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I’m into philanthropy. Not big-time, mind you; I’m not in a position to exercise noblesse oblige. But I’m at the age when budgeting for annual charitable

All rights reserved by hpebley3 via flickr.com

contributions, however modest, feels somehow mature. If I’d been a member of a faith-based organization, I might have started this process much earlier, but better late than never.

I’m hit up by the usual suspects: charities who purchased my address from the charity I gave to five years earlier; organizations who got my name through the $25 donation I made to my neighbors’ kids’ car wash to raise money for childhood cancer. I receive heart-rending letters from at least four charities focused on women in third-world countries (not including the one to which I donate). I’m often invited, courtesy of my connected friends, to fancy fundraisers that begin at $750 a plate for the privilege of sitting at a table in the back with people I don’t know and watching the tiny speck that is the famous featured speaker or performer. At least the local versions, which usually come in at a quarter of the cost, remind me that I’m part of a community.

I’m generally careful with my research, although I once gave $40 in cash to a young woman who came door to door, clipboard in hand, with a tale about raising money for blind kids in Africa. I never saw a receipt, or the young woman again; but I learned my lesson. No donations on the fly, in the subway or at my door.

At some point during the G.W. Bush years, I began to donate small sums to political action committees (PACS) and I do mean small. I was never shooting for a night in the Lincoln Room but I did want to throw my two cents into the effort to turn over both Congress and the White House. It was fun hearing from Emily’s List and getting thank you notes from the DNC Chairman. I felt as if I were making a difference.

In this coming election year, the stakes are at least as high as they were in 2008, if you’re inclined to vote (I am) and if you consider yourself far more likely to vote for one party candidate than the other (I do). Nevertheless, I’m unlikely to respond to any solicitations that involve politics because when it comes to promotion, my team is poised to play as dirty as the other.

 This year, gleeful Democrats are thrilled to be able to point to GOP front-runner Mitt Romney’s shifts in position in order to accommodate, one assumes, his primary voters. Payback for the attacks on John Kerry!  But as FactCheck.org has pointed out (the site should be required reading for anyone planning to vote), the latest DNC extended video “strains the truth to build a case against Romney by including some dubious claims” which it then goes on to list.

FactCheck’s home page demonstrates that Republicans produce far more questionable media pieces than do the Democrats. Grand Old Party operatives have perfected the art of burying a tiny truth within a mountain of innuendos, inferences, torquing contexts and twisting particulars.  Conclusions are supported by a lopsided mix of semi-legitimate observations and an overwhelming number of outright lies. All a party faithful has to do is point to the legitimate sliver of the message and say, “You can’t argue with that.” Hell, our candidates are happy to argue it isn’t absolutely essential, when making a larger point, to stick to the facts.

Meanwhile, political strategists assume we’re simultaneously biased (we already know what we like and don’t like) and inattentive and/or overwhelmed, which is why the credo “keep it simple, stupid” (KISS) is so popular. The problem when playing KISS and tell is that truth often has to leave the room.

Truth-twisting may be necessary to campaigning; it may even be inevitable—I hope not.  But I don’t have to pay for it. When Women for Women International tells me my money is going to sponsor women in war-torn countries, I believe it. When the DNC insists my donation will be used to get the truth out to the American people, I don’t.

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Aren’t we just full of opinions? As a friend of mine wrote in her book: “[While} having  so  many  ways  to  bring  our  opinions  into  public discussion has been, on the whole, a terrific development… not all ideas are equal―equally valid, equally worthy, equally verifiable.” In a related article, she noted:the opportunity to comment doesn’t mean we’re required to put in our two cents, notwithstanding our collective compulsion to do so.” However, she also recognized that the horse is out of the barn (or maybe the train has left the station; you get the drift) when it comes to opinionating—many of us are likely to grab any and every opportunity to opine–the least we can do is make every attempt to make an expressed opinion as informed as possible.

My name is Nikki Stern and I approve this message. Okay, I wrote this message, in my book Because I Say So and in an article called “IMHO I bring this up because I’ve found myself this fall throwing opinions all over the place: on my blog, on Facebook, on the website I publish (Does This Make Sense) and, most recently, in the New York Times.

Opining on the Times website isn’t like opining on AOL. By and large, the commenters are smart, well-read and restrained in their responses (of course the Times screens the comments before publishing them, so perhaps I’m just not seeing the “!%$&@)%(*^*” versions that come into the editors’ inboxes. What this means is that if I have an impulse to comment, I know I’d better make sense. In part, it’s my ego at work: I don’t want appear to be a complete idiot. On the other hand, who’s going to remember commenter #49 on the recent Charles Blow or Frank Bruni op-ed? Exactly: no one. Still, I feel a certain responsibility to sound intelligent—to be intelligent.

Of course I’d like to attract a little attention on behalf of whatever I’m promoting (a book, a blog) before my comment scrolls by and disappears into the ethos. This can be achieved by obtaining “recommendations” which are garnered when the reader hits a little button at the end of the comment and which means said comment may be highlighted on the site. Gad, everything’s a competition these days!

The situation causes me to hesitate before I comment (a good thing), and then, if I decide to post my thoughts, I will write out and carefully proof them before I hit “send” (an even better thing). Sometimes, thanks to the unpredictability of the keyboard and the undeniable fact that my brain works faster than my fingers, I may end up with a typo. But my thoughts are nearly always clear.

I also read other comments on the post where I’ve left my comment but also on other pieces I find provocative (or pieces I don’t understand). If Paul Krugman tells me why the Euro is a terrible idea, I want to read what more knowledgeable people have to say on the subject. Granted, Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist and some of the commenters don’t know the difference between a derivative and a derivation but I’m frequently surprised about the level of thought and intelligence that goes into the replies. At the very least, I get more background and more history.

I also read letters to the editor for my favorite magazines. Sometimes I try to read comments and letters in magazines I don’t care for,  like Reason Magazine (I don’t really dislike the magazine, but some of the articles in Reason–which purports to be a libertarian magazine–are pompous in the extreme); or letters in magazines I don’t care about. I love reading the letters section in New York Magazine because they aren’t simply letters but blog postings, tweets, passing comments—all reactions to the often provocative stories within. Like Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, the magazine makes a big deal out of noticing and promoting and replying to and arguing with the people who are noticing and replying to and arguing about something they read (which means they’re promoting it, of course).

Everyone has an opinion; no doubt about it. And everyone wants their opinions to count. One way to do that is to use your opinion as a way to start a conversation or encourage a response; to learn something from other opinionators; to practice writing clearly and concisely; to get better at framing an argument; to think, to review your own feelings about a topic, to get in the game. We might not all end up as recommended picks or one step closer to our own op-ed column, but we’ll be smarter commentators. And that means we’ll be smarter citizens.

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The Tao of Hair

Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy, daddy

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair
© 1967 James Rado & Gerome Ragni (lyrics); Galt MacDermot (music)


So many things to worry about in the world and yet I find myself thinking about my hair–and why not? We are our hair. More than eye color or height or weight, hair seems to be how we humans make a statement. Some of this is evolutionary: healthy hair indicates youth and well-being, two desirable traits when it comes to the propagation of the species.  Hair is a distinguishing characteristic of mammals, providing both temperature control and, for many animals, camouflage. As most of us (but clearly not all of us) understand, our animal friends don’t really care how they wear their hair as long as it does what their instincts tell them it’s supposed to do: namely, protect and serve.

But we humans are different. We care about our hair (or lack of it)…and we experiment.

While there is ample evidence that men are attentive to styling (the early Greeks, the upper-class Renaissance, the Chinese warriors, fans of Elvis’ pompadour and even—shudder—the mullet), men generally seem to have two styles available to them: long and short. Oh sure, we may go through periods of mutton-chops or fringe bangs (heaven forbid) but at the end of the day, most men stay with short hair, with a few hold-outs opting for shaved heads or the less than inspiring ponytail.

Women, on the other hand, have infinite permutations, notwithstanding they’ve often followed the lead of their leaders—monarchs, movie stars and various trend-setters. In any given decade, you could find a pleasing variety of straight and curly, waist-length and bob, flip and page-boy, worn up, worn down, decorated with beads and feathers or worn unadorned. If you had a little money, you went to a fancy hairdresser and chose a style that suited you; if not, you flipped through pages of hairstyle magazines and selected something and had your mom or your best friend cut it.

So what’s with all the long hair?

I mean long, below the shoulder, tendrils gently brushing one’s breasts or tickling that spot on the back it’s so hard to reach when showering. These days, I feel surrounded by women who look as if they’re auditioning for roles on “Gossip Girls,” women of all ages whose tresses fall far below the shoulder. Some of them sport the super-straight look, apparently ignoring the recent reports about the dangers of formaldehyde in the most popular straightening formulas. More recently, I’ve seen an explosion of the gentle tendrils that make the wearer look like an aspiring fairy princess. A surprising number of women (including a close friend of mine, a financially comfortable woman with great clothes) have long hair that simply sits on the head, as if the wearer had absentmindedly allowed her hair to grow without benefit of cutting or conditioning. It’s not unusual to see three generations of women out on the town with identical hairstyles, tossing back stray strands while they munch on Waldorf salads or scour Target for matching T-shirts.

Popular culture shoulders part of the blame, especially television. These past seasons, we’ve seen a raft of smart, funny, capable women, most between thirty and fifty. Their independent spirit seems to extend to all parts of their lives save their hairstyle choice. Doctors, lawyers, detectives, coroners, therapists, operatives, mothers, U.S. marshals, drug dealers: everyone wears prom-ready do’s, showing up in the operating room, in the courtroom, or at the scene of a crime with locks akimbo. Wouldn’t a flowing mane obstruct a clean shot or a brilliant summation? Isn’t anyone worried about contaminating evidence or interfering with a crime scene?

Maybe it starts with the ads for the latest shampoo, conditioner, coloring or balm, all of which feature attractive young people cavorting under sunny skies swinging great masses of gleaming tresses back and forth without getting whiplash. It’s hair you want to sleep in, dress in, bathe in; who wouldn’t want some of that?

Long hair conveys sensuality and pre or post-menopausal women these days are particularly sensitive about competing for attention in a society that still doesn’t know where to put or how to treat its older women (we can’t all be Betty White).

My own hair has hovered between my chin and my shoulders for years now, occasionally retreating back towards the ear. If the base of the neck is my wire-fenced, heavily-patrolled, “may I see your passport, please” border, then the area to the collarbone is a no-fly zone. Part of the issue relates to sheer volume: as my hair gets longer, it becomes fuller, threatening to engulf my small face in sweeping waves and errant curls. There’s also my ongoing struggle to stay relevant yet also “appropriate.” I mean, as much as I approve of cross-generational pollinating, some fashions, like some behavior, are better worn by the young.

Still, I hear the siren song—or maybe it’s the swan song—of Samson, at least before Delilah got to him. Push the envelope, it sings; go long one time before you’re eligible for Medicaid. Embrace your freedom; who cares if it suits you? This is America. You have the right to look just like everyone else.

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We like to commemorate in the United States. Coming up, what I refer to as The-Anniversary-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named recalls a horrible event ten years ago when four planes, two towers, and several thousand lives were destroyed in an attack on U.S. soil. In the days that followed, we came together, focused not on hate and destruction (at least to my grief-stricken, New York-centric eyes) but on resilience and purpose.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it? Not that my husband or so many others were killed but that, ten years later, we’re farther apart than ever. Everyone has an opinion as to why that’s happened (everyone has an opinion on everything, freely spoken and easily distributed through the unfiltered megaphone that is the Internet). For me, the decade is captured (albeit in a simplified manner) in a letter I had published in the New York Times the other day in response to an article by Tom Friedman:

After my husband died on 9/11, I hoped the American public, which had come together in a spirit of resilience rather than one of anger, would resist the temptation to blame, to justify, to point fingers or to follow an “us versus them” scenario. Instead we’ve devolved into a selfish group of squabblers, ready to throw strangers under the bus and kick friends off the ladder. A small group sacrifices abroad while we dither about the endgame; here at home, we expect our neighbors to fend for themselves and our government to do its job without revenue. The list of enemies foreign and domestic grows longer; we trust no one. While I’m mindful that my husband may be more fairly called a victim than a hero, I am still saddened that his legacy and that of so many others might be tied to a period of profound civic retrenchment.

On my worst days, I’m tempted to blame everyone, including me for sitting at home and indulging in blame. I want to slap the collective citizenry across the face and yell, “Grow up! Stop fighting! Behave yourselves. No one is always right and no one is always perfect. We have to work together to get anything done. Get off your high horse and get to work!”

Honestly, I hate feeling angry as much as I hated feeling grief-stricken. That’s not who my husband was and it’s not who I am. And so I leave my friends, acquaintances and various readers with this rather hopeful thought, played out visually by a lovely dance troupe of children from Denver, CO who have channeled what we used to think of as the American spirit to produce a stunning montage. Sure, it’s sappy but deep down inside, I’m a sap.

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Although I have friinternet-addictedends in the town where I live, I spend more of my free time online, socializing with people, many of whom I haven’t met in person. This is the new normal, where we can morph into hunky superheroes or meet and “marry” our soul mate and start a Second Life that’s much more interesting than the first one. It’s possible to spend too much time online,but most of us know when to sit back and look up…most of us.

“I need to get out more”

Thanks to social networking, the word “friend” has acquired a new fluidity. What is a friend anyway? Someone whose interests you share? With whom you can swap stories or exchange confidences? Someone who’ll lend you money,  take you to the airport, water your plants or show up at your funeral? At some point, the only people we can count on for those sorts of things are either family or people we pay, and the latter group is often more reliable.

Online friendship is relatively easy: I like you; your sensibility or sensitivity or sense of humor; you seem like “good” people;  we have friends in common—boom! You’re my friend. Many social networking circle-of-people sites don’t even require that you be acquainted with someone you embrace as a comrade. I have “friended” the comedian Lewis Black and the journalist Charles Blow. Of course, that the creepy guy who used to follow me home in high school can ask to “friend” me, but I can always virtually run in the other direction via the “ignore” button.

Just as I get used to this loosey-goosey, all-inclusive buddy system, along comes Google+ to throw all my choices into question.

google-plus-logoGoogle + is a new social networking site who some people think (and others hope) will knock Facebook back on its heels. Thanks to a few tech-forward friends, I’ve been invited to poke around on the site.  There are many cool-looking features I’ve yet to try, but Google’s big selling point is that it solves the “too much information seen by too many people” problem by creating a classification system. This theoretically allows you to organize your networking by organizing your network; sorting out friends from family (some of whom might or might not be considered friends, but never your mother or your crazy brother) and from acquaintances, people you don’t really know except through someone else. Then there are people you’re “following” (a nod to Twitter): people you only wish you had as friends who in truth don’t know you from Adam. You can customize your circles:  you might have a professional circle (very LinkedIn), or a common interests circle ( like a bunch of, say, writers).

Circles are supposed to be good. They represent strength, unity, connection, community; commonality, unbroken and everlasting. Yet the very act of separating everyone out is giving  me agita.

240px-Bartolomeo_Di_Fruosino_-_Inferno,_from_the_Divine_Comedy_by_Dante_(Folio_1v)_-_WGA01339

I get that someone might want to share professional or technical  information only with people she thinks might be interested. But as far as privacy is concerned, let’s not fool ourselves: if it’s on the ‘Net, it’s absolutely, irretrievably public. Maybe not instantly but eventually. Forget circles or squares or compartments or e-mails marked “private” or password-protected sites. If there’s anything you don’t want anyone to know—ever—your best course of action is not to type it out—ever.

“Hell really is other people.”

The truth is, I don’t want Google or anyone else to help me sort out my relationships. I feel I’ve earned the right to be vague or uncertain. At the same time, my maturity doesn’t protect me from re-experiencing those painful high school-era feelings about belonging. It’s bad enough to invite someone to “friend” you and get ignored. On Google+, you can add someone to your friends’ circle and learn they’ve tagged you as a mere acquaintance or worse:  they haven’t included you in any of their circles. That’s harsh. And must I be denied the thrill of claiming Lewis Black as one of my peeps?

friends Maybe I’m just not seeing the big picture; Google+, please,  help me out.  Why can’t we all be just friends? Even if we’re not in real life.

 

 

images:
healthadal
parenting support circles
Google
Bartolomeo Di Fruosino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Yesterday, as one of a group of selected 9/11 family members, I had an opportunity to meet with President Obama. Although the number of invitees swelled at the last minute and the format changed from a sit-down to a stand-up affair, I had my moments with the man. Problem is, I got kind of tongue-tied and forgot some of what I’d hoped to say:


  1. You look AMAZING.
  2. Would you consider closing Gitmo and turning it into a salsa club? I think you’d win points not only on your moral gesture but also for a project that could aid Cuba’s economy, thus marking the first step towards normalizing relations. Even the conservative Miami Cuban-American population would appreciate your cultural sensitivities and their support could be key in winning Florida in 2012.
  3. Michelle has you working with weights, doesn’t she?
  4. Some people are concerned that Pakistan, stung by being out of the loop when it came to the bin Laden mission, will become more dangerous, harboring terrorists and perhaps even sharing its nuclear power. But if you made a movie of the operation, you could cut Pakistan in on international distribution and related ancillary rights as well as job-creating monies generated by filming on location. To play well in certain parts of the world, the filmmakers might create an interactive version in which viewers get to choose alternate endings. This could be a book to another growing cottage industry—the conspiracy theorists. Win-win.
  5. You’re getting grey, Mr. President—but I guess you know that.
  6. You totally rocked at the White House Correspondents’ dinner—and considering it was the night before the big take-down,  you deserve an Oscar.
  7. Say, maybe instead of the usual photo ops, we might take a minute, just you and I, to do some serious talking about domestic and world issues. I have a lot of good ideas and I think it would be very moving to have you sitting with an ordinary 9/11 family member sharing a moment to talk about the personal and the political while you’re holding a copy of my book upright and facing the camera.
  8. Can I sneak a peek at your long-form birth certificate? Please?
  9. Did I mention that you look AMAZING?
  10. It’s an honor to meet you sir. I don’t have anything to ask of you; I just want to thank you for being here today and for doing what you’re doing. I’m a big fan of yours—have been for some time—and oh, by the way, my sister loves you, too.

 (actually, I did say that last bit, which might account for his big grin)  

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You probably didn’t know Sally Goodrich. She was, among other things, a teacher and school administrator; a cancer survivor; wife of a small-town lawyer from North Adams, Massachusetts;  the mother of a young man killed on 9/11; and eventually, a dedicated advocate for Afghan civilians, particularly for girls and young women.

It was in this last role that Sally attained a modicum of notoriety. Not nearly as much as Greg Mortenson, the internationally acclaimed humanitarian and author of Three Cups of Tea. This week, in a devastating article published online and in a “60 Minutes” interview, author Jon Krakauer accused Mortenson of falsifying his memoir and worse, of ripping off the charitable foundation he established.

We’re going to be hearing a lot about this story; we already are–which is why I’ve been thinking of Sally. The accusations against Mortensen, if true, present a depressing “teacup half empty” view of relief efforts in Afghanistan. Sally’s story, heartbreaking though it is, fills the cup again.

Immediately after 9/11, Sally started, along with her husband Don and a few others, Families of September 11 (FOS11), an organization that worked on behalf of 9/11 relatives around the globe. I got to know Sally when I worked with the organization, first on the board and then as its executive director. She was a gracious and giving, with a sharp New England wit. Like all of us, she was suffering. Worse, on top of the delayed grief and depression, she had to deal with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer which came in 2002. It was a difficult time.

Then, in 2004, Sally heard from a Marine in Afghanistan, a friend of her late son Peter, who asked her to collect supplies for school children. It was then Sally found her calling, a way to lift herself out of depression and create something positive to honor her son’s spirit. In 2005, Sally and Don founded the Peter M Goodrich Memorial Foundation.

The organization has raised over a million dollars which was used to build a 500-student coed school and support others. It also supports an orphanage in the Pashtun region. Sally and Don have helped many students attend college in the United States. It also raises money for, among other projects, disabled landmine victims, a dental clinic, exchange students in the United States, victims of natural disasters and other school projects.

Sally made several trips to Afghanistan beginning in 2005. That year, she was ABC’s “Person of the Week” because she “turned personal loss into hope for hundreds.” She traveled back in 2007 and again in 2009. Then her cancer returned. In December of last year, Sally died at the age of 65.

Sally was an eloquent woman but she never wrote a book, never went on a speaking tour, never took any money from the foundation. The projects gave her back her life, she said, and that was enough. For the hundreds she’s helped, it’s more than enough.

Filmmaker Rick Derby has created a short film—Axis of Good about Sally’s work. I hope this might take some attention away from the Mortensen story. Of course, big scandal and big money make up a bigger story, but sometimes a small tale holds a big heart.

image: Axis of Good

See also:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/25/us/25goodrich.html
http://articles.boston.com/2010-12-23/bostonglobe/29327948_1_maple-syrup-peter-vermont

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No Comment

When I first moved to New York, the locals, it seemed, were more than ready to offer advice on anything, whether you asked or not: where to shop, where to eat, which subway to take, who to vote for, who to root for, or the best way to get where you wanted to go, even if they had not a clue. It was kind of cute, if at times a little overwhelming and maybe even a little iconic: the opinionated New York local.   

 These days, we’re all New Yorkers.   

What might be a passing impulse to have and render an opinion has been “legitimized” and encouraged by the availability of multiple outlets from which we can make ourselves heard. No longer must we stand on a corner shouting about the End of Times or write endless letters to the editor in hopes of getting the word out there. The level playing field provided by the blogosphere means that we can all weigh in almost anywhere on almost any subject, day or night. The opportunity to reach hundreds, even thousand, any time, day or night, is intoxicating, like crack or Red Bull for the opinionated and even the marginally opinionated. Who can resist commenting?

Attention, everyone: do resist, please…at least some of the time. 

I’m not against opinions and I’m certainly not against comments, especially those that are amusing or instructive, supportive or even contrary and most importantly, considered. Sometimes we all have something to add to the conversation. 

But let’s face it, all opinions are not created equal. And not all opinions need to be expressed.

Virginia Heffernan, New York Times television critic and columnist on all thing media, noted in an article last year that commenters often responded to stories with comments that “are hardly models of astuteness.” Scanning the online comments that follow pieces by respected journalist Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post, Heffernan observed the commenters feel  free to criticize, make assumptions, or cast aspersions about the author but didn’t “… provide a sustained or inventive analysis.” Instead they posted illogical arguments or poorly researched rebuttals apparently so that they could go on record as having joined the discussion.

Most of us might have qualms about making public statements without having our facts straight but these things appeared not to matter to the commenters, Heffernan concluded.  And these noise-makers, she wrote, swamp the occasional “rare, bright voices” who might contribute to a meaningful dialogue.

The tone of so many online comments, inspired perhaps by talk radio and the idea of “freedom to be one’s own person” often veers between petulant and outraged. Commenters, it seems, come looking for a fight and stand ready to argue, even if it’s on, say, Salon’s food page (“You don’t hard boil an egg for fourteen minutes, you dimwit!”). They are simultaneously ready to hand out insults and take offense. They take pride in speaking “the truth” in voices that are often shrill, mean-spirited, or semi-literate. Too many are there to provoke, to hector, to lecture, or to rant. Of course, sometimes even the benign commenters (“I really like what you said.”) don’t seem to know when to let well enough alone, rambling on and derailing any chance of a meaningful discussion. 

 I’ve had comments on my opinion pieces that were tough but fair, that pointed to holes in my reasoning and flaws in my construct or that disagreed with the substance of my position. I appreciate seeing an issue through “new” eyes; alternate points of view and reasonable opposition are welcome. Of course, I don’t like to be lectured (who does?) and I’m not a fan of public humiliation, whether my own and someone else’s. If there were guidelines for commenters (oh, what a glorious thought!), they might begin with admonitions to stow the snark and bury the urge to bloviate.

Or maybe we’d paraphrase little Thumper’s mother (with apologies and full attribution, of course) and render this advice: If you don’t have anything to say, don’t say anything.          

image: Seattle Weekly blog

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In the autumn and winter months following my husband’s death on 9/11, my strength came from the architects and designers with whom I’d been associated for several years. I was at the time public relations director of a large architecture and interior design firm in New York. I loved the job. Working with architects and designers taught me to visualize; I, in turn, helped them express the intent and the context of their projects through words. It was a good match.

So when I had the opportunity to work with architects, designers, planners and a variety of civic activists, I jumped at the chance. I’d seen the devastation first-hand; stood by the crumbling steps that were all that remained of the World Financial Center; gazed upon the sculptured ruins of my husband’s building glowing gold and grey in the filtered sunlight. I’d seen the hell that had crushed my open-minded, optimistic mate and sent his ashes to the four winds. Now I wanted to be a part of a new and better vision, one that would embrace memory, yes, but also vision. Where before there were ungainly monuments to finance, there might be a university or an educational facility, perhaps some sort of journalistic enterprise,  a cultural center, even a museum of tolerance and understanding—because to understand was not to accept terrorism but to seek its opposite. All of this might be encased in a beautifully landscaped environment with buildings of inspired architecture. The signage—I was a big fan of signage—would be how we would tell people that they were entering “sacred” ground; made so not by the deaths at the site but by the lives that would be remembered.

Throughout the fall of 2001, even as I worked as a families’ representative in my home state of New Jersey, I stayed part-time in the city to facilitate a series of public meetings where devastated New Yorkers talked about their dreams of an inspiring skyline. In December I huddled in unheated raw space at the South Street Seaport adjacent to ground zero with members of the Regional Plan Association to come up with ideas that would be complimentary to those suggested by Mayor Bloomberg. No, I didn’t live in New York City (although I worked there), but I felt passionately that the best possible direction for us to move forward, to prove we as Americans were not about to give in to the hatred that perpetrated the act, nor the grief it sought to instill, was to make the place where my husband died something truly special.

Nine years later, I’m not simply disappointed, but wounded. Some of it is thoroughly selfish, I admit. The hopes and dreams of organizations like “Renew New York” and projects like “Imagine New York” were mine too. To look now at the blandly functional commercial buildings finally rising at the site is to feel a pang for the days when so many of the deeply wounded, not just family members, thought to create a living, visual and visible symbol of resilience.

But what is worse is the pitiful symbolism ground zero evokes—death over life, prejudice over tolerance, grief over hope, and a backwards, stuck-in-place mentality that tramples the visions of a better future some of us once had. The air of controversy surrounding ground zero is as toxic as anything I ever breathed that long-ago September.

I am laid low about this time, every year since 2001; it’s hard to shake memories of the shock and confusion played out in such a public setting. But I had been feeling better, truly. At heart, I am a forward-looking person, or at least someone learning to live in the moment.

It’s going to be much harder this year. I hate what 9/11 represents, not just the loss of my husband but the loss of our better selves. This is not how I want my husband remembered. And this is not my ground zero.

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The powerful image that appeared on the cover of the recent issue of Time Magazine in one sense represents the terrible problem of global violence against women, sanctioned by a hodgepodge of tribal customs, religious misinterpretation and government-sponsored terror campaigns against citizen populations. But the image is just part of a cover story, accompanied by its own question: “What happens if we leave Afghanistan?” 

Photograph by Jodi Bieber / INSTITUTE for TIME

Anticipating a reaction, managing editor Richard Stengel wrote:  “Our cover image this week is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival.” 

Stengel goes on to acknowledge the disturbing effect the image might have on children and to detail the elaborate security measures taken on behalf of Aisha, who also faces the promise of reconstructive surgery in the United States. And then he makes this statement: “I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.”  

In the final paragraph, he makes reference to the Wikileaks report on the progress (or lack) of the war. Stengel insists the story is not a corrective to those reports; “We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground.”

He concludes, however, by noting that, “What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.”

Emotional truth: the phrase has the same effect on me as “the real story”; it’s often a disingenuous way of skewing the story and pulling the reader/viewer to one side. Maybe that’s what all good storytelling does; certainly it’s what an opinion piece does, but then why the disclaimer?  

Most of us realize that the Taliban represents a local cultural interpretation of a religious way of life that is obscenely oppressive to women. We also know this sort of interpretation allows many cultures to subjugate its women, a fact that compels my involvement with organizations such as Women for Women.  Yes, there could be dire consequences for women and for all citizens if the Taliban were to return to power. 

But the picture, coupled with the question that is really a statement in disguise (“this WILL happen after we leave Afghanistan) is designed to shock and, I think, to manipulate. The implication is that we readers will have allowed these sorts of horrific mutilations to continue should the U.S. withdraw. I appreciate that the author at least addresses the difficulties in getting the government to speak out forcefully against these crimes committed against its own citizens. Afghanistan President Karzai seems to believe that negotiation with the Taliban is his only option, and that he finds himself in an  either/or situation, whereby he must sacrifice the rights of girls to attend school in order to save lives. His government could do both if it had the will to shake off the corruption and commit resources to building a strong army along with a strong infrastructure. But it doesn’t and we’ve left U.S. troops to engage in simultaneous efforts of changing local hearts and minds (and customs) while maintaining a highly visible and active military presence.  

History is supposed to have taught us that trying to counter a persistant homegrown insurgency that combines tribal instincts with modern weaponry is something of a fool’s errand. That doesn’t mean that we don’t remain fully commmitted to human rights around the world, only to recognize the limits of military intervention. 

Maybe the editors of Time were sincerely trying to present another view of the conflict in Afghanistan; maybe they were trying to shock or guilt readers into considering the consequences of a hasty peace; or maybe they were engaged in a bit of sensationalism, not to mention competition with Wikileaks’ domination of the news cycle over the past week.    

So no, there’s nothing wrong with the image, which says everything about the horrific abuses women suffer every day in the name of custom or tradition or religion. But in assessing the cover as a whole, we might remember when presented with claims of emotional truth: there’s never just one.

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