe, but the program had toothbrushes, and toothpaste, and spare clothes. What they didn’t have was the packs, already made, that they could offer to others in need.

In addition, we were able to write a $300 check to the O’Connell Valor Fund to help financially support other Veterans in need – not everyone in need is homeless, and not everyone needs a backpack of supplies.

We took some time with Keith Howard, the Executive Director of Liberty House when we dropped off the packs.  He was genuinely touched that these two kids had conceived and built the program themselves.  “How did you come up with this idea,” he asked.  “I saw a post on Facebook” came the answer.  Keith was not satisfied, “How many others saw that post and while they thought it was interesting did nothing?”  In that moment of having her modesty rebuffed, it became clear just how important this project was.  They did something where others did not, and in so doing they affected the change they wanted to see in the world, AND encouraged others to do so as well.

It warms my heart, this holiday season, to know my kids have been raised to be good, caring people.  It warms my heart that so many people thought enough of their idea to help fund it – it never would have become as awesome as quickly without the support from our community.  It warms my heart that people I’ve known better than 30 years thought enough of the idea to join the effort to see it to fruition.  And more than anything it warms my heart that there are 24 people who are likely to be in much better shape than they may have been otherwise.  In short, the world is just a little better because of my kids.

MORE INFORMATION:

For Information on the O’Connell Valor Fund: https://twitter.com/ocvalor
For Information on Liberty House: http://libertyhousenh.org/
Visit Chic-2-Chic on the web at http://www.chic2chic.com/

Godspeed

Eternal rest grant unto them , O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them .
May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

It isn’t often you’ll find me reaching back into the faith of my childhood to find the words to convey meaning at life’s most difficult times, but tonight these words seem appropriate and right.

Tonight, a beautiful and wonderful human being has become one with time and with the universe, has left this earth and gone forth to the great unknown.  If I could let her know anything, it’s that I love her son like he is my brother and that brother of mine loved her as much as any person could love another.

Throughout her illness, she demonstrated rock solid resiliency.  When it became clear treatment was no longer effective, she demonstrated the strength of character I’ve come to know over the last 30+ years.  When one is at peace with herself, she can make those around her stronger.  And she did just that.

She exemplified feminine strength with rock solid conviction and understanding of who she was in this world.  I can think of few people I have ever known more impressive, more confident, more tough or strong.  More loving or sure.  Tonight, I am sad to know she has left us, but proud to say I knew her.  She leaves the world just a little bit better for her having been here, and far better than most.

Godspeed.

On Being Uncomfortable

Two recent news stories caught my attention in that they highlight a major dysfunction in our society.

At Hampshire College, in the small Western Massachusetts college town of Amherst, someone burned the American flag on campus in the days after the Presidential election, so the school then put up a new flag.  This was lowered it to half-staff, in solidarity with those fearing a Donald Trump presidency (by some accounts) and in mourning for racial violence victims…which sparked backlash from others, and thus they removed the flag from campus entirely.

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“Two Minute Warning” Spider Martin, March 1965

Meanwhile, in Pearl, Mississippi a billboard showed up bearing Spider Martin‘s iconic “Two Minute Warning” (The photo was taken moments before troopers tear gassed and beat protesters) with the label “Make America Great Again.”  This has caused consternation and perhaps even outrage: the headline is Mississippi residents unsure of controversial billboard’s intent, the mayor wants it removed, the governor calls it “divisive.”

So, at the highest academic levels we either don’t know how to or simply refuse to have a conversation about politics, and at the highest government levels we apparently don’t understand the first amendment protections around freedom of speech.  As a populace, we’re not sure we know what to think: we engage more with “fake news” than with “real news.”  Perhaps that’s more of an indictment of our “Info-tainment news than it is an indictment of Facebook algorithms.  

At some point in life you have to take a stand and engage that which is uncomfortable. Life isn’t all about “safe places” and avoiding difficult conversations. The school was wrong for lowering the flag to half staff – that’s not a way to protest the results of an election, it’s a means by which one honors disasters or deaths. Just that act was an affront for which the school would appropriately be chastised. Among their students are veterans or members of military families, but one doesn’t have to be a veteran to be offended by such a violation of flag protocol or by removing the flag altogether.

“Mr. Brady, it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Finley Dunne

The way one would properly fly a flag signalling distress (in extreme danger to life or property) is upside down, but even that isn’t an appropriate expression here. I’m sure they could argue that there’s an extreme danger to life of minorities or other dispossessed folk (I’m not entirely sure that would have intellectual validity) but they’ve not even chosen that expression.

In response for having their hand slapped, the school took their ball and went home.  Their chosen means of expression was the removal of expression, to deny any solidarity with the country.

This is a school in the business of educating future leaders and they decide to take the flag down because they can’t control vandals, don’t wish to heed those who have appropriately identified their breach of flag protocol/etiquette and last don’t wish to have a dialogue about constructive means by which opposition can be expressed. They can’t separate the president-elect of the United States from the office of the President from the symbol of the United States. It was more important to avoid the conversation than it was to have the conversation.

They could have taken the stand that our nation was larger than any disagreement among us, flown the flag at full staff – protecting it if they deemed necessary – and engaged the campus in a campus-wide discussion about the campaign, what it means, and what needs to happen going forward in a way that the school could support.  I would argue this conversation should have been going on well before November 8 if they were truly interested in a diversity of thought.

From the schools’ president: “we have decided that we will not fly the U.S. flag or any other flags at Hampshire for the time being. We hope this will enable us to instead focus our efforts on addressing racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and behaviors.”  The rationale equating the flag – and the country – with those things is extremely dangerous, and yet the Hampshire College board fails to see it that way.  Symbols are extremely powerful, but so are symbolic actions.

“Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Cesar Cruz

The billboard was meant to be controversial, specifically designed to cause conversation, and response:  Mississippi overwhelmingly went for Trump, and has a troubled racial history.  The message is provocative because the message conveyed could be any number of things: were this the point of view of the Klu Klux Klan, it would be hate speech; in this case it’s the work of an artist with the express purpose of discussing what we mean when we use a phrase like “Make America great again.”

And so it goes that we have become uncomfortable with being uncomfortable.  In the meantime, we’re faced with a Vonnegutesque warning: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Schools have pretended that to be educated means not having to confront opposition to your ideas, not having to defend your ideas, and that ideas contrary are to be avoided or just not engaged.   We’ve pretended that making anti-discrimination national policy is equivalent to ending the conversation.  We’ve pretended that racial diversity and ethnic diversity is the only diversity that matters, that engaging other opposing ideas is dangerous and that diversity of thought will somehow expose us to danger rather than strengthening our understanding of each other.

Let’s stop pretending that conversation is a bad thing to be avoided, that ideas different from your own can hurt, and that it’s more important to be convinced you’re right than it is to find common understanding. That somehow engaging a conversation is more trouble than it’s worth.

Acute Toxicity: Reaching Election 2016 TLV-C

Acute toxicity.  That’s the best two-word answer to the question “What is the effect of the current state of American national politics?”  We’re not even two weeks out from one of the most divisive election cycles ever – certainly within my lifetime – and the discourse has gone from being one of derision for the opposing major=party candidate to out and out nastiness of supporters of one candidate to those of the other.

TLV-C: ceiling exposure limit or maximum exposure concentration that should not be exceeded under any circumstance

Here it is less than two weeks out, and I was actually battling it out online with someone whom I am convinced shares a similar position on social issues as do I because he felt it an acceptable stance to take to simply silence – “disenfranchise out of existence” – voters who would vote for a certain candidate that neither of us supported.

The Vice-President elect was treated to some impromptu commentary by the cast of the play “Hamilton” on Friday night – straight political commentary, which while perhaps not expected in a theater the subject of the chosen play was political after all – and apparently he was unaware that his status as VP-elect changes his ability to attend a play with his family.  He was asked to keep an open mind to diversity.  On Saturday, the President-Elect demanded an apology.

Sometimes, even the best of us have to suffer through rudeness.  It kind of comes with the territory when you share a ticket with a divisive candidate, whether or not you yourself deserve it.  This is politics man, get over it. Everything you do from this point forward is about the politics.  Sorry – there are no more simple nights out with the fam.

Clinton supporters are racist.  Trump supporters are racist.  Hillary is a criminal.  The Donald is a crook.  Clinton voters can’t seem to understand people could possibly have had legitimate reasons for voting for Trump – he’s a pig, racist, and bigot!! – and Trump voters can’t seem to understand people could possibly have legitimate reasons for voting for Clinton – she’s a criminal, liar, and duplicitous thief!  People talking – screaming – past each other without giving themselves a break to do a little introspection and analysis.

Donald is going to have a task in front of him to repair these fractures in the American politic, and frankly I’m not sure Steve Bannon is the guy to help him do that.  I’ve voted for President now in 8 elections.  I’ve voted for the winner exactly once in all those times, so I’m not exactly unfamiliar with being on the side that doesn’t win, but in almost 30 years of voting, I’ve never seen the electorate so polarized.

In 2008, David Duke if he didn’t “endorse” Obama for President, he came close to doing so. The thinking being that a man of color becoming President of the United States would incite white supremacy to rise up (note how Duke enunciates “Barack”). I submit that Duke may have been right: the Obama Presidency has simultaneously emboldened groups such as Black Lives Matter to stand up and identify social injustice as they see it, and those predisposed to see them as thugs and anti-law.

Trump has emboldened the “alt-right,” white nationalists.  More than 8 years after interviewing David Duke, NPR interviewed  Joel Pollak, one of the framers of the alt-right and got lit up for “normalizing” racism and hate speech. It’s the liberal left that’s now responding to a Trump electoral victory in the same way Duke imagined neo-cons rising up about the Obama victory.  They suggest censorship over critical thought, criticizing NPR for talking to Pollak, because clearly the great unwashed can’t think for themselves. Presenting the ideas is somehow equivalent to “normalizing” them.  [As an aside, I love the fact NPR had Michel Martin interview Duke, perhaps an important piece missing from the interview with Pollak].

What we need now is conversation, yet we’re distinctly unable to engage one.  Polls projecting a Clinton 4% lead in the popular vote and political sites projecting a 99% chance Clinton would win failed to take into account the rural votes, inadvertently answering the question why they would be so inclined to vote Trump: Trump paid attention to them while the media and the Clinton campaign failed to. Folks, this is the conversation that’s been happening all the long, it’s just that now you’re hearing it for the first time and it’s shocking as hell to you.  You made the same mistake the media did – you haven’t been listening.

Rule #5 of Franklin Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People – Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Let’s listen to each other just a little bit, before we decide the other is a bunch of racists, or bigots, or anything else.  There are legitimate reasons a person of good faith and fair dealing would vote for Trump that aren’t that they don’t like the LGBT+ community.  There are legitimate reasons a person of good faith and fair dealing would vote for Clinton other than that they don’t care about improprieties and opacity.

Most Trump voters aren’t out to overturn civil rights and most Clinton voters aren’t out to take all of your money.  Maybe we should listen more to each other because in reality these two candidates are about as alike as the election would suggest: Trump 47%, Clinton 48%.  Spend your time being angry, and you’re just a reactionary – whether your candidate won or not.  If you really care about the state of the country, you’re engaging conversation, not antagonizing it.

 

 

Keeping It Between the Navigational Beacons

Life itself is a process of navigation. Sometimes we successfully navigate the beacons, sometimes we don’t.  Thankfully, in most of life’s endeavors there’s a pretty significant fudge factor.  Imagine if life were strictly a journey from place to place: in order to get to where you’re going you have to be exactly on point and the slightest deviation will put you a significant distance away.  If you have a 1-degree variance from your intended destination, over 500 miles you’d be more than 8-miles off track.  1-degree!  And that’s if you know where you’re going.  If you don’t have a goal, and just roll with whichever way the wind blows, you’re liable to wake up someday wondering where all the time went and why you haven’t accomplished anything you expected to.

Oftentimes though, the carefully planned path is overly rigid.  Sometimes you want to take a detour and see what else might lie beyond.  Plan that path too carefully, you’re liable to wake up someday and wonder about the path not taken.  If your path requires 100% accuracy – perhaps your assumptions are a little too exact, or require full control over extraneous variables for which there is no way you could possibly account – you’re likely to be very disappointed.

And then there’s all the in-between.  All the space between drifting without a goal and being overly structured.  That’s where I’m thinking about when I say it’s a process of navigation.  It’s the voyage toward the ideal goal along the charted path there.  My life has taken some twists I hadn’t planned for, but sometimes resiliency is the better navigator.  It’s getting by the obstacles that get in your way. It’s about having a destination in mind, but being flexible enough that one, or two, or more roadblocks won’t drive you off course.  It’s about paying attention to how much variance is acceptable and how firm your end goal is: maybe you’re 5-degrees off course but you realize that you’re enjoying where you’re going and decide the heading you’re on is better than the one on which you had planned.  Without that reality check, you wind up somewhere completely different than your expectations.

An article in The Atlantic suggests that the conventional wisdom that with age comes increasing happiness, is changing.  The author posits a couple of different potential reasons for this; the rise of individualism, an absence of emotional bonds.  I’m going to posit my own.  We spend an inordinate amount of time planning and setting expectations.  The generations coming to middle age and beyond now were raised with the expectation that they would do better economically than their parents; and it turns out this may not be so.  It’s about navigating the definition of happiness. We spend a lot of time alone, but very little time in introspection.  We know what we want to do, but we’re planning to get there instead of enjoying the here and now.  We have more capacity to touch more people, but less capacity for those meaningful relationships.  We have the knowledge of the entirety of human history at our fingertips, yet our work often needs little more information than how to press a button.  We give ourselves little wiggle room, and in our highly structured lives, we forget that resiliency matters.

I’m gettin’ paid by the hour, an’ older by the minute.
My boss just pushed me over the limit.
I’d like to call him somethin’,
I think I’ll just call it a day.

That said, the substantive body of generational and of “happiness” research suggests we do become happier as we get older.  The dawning of middle age was difficult for me.  I took a hard correction in course, really thought about what I wasn’t getting out of life, and reset what those expectations were.  What I didn’t do was decide it was all crap and throw it in the trash.

I started this post literally more than 4 years ago.  I have little doubt the direction it would have taken then would be substantially different than where I am today.  I cannot remember a time when I have felt more empowered by having a goal, having built a plan with a significant fudge factor in it, and working that plan. I’m happy with my work; I have a meaningful career I worked hard to cultivate and got lucky to have been in a few right places when it mattered.  I never grew up with a plan of what I wanted to do, I was however one of the lucky ones who found something I was interested in early and followed that path.

So how does one keep it between the navigational beacons?  By keeping the channel wide, by paying attention to the general direction, knowing what the journey generally should look like, and keeping tabs on where we are along the journey.  By finding meaning in what we do every day, instead of finding meaning in the ultimate goal.  The goal isn’t worth getting to if the journey isn’t worth having.