Mastery of the Craft

Last night, I got into watercolor painting. I’m a rank amateur compared to my brother Brendan and my father, but I do love to push paint around paper and see if anything emerges. I try to get into the zone. I never have enough time. And the feeling I love best is when one effortless stroke yields something recognizable. And I have that rush of self-affirmation, “Wow, that’s good.” Or maybe, “I’m good.” I love  that dopamine hit of a feeling of mastery.

Yesterday we saw Edie Falco in the True, an off Broadway play about the politically savvy Polly Noonan, the Albany secretary and consultant of Mayor Erastus Corning II who served, unbelievably, for 41 years. Falco is one of my favorites. So are John Pankow and Michael McKean, also masters. It’s relaxing to go to the theater when you can trust the actors’ craft, sit back and let them do their thing. You don’t have to worry. It’s all going to be okay.

Corning may have peddled in corruption, but he knew his constituents well. And this seems to be what we’re missing nowadays in politics and in our neighborhoods — from the cop on the corner to the local Assembly person. Well, actually, I do know and love Linda Rosenthal, our Upper West Side assemblywoman. So never mind.

Our neighborhood is so beautiful in the fall. Just this afternoon on the way back from church, I spotted a rose at my neighbor’s down the block. It was still fragrant. (Is that global warming? We are in early October, after all). I snapped a picture of it and thought I might try to paint it. Making art, oddly, helps me overcome my despair about politics.

And theater about powerful women in politics, even as helpmates during a sexist era, uplifts me. There’s mastery there. Women in the arts, women in politics — we just can’t get enough.

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. – Pablo Picasso
I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint. – Frida Kahlo

I had an amazing advantage: a grandmother [Polly Noonan, the influential confidante of the mayor of Albany] who loved politics. She taught me not to listen to negative press or people. I grew up knowing politics was rough-and-tumble. – Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Senator

You might see also check out my brother Brendan’s art at BrendanCoudal.com

A Girl Plays Football

“Hey, the Packers are going to beat your Cowgirls!” a student said.

And I corrected the student, “Don’t put down a team by calling them girls.” See, I believe in gender equality. I am a follower of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who believed that everyone should have equal access to opportunity.

Last year there was an ad on during the SuperBowl. It was about running like a girl. Did you see it?

The commercial spoofed the stereotype that girls could not run well. But they can. The ad showed that many kids thought the phrase, “run like a girl,” was an insult. But it’s not. It’s the opposite. Run, fight, throw like a girl. That takes courage. We all must do things that require courage. We all must be unconventional.

I’m going to tell you a little story.

This is the story of a girl who played a lot of two-hand touch football with her brothers and cousins. Her Uncle Tom N. was a great coach in Park Ridge, Illinois. One boy who went on to play college football and become a coach himself said Mr. N. was the best coach he ever had. Uncle Tom was patient, kind, smart. But he made one big mistake at a family party.

See, at this big party with lots of cousins, Uncle Tom was throwing a nerf football around the dining room to only the boys. But one girl jumped up and caught it. An interception. Yes. the girl.

“Hey, you’re pretty good. Too bad you’re a girl. And you can’t play football.”

“I can play,” the girl said.

“No you can’t. But just to prove it — If you want to try out tomorrow for the team, you can. But I won’t give you any special consideration because you’re a girl or because you’re my niece,” he said.  “Don’t feel bad if you get cut — Only half of the boys who try out make the cut.”

So this girl showed up with her little brother John to try out for the Mighty Might football team, the Vikings. She was very scared. But she did not let on.

She did her very best. There were tires on the ground and she hiked up her knees and hopped in and out of the tires. And there was a catching practice. And she caught it just like she always did when playing with her brothers or her cousins – one hand on top, one hand on the bottom and she hugged it to herself and ran fast. Faster than the boys.

And during the scrimmage of the touch football – they didn’t have their equipment yet — she was so scared of getting tagged, she ran even faster. She played her heart out. She even got to throw the ball and she jerked it back next to her ear just like she always did. ‘Cause see, she played like a girl – a fast, athletic, capable girl.

After the tryout, when her father picked her and her brother up from the tryout, she told him that she and John had done well. She felt proud. She felt like a winner.

And that night they got a phone call. The girl made the team, but her little brother John didn’t. (In fairness to John, he did not make the age cut off. It had nothing to do with ability.) But she never went on to play in a team. She just wanted to prove that she could make the team. And she did.

And that girl was me. So, never say, a girl can’t play football, because she can. She just might not want to.

When I was a girl, schools did not really implement Title IX yet. You know what it is, right? It’s a law that says public schools have to give equal funding to girls’ sports as boys’. And there were other ways that schools, when I was little, weren’t fair. I loved wood shop, but I could only take shop one quarter of the year and three-quarters of the year, I had to take cooking and sewing.

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That didn’t seem right. So in middle school, I ran for and became the first girl president of Lincoln Junior High. I’m not sure if I made much of a difference. But there was an article in the local newspapers and maybe some minds started to change through my small acts of resistance about what girls could do.

Although women are not represented very well in the government in the U.S., in many countries half of the elected officials are women. In churches too, we have come a long way but we have a ways to go. As a girl, before Third Grade, I attended Saint Joan of Arc school in Skokie, Illinois and I could not be an Altar Boy. In Communion class in Second Grade, I asked the priest, Why can’t women be priests? And I’m still asking that.

So my message is: we must judge one another on the content of our characters and not on the way we look.

We can do better. We must do better.

  1. Girls are just as good as boys.
  2. Do not judge a book by its cover.

In English class we talked about how cool it is when a character is not how they, at first, appear. Take Chewbacca in Star Wars. How does he look? (Wait) Big, scary, mean. But you couldn’t have a better friend — a gentle giant.

Dr. Martin Luther King talked about we need to do in a sermon that is often called “A Tough Mind, A Tender Heart.” He talked about a creative solution to resist inequality. Thank you to Rev. Andrew Stehlik of Rutgers Church for his sermon on Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, which inspired me.

Dr. Martin Luther King said:

Jesus recognized the need for blending opposites. He knew that his disciples would face a difficult and hostile world, where they would confront the political officials and protectors of the old order.  He knew that they would meet cold and arrogant men whose hearts had been hardened by the long winter of traditionalism. So he said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the mist of wolves.”

And he gave them a formula for action, “Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.

That was what he said. We must have soft hearts. We must give everyone a chance and we must be aware of the potential in everyone. We must encourage everyone. We must ask, Why? Why can’t we all be equal? Why should we put someone down for how they look? Or whether they are a boy or girl?

What can we do? Resist the status quo. Do not become lazy or timid when you hear someone put another person down. Or when you hear a boy call another boy, ‘a girl’ as an insult.

And this goes for ourselves too. Do not put yourselves down.

I tell you:  be more loving. To each other and to ourselves. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that. So did Jesus. Dr. King said we have to love everyone, even those who were hating on us. He said, “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.”

In other words, love the hater but reject the system that encourages hate.

At the end of his sermon, Dr. King said,

When we are staggered by the chilly winds of adversity and battered by the raging storms of disappointment and when through our folly and sin we stray into some destructive far country and are frustrated because of a strange feeling of homesickness, we need to know that there is Someone who loves us, cares for us, understands us, and will give us another chance.  When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in God’s nature a creative synthesis of love and justice that will lead us through life’s dark valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.

I want to end with one more upshot to my brief career as a football player. After that Vikings football season, between fifth and sixth grade, I took a summer school class on newspaper reporting. I wrote about my experience playing football. And a lot of other students, and even teachers and parents, said they saw my article in the school paper and they liked it. It made them think. And that summer school class probably inspired me in high school to work on the school paper, and, years later, to become a professional writer.

I saw that writing might start to change people’s minds –and I would not have not known that, had I not tried out for the football team. So take a risk, try something new. Just because everyone says you’re good at football doesn’t mean you can’t knit too. In fact, when I was a girl, there was a football player named Rosie Grier and he was a writer too, He wrote a book, Needlepoint for Men.

He was unconventional. So was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So was Jesus. You should be unconventional too.

This is a slightly revised version of a chapel talk I gave to elementary school students after Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

Turn Off the News

I told my daughters last night, “Do not watch the news.”

One of my 16-year olds asked, “Why? Did Donald Trump say something heinous about women?”

“Yes.” She had either seen the news or had seen similar comments from Donald Trump.

This morning, I clarified. “I did not want you to see the news because I do not want you to think all men are like that.”

I know men — with husbands, brothers, students, old boyfriends and lovers, coworkers, pastors, etc., I refuse to accept this is the norm — that ‘boys will be boys.’

I do not believe that men talk about abusing women or see us solely as sex objects.

I cannot believe that men talk like this in the locker room or the boardroom.
Even though this man is running for president and the leader of a political party, I do not believe that he represents me or the American people.

This morning, I followed up on the conversation with my daughters.
“He talked as if consent does not matter,” I said. “Do you know what consent is?”
“Yes, it must be verbal.”
“And if a person can’t give a verbal consent then there can be no consent,” one of my girls said.
Thank you!

We have to look out for each other. I feel empathy for the actress that the men on the tape were talking about. As women, we have no idea what men were saying before we enter the room. I hope to God that when a woman appears, the men were discussing the Cubs versus Giants game or anything that is their own truth. And not the size or shape of our bodies or how they can exploit or abuse us. This is all so reprehensible.

The men were talking about women as if they were things.
Hey, you foul-mouthed men, we are complicated, creative, intelligent people! We make contributions to our families, workplaces, society. We are not toys for you and your buddies to grope. Blech. I cannot believe I have to say this. It is 2016.
People must decide if this man jibes with their own vision for leadership.

But as a mother and teacher, I would not let my children nor my students — nor my friends or family — talk like this or act like this.

I believe  our leaders should  help us lift one another up. We ought not put one other down. I have yet to hear any single way that this Republican candidate has lifted anyone but himself up.

People are richer for helping one another, for serving one another, for speaking highly of one another, for making the world a little better. I am trying to live this. I am trying to be a role model of kindness and compassion.

I have to turn the news off. I have to show my daughters and my son ways to make a positive difference — doing good, being good.

PS My friend Joanna got me in to see Samantha Bee on Wednesday night. She is so good. So while it’s true, I turned off the news, I turned on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.


 

My friend Hillary

I was just in Louisville, Kentucky for the once-every-four-event of Assembly for United Methodist Women, April 24 to 27. I was doing reporting for Response magazine. And I was thrilled to be there with 6,500 women of faith, including Hillary Clinton.

Now, many people who know me know I love Hillary Rodham Clinton. After all, we are both from Park Ridge, Illinois. We went to the same high school. At this point in the conversation, someone might ask me, “Did you know her?”

Puh-lease! She was a few years older than me! Still, I am her comrade and sister nonetheless.

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I was so proud and moved by her speech I was bawling.

I was first blown away by her concern for women and children when I heard her speak at the UN Conference of Women — what that 20 years ago? oh my god! — in Beijing, China. I was at this conference performing comedy near the technology tent with fellow stand-up Emmy Gay. It was at this conference Emmy and I first learned how to email! And look, now we know how to blog.

It was also at that UN conference that Hillary coined (or maybe coopted?) the phrase ‘women’s rights are human rights.’ And she and I are still going strong advocating for women and children. She’s involved in an effort to advance maternal health internationally. And I’m encouraging women to share their stories of transformation through writing. (shameless promotion: come to our writing workshop May 29 to June 1 Adridondack Writers’ Weekend)

Hillary knows the power of women of faith by her own experience in church, Sunday School and from her parents. A youth group leader took her from “lily white” Park Ridge into the beautifully diverse city to learn about the world.

This is one reason I love Methodism — their concern for neighbors outside of their own backyard. But when Hillary grew up, that was the radical ’60s (love, love, love). Since then, religion’s gotten a bad rap. Maybe, deservedly so. Maybe some religious leaders have chosen to played it safe — instead of loving neighbors outside of their church, they loved only those in their own church.

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The teleprompter says it all!

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Being a member of the press has its privileges. I schmoozed with fellow press. I learned that Hillary discouraged the Louisville Democratic Party and Democratic mayor from attending this United Methodist Women gathering, telling them, “This is not for you. It’s something I’m doing for my faith.”

Also, the press noted that she paid her own way and declined the honorarium – you know those United Methodist Women, good stewards of their funds, appreciated that show of frugality.

I have never met Hillary in person although my husband did. He met her backstage after a Broadway show, Democracy, that he was in. Hillary and Bill had come back to congratulate the actors.

“My wife is from Park Ridge, Illinois, too,” Chris told Hill.

“Really?” He said her eyes lit up — that she was excited to learn of the connection.

He told me later. “She’s really beautiful in person.”

“More beautiful than me?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said. “She’s more beautiful than you.”

I’ve never let him forget that. I’ve never forgiven him either.

But we are all beautiful women, each in our way. This weekend, United Methodist Women and Hillary reminded me of that.

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