with Lynne and Leslie
Category Archives: Empathy

Pamela Smart, TV murder and who’s writing your story in the New Year

by SweetMidlife
Bang your own drum, or be content with someone else doing it for you. And that means they get to pick the tune.

Bang your own drum, or be content with someone else doing it for you. And that means they get to pick the tune.

Leslie here! One of my New Year’s resolutions – yeah, they’re mostly poppycock, but hear me out – is to spend less time reading other people’s writing and actually writing myself. I’m a writer after all. Says so on my business card and my tax returns. It’s almost embarrassing how not proactive I’ve been, particularly when you consider that I always thought I was. But if you don’t take careful possession of who you actually appear to be, and who is telling your truth, you are doomed. Like, “doomed” if you were reading it in Vincent Price’s voice. Like you’re screwed.

I was reminded of this on New Year’s Day, watching “Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart,” a 2014 HBO documentary that’s not so much about the murder of a young husband by his wife’s teen lover and his friends that she’s accused of setting up, but why we think we know what we know about it. Smart, a former school New England school media coordinator who is serving life without parole for engineering the plot, still maintains her innocence, and director Jeremiah Zagar seems to think that’s possible. But that’s not what his movie is about. It’s about how Smart herself was set up as the unfortunate subject of a “ripped-from-the-headlines” culture in the early ’90s, before myriad studies on how media coverage effects both juries and public opinion. There were several books, a widely-scene TV movie starring Helen Hunt and even a wickedly excellent Gus Van Zandt movie, “To Die For” that was loosely based on the case. Even though the movies came after the verdict, there is evidence that they have tainted any chance Smart has of getting a new trial. Person after person involved in the case, from co-conspirators to reporters to even the filmmakers and writers who recorded it as history, admit that they have a hard time separating fact from fiction. They sometimes forget which details were in evidence and which were lines spouted by Helen Hunt on a TV set.

It’s eerie to imagine that a real woman could be sitting in jail for the rest of her life – she’s spent more than half of it there already – because she had the dumb luck of falling into a salacious situation of her own making. It possessed all sorts of nasty little made-for-Geraldo details like the seduction of a teen boy,  old found bikini photos made to look like they were taken explicitly to seduce the kid, a secret, damning tape and the like. Smart’s defense team, who decided that they didn’t want to try the case in the press, didn’t insist that she tell her own story. What they didn’t appreciate is that this story was going to be told for her, in so many televised testimonies and talk show punditry. Watching the court of public opinion bury Smart two decades later, in glorious early-90s big hair and shoulder pads, is claustrophobic, because of what we know now about how media can bury or salvage you depending on its whims. The case predated the present Casey Anthonys and even the Dalia Dippolitos – troubled women with a whiff of sexual inappropriateness and big doe eyes that make people either want to save them or smack them. Maybe they’re all guilty. But if they weren’t – like if there was video of someone else committing their crimes – some people would still refuse to believe it because we’ve all discussed it and decided that they did it.

So what I’m saying is this – whether you’re the First Lady or the lunch lady, you are a public person to someone. There are people who are curious about you, who are forming opinions about you based on your Facebook profile or your last ten Tweets, or your Pinterest boards or even what they saw you buy at the Winn-Dixie last week. They probably don’t even realize that these opinions are being formed, but they are being formed, all the same. I respect the right of everyone to have their own lives, to curate the details of those lives accordingly and to not have to justify anything they do to a bunch of strangers. But “Captivated” reminded me that if you don’t take an active role in telling your own story, it’s still being told. I will take that lesson this year as a person who posts about working out but doesn’t lose weight because I keep eating things you don’t see, as a writer who sometimes spends too much time watching TV someone else wrote and not writing herself. Stuff like that. I can say I’m one thing, in all the Pinterest and Facebook and Twitter I want, but if I don’t actively inhabit those things, I am not them. I am telling a different story. Be aware of who you are and how your life tells that story. It might be speaking louder than your words.


2016: The year that was…sucky…and great…and a good set-up for something better

by SweetMidlife
Keep on rocking in the new year!

Keep on rocking in the new year!

This is Leslie, who does not write nearly as much as she should on this blog. My previous excuse has been that I write full-time as a newspaper columnist so I don’t always want to sit down and write some more, but time is money, and as a single mother I can tell you that making money is worth my time. So even though we don’t really make any money on this labor of love because we don’t write enough, we certainly won’t make any if we don’t write. Synergy and stuff.

So this is why I’m up at 1-ish a.m. on the last day of 2016, briefly writing about how even though this year sucked for so many reasons, it was OK or even transcendent in some cases. Yes, yes, I’m talking about the same year that killed Prince, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds, Glenn Frey and George Michael, among others. (Hide, Betty White!) And then there’s the fact of some major nastiness, racism and ugliness that seems to be bolder about showing itself. It was always there,  but now it’s just braver and not hiding (and if you’re attempting to blame racism on people who note that there is racism, this blog is not for you and you can go now, seriously. Get out of here with that mess.)

But bad and good things happen in every year – 2015 was the year I lost my husband, and 2016 was the year that the adoption of our son became final. So I’m a bigger fan of 2016. I am sure that in all of your lives, there are highs and lows in any 12-month period. I can’t speak for you, but here is a list of the reasons that 2017 might be better than 2016:

1) If 2016 did not kill you, you can make 2017 better.

Yep, that’s it. That’s my list. If you are still breathing, you have the opportunity to find something about 2017 to like. I am not attempting to downplay the very real pain that you may have about politics, or that rise in nastiness and sharp drop in courtesy and civility. It sucks. It’s real. And it might get worse before it gets better. (Again, go hide somewhere, Betty White, until the smoke clears.)

But let me lay something real on you – in 2015 I got the wind kicked out of me. In an instant I was a widow, a single mom, the primary breadwinner and a matriarch. Stuff got real. I was doubled over. And then I crawled to my feet and kept moving. I am not a hero. I am not special. I am not Beyonce. I’m a person who had to keep breathing, broken heart and all. For a while, I was just treading water. But now I’m doing something approximating thriving. It’s not the way I would have defined that before, but I now have some joy. And a new beginning. 2016 was a new beginning for my family – actually, everything that came after my husband’s death in July 2015 was a new beginning. And this year represents another one.

It is another year to fight the injustice we see, to slap down ignorance and buffalo racism, sexism, homophobia and other isms and phobias till they run screaming. It’s another year to lick our wounds, to regroup, It’s another year to hug your babies, to kiss your partner, to fall in love. To love on your mama and your grandma, or, if you don’t have one of those, to hold close whoever you have. It is a year to be better.

Because we are still here. Which is better than the alternative. Happy 2017, guys. It might not be the most awesome new year, but it’s awesome because it’s a new year we have.


Things I am doing today besides worrying about the outcome of Presidential election

by SweetMidlife
My mother and I smiling after our civic duty. Then we got coffee and bought the kid a muffin.

My mother and I smiling after our civic duty. Then we got coffee and bought the kid a muffin.

So this is Leslie, and Lynne and I, like anyone paying attention, know that today is a historic day in our nation. Not only is Election Day sacred, to us, as the chance to exercise the rights that our mothers and fathers fought and suffered for, but this one comes at the end of the ugliest contest anyone alive seems to remember. Whatever happens, there are going to be some desperately sad and angry people, and we’re all going to have to figure out how to move on, together.

My mom and I, with my little one, voted this morning, after I’d already walked/run three miles, and then after we voted we walked some more and then got some coffee, and the day moved on. I am concerned about what happens tonight, but I can’t sit by my TV and dwell right now, either. Here is what I am doing instead:

– Watched the end of the first season of “Good Girls Revolt” and wished that my Afro was as glorious as Joy Bryant’s.

– Exchanged emails with John Schneider’s publicist, because I love my job.

– Talked to “Gilmore Girls” fans.

– Pondered what kind of tequila to bring to the taco party I’m going to later.

– Started watching Netflix’s “The Crown” and renewed my crush on Jared Harris, because smart gingers are sexy as hell.

– Consigned a dress that my mother bought by last year, that is now too big and that I never wore, because she bought two sizes and challenged me to get into the smaller one. She is a genius.

– Decided not to put olives in with the rest of the veggies at the taco party as one of the attendees is anti-olive. I shall segregate the olives. More fish for Kunta!

levar-morefishforkunta

– Tried to figure out how to leave work early to go cook the non-olive beans.

– Trying to figure out where I put my coupons because I’m running out of leftovers and my kid has to eat something more substantial than mac and cheese for every meal.

In other words – I am living my life because other than try to figure out how to possess every American voter and make them do what I want, which is impossible, illegal and bad for the soul, I can’t change things other than what I have already done today, which is to vote myself, and then pray for our country. We are better than this crap we’ve done to each other. We’re America. That’s like in the manual, right?


“This Is Us” and the importance of rituals, even if they seem weird

by SweetMidlife
Perhaps taking a Purple People Eater to a sports bar every week seems weird to you. But that's weird that you think it's weird.

Perhaps taking a Purple People Eater to a sports bar every week seems weird to you. But that’s weird that you think it’s weird.

SPOILER ALERT FOR A VERY POPULAR TV SHOW!

Leslie here! Lynne and I don’t live close to each other, so our Monday-morning quarterbacking of TV shows is part of our enduring togetherness (We also like talking, and seem to like talking about the same things, so we’ve found maybe the only other person who will endure in-depth 20-minute dissections of one episode of “Survivor.”) “This Is Us,” NBC’s next-level “Parenthood”-like exploration into emotional manipulation, is not one of those things that no one likes but us. EVERYBODY likes it, and cries about it, and then goes on Twitter and cries so more. Fans like us all seem to agree that it’s one of the best new shows this season.

But there’s something a lot of us can’t agree on, and that’s Toby, the too-enthusiastic love interest of Kate, a gorgeous, talented but insecure young woman who lets her lifelong struggle with her weight (and the baggage of her mother’s apparently early disapproval of it) make her hide her considerable light under a basket. Toby, who she met at a weight support group, initially seems like an encouraging factor in Kate’s life, pushing her out of her comfort zone to, say, use that gorgeous voice to sing to the folks at his aunt’s retirement home, or be chauffered around LA and be a star, like her sweet, pretty, famous twin brother.

But increasingly, Dude’s behavior has bordered, at best, on overbearing and at worst completely and insufferably creepy. He’s right that she throws herself into her brother Kevin’s life at expense of her own, but he seems to be mad that she doesn’t choose the whims of him, a guy she’s known for a week at that point, over her twin brother who also happens to be her employer. (He is, however, right that stalking and then accepting a job with his ex-wife is cray.)

On Tuesday night’s episode, Toby steps up the overbearing behavior to a disrespectful level, by ignoring something sacred to sports fans – the game day ritual. Honestly, it’s rude to ignore someone’s gentle but emphatic refusal to change the way they do something that means more to them than to you, no matter what it is. But when it’s about sports, whose personal importance is usually tied to deeply-seated details like national and regional identity and family tradition, you need to step off. I have a friend who broke up with a guy once for that same thing, and honestly, Toby deserves the same.

I feel strongly about this because I am related to, by blood and marriage, people with very strong sports rituals, that seemed quirky and inconvenient until they let you inside of them. My Granddaddy Streeter would retreat down the hall to his bedroom after dinner and lie in the dark to silently listen to Baltimore Orioles games on the radio. If we were very quiet, we were allowed to sit there with him, quietly bonding over strike-outs and home runs and the sparkling crack of the bat. It seemed like an inheritance. And anyone who ever met my late husband Scott knew that he had as many sports-related rituals as he did Ravens Jerseys, including buying football magazines before the NFL draft to study the upcoming picks, and then before the season to do his fantasy draft. He also brought a dancing Purple People Eater doll we called Purpie to every Ravens game he watched at Kirby’s, our local Ravens bar, and made it dance at every Ravens touchdown. It was fun, it didn’t hurt anyone and it was cool to have a thing.

Kate’s thing, apparently, is watching football by herself. That should be enough explanation, and she doesn’t owe anyone else more than that. But Toby decides that if he doesn’t get her motivations it must be sad, because Toby seems to need to worm his way into every part of her life in some supposed attempt to break her out of her shell. So he won’t accept “No” for an answer when she declines his invitation to watch a game together. Because Toby’s appointed himself Kate’s personal confidence guru, he can’t give her credit for choosing to do things he doesn’t get, because he doesn’t allow her the autonomy to know the difference between stuff she does to hide and stuff she does because she just wants to. She’s a person, not a project, loser.

Anyway, because he’s a pushy bastard, Toby does his usual public declaration thing that’s seeming less and less spontaneous and more and more like bullying, when he makes a homemade invitation to a supposed football party at his place, and passes it to Kate across their weight loss meeting. Nothing says “I respect your boundaries:” like involving a bunch of other people in it, particular because he assumes correctly that she’s easier to coerce when other people are watching. So she shows up, reluctantly, to his house, and he and the random friend he’s also invited yap through the whole thing and actually pause the game to keep yapping, so that Kate almost misses a touchdown.

So she bails, as you do when you aren’t having any fun at an event you got badgered into in the first place. Toby shows up at her house demanding an explanation, because how dare she not find his pushiness charming! So she explains that football, particularly Steelers games, was her family thing (she and her twin were conceived in a sloppy bar bathroom during the Super Bowl), and that they always watched together. Then she explains that they still do, in a way – her father Jack (whose absence in the show’s present-day scenes was, until now, a mystery) has passed away, and she sits with his urn and watches the games.

There are writers who think this is a sad cry for help, which seems awfully judgey. Everyone’s rituals are not yours. Everyone’s life is not yours. People keep their loved one’s ashes for a reason, and as long as they aren’t smoking, eating, or having untoward relations with them, I don;t know what is weird about silently enjoying an activity they would still be enjoying were both still alive. I was sometimes annoyed by his insistence on always having to watch Ravens games, even if we were traveling and it was a pain in the butt to find somewhere broadcasting them. Sometimes it seemed selfish. But he asked for one afternoon, once a week, for like four months, to be in his element, and it was OK with me, because he gave so much of himself to everyone else.

The people who love you should respect, if not completely understand, the things that are important to you. If they don’t, they don’t deserve you. Sorry Toby.


You Take The Good, You Take The Bad, You Take Them All and There You Have An Authentic Life

by SweetMidlife

Hi! It’s Lynne. Happy Friday.

So, Leslie and I have written lately about why we haven’t written a lot lately, and mostly it’s because we’ve both had a lot of things going on, what with work and adoptions of awesome little boys being final (Leslie) and working on a new theater and recovering from surgery (me). But we are back now, blogging more often, we hope.

Hi.

Hi.

I have to admit though, that work and surgery weren’t the only things keeping me from posting here. This summer has been a particularly awful time here in these United States when it comes to peace, especially among racial lines, with cases of police officers killing unarmed civilians, and people killing officers who were just doing their jobs, and this torrent of nasty on the airwaves and on social media, and people feeling like it’s okay not just to say any hateful thing that they want, but the awful realization that people were actually FEELING the things they were saying. Which is worse. And all of this had me, as an American, a black woman, the wife of a black husband and mother of a black son, and a human, feel a million things, and me, as a writer, wanted to talk about them.

And this was the challenge. My Facebook page and this blog have been places for me to share  my thoughts on everything, from my faith, to the goofy thing my kid did, to the goofy thing I did, to my feelings and thoughts on race. And I know that there are people who read my kid stuff who would rather not read my writings about faith, and that there are people who think that with everything that is going on, there is no time to write about what I ate last night. I have been feeling all of that, but have felt moved to write about the things that I see as unjust, as they affect me and my family, and I hope that my eyes are opened to the pains that others feel about things that might not touch my life the same way. And with all of that, I have still posted about my continued love of cheese, but also how my binge-watching of all 12 seasons of “Murder, She Wrote” has now led me to extended Netflix-viewings of “Royal Pains”, and my new favorite old thing, “Columbo”, because Peter Falk was Every. Daggone. Thing.

And all of that is okay. Because I am all of these things. I am a person who feels strongly about the way things are in the world, and I also like to talk about what I watched on TV. And I have decided that my Facebook page, and this blog, are places that I am going to use my voice to talk about all of that stuff, because all of that stuff is me, and I hope it leads to some good conversations. If any of the talk of unpleasant stuff makes you feel uncomfortable, I hope that you can stick around long enough to really hear me (and Leslie, because she has a lot to say too). And if you think that the TV talk and odes to my son’s preschool moods is not saying enough about what’s going on in the country, I will tell you that it’s what is going on in my house. All of these things, the good, the bad, the unpleasant, and the delicious, are all a part of life. And darn it, I am going to talk about all of them. This is not an admonition for anyone else to write about things that they don’t want to, and I have to fight the urge to want everybody to value what I value. I want us to all value each other’s lives and truths. But at the end of the day, I am only accountable for what I represent, and me, Lynne, chooses to represent all of those sides of me. I am giving myself permission to do that, in the most respectful yet truest way I can.

Thanks for reading. Rock on.


Another Analogy About Empathy and What It Isn’t

by SweetMidlife

Lynne here. Bear with me.

We visited. It was beautiful.

We visited. It was beautiful.

Leslie and I visited the beautiful city of Montreal in 2002. We drove there from Leslie’s house in York, Pennsylvania, and we got in our customary twin vacation fight, because we always gt in at least one, and one of us got pulled over for speeding in upstate New York, and I will not say which one of us that was. We stayed in a funky bed and breakfast that was so laid back that the owner went for a trip to the countryside and let Leslie and I check in guests who were coming one of the days we were staying there. We did a lot of walking, and attended a beautiful church, and got lost on the subway when we realized that we were exactly where we started once we got off. We ate amazing crepes, and wished that we could have stayed a couple of days later so we could attend the annual Just For Laughs comedy festival. We saw “The Bourne Identity” while we were there, and we got hit on by weird old restaurant servers,and looked for places that would take Leslie’s brand-new Discover card. All in all, we had an amazing time, and whenever anyone mentions having visited there, or that they are from there, we bring up our trip, and we talk about the fun things that we had there. But if anyone asked what it was like to live there, as a resident, I wouldn’t know. Because we were tourists. And while we spent time there, and have an appreciation for what we saw, and ate, and the people we met, and what we ate, that isn’t the same as actually living in that city, and being a resident. I can’t speak to that, and to pretend that I can based on 5 days there is misguided and insulting to anyone who has actually lived there, especially if their experiences as a resident goes against what I got as a tourist. For me to tell them that they are wrong because their lifetime and the impressions that they got from it were different than what I saw after a few days would be, well, stupid.

And that is what we do when we try to tell people who live different existences than us that we know their lives better than they do, just because we went on our honeymoons where they were from, or because we read an article, or even because we maybe stayed on their side of town. Because visiting a place isn’t the same as living in it, working in it, coming back home to it, being a real moving part of it. And that’s okay. Because this is not a call to not care about things that are different than what you know, or to not want to know more about it. That IS what you should do, because I think empathy is everything, and if you don’t try to understand what people are feeling, then we will never get anywhere.

So where does this leave us?

In a place to listen. To leave yourself open to the reality that you don’t have the right to tell other people that they are mistaken about their actual experiences because they don’t line up with what you thought. Have lunch with someone. Read an article that actually disagrees with what you thought. Please visit places and lives that you are unfamiliar with. This is an encouragement to do that. DO that. And be prepared to have your mind and heart opened by what you hear. Look, I know that we have our own lives, and we don’t have time to visit everywhere and get to intimately know the ins and outs of everyone else and what they go through. But listen where you can. Give their experiences, their very existences, the dignity of listening, and getting to know. And believing them. Cool? There are a million different ways to write about the fact that feeling other people’s losses and victories is a big step in stomping out all kinds of ills in the world. I believe this SO much. And if you can deal with more analogies, I will write more! I hope that’s okay.

 


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