Gratefulness Is a Habit. Kindness Too. And Love—Don’t Forget Love.

This is a great travel story—a great airport story. I’m one of those people who love the opening credits in the film Love, Actually. I, too, find airports to have a special energy, a festiveness you find nowhere else. The anticipatory excitement about the arrival—both the arrivors and those awaiting the arrivors—adds an undeniable frisson to the airport experience.

Not that I find air travel particularly fun, mind you. But even the we’re-all-in-this-slog-together atmosphere is a thing that unifies travelers, yes? That’s the nature of this lovely travel story from 2007, which was reprinted on the website of A Network for Grateful Living a couple years ago. As they noted then, it seemed decidedly relevant.

A woman, Naomi Shihab Nye, a writer (she is a year older than me), is in the Albuquerque airport (I’ve been there), having just learned that her flight has been delayed, and hears on the loudspeaker a plea for an Arabic speaker. There is an older Palestinian woman in distress, and she speaks no English. Nye speaks Arabic, though she is rusty; she learns the woman is simply worried, and is able to comfort her. By the time their flight arrives,

[the woman] had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar.

I have had those cookies myself, offered to me when I was visiting the local Middle Eastern grocery, baked by the shop proprietor’s wife. (I must stop back in to see him; I haven’t been in a while.)

This is a beautiful story. Nye is a poet, and it shows in these words.

Not everything is lost, y’all.

Both Men I Married Were Immigrants*

“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. … Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25: 42–43, 45)

Just sayin’, y’all.

* My first husband was born in Nicaragua and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was a little boy in the 1950s. When I married him about twenty years later he was still here on a green card. You know about my second husband. I find it fascinating to watch the unfolding of current events through his eyes.

I Am Your Sister, Your Wife, Your Mother. I Am a Statistic. I Am a Human Being.

I haven’t thought about this in two decades. But I’m thinking about it now, because these words and these statistics are in the news.

  • Every two minutes an American is sexually assaulted; a disproportionate number of them women.
  • One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
  • In 1995, 28 percent of rape or sexual assault victimizations against females were reported to the police. This percentage increased to 59 percent in 2003 before declining to 32 percent in 2010.
  • The majority of sexual violence against females involved someone the victim knew. In 2005-10, 78 percent of sexual violence involved an offender who was a family member, intimate partner, friend or acquaintance.
  • On average, there are 288,820 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States.
  • As of 1998, an estimated 17.7 million American women had been victims of attempted or completed rape.

I could go on. (Sources linked below.)

You see, I was a victim of sexual assault, of unwanted, inappropriate sexual advances from a powerful man for whom I worked. Until today, I have only told two people about it: my friend Melania (not her real name), and my husband, Gerry.

I have reflected upon this for some time. I don’t bring it up now because I need the catharsis of telling. (I’m not a brooder, not prone to take things hard. I’m tough, I’ve always been tough, and I tend to remember the good and forget the bad.) I don’t bring it up now because I’m wounded or hurt and need help. (I know who the broken person is in this scenario; it’s not me.) I don’t bring it up because I want justice. (God knows there’s little justice in this ol’ world.)

No, I bring it up now—twenty-five years laterbecause there are women today who are being castigated for bringing up similar stories now. They’re being called liars by people (mostly men) who have no freaking clue what it was like, what was involved, what it’s like to live with the memory of something like this in which you were powerless—for a variety of reasons—to simply say, Take your hand off me, you asshole.

So let’s talk about it, shall we? My case doesn’t concern someone in the public spotlight—but otherwise it’s the same: a woman conducting her business, a man who sees women as things for his entertainment.

My Story

I got divorced at age thirty-seven; I was the mother of a six-year-old. I’d been married to my son’s father for eighteen years, and it had been my choice to leave—but it was not a decision taken lightly, and I was rattled to my core. At the time I was slim, didn’t have grey hair, and generally looked about ten years younger than I was.

After my divorce in 1990 I moved home, where I worked for a small family-owned company not far away. It was a stressful job, and while I had a few friends among the staff, for the most part I didn’t fit in. The owner of the company, a man, married with kids, was tall, outgoing, smart, funny, charismatic. He was my boss. The offices were attached to a warehouse, and it was a rabbit warren of hallways and out-of-the-way places that were not always well traveled. You didn’t necessarily run into coworkers going from A to B.

The first incident was this: The boss and I passed in one of these quiet corridors, and he engaged me in conversation. He said something funny, I laughed, we chatted. And then he reached out and gently pinched one of my breasts and said, “I want some of this.” A coworker came around the corner then, and nothing further happened. I didn’t have to respond and both of us were able to pretend as if nothing had happened.

Now—at age sixty-three—I am furious with him. Understand, I’m not damaged by it. I’m not carrying it around. But it was inappropriate at work or in any environment, and I shouldn’t have had to deal with it.

At the time I was shocked into speechlessness. Nothing like that had ever happened to me. (Sure there was that flasher in the raincoat in San Francisco about twenty years earlier, but I’d just laughed at him. Which is, basically, my style.) Also, of course, I needed the job; I couldn’t afford to make waves, though I knew this was sexual harrassment. (Actually, though, my husband reminds me, it wasn’t harassment: there was no quid pro quo. It was inappropriate touching without my consent, and that is assault.)

But I’d already learned how expensive lawyers are. I did nothing.

Just about the time I’d “forgotten” the incident, this man came into my office just as I was leaving it. I was in front of my desk, not behind it, and he asked for something, a document, I had on my desk. I turned around and reached for it, and was shocked to feel this man, my boss, up close behind me, bumping his groin against my rear end.

WTF? There was no rescuing coworker this time but I handed him the document and quickly put distance between him and me. I was mortified.

“He Didn’t Mean It”

Notice that? I was mortified, although I’d done nothing inappropriate.

I had this job because I’d been working for the company in a different capacity prior to my divorce. When they heard I was moving to the area, I was offered the job in the “main office.” I’d had the job in the field because my close friend of long standing, Melania, was friends with the owner’s wife. And with the owner.

One afternoon after these two incidents, Melania and I were visiting, and I cautiously brought up what had happened to me. And Melania said, “Oh, I don’t think he meant it like you think he did. You must be misinterpreting it. He’s a jokester.” And we never talked about it again.

See that? Someone I trusted brushed off my concerns.

A Recap

So let’s review the reasons why I did not come forward:

  • This man was my boss; he had money, power, and authority in the community.
  • He chose his moments well; a public discussion of the incidents would be nothing but “he said, she said.”
  • I needed the job: single mom, little money, couldn’t afford to take on a legal case.
  • I had no idea how to handle the situation. I was mortified.
  • A trusted friend brushed off my concerns.

Furthermore, I knew even then that women who report rapes are often blamed for it or told they have misconstrued what happened. Rape culture wasn’t as well understood and documented as it is now, but it was becoming more so. Nowadays corporations are careful to school executives and managers about sexual harassment in the workplace, but in 1990 that was a few years in the distance. It was still a Mad Men society back then, strangely, particularly in smaller companies like this one.

Women like me, we learned to get along with men in the workplace. If we didn’t laugh at their questionable jokes, we at least didn’t make a stink about them. That’s what we called “go along to get along.” I was a pragmatist. I went along, but I did my work and went home—I didn’t hang around with anybody after work.

And so I did nothing, said nothing. I went on.

Flash Forward Twenty-Five Years

A week or so ago, a videotape emerged of Donald Trump bragging about how he touches women inappropriately. It started a national conversation. And within days, other women began stepping forward, saying, “He did that to me too.” I think perhaps there are a dozen of them on the record now.

Naturally, this being an election year, the meme machine swung into action, accusing these women of being liars. These people think it’s suspicious that the women just now “remembered.”

I don’t. Think about the recap. These are all women who were accosted by a rich, powerful, tall (six-foot-two) man. No one else was present, so an accusation would be one woman against the Trump machine, which they probably couldn’t afford to do. In fact, if any of them consulted a lawyer, they were probably advised to not pursue it; Trump could ruin them. And, of course, they were probably mortified and didn’t relish the thought of being publicly shamed.

So what’s different now? There’s a tape; there’s audio proof of this particular type of bad behavior by this particular man. One woman came forward, and then another and another. The stories don’t sound made up when a dozen different women have similar stories to tell (also, they told others at the time, and those people—friends, mentors, and so on—have also verified the stories). Most of us believe them, but there are some very loud, ugly voices calling them liars … and worse.

            And this proves the point. These are all women who, like me, just got on with their lives, because who needs this crap from these assholes? Who needs it? But they are coming forward now because of current events. Because there is safety in numbers. Because there’s proof that this man acts with others they way he acted with them. Because they are angry. Because women should be able to exist in society’s public spaces without fear of being assaulted.

I’ve had a wonderful, happy life. I still have a wonderful, happy life. The things that happened to me all those years ago don’t affect who I am now, and they certainly don’t define me. I don’t live a fearful life.

Though perhaps I should. Some people are angry with the victims, not with the perpetrator. On social media, people I know and love (?) are posting the nastiest, ugliest, lyingest things the meme machine can cobble together, as fast as it can cobble them together.

So let me remind you, my brothers, my fellow Americans, one more time: I am your sister, and it happened to me. I am your mother. I am your wife. I am your coworker, your employee. I am your neighbor. You know me. You know who I am, so you can’t—you shouldn’t—disparage my character simply because I say I was sexually assaulted by a man with power and money. I am coming forward now not for sympathy but because I am angered (nay, I am enraged) by the way you all talk about women.

I am a human being.

I am not lying.

Sources:
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
Bureau of Justice Statistics

 

 

“Eschew Ignorance. Pursue Truth.” Be a Good Citizen.

When I was much younger than I am now, I worked at a medium-sized newspaper for a few years. I knew the journalists, the editors, I watched them work. I asked questions of them. About that time I was also taking classes in what was then called “mass communication” at the local university. I learned about the importance of a free press (something I also learned, of course, in history), and the role journalism—good journalism, that is, the real-thing sort of professional journalism of accurate information and dispassionate judgment that answers to the ideals of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and a code of ethics—plays in informing the public. I’d been writing—journals, stories, humor—for years, and I was considering journalism as something I might be good at.

Twenty years later I was a divorced mom with a Mac and an AOL email account in the early days of the user-friendly Internet. I loved email—I could type long letters faster than writing them out, and I was quite the letter-writer in those days—but one of its banes was those stupid, stupid, seriously stupid emails that people with apparently nothing better to do with their precious lives passed around. (Remember the $250 cookie recipe?) Usually these emails came to me from people who wanted to spread some sort of outrage, rarely personal; usually they were addressed to twenty or more people. They were often astonishing stories I had trouble believing, and sometimes they disturbed me enough that I would research the story to learn whether or not it was true. In the days before Snopes.com, this was no mean feat. But you could, with a little effort, get at the truth, even then.

One of them—this would have been about fifteen years ago—concerned a contingent of Gold Star mothers who were reportedly turned away from the office of Senator Hillary Clinton. It is not, of course, true. (The simple story is that the women arrived without an appointment on a day Senator Clinton was not in the office. It has been strongly refuted by the national Gold Star Mothers organization. Here’s the whole story.)

And the idea that people were passing around this information as truth really bothered me. (Remember, I was raised by the Original American Patriot. Truth and justice are the American Way, yeah? We didn’t tell lies in our house. We just didn’t.) So I researched the story and I wrote an email explaining the truth, including links to valid information, and I replied to all of the recipients of the email. I ended by saying,

Regardless of our political persuasion, it’s incumbent upon us as good citizens to not tell lies or pass around the lies of others. How would you feel if someone fabricated a story like this about you?

Well, it really annoyed my friend. (To be honest, the friendship’s never been the same and I couldn’t care less. I have a low tolerance for that sort of behavior.) But I learned something from it, to wit:

1 Adults really don’t like to be told they’re wrong or to have it implied that they have misbehaved (even when they know it’s true).

2 Some people would rather believe a lie when it comes to politics. For them, the “win” is the most important thing, the only thing.

3 Many people prefer to have their prejudices and opinions confirmed, even if it’s only by an apocryphal story. Facts don’t really matter to these people.

Flash forward a few more years. Now I’m an editor of books. I’ve been an editor for twelve years. I work on both fiction and nonfiction, and in the case of the latter, I have spent years honing my skills on fact-checking and tracking down original source material—because you wouldn’t believe the sorts of websites some folks want to cite as a source. For example, those awful, awful quotes sites like ThinkExist and Brainyquote? They are not good sources. (I’ve written quite a bit about sourcing quotes here and here, and I’ve written about fact-checking here.) When you factor in people whose minds are closed to virtually all information that does not fit neatly within the narrow confines of their belief system, you end up with all sorts of bat-shit crazy stuff (like the Gold Star Mothers canard) and when you add to that people who are so [determined? angry? misguided?] that they will do anything—including lie—to support their world view, well, we’ve got a big problem. We’ve got people who are promoting an agenda by lying about the other side of the story, and we’ve got people who cannot see the difference between lies and truth.

I often get work from a publisher who publishes current event–type books, often those that espouse viewpoints from the opposite side of the political fence from me. And that’s precisely why I get the work: the managing editor knows me well, knows my political leanings. She also knows that I take my work very seriously. She hires me, she’s told me, to keep her authors “honest,” to make sure they’re not just spouting hot air but are backing up their claims with facts and research from good, unbiased sources. (I wouldn’t allow, for example, citations from WorldNetDaily or NewsMax, because they are so obviously slanted they are more opinion than fact. I could go on and on with the list of biased or propaganda websites.)

But a lot of folks don’t care about separating truth from opinion or propaganda, it seems. They seem to have no ability to think critically. To question. Now we’re involved in an insane political cycle in which one candidate seems incapable of telling the truth. For months, my husband and I have scratched our heads, wondering if this guy is gaslighting us. As Time magazine’s recent cover story noted, “political debate has become unhinged from reality.”

Donald Trump, the GOP presidential nominee, has spent years regularly encouraging his followers to doubt much of what is known to be true: that the earth is warming, that Obama was born in the U.S., that the FBI’s decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton follows prosecutorial precedent. … One of the first casualties of this worldview is the very ability to have a national debate with a common set of facts.

Why is that?

I check everything before I believe it. I research before I buy a car. I look into the science of weight loss when I want to shed some pounds. And when I hear of a story that’s, well, out there, I check into that too. What makes me do this—and not my brother, say, who not only supports a congenital liar but hates the “other side” so much he will post to his Facebook page the most egregious (and easily refuted) lies about them? What does he think other people make of this … this ugliness that he says right out loud?*

I think what I think about political matters, but I try to be respectful of others’ opinions, even when I adamantly disagree with them. I believe that America needs, and has always needed, a reliable and logical conservative voice in American politics—just as it needs a liberal and progressive voice. There’s room for all of us at the table. But … when I see people I once had great respect for continue to post the most heinous statements about people like me, calling me things like libtard (really?) … well, it’s gone beyond a difference of opinion. It’s hurtful. It’s hateful. It’s un-American, frankly.

I still believe strongly in the truth, and that actual truth is ascertainable. I still believe in the power of critical thinking. I still believe that one’s character matters, and that a good citizen searches for the facts—no matter how much or little those facts ultimately support his opinion. I would urge you to become a more responsible citizen; I would urge you to check your facts. I would urge you to use discernment** as you do so. We have the technology.

* There have been a variety of scientific theories about this phenomenon. Here’s one. Here is another. As a friend of mine notes, fear + ignorance is a potent cocktail, and it’s easy to manipulate those under its influence with memes and slogans.

** Here’s how to be discerning online:
1) Watch for obvious bias; if the article uses pejoratives like libtards, it’s slanted. Look for multiple sources, too; if an article has only one source, beware.
2) Go back to the article’s original sources; are those articles being cited fairly and accurately or has the writer cherry-picked statements out of context? Does the material even support the writer’s point?
3) Research the writer and the contributors to the article. Are they experts in the field?

Holding Two Opposing Thoughts in My Head: It’s Self-Evident, Y’all

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, in “The Crack-Up,” an essay published in Esquire magazine in 1936

I was raised by an American patriot (my daddy), a man pledged to give his life for this country for the twenty-three years he was on active duty with the United States Air Force. He raised us all to show respect for the flag, and I do. I do. I can even tear up, as he always did.

And yet, as an American, I also support the right of the football players who’ve chosen to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem, as a protest for the many things they see wrong in our society. I see those wrongs too.

I can hold these two opposing thoughts in my head—my love and respect for the country of my birth while I note that not everything is perfect here, that there are deep wrongs we need to right. But there is a certain ilk of people in this country who cannot (actually, will not) do that, hold the conflicting thoughts. They condemn this peaceful protest.

I wonder what they would think if they read this book? By historian/professor Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America shows us an America most people don’t want to believe exists. And I’m not talking about the connotation you may get when you read the title. No, I’m talking about our revered Founding Fathers. This book made me think differently about them.

The Founding Fathers. You know: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and others. Those guys to whom this ilk—the folks who can’t stand it when a football player quietly takes a knee during the national anthem—rush to ascribe all sorts of signs and wonders. I did, too, honestly, until I read this well-researched book. The thing is, those guys were really just very privileged white English assholes who brought their class superiority with them when they left England. They talked a good game—all men (though not women) created equal, being endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights indeed—but they really didn’t walk the walk. Those blessings of liberty were really only intended for, you know, white men of the monied class.

And yet, and yet. That Constitution. And that Declaration of Independence. They’re things of beauty. We’ve been clinging to them for 240 years. So there’s two opposing thoughts for you, yes? I can hold them both in my head. I can love and respect the dream manifest in the words We hold these truths to be self-evidentself-evident, y’all!—and hate the fact that the writers of those words brought both black and white* slaves to this land to do (ahem) the hard work. The work that well-bred, well-off white men shouldn’t have to do, they thought.

These are perilous times we live in, friends. Hate speech—particularly toward people of color—abounds. My husband and I were just having this discussion at breakfast. “You can change your accent and your address,” he said, “but you can’t change the color of your skin.” I look around at my fellow Americans and I’m appalled and ashamed by their behavior, not by the behavior of the peaceful protesters. I’m shocked that some Americans presume to judge others for a quiet, peaceful protest, something granted to all citizens of this country. Peaceful protest. Free speech too.

Two opposing thoughts.

As humans, we’re capable of that.

In the 5 September 2016 issue of Time magazine, there was a ten-question interview with legal scholar/professor Akhil Amar of Yale University. His ethnic heritage is Indian, his parents having immigrated to the United States from India before he was born. The last question in the interview was this one:

Q: When you emptied your pockets so we could take your picture, you pulled out three copies of the Constitution. One wasn’t enough?

A: People died for these words, so we should have the words literally close to our hearts. You should have more than one copy because if someone asks you a question about the Constitution, I think it’s wonderful and democratic if you can give them a copy and you can read it together.

This made me tear up when I read it.

This is patriotism, y’all. Loudly demanding that someone stand during the national anthem because your small-minded idea of what America is can’t survive without a faked-up show of respect,** because you are incapable of holding two opposing thoughts in your tiny little head is not patriotism.

* They were referred to as “trash people”—because the wealthy landowners literally intended to work them to death, then throw them away like trash. Nice.

** How many times in years past have you tuned in a televised football game and watched as the camera panned down the line of athletes waiting to play? There was a time in my life when I spent every Sunday during football season doing this. I remember: some sang, some put hands over hearts, some did neither of those things, some swayed, lifted legs, bounced (staying loose), or grimaced (already in their game faces), some might have even been finishing off a quick exchange of words with the guy next to them, trying to be discreet. Think about it. You’ve seen it, don’t deny it. So tell me again why you’re so outraged now?

Working on a Detox

Four years ago, in early November, I drove out to my brother’s house to chat about family Thanksgiving plans, as I do every year. (Our parents are deceased; our sister lives far from here.) When I got there and walked into the living room, my brother was angry—at me, sort of.

(I should stop here and say I am the oldest child; my brother is the youngest, four years younger than me. He is a farmer, a kind and gentle man who loves animals, has stayed married to the same woman for forty-two years, raised a great kid. He served four years in the Marines. I’ve never heard him raise his voice to man or beast. He is a Republican, just like our father was. We agree to disagree on that last bit. My life philosophy was formed in the ’60s, and though many decades have passed, I am still that woman. I have not changed.)

But my brother was hopping mad … about the recent reelection of the American president, Barack Obama. He lit into me—a convenient liberal voter he felt safe blaming—with the litany of complaints that had been making the rounds: the country was going to go into a massive depression, in fact it was going to go broke, since there were “more takers than makers”; Obama was going to take away legally owned guns; and on and on. When I tried to speak (though not to argue with him), he shouted me down: “Just you wait! You’ll see!” (Collectively, this reaction has been called in the press the Great Right-Wing Freakout of 2012.)

It scared me. I stood up and said, “Maybe I should leave. We can talk about Thanksgiving another time.” And immediately all his anger drained away. “No, no, sit down, don’t go.” And we did talk a little (his wife sat silently by), but eventually his anger level rose again, and I left, shaking and disturbed. When I got home, I called my ex-husband.

(Here I’ll say that my ex-husband and I are on good terms; I like his second wife and his second set of kids, and we do a lot of holidays together. When I married him—the little girl with flowers woven in her hair—he was a long-haired hippie himself, threatening to run away to Canada if the draft didn’t go his way. I am not sure what happened to that guy, but his politics align with my brother’s now; they are buddies, in fact. I don’t discuss politics with either of them, and generally we just don’t anyway—we talk culture, not politics. Luis always tries to make nice; he knows I don’t like to argue.)

So I called Luis, since he and his family would be sitting at my dining room table on Thanksgiving too. I was shaken and upset, and as I started to tell him what happened, I began to sob uncontrollably, something I never do, certainly not to my ex-husband. “Please help me; please don’t bring up the election or politics,” I said. He agreed to “not go there,” and Thanksgiving plans proceeded.

On the night, my brother and his wife were running late. Something locally newsworthy had happened that day, and Luis turned on the television while we waited. But he turned automatically to Fox, which I consider to be … well, not news. Bill O’Reilly et al annoy and offend me. I waited—nervously; what if my brother got here?—until we had the update on the event, then quietly, calmly, asked Luis to turn the TV off or switch the channel. He rose up from the couch and moved into the kitchen in seconds, screaming, until he was face to face with me. “Don’t tell ME what to do! I’ll watch television if I WANT to!” (Should I remind you that this was in my house?) It was like he’d gone insane. Had a psychotic break.

I put my hands up around my face, because I actually thought he might hit me. When I did that, he stopped, and all the anger seemed to leave him. He turned around, lifted the foil covering the turkey. And nothing was ever said again, about any of it.

I have often wondered what happened on those two occasions.

Now, of course, we’re in the middle of an unbelievable, ugly election (again). My brother joined Facebook about a year ago, and he’s posted a lot of nasty right-wing memes. My husband says, “Just ignore him,” but it bothers me. He’s my brother, but I don’t recognize this person. He and my ex-husband share these ugly things back and forth. Demands to repeal “Obamacare” the minute the GOP retakes the country (even though my brother’s wife uses the government’s low-income subsidies to the Affordable Care Act to get health insurance*), and support for closing our borders and not letting immigrants in (even though both of my husbands have been immigrants**; even though my sister’s daughter married a Mexican immigrant, a lovely man). I don’t recognize them anymore, this bit of my family.

It’s not just them, of course. I live in a red state. But … the anger. The hatred! Sometimes I leave a comment for my brother—“Actually, that’s not true”—with a link to good information, but he responds with a repetition of talking points (propaganda), not actual facts. In fact, a lot of people on that side of the fence do the same in public forums, and it has the effect of shutting down conversation. It is a losing battle. The amount of bad, untruthful, twisted information being slung around here is disheartening. Where is this coming from? I’ve tried to remain calm, I’ve tried to educate myself—but it has done nothing but upset and unsettle me and keep me from sleep.

Until I found this: The Brainwashing of My Dad. It’s a documentary. The New York Times says it is “Jen Senko’s documentary about how right-wing news programs, talk shows and Internet sites turned her once reasonable father into a raging embodiment of intolerance and suspicion.”

As I watched, I found Senko’s story sounding more and more familiar:

When I was growing up in the ‘60s, I remember that my parents were really nice to everybody. They had a good time with lots of other grown-up friends and relatives; they were always laughing and joking. They didn’t even gossip, whereas I remember other friends’ parents doing so quite a bit. And later, with the dawn of the hippies and the new mores, I remember feeling proud of them—they already were open-minded and accepting. … My father was huge on education. He had his master’s degree in engineering, so it was his idea for us to read an hour before bed each night. … There were times he showed extraordinary acts of kindness. I recount this one story in the film: Since we lived close to New York in New Jersey, my parents would often take us into the city to go to a museum or Radio City Music Hall. Once, when we got out of Port Authority, an African-American homeless man asked my dad for some money. My dad called him “Sir!” and gave him some money. That memory is indelible for me. He treated everyone around him with respect at a time when that was not always the norm.

This sounds similar to my childhood, the one my brother was raised in too. Then Senko notes that her family moved and her father’s commute changed. Instead of carpooling, he was driving alone, and he was driving farther. He started listening to talk radio. First he listened to Bob Grant. Then he started listening to Rush Limbaugh. Later he began watching Fox [Not] News. Senko says:

And that’s when my Dad became angry all the time, argumentative, and hateful of particular groups of people. Of all things, he began lashing out against gay people. … He railed against “liberal universities.” He railed against illegal immigrants and Mexicans, and literally started telling my mother she should wait on him because he was the man of the house. … In time, it became obvious to me that the same mantras were being trotted out on various right-wing platforms. And I could see this in the few friends I had that “turned.” They would form identical arguments, repeating the exact same talking points and phrases around the same time as my Dad. One read The Drudge Report, while my Dad listened to Limbaugh.

Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Drudge, and others of that ilk fabricate and distort routinely; they are entertainers, not journalists, and certainly not academic experts. They are looking to drive up viewership ratings (which drive up advertising rates). But in terms of actual facts, these outlets are more like the National Enquirer than they are like USA Today. Senko discovered that a lot of those nasty right-wing emails (which have become shared Facebook posts or memes in the era of social media) with stories from “regular folks” who just wanted the recipient “to know” what liberals are up to were “written by a bunch of guys sitting in a room at some right-wing think tank, made to sound as if an ‘average Joe’ wrote them.”

Gosh, it all sounded so familiar. Senko described it as a nightmare for the family; it was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Senkos no longer recognized ther dad.

In the documentary, Senko goes on to explain the historical reasons for the rise of propaganda in politics (it really got a leg up in Nixon’s presidential campaign) and how the players of that game manipulate the talking points you hear across the board from Limbaugh to Fox to Breitbart and on and on. It’s a concerted effort to mislead; that “vast right-wing conspiracy” really is a thing. When Ronald Reagan killed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, it opened the floodgate of poison that the moneyed right-wing spews. (And make no mistake, money is always the issue.)

Senko explains this history in detail, interviewing several experts, including including Noam Chomsky, CNN’s Reese Schonfeld, progressive talk radio host Thom Hartmann, media critic Jeff Cohen, Media Matters founder David Brock, and Republican political consultant Frank Luntz. The Daily Beast notes,

It’s also a densely packed, sometimes overstuffed examination of how shrewd strategists engineered a long-term takeover of the media on behalf of the GOP, arguing that right-wing think tanks, advocacy groups, and media outlets together achieved what the left has always refused, or been unable, to do: manipulate the minds of America.

With decades of ground to cover, Senko nails some choice sound bites from her interviewees. Luntz, the spin doctor who helped Newt Gingrich twist estate tax into “death tax” and the Bush administration turn global warming into “climate change,” unabashedly reveals how he polls plebes for keywords that frighten them the most and points out how Fox News anchors use hand gestures to subliminally connect with their viewers.

Senko also explains the neurology of brainwashing in general and of the negative talking points phenomenon specifically: alarm is addictive, and repetition of the same messages transform the hearer’s brain.

The whole thing was shocking. I was raised to be fair, tell the truth, to treat others the way I would want to be treated (with kindness and respect, among other things). I was raised to be competitive, to go after the things I wanted, but that winning in and of itself was not the goal. “Winning at all costs” is not the sort of human being I was raised to be.

Nor was my brother. And yet …

Watching this documentary gave me some peace of mind and allowed me to sleep for the first time in days. I like research. I like logic and facts. And here, at last, was a reason that my once friendly, gentle, kind brother has turned into an angry repeater of lies. Senko reports that hundreds of people have gotten in touch with her with their own stories. I could be one of them.

Instead, I’m writing about it. I finally decided that if I don’t get this out of my system, it will poison me. I have been journaling, writing, blogging my whole life, trying to make sense of life, so this is nothing new. As I’ve said before about this blog, it’s a lot about travel, but really it’s about my good life, my fortunate life. This is a part of it. Watching this video helped me, and if you are worried and upset about these issues, it might help you too.

(I’ll note here that I no longer engage with my brother; I no longer try to direct him to factual information. You’ve heard that old Robert Heinlein quote, yes? “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.” That’s where I’m at.)

* Note: A previous version of this essay indicated both were insured by the ACA, but only my brother’s wife is.

** My husband Gerry’s frail eighty-six-year-old mother is worried that if Trump wins, Gerry will be deported to Ireland. She shouldn’t have to worry about things like this and we’re surprised this level of detail has made it across the Atlantic, but such is the state of affairs right now.

Traveling Solo (An Introduction to a Wonderful Blog)

I seriously love this piece. It’s called “Why I Travel Alone.” The writing is lovely.

Venice. It’s early on a gray December morning. I’m standing alone on a long pier that stretches out into the lagoon. It’s pouring rain and under my umbrella, I’ve rolled my suitcase as close to me as possible on the narrow floating walkway.

Yesterday I booked the St. Marco waterbus to the airport with a departure early enough to catch my morning flight back to New York with time to spare. It’s now 7:30 a.m. What I didn’t know is that Venice is a town where unless you are in produce or fish, you’re not out before 9. The ticket booths are shuttered, no other travelers are in sight and the only signs I can read point me… here. I’m standing in the middle of the whitecapped sea, in the rain, rocking on the end of a long, lonely pier, not really certain if my precarious spot is the right precarious spot to get to the airport.

Why did I take this trip alone? Why didn’t I spend for the private water taxi? Why did I wear these shoes?

It goes on, and I urge you to spend some time at this blog, called Solo-Travel. It’s fantastic.

I have several single girlfriends. Some of them organize trips with friends or family. Some don’t. One of them said to me just last week, “If I wait for someone to go with, I’ll never go.” This was in the context of her having just returned from a trip to Phoenix, a place she’d never been and wanted to see. And so she did. Alone.

When I was single myself (a single mom), I didn’t have the funds to travel much. But I have had the luxury, during various trips to Ireland in the last decade, of finding myself alone in the car with an afternoon to spend on my own while Gerry hunkered down somewhere with a soccer game on the television.* I hadn’t thought much about it until I discovered Solo-Travel, but it is different. Empowering. Fulfilling. Mind and heart expanding.

I met the author of Solo-Travel through my work … but we bonded over our mutual love of exploring countries not our own. And we are absolutely on the same wavelength about travel, which she says is “soul-shifting, and sometimes mystical.” It’s a similar description to what I call “finding the magic.” We all need a little magic in our lives, IMHO.

I think you’ll find this blog special, so here’s your introduction. Enjoy!

* (Of course, the getting there and back was always done solo.)