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A bright sunshiny day: The fierce power of optimism

17 Jun

During a time of worldwide pandemic, demands for racial justice, utter financial catastrophe and unheard of levels of unemployment, I have become a huge fan of optimism.

Granted, pessimism usually has the better jokes, and in these troubled times, optimism runs the risk of coming off as wimpy, myopic or irritatingly cheerful. What I’ve discovered is, when it comes to strength, clarity and results, optimism kicks ass. Here’s why.

Optimism demands action.
Optimism is closely aligned with hope, which is poetically defined by Merriam-Webster as a way “to cherish [meaning nurture] a desire with anticipation.” It’s not to be confused with wishing, which is a pretty passive way of dealing with a challenge; if you just “put it all out to the universe,” you’re waiting for the universe to do all the heavy lifting to bail you out.

Nope, optimism requires work … lots and lots of work: expanding your network; researching new industries; tailoring your resume to fit the job you’re aiming for; going for a walk to dispel anxiety; practicing gratitude by writing down three good things at the end of each day. It’s rarely a “one and done” action, either; you have to keep showing up and putting in the effort.

Optimism requires self-reflection.
I’ve wrestled with “why me?” a lot since being laid off and have indulged in the occasional pity party, replete with Ben & Jerry’s. Still, it’s way more productive to consider this major disruption as a chance to review my past work experiences with an eye toward landing an even better opportunity in the future by asking myself:

  • what I’ve accomplished that makes me proud
  • what didn’t go as well and what I’ve learned as a result
  • which of my current skills adds the most value to a company right now and in the future
  • what skills I still need to learn – and how I can do that while I have some time away from a job

This self-examination can also bring focus during times that may seem hopeless. In an interview for New York magazine, civil rights champion Congressman John Lewis was asked, “What do you do to keep from becoming bitter?” He replied, “I pray over and over again, have what I call an executive session with myself, just self-listen: This is what you must do. This is what you must say. Do what you can, and play the role that you can play.

Optimism coexists with reality.

Having a positive frame of mind doesn’t mean ignoring the facts. It also doesn’t mean there won’t be periods of despair, doubt and fear. Yet optimism can provide moments of grace and gratitude, even when the present is tough and the future is bleak.

Three-time Tony nominee Rebecca Luker acknowledged this in her recent New York Times interview, “After A.L.S. Diagnosis, Rebecca Luker Is ‘Proud I Can Still Sing,’” when she said, “Some days I don’t have hope. The days that I do, I think about all the people that love and support me. There are a lot of exciting medical things coming down the pike in 2020. I know that I’m a strong person and that I can beat this.”

Optimism is a team sport.
As Luker acknowledged, optimism is rooted in those who are rooting for you. One of the first blessings I experienced after losing my job was hearing from so many people from all phases of my life who then took action to help me: putting me in touch with their friends, setting up calls, sharing my resume and so on. This is in addition to my family, who have been a full-service cheerleading squad. It’s motivated me to find ways to pay it forward and to celebrate my friends’ successes in their job searches. If one of us wins, we all do.

Sharing your pain and support with others balances the burden we all carry and helps build perspective. In a recent installment of the New York Times’ “Modern Love” series, Brooklyn resident Kelly Sterling said, “Before entering this quarantine, my husband and I suffered a miscarriage….We started having conversations with our families and friends, opening up about what had happened. People told us stories of their own losses and their friends’ losses. Even though we were stuck at home, we felt love and support from the outside world. Randy and I have come a long way during this time — now, we accept our loss as part of our story.”

Optimism just makes you feel better.
I have no idea how long I will be out of work, or when the pandemic will subside, or if Black Americans will ever receive the racial justice that has been denied them for more than four centuries. I do know that if I fully invest in optimism and positive change, there’s a greater chance that positive results will follow.

Just take it from the Jamaican Olympic bobsledding team.

I love the Johnny Nash original, yet I chose this version from “Cool Runnings” since we could all use some Jamaican joy right now (and Jimmy Cliff is transcendent!)

See you on the flip side … and stay safe!

Echo in the Canyon: A 12-String Serenade to the California Sound

21 Jul

A few months ago, I saw a trailer for Echo in the Canyon, a documentary focusing on California’s Laurel Canyon-based musicians who turned folk music into rock legend in the mid to late 1960s. And, for a brief few seconds, I saw my dear, departed Tom Petty on screen in a guitar store talking shop. I realized it must have been the last documentary project he ever did, so, with wistful anticipation, I planned to see it when it came to metro Detroit.

Thankfully, my partner saw it was playing at the Main Art Theater in Royal Oak on a hellishly hot afternoon when all any sane person would want to do was sit in an air-conditioned theater with an artisanal chocolate bar and iced black tea. I hustled over to catch a matinee.

The billed “star” of the documentary is Jakob Dylan, Bob’s fourth born and the lead singer of the middling Wallflowers. He and director Andrew Slater chose to focus on the prolific years of 1965-1967 to support their 2015 concert featuring stars of the 1990s and 2000s singing key songs by the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beach Boys.

That is great material hobbled by a lousy premise. As much as I am glad Fiona Apple can still get a gig, the cover versions do nothing the originals didn’t do a thousand times better. Jakob has the sturdy timbre, diction and tone his father could never muster, but he is a passionless performer. He is stone faced during each recording session; he ably hits the notes and plays guitar, but there is no warmth or grit to hang your eardrums on. Additionally, no one benefits from Jakob’s staged conversations with Regina Spektor, Cat Power and Beck jammed together on a couch next to a coffee table piled with LPs. These talented, eccentric musicians say nothing about how the albums they hold in their hands affected their personal or professional lives. It’s a missed opportunity.

What Jakob does have is connections, and that’s where the documentary earns its cred. While it’s not stated, I imagine he has known many of these legends from childhood, and they easily open up to him. He gets Stephen Stills to admit he “booked” when the cops showed up one night, leaving Eric Clapton and others to get handcuffed for pot possession. Michelle Phillips, now a bright-eyed grandmother, gleefully shares how her dalliance with band mate Denny Doherty was the impetus for her husband (also a band mate) John writing, “Go Where You Wanna Go.” Brian Wilson jokes that Jakob and his backing band are playing “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” in the wrong key. Ringo confirms that George Harrison sent Roger McGuinn a note that he had based his opening riff in “If I Needed Someone” on McGuinn’s “The Bells of Rhymney.” Even Neil Young shows up, although he is only seen playing behind glass in a studio toward the end of the film without comment.

And, thankfully, Jakob’s dad’s brother Wilbury, Tom Petty, gets significant opportunities to be the consummate rock historian he was. He sets the record straight from the start: it’s Rickenbacker, not “Bach-er,” that made the 12-string guitar at the heart of the Byrds’ shimmering sound. Throughout the film, he provides the perspectives only he – as a lifelong fan, a musical beneficiary and a peer of the featured acts – could share. (I so miss that guy.)

Echo in the Canyon illustrates three years of pop music innovation and collaboration, nurtured by the woodsy Laurel Canyon culture where you could drop by your neighbor’s pad and noodle around on a song that would become rock and roll canon. It’s worth hunting for whenever you need a break from the heat while still enjoying the sunshine.

See you on the flip side …

“I was born like this, don’t even gotta try” – Loving myself loving Lizzo

13 Jun

When I was in grade school, visiting the downtown Richmond Public Library was a treat. They had books I couldn’t get at my local branch, and every time we went I made a beeline to one in particular: The Fattest Bear in the First Grade, by Barbara Robinson.

The story centers around Roberta, a pudgy koala who breaks swings by sitting on them. When she whimpers, “Bears are supposed to be fat,” as a carnival guy extracts her from a go-cart after getting stuck, he replies, “Yes, but some bears are fatter than other bears.” Even worse, she splits the seams of the pink party dress with ribbons she covets at the dress shop. So, she swears off sweets in favor of raisins and apples, and voila! A few weeks later, the pink party dress fits. The End.

I was 100 pounds at eight years old, so this was the ultimate fairy tale: pudgy turning into pretty. While I didn’t adopt any of Roberta’s healthier habits, I did digest the subtext of this otherwise unassuming little picture book: Fat is shameful, and only thin bears deserve pink party dresses.

Some 45 years after my trips to the Richmond Public Library, that book continues to exert its power. I know full well weight is not the only measure of good health, and standards of beauty evolve constantly — and really, self-worth shouldn’t boil down to what other people think. Yet any time my pants feel tight, I’m Roberta sitting alone in the classroom during recess, berating myself.

Thank God for Lizzo.

Although she’s made the rounds for a while, 2019 has been a monumental year for the Detroit-born, Houston- and Minneapolis-bred Melissa Jefferson. She’s a one of a kind: a rapper who only discovered her monumental singing voice at 19, a self-professed band nerd who plays jazz flute then twerks. She performed at Coachella; she’s one of the headliners at MoPop in Detroit in July. After performing on Ellen, being written up every five pages in Rolling Stone and getting rave reviews on NPR for her first major label record, Cuz I Love You, even white suburbanites are singing along to “Juice” during their morning commutes – at least this one certainly is.

If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine (yeah, I’m goals)
I was born like this, don’t even gotta try (now you know)
I’m like chardonnay, get better over time (so you know)
Heard you say I’m not the baddest — bitch, you lied

It’s no secret that Lizzo is a thick girl. That is often the lede with interviewers because, frankly, it surprises them that she loves herself as she is, and her size is not what she considers to be her defining characteristic. (It is just one more item on the list of all things Lizzo, along with being a dancer, Prince collaborator and funny as hell.) As Trevor Noah rightly told her, “You’ve really dismissed it and said, ‘I’m not doing this for your brave label. I’m just me.’”

“Before the term ‘body positive’ was just, kind of like, a mainstream thing, I was just making music about my body that was positive,” she said. “My mere existence is a form of activism, and I wear that hat really well—or not wear the hat at all,” she told Trevor Noah, laughing as she held up the Cuz I Love You album cover showing her in all her naked glory.

The notion that women could live in their own skin without a second thought is so alien to most of us. It challenges all we were taught as girls about what is and isn’t worthy, much less beautiful or healthy. Lizzo’s gift to the Robertas of the world is her absolute joy in being herself, every unique bit of it.


See you on the flip side …

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