Category Archives: Politics and Culture

Rogue One’s Jyn Erso: Improviser

This post contains Rogue One spoilers.

star-warsPeople ask me how I got hooked on improv. Sometimes they mistakenly assume that as a pastor, my interest has something to do bringing more creativity to worship, or perhaps wanting to introduce more humor and lightness into a denomination that is often too somber and reserved.

Those things are important–they don’t call Presbyterians the frozen chosen for nothing–but that’s not what drives me. Nothing could be further from the truth, in fact.

My passion for improv actually stems from walking with individuals and families as they endured profound crises and heartbreaks. Navigating tumultuous waters requires us to hold our own plans lightly, to see life realistically as it unfolds, and to bring our best response to each moment, even if we can’t see several steps down the road. In other words, improv.

Health crises in particular are full of improvised moments. As I see it, and saw it, medical personnel are guided by a few simple questions:
What is the present reality we’re dealing with?
How do we respond to what this disease is handing us TODAY?
What is the best YES possible for our patient? 

Even when the prognosis is poor, those questions don’t really change. What would “healing” look like in this situation? Healing doesn’t always mean a successful cure, sadly. Sometimes it means managing someone’s pain, or allowing them to die with dignity at home.

If you’ve seen the movie Rogue One, you’ve seen improv in action. Jyn Erso makes a resounding speech to the rebel council in trying to convince them to go after the plans for the Death Star. She’s ultimately unsuccessful at convincing them to take the risk. But I was more struck by her speech to the ragtag group of rebels who do take on the job. She says:

“We’ll take the next chance, and the next, until we win… or the chances are spent.”

It’s a brilliant summary of an improvised life. If we go into the unknown banking on success, we’ll either get too scared to start, or we’ll be so focused on the future that we’ll lose our eye for the present moment, which is essential to moving us forward. We must keep our vision trained on what’s in front of us–the next chance, the next conversation, the next move. Improvisers talk a lot about Yes-And as the foundation for good improv, but having a sharpened vision for what’s happening around you is at least as important.

And the ending! I asked in my post on Tuesday, how can a movie in which everyone dies be so uplifting? Well, part of that is seeing what they died for: Hope, in Leia’s words. And hope is so much more enduring than a little band of rebels. It’s also inspiring to see everyone do their part in making this stunning data-heist possible.

When we last see Jyn and Cassian, they know they are about to be consumed by the destructive incinerating power of the Death Star. Cassian says to Jyn, “Your father would have been proud of you,” and they embrace.

They know they are doomed. They know there’s no escape. Cassian didn’t need to say that to Jyn. But even in his last moment, there is still an opportunity to find a Yes. It’s a smaller Yes than we might have wanted for these heroic, fascinating characters. But it’s the best Yes possible in that moment.

Have you seen Rogue One? (I hope you have if you’re reading this!) What did you think?

~

Reminder: I’m doing another workbook/playbook for 2016/2017Subscribe to my email newsletter to get this year’s copy, which should arrive next week.

Wednesday Words: On Race, Tribes and Voting

I get in trouble sometimes for putting two things alongside one another to see how they speak to one another. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

504719990_wide-bff45e75b9cb94f5461dcfe06dd75a367b02d30d-s900-c85I read this article this morning, “A pollster on the racial panic Obama’s presidency triggered — and what Democrats must do now.” I’m eager to delve into Cornell Belcher’s research to see how it holds up. (By the way, he’s not saying everyone who voted against Obama is a racist–his argument is much more nuanced than that, and race is one factor among many. I ask you to engage with what he is actually saying before you argue with it.)

I was especially interested in his critique of the old Democratic trope that people vote for Republicans “against their economic self-interest”:

It’s a disconnect that’s frustrating to me. They’re not voting against their economic interests; they are voting for their higher interests… The idea that you can disconnect white people from their group position and make pocketbook arguments to them void of the history of their group is folly.

…Who are we to say that they’re voting against their economic interests? If in fact you think you’re losing your country, that’s your higher interest, and how in the hell am I gonna prosper if [I believe] other people are taking my country?

The themes he lifts up reminded me of a passage I was reading last night from Steven Pressfield’s book on creativity, The War of Art. It’s not a book about politics, but this excerpt prompted me to reflect on how potent the Trump campaign turned out to be. I’ve tried to abridge it as much as possible:

Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed. Its spawning ground is the wreckage of political and military defeat, as Hebrew fundamentalism arose during the Babylonian captivity, as white Christian fundamentalism appeared in the American South during Reconstruction, as the notion of the Master Race evolved in Germany following World War I. In such desperate times, the vanquished race would perish without a doctrine that restored hope and pride.

What exactly is this despair? It is the despair of freedom. The dislocation and emasculation by the individual cut free from the familiar and comforting structures of the tribe and the clan, the village and the family.

It is the state of modern life.

The fundamentalist (or more accurately, the beleaguered individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism) cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past. He returns in imagination to the glory days of his race and seeks to reconstitute both them and himself in their purer, more virtuous light. He gets back to basics. To fundamentals.

To making America great again?

Continuing to ponder all of this, and I welcome thoughtful engagement (and respectful disagreement) as I sort it out.

George Washington, Race, Greatness, and Me (and You)

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Members of the original Broadway cast of Hamilton (Chris Jackson as Washington, far right)

The other day I listened to an interview with Chris Jackson, who recently wrapped up his time playing George Washington in the musical Hamilton on Broadway. Robert and I were fortunate enough to see him in this role last month, and wow. Wow.

The depth of talent in New York is so deep that I have full confidence in Nicholas Christopher, the next Washington, but wow. Charisma for days.

Jackson was talking to Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch, a podcast about race and culture (and an indispensable one in my opinion). Demby asked Jackson about the experience of being an African-American man who is playing a slaveholder. Jackson has said in the past that he’s not interested in “reconciling” those parts of Washington’s character, and here’s part of how he explained that:

He owned people.
He owned people that looked like my father and that looked like me.

I’ve made a compromise with myself. I haven’t compromised my principles. But I told myself, “You have to portray somebody that was behind so many unlikely, breathtakingly genius ideas and who found a way to enact them.” But I’m not the guy to see him as a god. There’s always been a movement to deify [the Founders], and that has its place and is important in terms of educating the public on what we should strive for…

But to almost a person, they were under the mindset that someone who looked like me was not capable of pressing a thought, not capable of civilized behavior, or who had no aptitude for greatness.

And I’ll never make peace with that. But I don’t have to.

I’ve just been editing a section of my book in which I talk about improvisation as having a spirit of “And” rather than “But.” When we learn to improvise, we learn to receive whatever our partner offers onstage (Yes), and then to build on it (And). That doesn’t mean we go along passively with that offer, by the way. If they pull an improv gun on us, we don’t need to let ourselves get shot. But we at least need to agree that the thing they’re pointing at us is a gun, and not, say, a banana.

We have to agree on the reality before we can move forward. (Another post, perhaps, in this era of fake news.)

I hear Chris Jackson talking about approaching the Founders with a spirit of And rather than But.

Because here’s the problem with But. When we use But, we have to figure out which part of the statement is primary. Consider:

George Washington was a wise and discerning leader, but he owned slaves.
George Washington owned slaves, but he was a wise and discerning leader.

Each of these statements suggests a different starting point. Was he a great man, who oh-by-the-way had this terrible blind spot? Or was he at his core a racist, but despite this tragic flaw managed to lead our country with wisdom and strength?

A spirit of “And” means we don’t have to make that judgment, because ultimately we can’t. They are both part of who he was.

Zooming out a bit, in my reading about leadership, I’ve studied some polarity management (enough to be dangerous). My understanding of it is that most problems aren’t really solvable. Rather, it’s more important to manage the various competing concerns so they complement each other in a healthy, balanced way. We seem to have lost the ability to do that in the US, which is odd considering that, at least on the national level, we are basically a 50-50 country.

Yes, there are some ideals upon which we cannot budge an inch and still maintain our integrity. With a president-elect who is appointing white supremacists to his inner circle and talking of a registry of immigrants based on religion, I realize that “And” may sound like capitulation. I’m not willing to go along with actions which, I believe, compromise fundamental American values.

Still I wonder, is there any way to move past this zero-sum mentality in which our leaders (and we the people) seem to have gotten stuck? Are there any issues on which people can come together?

As one of my favorite Presidents, Josiah Bartlet, once said, “Every once in a while—every once in a while—there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country.” I’d like to see us find our way toward a bit more “And.”

Contradiction, polarity, “And,” whatever you want to call it–it’s been with us since the days of George Washington, patriot and slave-holder, slave-holder and patriot.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Why I Can’t Even with the Word “Dynasty”

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What this post is NOT about:

  • the “evils” of Hillary Clinton or her “weaknesses” as a candidate.
  • Bernie Sanders, the Democratic primary, the “scourge” that is superdelegates, or whether the whole thing was “rigged.” (It wasn’t.)
  • Benghazi, emails, or poor Vince Foster, may he rest in peace.

Comments on those topics will be deleted. Write your own blog post.

I’ve heard from various people a lot of discomfort (or disgust) over the Clinton “dynasty.” In a country of 300 million people, they say, must we continue to mine the same family to fulfill the nation’s highest office? It’s unseemly in a country that calls itself a democracy (or democratic republic), and yet another example of how we’ve devolved into oligarchy.

Google tells me the first definition of dynasty is “a line of hereditary rulers of a country.” Which the Clintons are surely not. Get back to me in 10-15 years when Chelsea Clinton runs for office.

The second definition of “dynasty” is “a succession of people from the same family who play a prominent role in business, politics, or another field.” This one’s obviously on point. But I’m wanting to focus on dynasty as a disqualifier, or at least a pejorative, when it comes to Hillary Clinton.

I don’t buy it. 

A husband and wife rising to the top levels of their field (or fields) is very different than the younger generation of a family following an older one into leadership or public service.

George and Jeb Bush, for example, grew up with politics and public service as part of the air they breathed. It afforded them advantages, access, and a ready-made network of connections. (Substitute the Kennedy family if you prefer.) Hillary Rodham, by contrast, grew up in a middle class family with a mother whose own parents abandoned her to her grandparents (who weren’t too thrilled about raising her either). Bill had a similarly modest upbringing. Remember “I still believe in a place called Hope”?

Did being the first lady of Arkansas open doors for Hillary Clinton? Undoubtedly. But her ability to leverage those opportunities came despite having had no nepotistic advantages from her youth. She walked through those doors herself (and became the first woman Senator from New York, Secretary of State, and the presumptive Democratic nominee for President in 2016). And although this is tangential to my point, she did so despite a multi-decade, borderline pathological assault on her family, her integrity, and yes, her womanhood. (Did the Clintons make serious mistakes and stumbles? Yes. Again–not about that. Write a blog post.)

I will also say–and this will bring out the pitchforks, I’m sure–that as much as we treasure our can-do, American, bootstraps, anti-elitist spirit, I don’t want just anyone to be President. It’s a position that anyone should aspire to, but hardly anyone has the chops to do well. In a country of 300 million, there are probably 25 people at any given time who have the skills, experience and temperament to do it. The fact that this year, one of those 25 people happens to be married to someone who’s done the job before isn’t some sign of ruin. (Though there are plenty of signs of ruin, this isn’t one of them.) It’s a testament to the fact that being President is freaking hard. Any leg-up that our next President may have, even if it’s having 8 years of pillow talk as the President’s spouse, is to be celebrated, not derided.

But here’s the bigger reason I can’t even with the hand-wringing over “dynasty.” It has to do with the decisions that families everywhere make about careers and children and priorities: Does the family have the bandwidth and desire for both spouses to go full-bore with their careers? If not, which spouse’s “advancement” will take priority? What are their financial resources? Will the couple have children? How many? What kind of childcare is available? How much support do they have from extended family and friends?

These decisions about who does what and when can be complicated and painful. In many families–we can probably still say “most” — the wife/mother slows (or stops) her career for some period of time to provide primary care for the children. This has long-term financial consequences; women who leave the workforce never really catch up in terms of earning potential. But one thing’s for sure: we need to be affirming of women at all levels who make the best decisions they’re able to make–not sneer that their second act is somehow emblematic of a “dynasty.” 

Because here’s the thing about Hillary Rodham. People who knew her as a young woman before, during, and after Wellesley believed she’d be President some day. She had the intelligence, the vision, the leadership skills, and a desire to serve, a product of her Wesleyan religious faith. (That’s not puff piece, that’s fact.) But her journey took her to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she followed Bill as he pursued his political career. Along the way she broke all kinds of barriers, including becoming the first female partner of the Rose Law Firm.

The various calculations and conversations that led the Clintons to focus primarily on his career are known fully only to them. And yes, society at the time didn’t know what to do with a strong, capable woman (and still doesn’t, honestly). In some ways it made sense to wait for the world to catch up. But who knows how far and how fast she could have risen, had Bill been the one to follow her?

It’s not dynasty. I don’t know what to call it, except “the way it still works for women across this country.”

We need better systems of support, so mothers who feel called to devote themselves to work outside the home can do so. We need affordable child care, better pay equity, and maternity policies that aren’t an absolute joke. And we need to erase social stigmas that paint fathers as emasculated oddities if they decided to decelerate their careers and take primary responsibility for child-rearing.

But until we have those things, can we at least cut it out with the dynasty talk?

When Your Woman Card Isn’t Working Right

My computer science husband sent me this link recently: “I had so many advantages, and I barely made it”: Pinterest engineer on Silicon Valley sexism.

How can an article be so unsurprising, yet so wholly dispiriting at the same time?

The author describes her early career in computer science, but the dynamics are common in many male-dominated fields:

At Stanford, I took two introductory computer science classes. I soon became convinced that I was much too behind my male classmates to ever catch up.

…My classmates bragged about finishing assignments in three hours. Listening to them chat, I felt mortified: the same work had taken me 15 hours of anguish at the keyboard to complete. They are quantifiably five times better than I am, I told myself.

So she was shocked when the professor asked her to TA the class. She agreed with great trepidation. But then she started grading the same assignments she’d previously found intimidating–and was shocked: the braggarts were not five times more competent. In fact, their work wasn’t nearly as good. There was a disconnect between the men’s level of confidence and their actual output.

The so-called “confidence gap” between men and women has gotten a lot of airplay lately. This confidence drops off among girls in the middle school years, especially in technical subjects — and we’re seeing a bit of that in our own household.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement grows out of the awareness that women underplay their abilities relative to men, for a variety of reasons. It’s been famously reported that men will apply for a job when the meet only 60% of the criteria, whereas women only tend to apply if they are a 100% fit. Women are also reticent to negotiate higher salaries for themselves.

This disparity has bothered me for a long time, though probably not in the way you think. I agree with the diagnosis, but not the prescription. Too often–that is, almost 100% of the time–the problem is framed as a deficiency for the women, a character flaw that the women must fix somehow. Women need to lean in! Be confident! Fake it ’til you make it!

OK. I can accept that. And what about the men? Where is their need for change?

Take the example of the men who bragged about completing the programming assignment in three hours. At best, their bragging shows a startling lack of self awareness of their own competence. At worst, these men are aware of their limitations and are outright lying to cement their status in the pecking order. How messed up is that?

So sure, maybe women have some work to do to feel empowered to apply for jobs even if they don’t meet every last qualification. But we should also be teaching men to do an honest self-assessment of their gifts and skills. Is applying for a job when you only meet a little more than half the qualifications a good thing? Is that something I’m supposed to aspire to?

Sometimes it works out, I suppose. Other times you end up with a grossly underqualified [man] in the job, whose primary gift is the art of bulls***ting. (Hey, they call it the Peter Principle, not the Patricia Principle!)

And yes, there’s a certain amount of “fake it ’til you make it” required to get along in the world. But shouldn’t we be critiquing a culture in which men are socialized to misrepresent themselves in order to gain status? Why is it the women who must do the changing, adjusting, and conforming?

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 7.19.41 PM“If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, maybe there wouldn’t have been a global financial crisis.” Many have quipped this, and at least one person has asserted it in all seriousness. I believe strongly in increasing women’s presence in historically underrepresented fields. And that representation will bring its own cultural shifts. But I grow weary of the framing that women must contort themselves to the default (male).

Meanwhile we have Donald Trump saying that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t get 5% of the vote if she were a man. Yes, many of us are excited at breaking that highest glass ceiling. But it’s cute that the Donald thinks Clinton’s gender is a net positive to the tune of 50 percentage points in the presidential race.

As Sady Doyle argued a few months ago, “America loves women like Hillary Clinton–as long as they’re not asking for a promotion.” Clinton’s approval ratings as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State were quite high. She’s consistently ranked one of the most admired women in the world. But now that she’s asking for our presidential votes, her disapproval ratings have predictably increased.

Setting aside the particularities of Hillary Clinton, the broader point stands: we judge women harshly when they come across as too assertive. What’s going to change that dynamic? Women getting better at the game? Frankly, I doubt it. What’s going to change the dynamic is men learning skills in collaboration, self-awareness, and authenticity. Once the typical corporate alpha male ceases to be the default marker of success, we’ll see real change.