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Sunday, August 13, 2017

An Awokening

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Why Aim for Greater Cultural Intelligence?

A series of experiences come to mind because I’ve read two articles today that make me uncomfortable -- my brilliant, openly queer friend Li Sian Goh’s essay and openly gay NYT columnist Frank Bruni’s op-ed:

An adorable Asian young man and I are talking with other lovely, mostly Asian people at the 31st birthday party of MJ Yap, my colleague and friend, several weeks ago. He tells me that he’s from Bhutan. He’s got the same complexion as many South Asian people I’ve met from India. He says, “They call me Baby. That’s my nickname.”

“There’s an amazing lesbian novel called Babyji that I loved – about a lesbian in India, who –“

“I’m not from –“

“I know you’re from Bhutan, not India, but in India, adding 'ji' to a name is an endearment –”

He doesn’t care, his expression tells me, he’s not lesbian and he’s not from India. Get me out of here, I’m thinking. I’m just trying to affiliate with this otherwise sweet guy and I’ve made a faux pas and want to disappear.

Earlier in the evening, I’m feeling awkward around three attractive Asian-American women and blurt nonsensically, “Do you ever feel invisible from an attraction standpoint because the older I get, the more invisible I feel.” One of them dignifies my comment with an answer, “No, but I do routinely have to deal with people cutting ahead of me in lines as if I’m not there. I think they think I won’t say anything.”

Which is better? For me to have avoided going to a birthday party, where I’m one of the only non-Asian and older people there or to go and make at least a couple of potentially alienating remarks? Li Sian has gently helped me see that this is not where my focus needs to be. Rather, it needs to be simply on apologizing for my microaggressions. I'll apologize here and then will also do so individually. I'm sorry for my cluelessness and will work on becoming less so.

Or what about the recent event that included a screening of “Moonlight” and a panel on the intersectionality of diversity and sexual orientation? Does it help or hurt for my gay white friend who is with me to hear one of the panelists, Andi, say that he could never call himself gay and chooses queer instead because gay is “a white men’s” term? (Scroll down for more discussion on this.)

Or how about when a friend who is visibly differently abled posts her despondency at being made fun of by strangers while walking down the street recently? And then clarifies for those of us who write outraged responses, saying that she isn’t looking for pity, just had needed to post about the indignity.

Or the heterosexual Indian friend who posts a 1995 photo of himself the other day with the caption that it was the day he was going to kill himself, but then didn’t? And then explains to friends who comment at how they wish they had known of his unhappiness and how glad they are that he is not dead, saying that he has deleted the original post because it was going in the wrong direction – that he was only trying to point out that things can be bad and then they can improve.

Or the sincere people who ask about Pat & me, “Who’s the husband?” And how I answer graciously and factually, “No one. We’re both women, so both of us are wives.”

Or the colleague when I worked in Schaumburg, Illinois, who wanted to know how I could have blue eyes since I’m Jewish? And who was thrilled when I gave her the ham I won in the company’s free, random Thanksgiving lottery? (I was not the only non-pork-eating employee there. Just ask my colleague Farooq.)

Frank Bruni’s is first, during my breakfast omelet, which Pat has made with love. The op-ed begins snidely, and even though I can tell that it is coming from hurt feelings, I can hardly stand to keep going: 

“I’m a white man, so you should listen to absolutely nothing I say, at least on matters of social justice.” Of course, he’s upset. No one likes to feel excluded or silenced or that his or her opinion doesn’t matter. That same white, gay friend who came to the “Moonlight” event has explained to me similarly over the years: I’ve never known from white male privilege because since boyhood, I was routinely beaten up and made fun of and did not feel part of that club. Yet Andi's experience is no less Andi's experience.
 
I’ve written about this before: I learned what “inclusion” meant when co-facilitator Steve Basile invited me to the United Auto Workers’ Diversity Conference in the late-90s; our topic covered how to be inclusive of gay and lesbian colleagues at work.

The first night, I went to the opening reception and even after Steve arrived, I was among the only non-Black people in the cavernous hall. I said to myself then, I know what the definition of Diversity is: Environments / teams / places qualify as diverse, as long as I’m included, whoever “I” is in that statement. (Ironically, in the late-90s, LGBT seminars, including ours, unfortunately, did not routinely include education on bi and trans people.)

Li Sian’s essay also is difficult for me to read. Li Sian is writing about the racism of the novel, Jane Eyre.  Somehow, I wasn’t required to read it in high school and I’ve never done so. The essay is difficult because it also challenges privileged people who feel proud of reading books by authors from the margins, and by extension, for feeling pleased whenever they make an effort to stretch themselves beyond their social cocoon.

As a relatively well-educated, employed and solvent American-Jewish lesbian, I am more and less privileged than others. I want to be proud of the times I extend myself to gain some cultural intelligence because if I can’t celebrate my bravery and encourage myself to keep extending myself, then I just want to burrow in and stick with apparently my own people exclusively. That's my experience, and Li Sian's is hers, just as Andi's is his, and the Bhutanian's is his, and the Asian woman's from the party is hers, and my differently abled friend's is hers, and my heterosexual, Indian friend's is his, and Frank Bruni's is his, and my white gay friend's is his, and my Muslim colleague Farooq's is his and Pat & mine is ours.

After reading these articles today, I’m on high alert:

I turn to the last page of “The New York Times”, where I am annoyed by the headline and story, “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism”. Why Non-Lesbian Women Had Better Sex … is what the reporter means, I confirm by reading the article. More lesbian invisibility. Get me out of here – this is the phrase that springs to mind whether I’ve embarrassed myself through my own cultural ignorance or someone has irked me with his or hers.

What would “getting out of here” achieve, though? I prefer to transform indignities into art, whereas escaping just allows me to escape the particular situation, but the unhappy feelings come with me. Getting out of here does not foster art or connection with people. Acknowledging their experience, and my own, does.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Answering Rabbi Daniel Cohen's Questions

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

The Questions Appear in Rabbi Cohen's New Book 

The book is *What will they say about you when you are gone: Creating a Life of Legacy - Live Your Best Life Now* and the questions are ones that -- since my parents (z"l) are gone and I'm 50+ -- I'm especially in the mood to consider these days:

From pp. 13 and 15-17:
  1. Who are you? A Jewish-American lesbian writer, as well as a music, fiction and global museum lover, and a solvent home owner and healthy eater, who has enjoyed the companionship of my wife for nearly 25 years so far, who has parented up to two precious cats at a time for close to a decade, who has been grateful for the siblinghood of my two older sisters Deb and Kayla for nearly 52 years and who comes from fascinating parents (z"l), who loved me and wanted a good life for me. I'm also an aunt, a cousin, a friend and an IBMer, who manages a team of premier instructional designers and who is earnest, loyal and reliable, with occasional lapses into worry that are mostly unfounded, and with flashes of creativity and humor.
  2. Who do you want to be? The same, minus the worry, and plus more discipline, practice and personal success with my writing. 
  3. How do you want to be remembered? For everything in #1 and #2 plus for being kind, inclusive and for being of service.
    By your family:
    As supportive and loving.
    By your community:
    As engaged and valued.
    By the world:
    As someone whose writing helped people appreciate their lives more and whose writing and work helped people excel and advance. And as someone with a capacity for joy.
  4. Pick one person, place or event in your life that brings you happiness and satisfaction, and write down in a journal the various ways it might not have happened: Easily, I could never have gotten together with my wife Pat, since she lived in DeKalb, Illinois and I lived in Chicago, and since I could have not been at Shabbat services when she first visited Or Chadash, the LGBT shul in Chicago at the time, and since we were 15 years apart in age, and since initially, I was afraid to get involved with anyone as amazing as Pat, since I felt still unmoored and still was searching in most ways throughout my twenties to that point, and if Pat hadn't been more self-possessed, patient and clever in drawing me in. :-)
  5. Then imagine your life without that person/place/event and write that down, too: If Pat & I had not gotten together, I might still be living alone in an apartment, whether in Chicago or Queens/Brooklyn/Bronx and searching for without ever finding any peace. Probably, I'd never have a deeper pet relationship than with a Siamese fighting fish if not for Pat, as she showed me the wonder of cat parenthood. Also, I would not be as solvent as I am, since Pat made me save the maximum in my 401K from 27 onward. And assuredly, I would be twice the worrier that I am; Pat's self-assurance rubs off on me.
  6.  Choose the final words you'll ever speak: Thank you, God, and everyone.
Writing Your Own Eulogy, pp. 17-19:
"If you had to write your own eulogy, what would it say? Use the following questions as inspiration, and then craft a eulogy for your own funeral."
  1. What would you do if you had twenty-four hours to live? Why? I'd spend it with my wife, cats, sisters, nieces and nephews and cousins and friends in my home and yard if the weather were warm enough and my favorite music would be playing in the background, say, the George Michael and Sade channels of Pandora. I would serve Indian, Middle-Eastern, Mexican and French food that was catered from favorite restaurants. I would invite one of my congregation's rabbis and some congregants and friends to come over and sing favorite liturgical songs and I'd set up a Hebrew University scholarship for an LGBT student for however many years I could afford to do so without making Pat insolvent. Why: I want the people and pets I love to surround me, along with my favorite music and food, as well as to cover the spiritual element and the g'milut chassadim (acts of loving kindness) angle.
  2. What is worth fighting for? Dignity, love, art, humanity, beauty, truth, freedom, creative expression, inclusion.
  3.  In your life so far, what have you taken a risk for or gone out of your comfort zone for? Living my life as a lesbian; whenever I've needed to learn something new; every time I've taken a new job at work, including a six-month assignment in India with Pat accompanying me  ... homosexual activity is illegal in India and necessarily, my employer told me that it could not protect me if I were jailed; any time I need to go to a party or a meeting, where practically everyone is a stranger initially.
  4. You have five words to write on your headstone. What are they? A dignity and love champion.
  5. When you're feeling low, what song do you play to lift your mood and inspire you? Why? Two come to mind: "The Right Track" from Pippin and "Gesher Tsar Meod". Why: The "Pippin" song is cheerful and helps me remember that I'm doing my best to lead a meaningful life, and that I'm not alone in my worry that I want it to be as meaningful as possible. "Gesher Tsar Meod" encourages me not to be fearful and when I'm not fearful, everything goes better.
  6. Is there a phrase that you find yourself saying frequently when you're under stress? When you're happy or grateful? When I'm under stress, I say to myself the first sentence of the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism. And I hear my mother (z"l) saying, "Sarah, why don't you let yourself live?" (as in, relax, everything will be Ok). And also, if it has to do with gathering courage to deliver a difficult but necessary message, I tell myself: "Sarah, pull yourself together! He/she/they need you!" When I'm grateful, I tend to say, "Thank God!" and simply, "Yay!"
  7. Describe your best day or your best self: My best self is humble, of service, kind, loving, self-possessed, reliable, present, creative, experimental, funny, stylish, fit, attentive, receptive, friendly, organized, on time, lucid, persuasive, inviting, encouraging and productive.
  8. What is your favorite Bible verse, poem, or motto? "Al tifrosh min hatsibur"/ "Don't isolate yourself from the community," *Pirkei Avot* / *Ethics of the Fathers*.
  9. Why are you here? What is your life mission? What do you hope to achieve? I'm here to model dignity from the margins was the first thing I thought of, but why focus on my marginal status? Because if I can demonstrate dignity as someone in society whose sexual minority status if not also religion and gender can be marginalizing, then anyone can. I get that I have all sorts of privilege in my education level and solvency, and citizenship, by accident of birth, but still, I also know from being an outsider. Why is dignity so key to me? Because it's the opposite of shame to me. Shame paralyzes while dignity makes anything and everything good possible.

    What is my life mission?
    To create something artful that uplifts someone else or many people.

    What do I hope to achieve? I hope to achieve peace and unconditional acceptance within myself while remaining loved and loving, and grateful, and amused, and expanded by art of all sorts and while having fun and other vivid experiences.
  10. What are your dreams? How can you realize them? My dreams are to write a popular book that helps others, and me, feel less alone; to stay solvent; for Pat & me to remain healthy mentally and physically till we're at least 95 and then to die in a way that is least painful to us and our loved ones.

    I can realize these dreams by starting to practice writing more routinely, including enrolling in adult writing classes; by revising what I've written .... I can keep working full-time in my stimulating and relatively lucrative role at IBM .... I can keep rowing for 20 minutes daily and reading books every night pre-bed and encouraging Pat to stay active with pruning, gardening and golfing along with reading and working on crossword puzzles as she loves to do.
These questions were great to answer, though I'm not yet prepared to draft my own eulogy.

Page 43: Give thanks every day to one important person in your life. Today, I thanked my friend Mindy for inviting me to her fun birthday party and for providing an orange to me when I didn't prefer cake.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Ten Minutes' Worth of Memoir Free Writing

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

When did a community you were part of use music to overcome a difficult time?

 It's my first day back at high school, straight from my father's shiva. I'm standing in a so-far empty classroom when a dance is announced over the PA system and they play some of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing". I burst into tears, after not having cried at my dad's (z"l) funeral, because the music sounds so, so good. It's the first music I've heard in seven days. No one knows my father's dead, other than teachers; that's how at arms-length I kept everyone back then, punning compulsively to distract them from my attraction to the girls among them, if possible.

The music -- that particular song -- reminded me of my continuous and mostly unrequited horniness and also made me resolve to go to the dance that weekend. Anything to get out of the house, where I was stuck with my grieving mother, my older sisters having left years prior.

That song reminded me: I'm still alive. I'm still alive and I'm sexual and I'm reachable. That song pulled snatched away my numbness.

That song makes me feel the same way every time I hear it. Only I know, though, till now. Get up, get up!*

*Written during the Reading & Writing Club at my synagogue last Wednesday, and I didn't write about my community because the fastest thing that came to mind when I got the prompt in bold above was about the first music I heard when I returned from my dad's (z"l) shiva. The prompt came from http://www.pw.org/writing-prompts-exercises.