Tuesday, April 28, 2015

While Baltimore Burns

As I mature, I'm learning that multiple propositions can be true at the same time. That most issues aren't either or. They're usually both and. As I watched Baltimore burn both literally and figuratively, I devoured media coverage and social media responses. (I'm a Communication professor. It's my job. Or something like that.)

From nearly everyone, I noticed either or thinking. Trying to blame one side or the other. Very little gray. Very little nuanced thought. But I believe the truth is far more complex than cable "news" commentators and social media "scholars" will have you believe. For example:

People in power shouldn't oppress those without power. It's morally wrong and disgusting. Rich, white, conservative, heterosexual, Christian men in the United States have created a system in which minorities feel compelled to lash out. And I'm not sure I blame them for lashing out. As Jen Johnson wrote earlier today, I get upset when something petty doesn't go my way amidst a lifetime of privilege. Imagine how angry I'd be if the entire system was designed to work against me! It's pretty easy sitting on top of the mountain. Imagine spending your entire life (and multiple generations) trying to claw your way up that mountain only to get knocked off over and over again?

And …

Oppressed minorities shouldn't break the law. There are better ways to overcome oppression. African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, Muslims, and various immigrants have all been oppressed in this country. Rich, white, conservative, heterosexual, Christian men have traditionally been equal-opportunity oppressors. But not everyone turns to crime. Many get educated, work hard, and inch their way to the top (or as close to the top as the rich, white folks on the mountain's peak will allow them). It will always be easier for some than others, but purposeless crime is never the answer.

And …

Police officers shouldn't target oppressed minorities with deadly force. Breaking the law doesn't automatically equal a death sentence in this country. I would never want to be a cop. The job seems incredibly dangerous and shockingly thankless. I have no idea how it would feel to deal with criminals on a daily basis, many of whom want to kill you. Most cops are good human beings who do their jobs well, but police should never shoot a man in the back as he's running away, or illegally put a suspect in a choke hold, or break a man's spine while he's in custody, and on and on. It shouldn't happen. It's not okay. And no, criminals don't deserve it. In fact, we're all criminals. If you speed, you've broken the law. If you get shot by the cop who pulled you over for speeding, you didn't deserve to die. You weren't asking for it. Punishment should always fit the crime.

And …

There's a fine line between protesting and rioting, but no one should ever loot, especially when that looting only damages your own community. There is no excuse or justification for members of a community destroying the small businesses in that community. None. Zero. Hardworking black men and women are losing their livelihoods in Baltimore because looters are reacting without purpose or reason. It breaks my heart to see it.

And …

Media coverage is designed to attract viewers and generate advertising revenue. It's all biased, all distorted, all designed to exploit victims. I watched coverage on CNN and Fox News last night and wanted to puke.

All of those are true, right? Only shouting one truth while ignoring the others doesn't help. It only divides, angers, and creates more problems.

Where are the thoughtful people? Where are the people who aren't manipulating others in order to position their political party for the 2016 presidential election? Where are the people who desire real change? Real equality? Where are the people who actually give a shit about other human beings, instead of just playing a game to further their own "brand?" We need those people to step up. To dialogue. To take thoughtful action. To make the world a better place for every human being, regardless of nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Listening, Learning & Extending Grace

I'm a bit of a voyeur. Not the creepy kind that gets arrested outside your house. The kind that's (legally) fascinated by people. I'm a Communication professor at the University of Cincinnati, and when asked why I chose that field, my answer is always the same. Originally, I wanted to be an anchor on SportsCenter, but after taking a few classes, I realized Communication was a field in which I could be a non-incarcerated voyeur for the rest of my life. I love studying people—their behaviors, word choices, relationships, nonverbal communication. It's probably why I obsessed over reality television way back when Survivor first aired. (What year was that? 1962? Feels like it.) And why I still watch shows like The Bachelor, Big Brother, and Food Network Star even though they can be ridiculous at times. They're "real" people reacting to "real" circumstances. (Don't worry, I know a lot of it is scripted and staged; there's a reason I put real in quotation marks.)

This brings me to Wednesday night, February 18. An arctic front blasted Cincinnati that week, resulting in lots of snow, frigid temperatures, and a full week of school closings and delays. The University of Cincinnati's president is very active on social media (he's tweeted almost 35,000 times; for perspective, I feel like I tweet a lot, and I'm just over 9,000 tweets). Students love his engagement, but it also opens him up to thousands of Millennials (the name for this generation of students) demanding snow days (even when it's not snowing). They tweet their pleas, and because I'm a voyeur who finds most of them funny, I often read through President Ono's timeline on Snowmageddon Eve.

That's exactly what I was doing Wednesday, February 18 when a theme began to emerge. But it had nothing to do with the Snowpocalypse. Many students were tweeting President Ono about a photograph he re-posted on Facebook.

The Cincinnati Bearcats played the Xavier Musketeers that Wednesday night in our intercity basketball rivalry known as the Crosstown Shootout. Our school colors at UC are red and black. For the game, one of our students painted his face red and black. Specifically, his face was painted black and his beard was painted red. President Ono re-posted a photograph of that student on Facebook to celebrate school pride. That's when the backlash began. Many students criticized Ono for promoting a student dressed up in blackface for the game. They claimed it was racially insensitive.

In case you don't know what blackface is, feel free to Google images, but to sum up, it's when white people painted their faces black to portray African Americans in the theater. And almost always, the character would depict African Americans as insensitive stereotypes. A truly awful and insulting form of "art" no matter what century you're living in.

I'm going to be honest here. My first reaction to the backlash was, "This is ridiculous. The kid is just showing school pride. Everyone needs to relax. Red and black are our school colors. What are students supposed to do? Why does everyone have to overreact about everything these days?"

Being the voyeur Communication scholar I am, I was hooked. I read every tweet. I studied the profiles of everyone tweeting. I wanted to know more.

And then the debates began. Others (mostly white students and alums) found these tweets, and they began to tweet back. Some of them were saying the exact things I was thinking (some of them weren't). Then the replies to the replies came. And so it went for hours. The next day, President Ono released a well-written apology, and my guess is that a meaningful dialogue will result from the incident.

Since then, I've spent a lot time thinking about what happened. And here's where I've landed: We all need to spend more time listening and learning.

I'm not trying to earn a gold star here, but I'm socially liberal (which would earn me a detention from some of you). I spend a lot of time speaking out for the oppressed. I've done it in my classrooms. I've done it online. I've done it behind closed doors. I know I've experienced white privilege my entire life. That doesn't mean I haven't worked hard to get where I am, it just means that I'm reaping the benefits of a system that has been rigged in my favor for hundreds of years. I get frustrated with old, rich, white, straight men who believe the only way to stay on top of the mountain is to knock everyone else off.

And, with all of that said, I have a lot to learn.

Instead of taking time to understand, I immediately jumped to conclusions. Instead of listening, I wanted to talk. Give my opinion. Tell everyone else how they're wrong and I'm right (I have that urge a lot).

I wasn't all wrong, of course. Neither side of an issue ever is (unless you eat ham instead of turkey on Thanksgiving; that's 100% wrong). And every side of every issue is filled with flawed human beings who are almost always a mixed bag of motives. Some people just want attention. Or retweets. Or website hits. The reality is that I'm a mixed bag of motives too, and writing this post is evidence of that.

But part of my mixed bag is the desire to help create a better world where all people are loved and respected. And, frankly, for me, that means fighting for and with people who have been oppressed for a very long time. Oppressed by people who look just like me. Not everyone shares that desire. But everyone has a responsibility to listen and learn. So that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to keep my ears and mind open about issues I don't fully understand because education is our only hope.

But, here's what I would like to say to the people currently fighting for equality. I realize I have no right to ask for this, but I'm going to ask anyway because I think it could help. Please have patience with me. Please have patience with the people who want to do the right thing, but aren't always sure how.

When I was in my early 20's, I probably made a lot of insensitive gay jokes. Because that's the world I grew up in. But then I opened my ears and mind, and I changed. As many of you know, I've spoken up about gay rights for almost a decade now. Even when that stance cost me. Because it was right. And it still is, so I'll keep speaking up.

But 22-year-old Steve wouldn't have said a peep. He might have even been part of the problem.

I bet this time last year I made insensitive jokes about transgender people. Because I didn't understand. I'm not saying ignorance is a good excuse, but it was my reality at the time. And then a transgender woman began writing for Rebel Storytellers, the organization that hosts my podcast. I met Paula. I got to know her. And everything changed.

The world is changing very quickly, and unfortunately, some of us are having a hard time keeping up. There's language I've used my whole life that was never considered insensitive that I can no longer use. Jokes that were perfectly fine five years ago that could probably get me fired today. Ultimately, these cultural changes are for the best because we're learning to value all people. But people like me need a shred of grace. Not because we deserve it, because we don't. That's not how grace works. No one deserves it; I just know that grace changes lives. The more that everyone on this planet is willing to extend just a little bit of grace, the faster change will happen. I'm convinced of that.

No one is perfect. We're all going to make mistakes. If a person is moving in the direction of hatred, insensitivity, and judgement, I say, fine, have at 'em. I have very little patience for people who want to make the world worse for others. But if an imperfect person is moving in the direction of love, compassion, kindness, and goodwill for all, let's treat one another as allies, because it will take a diverse group of passionate, like-minded activists to change the world.

Or maybe I'm wrong about everything I've written. If I am, please extend me that shred of grace. If you do, I promise to keep my ears and mind open.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Be a Beacon of Hope

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." This is my attempt to break the silence.

A transgender teen named Leelah Alcorn (who lived just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio) killed herself on December 28, leaving behind an online suicide note that begins, "Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would've lived isn't worth living in … because I’m transgender." I originally planned to link to her suicide note, but Leelah's parents had it deleted from Tumblr. Luckily, before its removal, I pasted a large chunk of it here:
When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.

My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.

When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.

I formed a sort of a “fuck you” attitude towards my parents and came out as gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock. Although the reaction from my friends was positive, my parents were pissed. They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight christian boy, and that’s obviously not what I wanted.

So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.
I'm not going to pretend I know what it's like to struggle with gender identity. Nor will I pretend to understand how difficult it must be to parent a transgender teen. Of course it's a challenge. And I won't even begin to fathom how devastating it must be to lose a child. Just heartbreaking.

But I believe Leelah's suicide can serve as a wake-up call for millions of people around the world. In the midst of this tragic loss, my question is this: Aren't goodhearted Christians tired of seeing others (especially young boys and girls) struggle to be accepted? How many suicides will it take before we stop and listen to their cries for equality? How many lives ruined before we reconsider our position?

I understand how—if you feel like someone's behavior is destructive—a loving act would be to help him stop that behavior. If my friend is addicted to smoking crack, the loving choice would be to help him put down the pipe, not accept him for the crack-smoker he's become. But if your version of love leads to a teenager's suicide, that analogy begins to break down. Maybe "tough love," or an "intervention" isn't always the most loving response.

I'm not asking everyone to change overnight. All I'm asking is this: Be open to dialogue. Get to know people misunderstood by society. You might be surprised how similar you are. For those of you who share my desire to see the oppressed set free, it's time to speak up. Stop playing it safe. Life's too short. Someone you care about might be struggling right now. You could be his or her beacon of hope. Life's seas are so dark and so treacherous for so many people—why not provide safe passage? Why not be the one to offer safe harbor?

Elie Wiesel wrote, "I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." Amen.

I'm honored to know Paula Stone Williams. If you haven't read any of Paula's work, you're missing out. She's brilliant (and one of my favorite writers). Paula is also transgender. If you want to learn more about her experiences, check out Paula's blog here.

I'm also inviting you to read Paula's recent post here. If nothing else, that could be your starting point. Education is a good thing, and everyone—including myself—can learn something from her story.

If you've landed on this page, and you're struggling to accept your unique, wonderful self, please know that people care. People are fighting for you. Don't hesitate to reach out for help: Visit www.thetrevorproject.org or call 1-866-488-7386 to speak to a trained counselor.

May we all find the courage to live free as our true selves. Rest in peace, Leelah.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Enjoy Yourself; It's Later Than You Think

A few years ago, I watched the series finale of a television show called House. I loved the main character, Dr. House. He was a narcissistic jerk (who may have reminded me of myself), but he was a lovable narcissistic jerk, so I tuned in every week. The final scene of the series still haunts me to this day (in both good and bad ways).

The show's plot was way too complex to explain in a single blog post, but essentially, Dr. House's best friend (an oncologist named Dr. Wilson) was dying of cancer and only given 6 months to live. Dr. House faked his own death (I told you it was complicated) and arranged for them to spend Wilson's final months traveling the countryside on motorcycles.

As the series fades to black, House and Wilson begin their journey cruising down the highway. In the background, a song plays. The song's chorus:

Enjoy yourself; it's later than you think
Enjoy yourself while you're still in the pink
The years go by as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself; it's later than you think.

I haven't been able to get those lines out of my head since.

In my 20's, I thought I would live forever. Not literally, obviously. I understood that all living creatures eventually die. But it felt like I had all the time in the world. There was always tomorrow. I could be anyone. Do anything. Sure, there was stress and anxiety and fear, but the future was as limitless as my dreams.

As I near 40, I realize that I'm on the back end of my life. Not that I'm old, but death is no longer an imaginary friend. My mortality feels real. And that's changing everything.

For sooooooooo long, I've played by the rules of a world that has an agenda. This world wants my time. It wants my money. It wants my energy. It wants my precious, fleeting, ever-dwindling minutes. And for sooooooooo long, I've obliged. I licked my index finger and stuck it in the air to determine which way the winds were blowing, and then I acted out a script someone else had written for me.

The world said to follow the rules, so I followed the rules (without stopping to question if the rules had my—or your—best interests at heart). The world said to spend money and time on my external looks, so I emptied my wallet, stood on a scale, and stared into the mirror looking for flaws. The world said popularity is what ultimately matters, so I desperately tried to be noticed. Aren't I clever? Aren't I smart? Aren't I talented? Aren't I important? Please tell me. Like my Facebook status. Retweet me. Read my blog.

The term "midlife crisis" gets overused, but I've experienced something over the past few weeks that feels like a turning point. I don't want to wait around for a near-death experience, a cosmic tragedy, or a terminal diagnosis to start living.

Of course, we all understand in the philosophical sense that everyone has a terminal diagnosis. Most of us just aren't sure how much time we have left. But my guess is, it's later than you think.

I'm not saying I've found the secret to life. I'm sure by this time next year I'll be on to the next existential crisis. But I'm committed to trying. My wife and I decided to do something next summer that is abnormal. It's not cheap, but we have the money. It could flop, but that's okay. Why wait for the perfect set of circumstances that may or may not ever come? Why wait for life to slap us upside the head to start living?

Some people think our summer plans are crazy. Or selling our house. Or moving downtown. Or waiting to start a family. I've certainly been judged for some of my choices throughout the years. But that's because most people are so unhappy (or insecure) with their own lives that they only feel better by tearing down someone else. (I only know that because I've often been the unhappy, jealous, insecure person driving the bulldozer.) Luckily, we can rise above. Chart our own courses. Death is eventually coming for us all, so we might as well live the lives we were created to live in the time we have left.

Oh, and the next time it rains, throw on some old clothes (or even better, throw on a suit or dress), and go play in the mud. Because … enjoy yourself. Enjoy yourself. It's later than you think.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

12 Reasons I Love Cincinnati

It's 2014. If you live in Cincinnati and still think the city is lame or boring, or that there's nothing fun to do, the problem is you, not Cincinnati. Why do I love Cincinnati so much? Here are 12 reasons:

1. Delicious Food. Most locals grew up on Cincinnati favorites like Skyline Chili, LaRosa's, Montgomery Inn, and Graeter's. While all four are delicious (I just had ribs at Montgomery Inn on Saturday, and they are simply outstanding; and don't even get me started on mint chocolate chip ice cream from Graeter's), the Cincinnati food scene has exploded in the past decade. My wife and I mostly eat downtown, in Over-the-Rhine, and at the Banks, but I know excellent eateries are popping up all over the city. Some of our favorites include Sotto, Nada, Taste of Belgium, A Tavola, The Eagle, Senate, Salazar, Christian Moerlein Lager House, Mt. Adams Bar & Grill, The Precinct, and the list goes on and on. Guy Fieri was just in town last week to explore some of the places on my list. The secret is out. If you love good food, come to Cincinnati.

2. Findlay Market. Findlay Market is probably one of the most underrated and underutilized features of Cincinnati. Fresh fruit, vegetables, pasta, meat, fish, and bread are yummy in my tummy. Plus, the overall atmosphere is one-of-kind. And you haven't truly lived until you've eaten a fresh waffle from Taste of Belgium. Findlay Market is especially alive in the summer months when the Farmers Market sells produce so fresh that you're practically picking it from the vine.

3. Local Breweries. The local brewery scene is alive and well in Cincinnati. The city is well-known for its brewing past, and breweries like Rhinegeist, Fifty West, Listermann, Mt. Carmel, Rivertown, and MadTree are securing our brewing future.

4. Theater. My wife and I recently ordered season tickets to the 2014-2015 Aronoff Broadway Series. The six shows include The Lion King, Dirty Dancing, Elf, Once, Cinderella, and I Love Lucy. Simply fantastic. And that's just one series in one theater. We love shows at Playhouse in the Park in Mt. Adams. The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is a hidden gem on Race Street. Not to mention the dozens of community theaters throughout the city.

5. Music. The Bunbury Music Festival just wrapped up its 3-day event at Sawyer Point. A few weeks ago, a couple of little-known musicians named Jay Z and BeyoncĂ© filled Great American Ballpark. Not to mention Bruno Mars, who performed the previous night at U.S. Bank Arena, and Tim McGraw, who played at Riverbend Music Center the following night. That one weekend speaks to Cincinnati's diverse music scene. Midpoint Music Fest kicks off in late September. There's always live music on Fountain Square. Heck, there was literally a concert right outside our downtown apartment last night. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Local musicians looking for their big break frequent Cincinnati's bars, clubs, and coffee shops daily.

6. The Arts. The Cincinnati Ballet just celebrated its 50th anniversary. My wife and I have seen a handful of excellent shows, including The Nutcracker and their spectacular annual performance with Over the Rhine. The Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra is perennially rated one of the best in the country. One of the most entertaining shows I've ever attended was their Holiday Pops Spectacular. The Cincinnati Art Museum is gorgeous (and free!), the Cincinnati Museum Center is located in historic Union Terminal, the Taft Museum of Art is one of the finest small art museums in the nation, and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is quickly becoming world-renowned. Cincinnati even has an Opera!

7. Sports. Cincinnati is home to the oldest professional baseball team, a professional football team, a minor league professional hockey team, two major college athletic programs (one slightly more major than the other … Go Bearcats!), and a professional tennis tour stop. Not to mention, high school football is huge in Cincinnati. There's nothing quite like drinking a beer in the moon deck at Great American Ballpark on a warm summer night, drinking a beer at historic Nippert Stadium on a cool autumn evening, or drinking a beer at Center Court while Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal exchange forehand winners. (Wait, I might drink too much beer.)

8. Parks. I'm particularly fond of Smale Riverfront Park on the Banks (so is our dog), but Cincinnati has a collection of amazing parks throughout the city. Eden Park, Ault Park, and Washington Park are some of my favorites. I'm sure there are dozens I haven't discovered yet where families gather, friends play, and lovers dream.

9. Cincinnati Zoo. The second oldest zoo in the United States (and we only missed beating the Philadelphia Zoo by 14 months!) is in Cincinnati. From a huge collection of animals and plants, to the Wild About Wine events that Liz and I are, well, wild about, to the Festival of Lights every holiday season, we visit the zoo three or four times per year. What a treat for Cincinnatians with children to have such a fun, educational zoo within a stone's throw of downtown. And if you're more interested in aquatic life, the Newport Aquarium is just across the river.

10. Kings Island. Kings Island opened five years before my birth and played a huge role in my childhood. Rollercoasters, games, shows, food, and a water park make Kings Island a childhood oasis. Even The Brady Bunch visited the park back in 1973! For the love of God, Evel Knievel jumped over 14 buses at Kings Island! What more can you ask for? Once Coney Island, The Beach Waterpark, Coco Key Water Resort, and the Great Wolf Lodge get thrown into the mix, there is plenty of amusement to be had in Cincinnati.

11. Labor Day Fireworks. Perhaps the greatest Cincinnati tradition is our Labor Day fireworks show. Hundreds of thousands of locals line the Ohio River to watch WEBN and Rozzi's Famous Fireworks put on an amazing display. Other traditions include the Cincinnati Reds opening day parade, Santa Claus repelling down a skyscraper, and Steve Fuller Day (okay, that one hasn't happened yet).

12. Cincinnati's 52 Neighborhoods. Mt. Adams, Hyde Park, Oakley, Mt. Lookout, Over-the-Rhine, Clifton, and many others make Cincinnati truly unique. Local bars, restaurants, and shops give each community its own personality. There's something for everyone in each of Cincinnati's 52 neighborhoods.

This list isn't exhaustive, so I invite you to add to it. What do you love about Cincinnati?