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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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. 

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Ranting with manners: Donald Trump, Larry David and why Tribe Golden Rule needs to start role modeling polite rage

Larry David calls Donald Trump a racist on live television. People magazine writes about it. What comes crawling out of the woodwork?

The love children of talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Who are, in turn, the love children of talk show hosts like Father Coughlin and Bob Grant.

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Wouldn’t you just love to invite these two to your next dinner party? (If the answer is yes, I’m washing my hair that night.)

Here are the first two comments on the story:

  1. “That’s how we get rid of the spics (sic). OFFER $500 BOUNTY ON EACH SPIC’S HEAD. As the saying goes dead or alive. Help out the economy at the same time getting rid of the spanish (sic) rats.” Vote trump (sic)
  2. “International Zionism has relentlessly pushed for open immigration in every Western country going back to the days of the Russian revolution (sic); especially just before and right after WW2 where the guilt tripping has never stopped; with the advent of terrorism and the proliferation of Muslims entering Europe and the USA they are no (sic) backtracking a little bit, and obfuscating their role…..the open immigration is for the USA and other countries, of course, but ironically not for Israel. That is just for Jews..” The Advisor 77

Aren’t they nice?

There are so many things to find wrong with the writings of “Vote trump (sic),” “The Advisor 77,” but I will refrain from any critique of their ability to construct grammatical sentences or logical arguments in English and focus, instead, on the messages they are attempting to send.

For starters, it’s a good bet that Vt and TA77 are not the names that appear on their birth certificates. Then, there’s the fact that People seems to have no problem featuring their comments on its web site. In this, People is not unique. My hometown paper’s comment section reads like the Greek Chorus from a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

It’s easy to point the finger at haters and trolls who seem to have unlimited time and energy to post their vitriol on all kinds of web sites. But people like Limbaugh, Trump and, in my town, our sheriff, David Clarke, have and continue to pave the way for people like VT and TA77. The big monkeys beat their chests, spouting nastiness and getting rich. The little monkeys, inspired by their behavior, peep out from behind the trees to throw poop. Then they run for cover.

So what’s to be done in a world where the voices of people doing their best to play by the fair and honorable rulebook are drowned out by an endless parade of extremism and nastiness?

How do we raise voices and create pathways to tangible kindness in a world that is becoming increasingly polarized, a world in which 158 US families will control the purse strings of the upcoming presidential election and the loudest, meanest voices get the most attention?

What do we do to reclaim our collective humanity in a world in which a nonstop parade of mean-spirited fear-mongers are successfully pitting people with common interests against each other for their own benefit? (A point illustrated by the following joke I heard back in 2010, just after Act 10 was passed.

“A 1 percenter, a Tea Party Republican and a union member sit down at a table, on which sits a plate containing a dozen cookies. The 1 percenter takes 11 cookies. Cocking his head at the union member, he addresses the Tea Party Republican.

‘Look out for that guy,’ he says, conspiratorially. ‘I think he’s trying to take your cookie.’”)

We stop being quiet, that’s what. We can get angry and stay polite. We can find each other, our tribe of angry, polite people. We can stand, together, and fight for decency, civility and tangible kindness.

Postscript: A recent checkback an hour after taking the screenshot in this post showed that Vt’s comment was deleted. TA77’s is still up. So what’s the takeaway? That coded hate phrases (“International Zionism”) are okay but overt slurs (“them spics”) are off-limits? (Note to VT: You might want to tear a page out of TA77’s book next time, couching your rage about your tiny privates in hateful terms more acceptable to People’s comment moderators.)

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