Monday, October 16, 2017

Stories of Sexual Harassment: Will You Ask? Will You Listen?

Harass (verb) 1. to annoy persistently  2. to create an unpleasant or hostile situation especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical contact

Go ahead. Ask them.

Ask the women in your life--moms and sisters, wives and friends, daughters and neighbors: as a man, ask them, if, as women, they've ever experienced sexual harassment.  A leering look or sexually charged remark from a boss. An invite from a married male colleague for drinks after work.  A dirty joke shared in mixed company designed to embarrass or shock.  An outright pass from a supervisor with the unspoken or spoken understanding that if said pass is accepted one's career might just advance faster.

Ask.  And then just listen.     

I guarantee much of the time you will be shocked by the responses, by the truth that unwanted sexual attention by men towards women in the workplace is still so much more prevalent and common than society, and men, want to face up to. Almost all the women I know have at least one such story to share, often many more.  The fact it takes revelations around a Harvey Weinstein to remind us of this ongoing reality is all the more sad.  Weinstein is the now quickly falling and fading mega-powerful Hollywood producer whose apparently well deserved reputation as a lothario and harasser of women, was first reported in a blockbuster New York Times story last week. 

His story might be more shocking if it wasn't so typical. A powerful man uses the power of his position to intimidate, harass, or exploit women.  It can be a producer or the President, a minister or a CEO, a blue collar boss or a white collar manager. The setting matters less than the power dynamic, a relationship within which the one who has less power is subtly or not so subtly pushed or threatened to "just play along" for if they do not, the implication is clear.  Careers will be delayed, detoured, derailed or destroyed.

The time for self congratulation as a society is over, the comforting myth that we've come "so far".  Yes, the atmosphere in many workplaces is "better" for women, better than in generations past and yet still this stubborn societal sin of harassment (and its twin, bias)  hangs on. We may not be in the age of "Mad Men" any more but in so many major industries, women are grossly underrepresented in circles of power: high tech, government, filmmaking, and religion, to name but a few. This dearth of female leadership creates an atmosphere within which harassment easily flourishes, a locker room mentality.  It's far too easy and normative for "boys to be boys" when boys are the only people in the room.

I've been blessed in my life to be surrounded by smart, committed, ambitious and talented women, both in my family and in my work. I've grown up in a faith that declares the call by God to serve others has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with faithfulness. And I do so want to live in a world where all of us are given the chance to  become who God makes us to be, without any fear or any prejudice. That's the vision. That's the hope.  For me.

But even more important, that's the hope for Chloe and Caroline and Emily and Kara.  For Barb and Kathy and Lynne and Claire and Mary.  For Mom and Aunt Carol and Nancy and Linda.  Who are the women in your life who need to tell you their story? Who need to be heard? And more important, who needs to soar, to simply be given the chance to take the talents and the gifts that their God has given them and then succeed? Shine?

Go ahead.  Ask.  And then...listen to their stories.




Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Is It Still Possible to Go Local in an Amazon World?

“Every time you spend money, you're casting a vote for the kind of world you want."
            --Anna Lappe

$16.70. $17.84.  $27.99.

What would you pay for an item, given these three prices?

The cheapest one, right? The most inexpensive. The purchase that lightens your wallet the least. That's how I usually decide and make a logical consumer choice. Those prices, in order, are the cost for a hardcover copy of the best-selling memoir "Hillbilly Elegy", on, (shipped or in store) and from one of the last independent bookstores in my part of the world, Wellesley Books, right on Central Street, in the village, as locals call it.

I faced that choice recently when folks from the community I serve decided to read and study "...Elegy". I dutifully took everyone's orders and then...well, where to buy? Online or local?  Next door or from a far away warehouse? Cyber purchase or an up close transaction?

Calculated capitalism tells me to always buy the least expensive book, no questions, no doubts. Our bare knuckles marketplace always rules and so I should reward the bookseller offering the lowest price with my business. At a steep savings of $11.22 a copy at Amazon, the answer should be clear. Sign on to the internet, order with a few keystrokes and two days later the books arrive. No driving to the store. No hunting for a parking space. No scanning the stacks searching for my title. No need to actually visit a bricks and mortar address. It's true that online book sellers can go so cheap by taking a financial loss on "...Elegy" and other best sellers, but who am I to question such a deal?! 

Pick. Click. Read.

I should have picked Amazon. It keeps with my usual book buying habits: from the first of this year until now, I've already purchased 33 books from them! Yes: "My name's John and I am a book-aholic." Except, as you might have guessed, this time I ordered the books from that local bookstore.

It's the "local" in that sentence that finally changed my mind.  Local, as in nearby, owned and operated by neighbors and maybe even friends. Local, as in a real place to shop on a real "Main Street": an actual storefront with a front door and inside, folks who help customers find what they are looking for.  Local, as in a place where authors come to talk about their writing, where children plop down on the floor surrounded by titles, while Mom or Dad or Grandma looks for a good read and bargain hunters scour the basement for used books.  Local, as in sharing community with others, fellow book lovers.  And all right here, not somewhere out "there".

This isn't an anti-Amazon rant. I will still buy lots of stuff and some books, too, from Amazon. It is one of a score of companies that disrupt old business models and have flourished in our new cyber economy in this new century.  Whether it is booking our own travel, or buying anything, or hailing a cab, or connecting in community: every thing about how we humans actually do things in the world is radically changing and very fast too.  To imagine we can turn back this tide of social transformation is fallacy.

Yet still...every time we spend a dollar on a book or a pair of jeans, on a hammer or new shoes online; every time we bypass the downtown for a big box store; every time we dine at a generic chain restaurant, we, as consumers shape the quality of the places, the real places we call home. Going local reminded me I still need a local bookstore for a sacred hour to wander through the books and touch their spines and see those tomes up close and then imagine where these might take me. I need a local downtown cafe that sells locally grown food from the farmer's market. I need a cramped family owned diner where I can be with my brother face to face, and share life and stories and eggs over easy, rye toast on the side.  I need a thrift store or a junk store or an antique store to linger over musty records, used books and ancient posters. And I've actually found a nearby hardware store that's smaller than the state of New Jersey.

These hopes aren't just wistful nostalgia. I'll bet you wince too when you go to a downtown or walk a city street and see closed storefronts and wonder just where the heck are all those local places we once loved, places that defined a place as a place.  Even in 2017, there is something graceful and good we experience when we are connected deeply to communal spaces: town greens and urban squares, places to walk and shop and eat and connect and yes, to spend our dollars.   

To get local, to be local, and to claim "local" as home: that is still priceless.


Monday, October 2, 2017

Beyond the Anthem: What Does It Really Mean to Be a Patriot?

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control, 
Thy liberty in law!
--Katherine Lee Bates, 
"America the Beautiful", 1911

Just what does it mean to be a patriot and patriotic and who gets to decide?

This is at the heart of a culture wide debate that's emerged in the past two weeks as many NFL players, coaches and owners have chosen to take a knee or thrust a fist in the air, during the playing of the national anthem before games.  In response many of the fans in the stands, fellow citizens, even the President, have chosen to critique these protests as unpatriotic.

Some history: though the "Star Spangled Banner" is now routinely played and sung before thousands of professional and amateur sporting events, it was not always so. The tradition first began in baseball, in 1862, during a professional game in Brooklyn at the height of the Civil War and then later, in Boston, 1918, during the World Series, at a time when World War I raged.  There followed periodic occurrences. Then during World War II in 1942, Major League Baseball adopted this ritual as the norm before all games. The NFL adopted it as official league policy in August 1945.

It's telling to note that the context in the past, for players and fans to stand and sing the anthem, was always during wartime. There were few in the stands or on the field who had not been directly touched, effected, or hurt by war and the communal sacrifices it demanded.  Especially in World War II, essentially everyone at the game had sacrificed: served, fought, faced war rationing, worked in a war factory, hung blue or gold stars in their front windows, signifying a member of the household serving overseas. A gold star meant that a family had lost a son or daughter to war.  I'd say those folks were certainly patriots and patriotic.

But today, at least for this fan and citizen, the singing of the national anthem at games, save for a rare poignant moment, like at the first New York Yankees game after 9/11, or the first game after the Marathon bombings, when the fields were filled with first responders, the anthem can seem rote.  A ritual, still with great aspirations, but one which means...what? What does it mean when we sing that song in 2017 at a game? That's a question no one has asked, certainly not with any great thought. 

What does it mean for you? As you participate in this tradition, do you feel like you are a patriot, patriotic?  Is this what makes one a lover of country?  To know all the words (at least the first verse), to doff one's cap, put hand over heart and stand? 

I'd say sing too, but most of the time when I'm at the park singing, very few of my seatmates join in.  And what of the many other people in or outside of the stadium or at home watching on TV? As New York Times sportswriter John Branch wrote this week, "As players continue being judged by their postures during 'The Star Spangled Banner,' perhaps it is fair to turn the lens around. Those who have spent a lot of time in stadiums and arenas know that they are rarely sanctuaries of patriotic conformity and decorum."  Beer and food is still enthusiastically sold during the anthem. Folks standing in security lines or tailgating don't stop what they are doing. In living rooms, fans use the time to grab food or take a bathroom break.  Is that disrespectful of the flag? 

This whole dust up makes me wish I and my fellow country men and women would actually have a substantive discussion about what it might really mean to be a patriot and patriotic, to claim that title. Beyond the symbolism. Beyond a three minute ritual that demands little of those who participate in it, including me. Beyond the waving of flags and angry judgments by some against the sincere actions of others.  

What does it mean to be a patriot, patriotic? 

To me it first means I need to humbly look at my own civic life and ask, "How am I doing?" Patriotism means a love of country so deep that I actually act on that conviction: that my patriotic beliefs translate into patriotic behavior. Like the woman or man who signs up to serve their country in the military and makes that commitment. A person who exercises one of the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble. Or how about paying our fair share in taxes, no cheating allowed? Or voting every chance we get, not just when it's convenient or "exciting" ? I know I so respect folks who actively engage in the shared life of our towns and cities: serve on a committee, run for office, or volunteer. Helping a neighbor in need, collecting needed items or giving money for hurricane relief, helping rebuild: to me, that's patriotic.

Can we please get beyond the tweets and the boos and instead have a respectful dialogue about what it means to be a patriot and patriotic, and who gets to decide? Let's work on our own patriotic lifestyles (or lack thereof) before we so quickly condemn someone else.  And the next time you find yourself at a game and are maybe even standing next to me, feel free to join in and sing. 

I'd love the company.