On aging

Joy BianchiA writing client of mine posted a photo on Instagram this afternoon, and as it often does, a comment caused a spring in my brain to fly loose.

“Go shopping with the perennially bespectacled Joy Bianchi, a grand dame of the San Francisco philanthropy scene and one of the world’s premier couture collectors,” the caption reads. The photograph focuses on an elegant woman resplendent in deep red lipstick and a zebra-striped dress with a black sash, her dark grey hair pulled back with a bit of lift on top, her eyes covered with outsized black glasses. A huge cocktail ring hangs from her right hand as she gazes into the camera with comfort. She’s got the kind of panache that might make Diana Vreeland smile if she were still around — the sort of look that probably elicits comparisons to Iris Apfel from people who know who that is.

“So cute,” typed a commenter.

So cute.

I decided to take a moment to look up Joy Bianchi’s biography, or at least a quick swath of it. I found some interesting notes:

“The spirited woman about town has dedicated the past 62 years to supporting the Bay Area’s developmentally disabled residents with developmental disabilities -ed. through fashion.” –WhereTraveler

“In Catholic grade school, she was taught about St. Vincent de Paul and charity as his predominant virtue. ‘I got hooked on him,’ she said. What followed were decades of service to developmentally disabled people with developmental disabilities -ed.” –SFGate

“Her humanitarian spirit blossomed at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Pacific Heights. At the mere age of 14, she began working with developmentally disabled children with developmental disabilities -ed., then called mentally retarded, through Helpers of the Holy Innocence. Once a week she accompanied the nuns to visit the poor on Pixley Street, where she saw rats in the basements of homes. After graduating from San Francisco College for Women, she worked in the social work department at the University of California Medical Center but stayed involved with Helpers of the Holy Innocence. When the organization needed a new Director, Venturini Bianchi was hired. That was 1962. A year later, she opened Helpers’ first home at 2626 Fulton Street.

It was there that six developmentally disabled women women with developmental disabilities -ed. received another chance. The first female to move in had lost both of her parents, arrived from a foster home, had been physically molested, mentally abused and put in the juvenile court system. ‘She was the person who spurred this home to become this wonderful place,’ Venturini Bianchi said.

Eventually there would be three Helpers homes that simultaneously took care of 18 men and women daily. Venturini Bianchi didn’t just provide a bed and meals. The residents were afforded the same life she enjoyed.

Interior decorator Eleanor Ford and antiquarian Bernard Stout outfitted the bedrooms using the favorite colors of the residents, some of who lived at the home until their 60s and 70s. Only fresh produce was served and the residents reviewed the book Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers before going out to dinner. Wilkes Bashford dressed the men in his shirts and cashmere sweaters. The women wore clothes from I. Magnin. Nothing was too good for Helpers’ residents, who frequented museums, went to the opera and symphony, ran errands to FedEx, learned to read and write and became known in the community.” –Haute Living

We can save the lecture on using person-first language with regard to developmental disabilities for another day; for now, those edits will have to do. Today, my f-stop is set to highlight something that’s bothered me for years: the way we treat our elders as if they’re less than they are. As if they aren’t entire human beings with textured lives and stories to tell.

About the word cute

“Cute” is puppies. “Cute” is babies. “Cute” is the first scarf you ever tried to knit, the drawing a child made, the moment two people on a first date acknowledge how awkward the whole thing is. Outside of the costume of sarcasm, I think most people who call other people “cute” are attempting to pay a compliment. We mean well; we just don’t know what to say on the fly, and we’re hypocrites about the things that scare us. “She’s so cute,” we say of women who were old enough to have an informed opinion on Roe v. Wade as it was actually happening, because it’s nicer than saying “I’m terrified of getting older and this woman reminds me that I’m going to.” “He’s so cute,” we say of men who were old enough to fight in Vietnam, Korea or either world war, because winking and smiling is easier than staring the passage of time in the face and acknowledging it fully. “They’re so cute,” we say of people who’ve survived in this place for the better part of a century, reducing them to innocents on par with infants and fuzzy little yellow chicks emerging from their eggs.

But they’re not innocents. They’re not children. They’re adults.

Most had babies of their own long ago, and lots of those babies have had babies since. Many forged careers, built things, lived through hardship, got sick, broke through boundaries, fought for what they believed in, took care of other people, and tried to take care of themselves. Plenty still do. They’re good, they’re bad. They’re strong, they’re weak. They’re flawed, they’re sentient — they’re people. They’re survivors of the same things the younger among us face every day, and probably far more than that. They see us for who we are and who we might someday be, and while we pat them on the head like toddlers, some might be thinking, “Please. I could eat you for breakfast.” And you know what? They probably should.

In fact, they’re not “they.” They’re “we.” We’re all “we.”

I don’t know Joy Bianchi, nor had I ever heard of her before today. But I do know one thing, and I’ll say it three ways:

She is fierce.

She is a fox.

She is anything but cute.

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F*ck your f*cking Klout score

OMG TWITTER IS DOWNSometimes, I fear the internet is making me stupid and mean.

Before the web (in its current behemoth incarnation, anyway), there was college (for me, at least), and before college, there were books about the past and present — books I mostly ate like chocolate. But one afternoon in my junior year, one of my professors introduced a class full of Dickens-weary English majors to something that, back in the late 90s, few of us had ever heard of. Something that spoke of the future and how utterly crazy it was going to be. From that day forward, postmodernism grabbed us all and held us tight, from the opening pages of Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions all the way through the end of DeLillo’s White Noise where god knows what was even happening — seriously, that book was nuts. Our wee little twenty-year-old minds were blown.

Simulacrum? Yeah, that could maybe be a thing. And wasn’t it terrifying? “Who wants to stand in front of a church with a camera pressed to your face just so you can look at the pictures later and remember what it was like to look through the lens at the church, when instead you could have just maybe, I don’t know… looked at the church? With your eyeballs?” we wondered. What if we got to a point where no one was experiencing anything worth talking about anymore, but rather, we all just started blindly making records of things, drawing a dotted line around what would have otherwise been real experiences, all for the sake of telling other people later about things we never actually lived through because we were too busy planning the anecdote and framing the shot for later? What if we all started pretending we’d really lived inside of all these moments when we’d actually been standing on the outside, snapping away and documenting it all from the perimeter like a bunch of little journalists? What if we started to live our entire lives that way? What if we forgot how to live, how to communicate, how to be?

We were all pretty freaked about the idea of people taking pictures of things instead of just living in the moment… about people being more interested in the perception of things than in the actual things themselves. Somebody who wasn’t worried about this later invented Instagram, and now I know what you ate for lunch. (I don’t mind it, really, but back in the 20th century, we were bugging out over the idea that there would someday be no “now”; that there would only be “let’s just capture this for later.” Somehow, I guess we’ve adapted? Maybe, kind of? Or not? I have no idea.)

At the time, The Real World was about six seasons in, and its originality was starting to wane as glimmers of the future began to cloud the vision of network execs in the forms of Survivor and Big Brother, which weren’t yet on the air but were probably in the earliest stages of development. No one knew what twitter was, nor Facebook, nor even MySpace or Friendster. It was in many ways a much simpler time, or so it seems in retrospect. Life was life, entertainment was entertainment, and voyeurism wasn’t quite the bloodsport it is today. Also, I’m fairly certain all the Kardashians were still in middle school.

I’m not going to spend the following paragraphs complaining about how awful pop culture and social media are. Actually, I don’t think they’re awful at all. What’s awful is what we’re letting it do to us. What it’s making us into. Well, some of us, anyway… and others by extension. As in, people who give advice to aspiring writers, and by extension, aspiring writers ourselves.

Thanks to some of this advice, I worry sometimes that we’re doomed.

I was reading an interview a literary magazine did recently with one of the editors of a popular female-oriented website I sometimes skim — the one that made Cat Marnell famous — and in this interview, the editor’s talking about the awards she won previously for her writing when she starts forgetting which awards they were. The following conversation takes place after that:

Interviewer: What, you can’t even remember them all any more?

Editor: No, not at all. I haven’t had an award since college. I just don’t submit to them anymore. It’s a different world—who gives a shit about awards anymore? Now it’s all about Twitter followers and Klout Score. Honestly, no one gets hired because of résumés anymore. They get hired because of a Google search. They get hired because of a Twitter feed. Do you know what I’m saying?

Interviewer: I do know what you’re saying. Do you use Klout?

Editor: Yeah. The reason I was interested in it was when I read that it was this kind of empirical measurement, like a Q Rating that shows how popular an actor or actress is in Hollywood. I’ve always been a fan of hard measurements of soft sciences, so it’s fun. It’s fun, especially if you’re kind of a workaholic and don’t have a boyfriend and that’s just a big part of your life to see: oh, my Bing results went up. And: my level of engagement on Twitter went up.

Interviewer: It’s interesting that Klout looks mostly at engagement. With Twitter followers, you can even buy them if you want, but what’s actually gained from that?

Editor: I looked at it the other day to see what the breakdown was in terms of what my Klout Score measured and it was like 50% Twitter, 10% Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook…

Interviewer: It seems like there are a lot of people who are secretly concerned with their Twitter and Instagram and how they’re doing, but they don’t want to admit it. I think that’s part of why your whole personal branding series was so popular.

Editor: Yeah. I need to go back to that.

Yes. Yes, please go back to that.

Yes, please inspire an entire generation of writers to worry more about how many followers we have than how good we are at writing. Yes, please make sure we all spend as much time whittling snarky one-liners about our immediate reactions to shit that means nothing as we do working on our craft and doing something that might actually make the world a tiny bit better in some way. Yes, please let’s make everyone spend as much time, money and energy as possible on our own personal branding, because there’s not nearly enough of that already happening. Yes, please encourage as much on-the-nose, self-promotional narcissism as you can muster. Yes, please teach a class on how we can all sit around taking pictures of ourselves and blather online about how great we are, in a year in which ‘selfie’ physically made its way into the dictionary. Yes, please discourage us from having a single thought without broadcasting it immediately, from taking time to let things simmer, from remembering how to express ourselves with any measure of eloquence.

Yes, please help us to be shocking, to “learn how to be authentic,” to get more page views, to gain a following, to say ‘f*ck’ a lot and reel everyone right the f*ck in to see what the f*ck we’re gonna do next. Yes, please do your part to force us to live in a world in which who people think we are is more important than who we actually are.

Yes.

Yes. Please f*cking do all of these f*cking things and more, you f*cking f*ck. Please use your f*cking powers to turn us all into a bunch of f*cking incoherent babbling… f*ck, I can’t remember the f*cking point I was trying to make.

BRB. Need to step the f*ck outside and #scream. (93 characters remaining)

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Cool to be kind

image: Native Vermont Studios

Henry James once said, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

In honor of that sentiment, November 13 has been declared World Kindness Day – an occasion that hopefully inspires us to practice random acts of kindness when and where they’re least expected, and not just for a single day, but rather, as a typical mode of operation. Here, five ideas to spark your imagination. Careful, though: these gestures may be habit-forming.

Buy the world a coke (or a coffee)

Event planner Robyn Bomar had the right idea on her 38th birthday a few years ago: instead of making the day all about her, she thought, why not make it about other people? With help from her family, she consciously committed 38 random acts of kindness, from feeding rows of parking meters and donating clothes to a homeless shelter to delivering homemade Valentines to an assisted living facility and giving gift cards to families in line behind them at the grocery store.

Her blog post about the day created a stir, and then a movement; from it, The Birthday Project was born, encouraging others to use their birthdays for good as well. Those same ideas are applicable any day of the year, and everything from leaving a huge tip on a small meal to putting a few dollars’ worth of change into a vending machine and attaching a note can bring a smile to someone’s face.

Another act of kindness to consider: over-paying your barista on behalf of folks behind you, or using Starbucks’ new feature, @tweetacoffee, where you can sync a credit card and Starbucks account to twitter and buy a cup of joe for someone with a simple tweet.

Create a care package

A recent piece by The Atlantic posited that one in four Americans will have lived under the poverty line at some point before age 35. That sobering statistic serves to put a face on the problems of poverty, hunger and homelessness, and hopefully hits home for those of us in a position to help others. While some may not be comfortable simply giving money to those asking for it on the street, a simple, practical gesture can go a long way: consider creating small personal care packages by loading up freezer bags with a bottle of water, a pair of clean socks and piece or two of fresh fruit and delivering them to folks who could desperately use them. This should go without saying, but a kind word, a handshake and a little direct eye contact wouldn’t hurt, either. We’re all just humans doing the best we know how, after all.

A bonus idea for the fall: maybe go a step further and donate non-perishables to a food bank or soup kitchen, many of which could benefit from extra foodstuffs for the holiday season.

Spend some time

Even if you don’t have a dime to spare, chances are, you have at least an hour. Time is one of our most precious resources, and it can be easily wasted on social networks, in long commutes and on all sorts of mindless diversions. Consider getting outside of your comfort zone and volunteering your time, even if you start with one commitment that lasts, say, an hour or two on a Saturday.

Check out VolunteerMatch to find a local opportunity that suits your interests, whether it’s helping pets at a shelter, kids in a hospital or elders at the local library. (Intimidated? Don’t be. Pair up with a friend and do something worthwhile in lieu of brunch this Sunday.) Rather go big? Start making plans to book a volunteer trip through Cross Cultural Solutions or Me to We. Your memories will last a lifetime, and so will those of the people you help.

Update, April 2015: actually, maybe don’t do this before you’ve done a ton of research. While ‘voluntourism’ sounds lovely on the surface, it can sometimes hurt more than it helps. Here, a few resources to help parse what’s what: an NPR piece from July 2014, an article in The Independent from last fall, a 2013 post on CNN, and a trailer for the documentary film H.O.P.E. Was Here that compelled me to add this cautionary blurb in the first place.

Make your money talk

We live in crazy times. Think about it: any material object we could ever hope to own is likely a few clicks away. While buying stuff just for the sake of buying it won’t help anything (i.e., a spoiler alert: crass consumption isn’t going to save the world), when faced with a choice between buying two similarly priced, equally useful and essential objects, one of which is ethically made and benefits a great cause and one of which isn’t and doesn’t, the decision should be an easy one to make.

Sometimes, though, we don’t have all the information we need. Sites like SHFT, Ethical Ocean, Uncommon Goods, Sevenly and TOMS’ new multi-vendor marketplace make those decisions easier; they only carry products that are ethically produced and environmentally conscious and/or have a proven social mission — often, both. Whether it’s a gift for a friend or daily basics like toothbrushes and tee shirts, you can impact the world in a positive way simply by making a more informed choice and putting your money where your heart is.

Put pen to paper

Pop quiz: When was the last time you sent an old-fashioned thank you note or a handwritten letter to someone you care about? In this era of tweets, texts and divided attention, it’s too easy to forget that a well-placed, self-penned word of encouragement or gratitude can brighten someone’s day or even boost them through a rough patch. It only costs the price of a postage stamp and a few minutes of your time, but it can make someone else feel like a million bucks, even if only for a day. That’s a return on investment that can’t be argued with.

However you choose to celebrate the day, any act of kindness is better than none at all. For more ideas on making a positive impact, check out the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. (Yes, there’s actually a non-profit org called the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. There just might be hope for us after all, people.)

Obviously, we’re not going to solve all the world’s problems simply by being kinder to each other for a day (or even all the time), but for those of us willing to take the first swipe at making things the tiniest bit better, we could stand to heed the words of legendary Grand Slammer Arthur Ashe: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

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ps… In case this post seems a little formal compared to what’s usually found here, it was actually pitched to and written for the website of a print magazine, but they ended up not running it. So, blah, I thought I’d share it with you kind folks instead. 

pps… hey, ‘member this? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXe8PFKsOIc

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Remembering Leslie

Keep it weird, friend.

Austin lost an icon this week.

The outpouring of local stories from people whose lives he touched are boundless, and a search this afternoon even turned up an article in The New York Times on the person who impacted thousands simply by being a kind, spectacular but sometimes shy homeless man who sauntered around town in a feather boa and a thong.

For those of you who don’t live in the weird, wild heart of Texas, do not adjust your monitor: you did indeed read that correctly. Leslie Cochran was a cross-dresser without a home who wandered the streets of Austin, sometimes ran for mayor, and often held memorable conversations over drinks or meals with pretty much anyone who extended the invitation.  His image was once uploaded onto the People of Wal-Mart website by an unknowing onlooker, and the web exploded with cheers that it was, indeed, our Leslie, and that he was a damn icon around these parts.  I only saw him once, at my first Pecan Street Festival in 2009, and I remember feeling like I’d reached a milestone in my journey toward being an Austinite simply by laying eyes on him.  And it wasn’t because of the thong and the boa… it was because of the fact that he could get away with wearing a thong and a boa and still elicit real conversation, camaraderie and even respect from the people around him.  Let’s be real, friends: that’s a tough thing to pull off.

Unless you’re in Austin, that is.

I’m sure he had his troubles. I’m sure they were many of the same self-sabotaging, reoccurring challenges much of the impoverished population faces, along with some of the rest of us who live in nice houses with fancy window coverings that make it easier to hide our demons from the world outside.  I’m sure some of you are raising an eyebrow at the fact that so many people could celebrate the life of a person who seemed to the naked eye like a local celebrity who’d made a name for himself based on spectacle alone.  But that’s the thing… Leslie was more than a spectacle.  In fact, he was more than a person too, in a way.  He was the personification of the reason people flock to Austin to begin with: here, you can be who you are — no matter how odd — and be accepted, embraced, and even celebrated.  But there’s a catch to that last part: unlike the realm of celebrity in general, here, it only works if you’re kind to the people around you.

I was one of the lucky few who happened to see the quiet tribute the Paramount Theater staff paid to Austin’s vagabond son on Thursday morning just after everyone heard the news of his death.  The global juggernaut that is SxSW was about to roll into town any minute, and I’m sure they had plenty of important festival details to display on their marquee.  But just for a few hours, before the town opened its doors to tens of thousands of visitors, we took a moment by ourselves to pay a quiet tribute to the man who reminded us that it’s okay to just be who we are.  For just a little while, the Paramount marquee simply bore two words: “Peace Leslie.”

A few weeks ago, we were all buzzing about the fact that Leslie was talking about leaving Austin for a little town outside of Denver where he used to live.  I think we can all agree we’re glad he didn’t go… he belonged here.  But now that he’s truly gone, wherever he is, we can bet he’s keeping it weird, just as he damn well should.

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