The Whisperer

His whispering caught me off guard.   The Whisperer was tall, with shaved head and face, white, late 40s to 50-ish.  We were both in a week-long leadership training course and I was trying to pay attention to the instructor.  “The new African-American Museum is important.  I should see it,” he tells me, in a golf announcer’s whisper.  “Except,” he added, “I have to catch a flight home.”  He chose to talk about race to me, the only Black person in the class, at a moment when I could not  engage with him straight-on.  I glanced at him, gave a little shrug, and focused on the instructor.

The Whisperer had more.  “My grandfather came to this country in 1910.  He was Irish, and when he got here he was told …” — I turned to him and finished his sentence — “… Irish need not apply.”  (Yeah, yeah, yeah….)  Undeterred by irony, The Whisperer continued, “My grandfather knew that as hard as it was for him to find work, he could still get jobs Blacks couldn’t get.”  I’d already pivoted toward the instructor at that point, trying to follow him.


But, The Whisperer wasn’t finished.  He said, “My father was  better about Blacks than my grandfather was.  I hope I’m better than my father was.  And I hope my kids will be better than me.”  For the second time since his whispering began, I turned to him and whispered, “So, my family was here 150 years before yours and we still have to wait for the 4th generation of your Irish-American family to do “better about Blacks”?  (I’ve been told I have a very “verbal face,” and it probably expressed incredulity.)   When the instructor stopped for a break, The Whisperer quick-stepped out the room.

Oh, if that were only the end of it.

After the next break he stood next to me and said, with genuine puzzlement, that he didn’t know what “White Privilege” means.  He used his hands to scan his long body down to his pockets where he opened them in a gesture showing emptiness — like, where is the White Privilege?  In his mind, privilege is about personal wealth.  He didn’t realize he’d illustrated White Privilege in his whispered tale about his family patriarch.  So I told him.

Sigh ….

20180525_121228-01-01.jpegProgressive media proposes a “national discourse” about race and racism.  Most of the time it is “the elephant in the room.”  I suppose this would mean all people talk to each other about the national legacy.  If we don’t, then we’ll just be listening to academics and politicians holding forth as experts and advocates on race.  I’m as open to a conversation about race now as I have been all my life.  My openness doesn’t mean these conversations always happen.  But, I will count The Whisperer’s tale as his effort toward discourse.

Let me know your thoughts.



What Happened to Courtesy?

All kinds of bad behavior has been showcased on U.S. news lately. For some, it has been entertaining; and for others, hugely influential. I’ve been thinking about the subject of courtesy for months, and didn’t know where to start. Well, there’s nothing like taking a walk on an unexpectedly beautiful, warm and sunny afternoon in early March to reach clarity. Two things linked up for me:  1) words and actions are a powerful influence; and 2) the phrase “politically correct” or “PC” is BS.

The power of words and actions.

Think about what happened to the greeting, “Hello.” Somewhere along the line, we began to respond to strangers less and less with simple niceties, like a greeting and follow-up “How are you?” Mostly, we rush through life and past each other. We absorb ourselves in our devices and opt out of social interaction. We avoid eye contact.

At one time, it was common to greet strangers in passing when they made eye contact. There were also a few people who would look others straight in the eyes as they passed, and snub them when they said hello.  Add to those few an entire generation admonished as children to not speak to strangers, under any circumstances. Our cultural niceties eroded.

No one likes rejection, and many people actively avoid it. Now, the people who look you in the eye and greet you are in the minority. Remember the English idiom, “One bad apple spoils the barrel.” Next thing you know, you’ve got a culture change.

And that’s just one example.

Another occurred during rush hour on the subway platform. A young man raced for his train like he was running the gauntlet. In the process, he crushed an old man between the escalator rail and a pole. He only stopped when he saw me try to help the old man he had jammed up. He was mortified and profusely apologized.  People move through life completely unaware (and unconcerned) of others in the same space. It happens all the time.  Someday that guy will himself be an old man, similarly invisible, and maybe even afraid to navigate this society.

Political correctness.

When someone uses the term “politically correct,” it’s usually with resignation or resentment. You may even see eyeballs roll and a sneer as they say, “I have to be politically correct.” God forbid you curb behavior, language, or certain terms to avoid offending certain groups of people.  Doesn’t this really mean that a filter would be appropriate so you can treat people with courtesy and respect? The fact that people would resist this is sad.

Evidently, there are some people who fully admire those who say what they really think, especially when those verbalized thoughts are offensive on so many levels. This astounds me. It’s as though the admirers want to revert to their five year old selves and cut their own filters loose.

Bad behavior is powerful. When it comes from the top, it seems to almost have a viral effect. That it comes from the top, seems to make it okay — at least to people affected by the “virus.” Could good behavior have the same effect?

In this increasingly rude society, I decided to push myself to do what is —  sadly — uncomfortable. When I catch someone’s eye, I make a point to acknowledge them with a greeting or a smile. When I’m buying something, I look a cashier in the eyes, smile, and say “Thank you” when we complete the transaction. Simple things like that. Maybe we’ve gotten used to treating customer service people like the nameless and the faceless, despite their name tags. How could that make anyone feel valued?

The responses have been encouraging and positive overall. Some recipients of this courtesy look pleasantly surprised. Hell, I’m pleasantly surprised — and wondering why this actually takes effort and what was my role in the loss of basic civility.

Maybe with little steps we can start a cascade of kindness and civility, one greeting and smile at a time.







The Worst Obituary I’ve Ever Read

I have a paper clutter problem at home. One cause of that problem is that I tear out newspaper and magazine articles that interest me. I figure I’ll use the articles for reference or blog content at some later point in time, so the paper collects in files or small piles.  I was getting a jump on spring cleaning when I found this ragged article on a floor.

“Far-right, anti-Semitic organizer who denied the Holocaust”

Worst obituary

This obituary for — I’ll call him “Mr. C” — was the largest headline on the page. Most prominent obituaries trumpet the professional or civic accomplishments of the deceased, leaving a reader with a sense of a community’s or family’s deeply-felt loss.  But, Mr. C’s obituary read like a resumé of his efforts to advance extremist beliefs.  Even Washington, D.C.’s spin-meisters wouldn’t salvage this one.

I wondered:  Did a bitter family member submit the obituary? Nope. Maybe there was someone left behind who was getting left out?  Nope.  This missive was written by “Staff Reports.” It was fine, objective reporting and writing. The Staff worked with what they had.

There didn’t seem to be any material that could cast the deceased Mr. C in a sympathetic or heroic light. There weren’t statements to indicate his beliefs actually helped anyone. What more could Staff say about an apparent recluse, who didn’t seem to have any personal or significant relationships?  Even his wife lived in a different city, and there was only one sentence to acknowledge her existence.

The obituary noted that ‘Mr. C’ was notorious for his “extremist views” that “resonated with generations of neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists and other fringe elements.” Among his recommendations was that “black Americans be deported to Africa.” (We’ve heard that one before.) Evidently, Mr. C’s pro-segregation / apartheid /white separatist / anti-Semitic publications and organizations landed them on Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center watch lists.

Mr. C was noted as being way far right and conservative. But, not even William F. Buckley, Jr. wanted him in his camp.

I looked for nuggets of humanity and personal relationships; some bit of redemption in the long summary of Mr. C’s life. I thought he would have been beloved among his fellow extremists, but he wasn’t. He had failed relationships, even among that crowd.  His network was strewn with burned bridges.

Upon his death, only the publications Mr. C founded said anything positive. They expressed gratitude that he championed their extremist causes. The only additional information I gleaned was that he had served in the military and earned a Purple Heart.

In contrast, I saw this heading for a politician’s death notice in Time magazine, February 15, 2016:  “Beloved mayor, convicted felon.”  This heading ticked off the plus and minus boxes of the mayor’s life. The writeup was brief, but very clear that the mayor’s legacy was his contributions to his city, through his support of arts and historic preservation, new parks, and schools. The pluses of the mayor’s life eclipsed his felony conviction.

I was laughing when I described Mr. C’s obituary headline to a friend. Were there raucous cheers out there somewhere at the news of his demise, like the residents of Oz when they heard “The Wicked Witch is dead”?  I was incredulous that this was the best life this guy was willing to live, and he had worked very hard at it. Readers might surmise that Mr. C had succeeded in being an asshole his whole adult life.

Even though it was funny in that sense, it was very sad in another. No friends, no family, no life.

Let’s consider Mr. C’s obituary to be “Exhibit A” for how you do not want to be remembered. In her book Thrive, Arianna Huffington said that people can “live up to the best version of [their] eulogy.” Along that same line, a famous poem, “The Dash,” explains that life occurs in the dash between your date of birth and your date of death. The poem concludes with the question whether you would be proud of the things said at your eulogy.

Would you?

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Chemical Overload: Are We Screwed??

I’m an optimist, but…maybe we are screwed. Chemicals in their unregulated glory are everywhere: in our air, water, and food, and on our bodies. I read labels and avoid unnecessary and harmful chemicals. The worst part is not knowing what is really safe and the extent of harmful stuff out there…like, what’s in my local water supply really?

Meanwhile, trying to avoid chemicals is like swimming against a riptide.

Read on.

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My optimism faltered not long ago when I went to the grocery store. I needed trash compactor bags for my appliance. It’s an uncommon appliance, and not every store has the bags. But, I’ve reliably found them at my grocery store.

There has never been anything  special about a box of trash compactor bags. But, this time? The only boxes contained bags embellished with  “Odor Control” and “Fresh Scent.” Reluctantly, I bought a box.

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When I opened it, a smell wafted out and filled my kitchen. It was an odor, not a scent.  I sneezed, and sneezed again. That was my allergic reaction to the chemically treated bags. “Fresh Scent” stunk.

I removed the box of remaining bags from the kitchen and put them on my porch to air out. (Even after two weeks, they didn’t.) It never occurred to me that I needed to look for “unscented” trash bags.

My number one question: Why would you need “Odor Control” and “Fresh Scent” for a trash compactor bag? The beauty of trash compactors is that you only need to change bags once every two or three weeks. They are not meant to store garbage. Garbage and trash are two different things. Garbage will spoil and rot. But, if garbage ends up in a trash compactor, the remedy is to empty the damn bag! You can’t mask odor with a scented bag.

What makes a product smell  “fresh,” anyway? Chemicals, including pthalates, are used to create “scents.” These chemicals may be endocrine disruptors and are usually labeled “parfum” or “fragrance,” the composition of which is not regulated by the FDA. In fact, the manufacturer might be the only one to know what’s in its product’s “fragrance.” Because I was diagnosed with a hormonal cancer, I avoid cosmetics, soaps, and household cleaners containing perfume or fragrance.

Speaking of “unscented” items, check out your grocery store’s toilet paper selection. I saw plenty of “unscented” toilet paper. I also found scented toilet paper and scented wipes. The last thing I want rubbing up against orifices — particularly those south of my belly button — are chemicals.  Is the scented wipe supposed to deodorize your bum, or neutralize odor in the air? Another risk of the scented wipe is getting a rash. Imagine that.

Another ridiculous scented item is paper towels. I made this unfortunate discovery after buying and opening a bulk supply of Bounty brand paper towels. I made sure the paper towels were 2-ply, and neglected to see that they are “Water Activated” and coated (or infused?) with Dawn dishwashing liquid. The sickening scent gave it away. I use cleaning cloths or rags for housecleaning, and use paper towels to dry my hands, or produce I’ve washed. I do not want my produce to end up with a coat of chemicals because of the paper towels.

(Note to Bounty brand: This was not an improvement.  I will not be buying two kinds of paper towels: one for housecleaning and the other to simply absorb moisture.)

Now on to the miserable failure of room deodorizing sprays. A certain observation about bathroom odor goes like this: “It smells like something crawled up inside and died.” Things get really out of hand when a spray adds another layer of odor.  If this is a regular occurrence, the only real remedies are a powerful ventilation system and a new diet.

In the same grocery store run, I needed some dental floss. The varieties of floss are ridiculous. You can buy it waxed or unwaxed; super-fine or capable of glide; and you can buy it flavored mint or cinnamon, too. Floss began as simple nylon string and then got dressed up as a dessert course. How’d that happen? Chemicals.

I went from being irked and annoyed at the sundry useless applications of chemicals to having more unsettling thoughts. Even if we avoid chemically-coated products, what about the widespread use of chemicals in our water supply? What about chemical runoff from the disposal of industrial waste?

On that ominous note, I read a fascinating Huffington Post piece, “Welcome to Beautiful Parkersburg, West Virginia – Home to one of the most brazen, deadly corporate gambits in U.S. history.” This article traces the history of a company as a war-time manufacturer of chemicals to its makeover as a producer of everyday miracles. The author connects the dots that more chemicals applied to more products equals more corporate revenue…and more health consequences.

Here are four points from this article:

  1. Of the approximately 80,000 chemicals on the market, only “a handful” have been tested for safety;
  2. Regulatory enforcement is weak and there is little voluntary corporate self-governance;
  3. Even if a company yields to pressure and phases out one chemical, it replaces it with another that may be just as bad; and
  4. Absorbed or ingested chemicals may load up in our bodies for decades.

I’m optimistic for activism and spreading awareness. But, unnecessary, hazardous, and unregulated chemicals are pervasive and I don’t know if we can stem the tide. Are we screwed?  In our lifetime — probably.

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