Hitting the ‘delete’ button on Facebook: a Dispatch from the quiet zone

 

On April 10th, I posted this on my Facebook feed:

I was going to just leave quietly, but it feels disrespectful to so many of you who I care about. I joined Facebook quietly in December of 2006 as a puckish joke on one of my kids, and it quickly became a mechanism for staying in touch far-flung friends. It also helped me make new friends, and valuable connections. But for a lot of reasons, it’s time to go. I’m reassessing a lot of things in light of Mom’s death, and the way I engage with social media platforms is on that list.

 Regarding Facebook, I know enough about what privacy means in an electronic environment to have kept my settings set at maximum privacy, not take any of those damn quizzes or list my forty favorite songs, colors or facts about myself I wasn’t willing to share. But the way Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg made it okay for anyone who let the vampires in to also let them in to their friends’ houses was not okay.

Two days later, I clicked “Delete my account.” I was informed that if I logged in within two weeks, all would be forgiven and my account restored.

Now, that’s a non-option.

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And then, with a single keystroke, I flushed Facebook.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over Facebook’s lack of respect for user privacy, but knowing what I knew about the ways in which data gets collected, mined and used, I was less surprised about the outrage than I was at the constant (see blog archives for the paper I wrote about it in 2008) insistence by Zuckerberg & co. that they had no idea that FB data could be used for anything other than good. If I, a nobody sitting at my kitchen table in 2008 could identify multiple ways personal data could be used for less-than-savory purposes,  there’s no excuse for those two to turn into a pair of outraged Victorian ladies, all atwitter at this assault on their delicate constitutions.

Still, a lot of people, whether or not their data was scooped up by Cambridge Analytica (mine was, unsurprisingly), are sticking with Facebook.

I’m not one of them. When I left, Sumner & Jessica were about to become first-time parents. I wonder how my fellow librarian pal Keith in Syracuse is faring, whether Celia got to the beach for the annual sea turtle rescue and how many impromptu house concerts and other adventures Marge has had in the last week (probably about 20, knowing her as I do).

But the truth is, Facebook had become an avoidance strategy. In the time Mom was declining, it was a way to decompress and run away from thinking about what was going on in my life. The energy it took me to do what I needed to for her left me with little time to address my house, which was becoming more cluttered, and the long-form project I’ve been working on – mostly in my head – for decades.

So really, Cambridge Analytica was just the final push forward on a journey that I’d been trying to summon up the will to start taking for awhile.

Since leaving Facebook, I can’t say I’ve made major strides on any of these things. But I have made strides.

As I write this, the radio is on and I’m half-listening to an episode of Hidden Brain in which a young mom talks about how reluctant she was to portray anything but the perfect life and compare hers to other peoples’ perfect lives.

The dog is begging for a bite of the waffle I’m eating, Sweetheart broke a dessert dish in the microwave warming syrup; there’s a load of laundry in the wash and the litterbox needs changing.

I was actually on national television and in the New York Times for being one of the first “old” people on Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg may have kind of needed me then, but he sure doesn’t now. At the time I quit, I had more than 1,500 contacts. All of them were there for a reason, whether or not we’d met in person.

I used Facebook to connect people with each other, to stay in touch with far-flung friends and to stay current in my job. There are times when I miss the ease of being able to manage those connections.  But I managed just fine before Mark Zuckerberg.

I’ll be fine without him.

Real Apologies Matter: A brief stroll through Sexual Predator Apology Land

It’s been busy around here. Thanksgiving is in the rear-view mirror. Before that though, my faithful seven-year-old computer went kerflooey. Never mind that I had writing deadlines. Thankfully, I have an understanding editor. And over at the library, we are moving to reduced-service status for the next year or so while we get a new building. So I’ve been weeding like crazy.

And every day, the news features a “Creep du Jour” and it’s either some dude old enough to be your father (I’m looking at you, Charlie Rose) or your little brother (that would be you, Lewis C-K) or the guy who was a complete asshole to your now deceased former husband when said former husband committed the terrible offense (upon finding himself the other occupant of the elevator on which said Creep was riding) of telling the Creep much he enjoyed his work on Saturday Night Live (Al Franken, C’mon down!).

Regarding C-K, his apology engendered this response from one of my more opinionated offspring when I observed that at least he’d apologized. It took place on a mutual friend’s Facebook page.

Opinionated Offspring: “NO COOKIES FOR DOING THE LEAST!! I don’t give him any respect. He’s a predator and he got called on it, it’s not like he voluntarily mea culpa’d out of the goodness of his heart. We should all be absolutely finished with giving men cookies for just doing the right thing— ESPECIALLY when the ‘right’ thing is admitting he’s a sexual predator.”

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A photo taken early in my career as a sex siren, between Incidents #3 & #4 on the list below. I mean, look at me. Am I irresistible or what?

My response was to post the following list:

  1. Bruce P. I was 13. Our teacher sent us to the auditorium to check on something for that night’s performance of “The Wizard of Oz,” our eighth grade play. He decided, with all the other boys standing there, to find out for sure whether or not I stuffed my bra. He never apologized.
  2. Symeon of Symeon’s Greek Restaurant. I was 15. He was married with three children. Mom said “The food is good.” She kept taking us there. He never apologized.
  3. I don’t remember his name. I was 16. He was a 48-year-old divorced classmate of my father’s. He never apologized.
  4. Lewis K. (not c-k) I was 19. He wouldn’t let me leave his dorm room. I talked myself out of there, but made sure to never again be alone with him. He never apologized.
  5. My great-uncle Sam. I was 19. He had a daughter my age. But that didn’t stop him from trying to slip me the tongue. He never apologized.
  6. I don’t remember his name either. I was 20. He was at least 50, lived in Abu Ghosh and worked at Ma’ale HaChamisha. Cornered me in an isolated part of the kitchen to cop a feel. He never apologized.
  7. Mike M. I was 33, divorced, newly-disengaged, never had had a full-time job but was doing all kinds of freelance writing and looking for a full-time writing/reporting job in Milwaukee. He offered me a job but sexual favors were a condition of employment. His response to my reluctance was “If you won’t help me, I won’t help you.” I took a job 200 miles away. He never apologized.
  8. Jeff J. He was a practitioner of what (thank you, Charlie Rose) is now called “The Crusty Paw,” aka “unsolicited shoulder rubs.” We were both at work in an otherwise unoccupied part of the building when he came up behind me and began the pawing, which didn’t faze me until he upped the ante by dropping a kiss on my neck. I said “That was your one freebie and if you ever do it again, I promise you’ll regret it.” He apologized.
  9. Walter B. I was at a neighborhood party in my new neighborhood and he groped me. One night, on a walk with a male neighbor, I told him what happened. “He groped me too,” said the man. Upon further investigation, it turned out that getting groped by Walter at a party was some sort of perverse neighborhood rite of passage. Needless to say, he never apologized to anyone.

All this to say: Apologies, if they are heartfelt, sincere and a first step toward permanent change, matter. Or, to put it in the parlance of another current social movement: “Real Apologies Matter.”

C-K’s apology had me from his opening line.

“These stories are true.” No equivocating. No accusing anyone of lying, or misconstruing, or misunderstanding.

To be clear, I also pointed out to Opinionated Offspring and anyone else reading the thread that C-K’s apology does not in any way minimize his (hard-earned? {ducks}) predator status. It cracks open a door he may or may not be able to actually step through at some point. (Which is a lot more than can be said for Roy Moore or the Groper-in-Chief.)

I am not smart enough or sophisticated enough to know what a person who preys on others this way needs to do to fix himself (or herself if the gender shoe fits).

I can’t speak for anyone other than myself in speculating about how someone in this position begins to rebuild that blown trust and credibility with the people they’ve wronged.

But for me, admission of responsibility and an apology would constitute an excellent start.

I’ve seen Bruce P. at several high school reunions, and every time it makes my flesh crawl. I want to stand on a table and scream “How dare you show up here!” at the same time I’m cowering underneath it. But it’s as if I’m somehow paralyzed, so I just try to pretend that whatever corner of the room he’s in doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, he’s Mr. Oblivious, laughing, happy and and holding court with groups of laughing female classmates I can’t approach because I’m busy avoiding that corner of the room.

At our most recent reunion, I buttonholed the female classmate in that cluster who I trusted most (which I am realizing as I write this was kind of an awkward, eighth-grade-level attempt to get her to be my wingwoman in some sort of possible meeting in which I could possibly get some resolution, given that he is obviously not going to stop coming to reunions and I am not going to let him stop me from showing up). I was not heartened by her response.

“I’m sure he doesn’t even remember! He was probably drunk!”

Me ( in my mind): “We were 13! Are you on crack?”

Me (aloud): “Whatever.” {Changes subject}

So, where does any of this leave all of us #metoo types?

Over on Facebook, a few people reacted to my posted list with horror, kindness and empathy.

My response was to reassure those good people that I am, and remain, fine.

“I don’t live in all this, or even relive it. But it’s important to not bury it. People need to understand how common the behavior is and how uncommon the apologies are. There really needs to be ‘Truth & Reconciliation’ type activities around all this, and for the people who have committed this type of action to know what they’ve done and say it aloud is an important step.”

NRA helps ‘lone wolf’ Las Vegas shooter kill, injure hundreds at concert: how is this ‘not terrorism?’

 

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This morning, Sweetheart came in and sat at the at the edge of the bed.

“There’s coffee downstairs. And it happened after we went to bed last night, but there’s fresh hell,” he said.

I sat up. More quickly than I usually do first thing in the morning.

“Fifty people were killed and more than 200 were injured at a country music concert in Las Vegas,” he said. “A man on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel had automatic weapons. He’s dead.”

“Shit!” I said. “Fucking NRA.”

Downstairs, Fox News was on. I listened to it while I made Sweetheart’s lunch. It was on when I kissed him goodbye and said what I always do when he leaves for work. (“Work safely and come home.”)

It’s still on as I am writing this. As of this moment, we know the guy’s name (Stephen Paddock – I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess he’s white, because if he wasn’t, Fox and the other networks would be making sure to mention that every other minute). We know he was with a woman named Marilou, whose player card was found in the room and evidently she’s now being questioned.

We know there were multiple weapons in the room, that the windows at the hotel don’t open but that it was no biggie to shoot out a window as a prelude to mayhem.

Motive? What kind of sick piece of human offal takes out people listening to music? My first father-in-law Sidney used to say “You can’t judge irrational behavior by rational standards.”

That fits.

But still, we look for reasons.

Okay. I look for reasons. Dude was born in 1953. Is he a Vietnam veteran? Did the Ken Burns documentary kick open some locked door in his psyche? I’m not blaming Ken Burns. I’m also not blaming guns.

I know how to shoot. I’m a good shot. I’ve owned guns and have thought about getting one. Because I know what I’m doing. But the idea of amassing an arsenal and heading off to kill as many people as I can in one go turns my stomach. (There are hunters in my family, but all I’ve ever killed with a gun is paper and clay pigeons. I have also wounded tin cans.)

The National Rifle Association, though? That’s another story. They’re as complicit as anyone for this. They’ve perverted the Second Amendment. Between lobbying to make sure that sensible gun legislation isn’t enacted, making it easy for people to pick up guns at gun shows and generally tarring anyone who doesn’t agree with them lock, stock and barrel as some sort of wussy liberal….They’re responsible for making it as easy for this man to do what he did.

News is now reporting that the shooter was “known” to Las Vegas police. Whose hands were probably tied in regard to his gun ownership. Thanks again, NRA and the legislators who support them. I’m sure you are all sleeping like babies. Because of your actions, more than 50 people won’t ever wake up again, more than 200 are in hospitals and countless others will startle awake, reliving the event via nightmare.

 

PS When a white guy shoots up a concert full of people, it’s an “aberration” and not “terrorism,” according to a Fox interviewee. I wonder what he’d say if Stephen Paddock’s name was Hassan Abeddin. (Sorry to anyone named Hassan Abeddin.)

Kill ’em with kindness: Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway and the ‘Old People Hypothesis’

Ever been told to be careful about that sour expression on your face because “It might freeze like that?”

The truth is actually simpler and more complicated, and I offer up as Exhibits A (male) & B (female) our current mess of a president and one of his “counselors.”

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Look at Donald Trump’s and Kellyanne Conway’s faces and try to imagine that you’ve never seen them before.

Now, picture yourself  in a situation where you need to ask a stranger for some small thing – standing on a corner in a strange city and not being sure whether to turn left or right to reach your destination, wanting to know what time it is or whether you just missed the bus you’re waiting to catch.

Do they look like people you’d want to ask?

Over the past five years, I have been spending a lot of time hanging out with old people. And by “old people,” I mean the 80-plus set.

Back when 30 seemed like 100 and I blew out the candles on my eighth birthday cake, those people looked unimaginably ancient. Now, those eight and 30-year-olds look at me and see what I saw back then.

[Confession/digression: I kind of like it. Sure, mass media is all about youth and beauty, and it might be fun to be firm and wrinkle-free and all. But the truth is that learning to steer older has been a fairly smooth ride.

Benefits include the ability to call out someone with nothing more than a smile and a kind word or two. There’s zero attitude and the exchange often moves on from there, ending on an upbeat note for everyone involved. Which is, I think, is directly connected to my sense of entitlement – or lack thereof.]

An angry co-worker at a previous job once accused me of thinking I owned the world, and in my head I was l all, “Well, yeah, and so do you!”

Also at that previous job was an older female co-worker whose features could have settled into something pretty, or gentle, but didn’t. She looked mean. Because she was mean.

I’ve spent a lot of time since then observing old people – and that was way before Mom went to the nursing home. The result is my Old People Hypothesis.

Old People Hypothesis: As we age, we tend to look more on the outside like we are on the inside.

In other words, that mean-looking older person (assuming they haven’t had “work” done or been caught up by some disease that changed their physical appearance) is likely to be a mean older person. Conversely, the one whose default expression is soft and kind is also likely to be soft and kind.

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I see it with the residents in Mom’s nursing home, and I see it now with Kellyanne Conway, who, at 50, already is well on her way to a truly gruesome old-person face. Then there’s her boss. Who, at 70, looks on the outside the way he is on the inside.

The Old People Hypothesis doesn’t extend to spreading that ugliness around. But after his first week in office, I’m pretty sure of one thing for those of us out here on the ground.

Killing ‘em with kindness has never mattered more.

Great moments in librarying (yes, it’s a verb now), with illustrations

The best seven months of my work life so far are the ones I’ve spent as a public librarian. Here are a few of my favorite moments librarying and some pictures of the reason I now describe myself as my library’s “Display Queen.” (Yes, I did use “library” as a verb. Thank you for noticing.)

  1. Putting a John Coltrane CD into the hands of an 11-year-old saxophone student. I don’t remember how we struck up our conversation. I asked what was in the instrument case, and when he told me I asked if he’d heard of Coltrane. He hadn’t. I fixed it.
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This display included books and recordings by the musicians listed above. It’s getting swapped out for the incoming class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
  1. Sending two aspiring rappers home with a visual dictionary and a copy of “Hamilton: The Revolution” in addition to the thesaurus they came in looking for. As I walked them over to where it was, I asked if they wanted it for something specific. That was when they told me they were rappers looking to increase their vocabularies. And that it was their first time in the library. It was my first time meeting two aspiring rappers, so we engaged in a beverage-free toast to firsts all around. (They were strikingly good looking – tall and slender with beautiful smiles and great hair.) I suggested the visual dictionary, which they thought was a good idea when they saw it. Then I remembered that we’d just gotten “Hamilton: The Revolution,” a book that includes the lyrics to the musical and also talks about how its evolution from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brain to the stage. THEY HAD NEVER HEARD OF HAMILTON! We don’t have the Broadway soundtrack recording in our collection, but I had my i-pod and a pair of headphones, so played them a few seconds of “Alexander Hamilton” and “Cabinet Battle 1.” Definitely a “Go, me!” moment.
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I asked for – and got! – a display case. This little exhibit is because I had the material. My end game is that patrons with interesting collections will share those.
  1. Something I did not know happens at libraries until I started working at one is that banning is a thing. A sad thing, but a necessary one. Upwards of 99 percent of the people who walk into a library bring their best (or at least second-best) selves. But the 1 percent who don’t? They really don’t. Some bans are short-lived; others can last a lifetime with the ability to appeal at annual intervals. My first experience with a banned patron was one who’d gotten the ban letter and wanted to know what was wrong with his card. When I told him, he left quietly. My second experience started the same way – the patron wanted to know why his card wasn’t working. But this time when the ban notice came up, the banning period was over. So I smiled, because his ban had ended and I was happy I got to welcome him back. He smiled, too.
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    This display was for Domestic Violence Awareness month. I wanted to include information for everyone who might be affected.
  2. In October, our main branch put together the most incredible Halloween extravaganza, including opening up a “haunted” and usually closed-to-the-public floor. It was my job to lead people coming off the elevator from the third floor up to the haunted fourth floor. But one little girl was terrified, and her family wanted to see the haunted floor. So we stayed on the third floor together and joined a group heading out to our green roof, where two telescopes had been set up, one for viewing Mars and the other Saturn. I’d never seen either as clearly and neither had she. We talked about school (hers) and planets (ours) and then I showed her some of the pictures I’d taken of the fourth floor earlier in the week before she rejoined her family.
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This picture was taken from the “haunted” fourth floor, but the window reflected the dome and the a view of the third floor, showcasing another non-public area.
  1. In December, Millie, our library educator (and an amazing librarian), hosted a gingerbread house construction project with a roomful of kids. One, the sweetest nine-ish year-old girl you can picture, wanted a couple of books. It took some doing, but we managed to track down and put them on hold for her. She turned to her mom and told her she wanted to give me her gingerbread house. Her mom said, “I thought you were going to give it to (name).” “But she was really helpful,” the little girl said. It turned out the named recipient was her little brother. So I told her I knew of a way she could give it to me and still take it home to her brother. I’m not posting the picture her mom took of the two of us holding the house because I didn’t ask permission to make it public. It makes me smile every time I look at (or even think about) it.
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This was one of my Christmas displays.
  1. Just before Christmas, a woman about my age came in to print out some papers related to a job for which she was in the process of interviewing. I called on some of my former “helping other people get jobs” skills from my past and gave her a few tips. Two days later, she came in with an acceptance letter!
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This is a close-up of the other one.
  1. One of the scary things about being a librarian is seeing how vulnerable people can be. A recently laid-off man building his profile in the state’s unemployment system (the only way to apply for benefits) turned out to not only not have computer skills, he also didn’t have an e-mail address. My 11 months in my own version of his shoes before getting this job became an instant asset as a result of a counselor named Jeff Armstrong, who’d been affirming and supportive when I’d gone to see him. In another stroke of great good fortune, Jeff answered his phone and the two of them had a conversation in which they arranged a face-to-face meeting.
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This is the rest of the other Christmas display. I was particularly happy about the Bukowski.
  1. The Syrian refugee who came in looking for ESL classes for his wife. A couple of months after she arrived, they came in together and got library cards.
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This isn’t a display. I found it while weeding and thought, “I have the greatest collection in the world!” It wasn’t on the weed list.
  1. The patron who came in to pick up a book that had been on hold for his mother, only to find that somehow the book had gone wandering. After we re-ordered it, she called. She told me about a couple of other books she was planning to read and I found and put them on hold for her. When her son came in to retrieve the found book, he was able to bring her the others, too.
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This was my shortest-lived display. It stayed up a day and a half, at which point a woman came into the library asking for it. She got the book and what was inside of it, which was the New York Times story about Mr. Whitehead winning the National Book Award. I didn’t think Oprah would mind me using her 2004 photo from the car giveaway, given that she was probably at least that happy for the success of her book club pick.
  1. On New Year’s Eve, the library was closed. At the grocery store, three medium-sized kids were gawking in front of the lobster tank. I asked the guy behind the counter if he was okay with me doing something unconventional, and with his approval I was able to resurrect my long-unused lobster-wrangling skills. Three round-eyed kids stared  as I reached into the tank and pulled out a lobster. I did the two-minute version of “Lobster 101” for them (sea cockroach, underside of tail how they swim, if not banded in the tank there’d be fights to the death, claws grow back, can only live in salt water, can grow to be upwards of 20 pounds, encouraged them as they gently touched it).

“Do you work here?” asked one.

“No, I said. “I’m a librarian. Come see me at my library!”

My Write-in Candidate is Dead and Reductive Disrespecters Want Your Brain: An Election Season Guide for the Perplexed

There are a lot of reasons I miss having a dog. Election season is one. Tuki used to come with me when I voted.

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She was also my candidate of choice on more than one occasion. I voted for Tuki when it was clear that, compared to the humans on a ballot, she would represent my interests more competently.

I wrote in Tuki for County Supervisor the whole time Lee Holloway was in office. The only time I ever saw him at my door was after a pension scandal (he and his fellow supervisors voted themselves and county employees fat pensions at the expense of the county’s well-being). When I asked him about it, he got owly. His opponent had no political experience and misspellings on her campaign literature. Tuki was the clear winner.

Even before she died in November, I knew there was a viable human candidate for County Supervisor this coming April. When my friend Mike found out I’d been laid off last July, he told me he was running and asked if I’d be willing to help with his campaign.

Lke me, Mike is a progressive communitarian. Of course I’d be willing to help!

Also, I quite adore him. I also adore his wife Trudy, their kids Jon and Carolyn and their special needs dog, Turbo. (Turbo is an epileptic – but courtly – German Shepherd.)

I asked about specific things he could affect as Supervisor.

“Three things,” he answered. “Transportation, parks and jobs.”

“Four,” I said. “Mental health services.”

“Absolutely!” he said.

So, since fall, Mike’s been walking the district, knocking on doors and introducing himself to voters. By the time it was time to collect the 200 signatures he needed to get on the ballot, he’d gotten a lot of exercise. He’d also gotten a lot of information from his prospective constituents.

It used to be that simple. Candidates declared their intentions by going directly to We the People to talk about who they were and what they’d do, and We the People listened, used our brains to make an informed decision, and voted.

But most people are busy. Or lazy. Some are so turned off by having seen nothing change for so long that they’ve abandoned the process entirely and don’t even bother with elections or voting any more.

All that is a big mistake. Because people – on the left and the right – have figured out how to turn that cynicism and laziness to their advantage, and they’re doing just that. They’ve given up on changing the system. They’re just trying to milk it in order to get more for themselves or keep what they have by maintaining the status quo. And they’re using your brain – with your cooperation – to get the job done.

You can see it working right now in the run-up to next year’s presidential election. Who will Hispanics want? What about women? How do we get the Black vote? What about the Jews? How do we reach White Men?

Local party/organization bosses are exactly the same. They go out and find people they think the Hispanics/Women/Blacks/Jews/White Men will vote for and recruit them to run. Then, they pour money and publicity into their campaigns and send out press releases touting their credentials “S/He went to a rally for {insert cause here} and is an activist in his/her {insert demographic-catnip-sounding group name here}!”

It’s all designed to appeal to your emotions.

Which is reductive and disrespectful. Almost as disrespectful as the fact that these decisions are, by and large, made by people who don’t even live in the districts they’re working to influence.

So, yeah. Qualifications aside, I’m a little cranky that Mike, who is in his 50s and white, is being told by the people who don’t live here that they have to support the black woman in her 20s because she’s a black woman in her 20s.

Anyway, all this to say that during this election season, don’t take anyone’s word for what the person who wants to represent you stands for. When those glossy things start showing up in your mailbox, or if candidates show up on your doorstep, find out how long they’ve lived in your district, what drove them to run, what they want to accomplish in office and how they plan to do it.

Then, stick it to the reductive disrespecters. Use your pre-frontal cortex  instead of your limbic system when you decide who’s getting your vote.

Up from the grave to denounce a naked emperor

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Helen and me. I was so happy to get to see her, and I think she was happy to see me, too. Maybe even happier than she would have been to see Donald Trump. (Actually, I’m pretty sure she was happier to see me.)

Donald J. Trump is a man his supporters would avoid like gay pride parades if he were saying the things he says while unshaven and pushing all his worldly possessions in a shopping cart.

But he wears bespoke suits and lives and works in buildings with his name on them. So instead of being called out for what he is – the emperor with no clothes  – his rants are miraculously elevated to the level of worthy discourse. It would be lovely to live in a world where his call to bar Muslims from entering the US would signify the beginning of his being exiled from public life. Sadly, I know better.

I don’t often put words in the mouths of dead people. But I’m pretty sure that Helen Sperling, who died last week at the age of 95, would have excoriated Mr. Naked Emperor.

Helen was the first Holocaust survivor I ever met. I don’t remember not knowing her. But until a Sunday School morning when I was 12 and 60 or so of us sat on the floor in the Edelstein Room at our synagogue while Helen sat on a chair and told us her story, I only knew her as Paul and Franny’s mother.

Helen was the mother with the musical laugh and long hair worn in a braid down her back. My mother had short hair and a short fuse. I wanted the mother with the musical laugh and long hair. I loved being at the Sperlings’ house. I spent a lot of time there because Paul was one of my best friends until we turned 5. His sister Franny was two years older. She was beautiful and way too sophisticated to hang out with four-year-olds.

One day, which I only can tell you about because it became the stuff of legend for the mothers involved, Helen served a lunch that consisted of pretty much none of my preferred menu items. (In Helen’s defense, I was a pretty strange eater. I didn’t like peanut butter. I didn’t like jelly. I didn’t like tomato sauce. I didn’t like sweet things.)

But I had been taught to be polite, and to be a good guest. Good guests did not ask for food that wasn’t already on the table. Good guests did not say “I don’t like that!”

So, when Helen called Paul and me into the kitchen for lunch and sat us down, I evidently surveyed the repast and looked up at Helen.

“These,” I said, eyeing up the contents of one of the serving plates, “are the friendliest cucumbers I’ve ever seen.”

I know that Helen must have laughed and laughed in that moment, because she and my mother both laughed every time one (or both) of them recalled it – right up to last year, when I was in Utica for my Aunt Bessie’s funeral and had time either to go to the cemetery and see my dad or go hang out with Helen, who was 94.

I called Franny to make sure Helen was up for visitors. Sadly, Paul and I never re-established our pre-kindergarten bond (there’s always hope, and we do have our memories), but when I was 15 and Franny 17, we got close. Ten years ago, we reconnected. Aside from being a generally fabulous human being, she is is also an amazing aerialist, and my hero and inspiration in all things flying.

Helen was as full of life and as feisty as ever. That she needed oxygen to breathe and wasn’t so good at getting out of a chair did absolutely nothing to diminish her vivacity and power.

She exclaimed over the cream puff I had brought for her (“My favorite! How did you know?” What I didn’t say: “Because Franny told me when I called her to see if you’d be up for a visit.”) and lamented that she didn’t have anything to serve. I’d bought frozen fish sticks; Helen was thrilled to let me use her oven.

We yakked like girlfriends. I told her about my experiences as a reporter in Central Wisconsin, where a Holocaust denier had taken possession of a good deal of Public Square real estate. The denier used local media to broadcast her message, got herself invited to an eighth grade classroom to talk to students, and even arranged for a public talk at the local two-year university center. I spent three years there, I told Helen, and was most proud of two things I’d done. One was connecting a local coffee shop to Colectivo, a Milwaukee-based coffee roasting company, making it possible to get a great cup of coffee in the (relative) middle of nowhere. The other was getting a Holocaust survivor to come to talk to those eighth graders, and to give a public talk at the university center.

We talked about getting old and dying. She was ready, but as long as she could, she said, she would tell her story. I asked her if she’d recorded it.

“Yes,” she said, “I spoke with the Spielberg Foundation. (The disc is) in a vault, because until I’m dead, I want people to hear it directly from me.”

She told me about the bracelets she gave every attendee at the end of every talk. Blue, and engraved with the words, “Thou Shalt Not Be A Bystander.”

“I don’t have any here,” she said. Then, she remembered that she was wearing one. She took it off and gave it to me.

Helen was a staunch supporter of Israel. She also loved the United States, and the best of what both countries aim to be and represent.

There is no way she would have stood by while a well-dressed, charismatic political wannabe spouted religious hatred. She knew exactly where that led. Which is why she spent her life doing everything in her power to make sure no one would ever have to go there again.

Note: Even though Helen didn’t want any video of her telling her story while she was alive, I did find one – on one of her many visits to Union College, her talk was videotaped. Click here to see it.