Friday, April 30, 2010

Dressed to Distress

When it comes to fashion, comfort has always been my first concern. A pair of shoes with sky-high heels and dagger-pointed toes may look impressive, but all I can think when I see them is, "I hope whoever buys those doesn't have to be on her feet all day," and then I gravitate toward the soft-soled flats nearby. Growing up, I was only interested in the most comfortable clothes. I didn't like clothes-shopping, and I saw no appreciable difference between the shirts and pants I might choose for myself and those my mother (who knew my predilection for comfort) might pick for me.

As a young adult I did become more concerned with colors and styles, favoring vivid reds and blues, but still I thought of comfort first, fashion a distant second. I sought ways to combine comfort with class, more concerned with what I would see in the mirror than with what an attractive man might see when he met me. But when I met the man who would become my husband, matters changed a little. "Will he like this?" took its place alongside "Will this be comfortable?" On learning that his favorite color is green, I started to stock my wardrobe with green shirts. So I gave in to the concept of "dressing to impress" rather late in life.

I'm still not sure what I think of people dressing to please others rather than to please themselves, particularly girls (getting younger every year) who dress scantily in the hope of catching the eye of this or that guy in the desk across from them. But at least their reasoning makes some sense to me -- which is more than I can say for another fashion choice.

What drives a man or woman to dress in a manner likelier to repel the opposite gender than attract them?

I first became aware of this "trend" when thumbing through a novelty catalogue and coming across a shirt with the blazon, "Men Are Not Pigs -- Pigs Are Intelligent Animals." I couldn't help feeling sorry for anyone who might have so much interest and emotion invested in male-bashing that she might buy such a shirt and then wear it out in public, making her resentment plain to all who see her. If a gal genuinely wants men to stay as far away from her as possible, she might wear this shirt.

For some time, I thought only women could get away with wearing gender-hostile shirts like this, but I was mistaken. A couple of years ago, a student of mine showed up for class wearing a shirt with two pictures and caption. The first picture showed a Boy Icon and a Girl Icon standing side by side, but in the second picture, the Boy Icon had his arm raised, and the Girl Icon was tumbling out of the frame. The caption read, "PROBLEM SOLVED."

As funny-tasteless as that shirt is, it's downright benevolent compared to a shirt a friend of mine told me about. The shirt belonged to a biker, as the helmet tucked under his arm made clear, and the blazon appeared on the back. It stated, "If you can read this, the b---- fell off."

What girl would give her number to the guy wearing either of these fashion statements?

One should always be careful before drawing too hard and fast a conclusion from such a tiny wrinkle in popular culture, but I can't help frowning a little at what such shirts might say about our society at large, and how men and women relate to each other. Hostility seems to be percolating on both sides, an outgrowth of the divorce culture and greater numbers of kids growing up with authority figures of only one gender, and no example before their eyes of a man and a woman enjoying a giving and affectionate relationship. It's as if guys and gals don't like each other very much anymore, and now both are willing if not eager to say as much, out in the open, on the clothes they wear.

"Dressing to distress" may not seem very significant, I admit, but it strikes me as a tiny piece of a very bleak puzzle.

(An aside: what is with these pants with writing on the behind? Even more to the point, what's with these ladies who wear pants with writing on the behind? After all, eyes naturally gravitate in the direction of letters on clothes. Call me old-fashioned, but it doesn't thrill my soul to think of strangers ogling my backside as I walk down the street.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010


(Warning: this blog may be offensive.)

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, are more than familiar with controversy. In fact, they court it. In their raunchy, bitterly satirical and frequently hilarious show, they have left no important figure -- be he/she celebrity, politician, or religious icon -- unskewered. Their two-part two hundredth episode presented the scenario that a total of two hundred celebrities, lampooned on South Park at various times, were determined to destroy the town of South Park, CO in revenge for its rampant insensitivity. Only one way could the citizens save themselves: hand over Muhammad, prophet of the Muslim faith, so that they might ciphon off his coveted "power not to be made fun of." The prophet agreed to help save the city, but since his image must never be shown, he had to appear in a giant bear suit. Outside the suit, he was represented by a giant black bar reading CENSORED.

In the first part of the episode, the name "Muhammad" was spoken clearly. By the time Comedy Central aired the second part, Parker and Stone and the network had received some suspicious messages from a group calling themselves "Revolution Muslim," hinting that Parker and Stone might meet the same fate as Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker murdered by Muslim extremists who didn't like his documentary film that shone a spotlight on the brutal treatment of women in many parts of the Muslim world. As a result, in the second part, the prophet's name was "bleeped," along with Kyle's "what-have-we-learned" homily that intimidation is not the appropriate response to ridicule.

Many conservative and libertarian bloggers have blasted Comedy Central and corporate sponsor Viacom for their cowardice, and some have praised Parker and Stone for their courage. I won't reiterate the points they've made. But the one part of this little incident that sticks in my mind is Revolution Muslim's evocation of Theo van Gogh -- their implication that the murdered documentarian got what he deserved for his "defamation" of Islam. I'm left considering what "defamation" really means, and how a religious faith might be "defamed."

Van Gogh's murderers didn't like his efforts to expose the savage violence to which women are subjected on a regular basis in the name of Sharia, or Islamic Law. Yet where does the defamation lie -- in van Gogh's determination to make this situation known, or in the situation itself? Who is really making Islam look bad -- van Gogh, or the men who treat women like untermensch in the name of religion?

Where is the disgrace to Islam -- in a South Park episode that mentions Muhammad's name, or in a group of schoolgirls trapped in a burning building by the religious police in Saudi Arabia, because they weren't "properly dressed" to come outside onto the public street?

If Revolution Muslim is looking for the real damage to their faith, I suggest they're looking in the wrong place.

It's been over four years, but I still remember a horrific news story of a father in Pakistan who reacted violently when his family's "honor" was compromised by his twenty-one-year-old stepdaughter, who was committing adultery. Granted, adultery is a sin, a moral crime, but are multiple stab wounds a proportional response? I would say not. Yet in the father's eyes, killing the adulterous stepdaughter did not suffice to cleanse the stain of dishonor. He went on to murder his own daughters, the youngest four years old, lest they be "tainted" by their stepsister's example. Imagine for a moment a four-year-old girl with a round face, big brown eyes, chubby arms stretched out for a hug. Think about her smile. Then try to wrap your mind around how anyone could erase that smile with a knife.

Here in the U.S., if a man butchers his own little girl, we call him a murderer (along with lots of less polite names), and we either execute him or send him to jail (where his fellow prisoners might execute him; even criminals don't think highly of scum who murder children). But in Pakistan, he simply goes home. The law can't touch him; it says he has done no wrong. Though once led by a female president, Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan refuses to treat "honor killings" as murders. And so the little girl goes unmourned. Her brother, five years old at the time of her death (and left alive because evidently he wasn't tainted or dishonored -- proof positive that the little girl was murdered for no other "sin" than being female), will in time forget he ever had a sister.

What disgraces a religious faith? Horrific crimes committed in its name. The days when Southern preachers spouted Christian scripture as a defense for the abominable institution of slavery were dark ones indeed for Christianity. Preachers who claimed the Holocaust was God's work served as further embarrassment to genuine believers, true to the spirit as well as the letter of their faith. Likewise, that little girl's death stands as an embarrassment to Islam, because her father believed his actions were "holy."

So it wasn't van Gogh who defamed Islam; it was the crimes he was out to expose. Extremists silenced the truth-teller, but the real disgrace goes on, and every "honor killing" makes sincere believers weep. Once the murders end, and the murderers are punished, the real defamation, the genuine stain will wash away.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Empathy Failures

Phoebe Prince. She's still on my mind.

Details are emerging about the hell this Massachusetts teenager went through during the last weeks of her life, all because she spoke with an accent and dated the wrong guy (who, if cosmic justice is served, will never "score" with a woman the future). She spent her last day on earth dodging empty soda cans and striving to close her ears to brutal epithets. She went home with tears in her eyes.

Nobody cared.

Here lies the crux of this tragedy. Now that Phoebe is dead, Ashley Longue and her gang of sociopathic thugs are facing charges for their cruelty. Yet no one bothered to look into the matter while Phoebe was still alive and might have been saved. From the bullies themselves, bitter because a newcomer had breached their precious upper echelon, no mercy could have been expected. Most people are wondering why the adults in authority failed to intervene meaningfully on Phoebe's behalf. For my part, I'm wondering about the teens -- the classmates who saw what she was enduring, yet offered her no friendship, no words of comfort or support. An empathetic teen could have done as much if not more to lighten Phoebe's load than an authoritative adult.

In our teenage years, we depend more than we ever will again on the encouragement our peers alone can give. I recall a time during my last weeks of high school, when I was the victim of a bully. I had never exchanged harsh words with this girl before, yet suddenly she was telling everyone we knew, within my hearing, that she was going to beat me up. I was terrified. I knew no way to defend myself against physical assault. Yet somehow I summoned the courage to ask her, point blank, "Why do you hate me all of a sudden? What did I do to you?" Her reply was telling: "You were born."

Yet I was luckier than Phoebe. I had friends to take my part. Thanks to them I made it to graduation with a shred of dignity. A good, close friend makes the best antidote to bullies' poison.

Yet apparently no one reached out to Phoebe in friendship. No one took her side. Apathy, not empathy, ruled the day as her schoolmates watched the sociopaths brutalize her into a breakdown, and did nothing.

The Phoebe Prince tragedy is a classic example of "empathy failure," though it's by no means the only one. Empathy failures are everywhere. Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist "Church" had the nerve to counter-sue the grieving father whose fallen son he insulted, because his heart is closed to empathy. He can't see the father's side of things. He can't see past his Cro-Magnon view that America and its fighting servicemen are damned.

Likewise, how did married athlete Tiger Woods manage to find so many women willing, if not eager, to sleep with him? How different that situation might have been if just a few of those women had responded to his overtures with, "No, Tiger, I don't sleep with married man. I wouldn't want any man to hurt me as badly as your wife would be hurt if she ever found out." If a few of them had seen the situation from the side of the betrayed wife and children.

We've heard a lot of talk about empathy in the past year -- but not where it matters. It's not government agencies like the Supreme Court that need to act with "empathy" (if the government even knows what it means). It's we private citizens, in our daily encounters with each other and the choices we make. We need to consider what harm our actions, or inactions, might do to others. We need to notice the cruelty taking place right under our noses and ask ourselves seriously two important questions: "What if it were me?" and "What can I do?"

The Golden Rule. Still a good idea.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What We Leave Behind

In March of 2006, my husband, my parents and I had the pleasure of seeing Jack Benny: Laughter in Bloom at Pearce Auditorium, Brenau University. It was a one-man show featuring a dead-on impersonation of Benny by a funny, gifted performer, Eddie Carroll.

On occasion, one's joy in a humorist's performance may be compromised by a sense -- who knows where it comes from? -- that when the curtain goes down, said humorist is a jerk with very little sense of how to treat other people. Watching Carroll, I experienced the opposite; somehow the man's good nature radiated through his work. I came not just to admire Carroll (and, through him, the great Benny as well) but to like him as well. He wasn't only fun to watch; he would have been fun to spend time with. I didn't get that privilege, but my friend and colleague Brad Strickland describes Carroll as "the nicest man I have ever met."

This week I learned that Eddie Carroll has passed away, the victim of a brain tumor. He was 76.

I won't cease to be grateful for the delight he gave me and my loved ones four years ago. Even though I never had the chance to get to know him personally, I'm privileged to have experienced his work. His was a life well-lived; like Benny before him, he brought joy to many and sorrow to none.

What worthier goal, than to be someone people remember with a smile? Would that more people had such a goal in mind.


In terms of national news, last week struck me as "Cruelty Week." First we got the story of the "death by bullying" of teenage Phoebe Prince. Then we learned of tragic consequences of the antics of "man of God" Fred Phelps, whose every word and action is a blasphemy. Raging bigot Phelps and his like-minded thugs have been in the habit of protesting at the funerals of fallen soldiers, carrying signs with the blazon "GOD HATES AMERICA," and crying out that the soldiers are now burning in hell for the sin of defending a country that tolerates homosexuality. The father of one soldier wouldn't stand for it and filed a lawsuit against this animal; the judge ruled in his favor. But Phelps, not content with degrading the grieving man at his son's funeral, appealed the decision, and now the father has been ordered to reimburse him for the court costs. Phelps claims his repugnant displays are protected by the First Amendment.

I do understand that the First Amendment exists primarily to protect unpopular speech; popular speech needs no protection. Likewise I understand the need for this defense. While some ideas -- the garbage spouted at a Klan rally, for instance -- will never be vindicated by the passing years, today's unpopular speech could be tomorrow's accepted wisdom. Frederick Douglass's denunciations of slavery, for example, were inflammatory in their day; today, we perceive them as plain common sense, and are disturbed to know that so many once vehemently disagreed.

But freedom of speech is not absolute. We can't say anything we feel like. If we stride into a church and shout that a bomb has been buried underneath it, we're going to create a panic, and then we're going to get clapped in jail. Laws exist to protect people from slander in speech and libel in print. What can be more slanderous than an assertion that a loved one is damned to hell for serving his country?

While men like Eddie Carroll radiate goodness and spread pleasure wherever they go, Phelps and his thugs are in the business of spreading misery, targeting people who are already suffering more than their share. One man was brave enough to try to put him out of business, and now he is paying the price. The most sickening aspect of all this is that the sociopathic bully claims to be doing the work of God. Yet when he passes on, it's doubtful that anyone outside his own thuggish circle will think of him and smile -- unless it's to smile in relief that he's gone at last.

The news is full of people like Phelps and the teenage brutes that drove Phoebe Prince to suicide. Yet so many exceptional people who do their jobs well, whose spark of creativity brightens and/or enlightens the world around them, and whose hearts are warm and instincts are good never make the front page. We who knew them and experienced their work must sing their praises. I've known many such people --artists, performers, teachers, public servants. It's always a good idea to spare a thought for them when we're feeling disgust for the thugs in the news, to remind ourselves that human nature has many sides, positive as well as negative.

Phelps and his gang should not get away with what they've done. Thankfully, public opinion has come down on the grieving father's side, and donations are pouring in to help him with those court costs. Not only that, but some states are considering passing noise ordinances which would make it illegal to disrupt a funeral, and which would clearly designate Phelps's speech as un-protected and inexcusable.

But in the end, his true character will be revealed in what he leaves behind, and how people remember him once he's left this earth.

What's our legacy -- joy or misery?

I do recognize that