Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Outing Gratitude

October 11 is National Coming Out Day. I remember when it started in 1988 – it was a powerful positive program to affirm being LGBT in the face of the devastation of the AIDS crisis of the 1980’s. In short order it grew and became a national tradition that the Human Rights Campaign eventually took over and continues to run. I never much needed a day to “come out” as for most of the last quarter-century I’ve been affiliated with one LGBT organization or another making it easy to be out. I always appreciate having a day to celebrate the cause in such a positive way and remind the world of our difference. Today I run a non-profit with “gay” in its name. In the ordinary course of day to day life the result is that I am constantly coming out. (“What do you do for a living?” “I run ….”) I live in one of the more progressive and “accepting” areas of the world and have little issues when having these interactions. When I traveled internationally recently it became an interesting refresher course on coming out and the power of being out.

My partner (boyfriend/lover/better-half) and I recently took a two week cruise. As a veteran of many prior sailings, I pretty much knew what to expect. This would, however, be the first one I did that didn’t have some sort of LGBT group formally on board that I was affiliated with and the first time I’d be traveling with a romantic companion. Our first outing occurred when we contacted the cruise company to add my partner to the room. There was the usual list of questions that they asked to make sure that the experience met our expectations, including whether we needed one bed or should it be two. The question that bemused us most was when the agent asked: “Why are you adding him to the room?” After a stunned moment my immediate instinct was to stay “none of your business” – but instead I said “Love!” The agent went “Oh. Right! Yes. Great!” And we continued on.

Every day on board at 7:00pm there was a gathering of LGBT passengers. While we never quite made it, there were many couples and singles who were on board and we became acquainted with. We met a number of wonderful non-gay people as well. All in all quite ordinary, which make the exceptions worth noting.

One day we were going from the spa back to our room and I was wearing a shirt I’d never dare wear around my job, but I enjoy wearing. (See photo.) An older woman asked me about it. Now let me be clear – cruising tends to draw an older demographic, but the line we were on and the route we were taking drew a particularly specific crowd. Our fellow travelers were very white and the average age was north of 80. We assumed the crowd to be quite conservative. The older lady asked “Where are you the Director?” And I told her: “The … GAY ….” And she looked me up and down and said “The … WHAT …?” I said “GAY” she said “GAY?” louder. She then looked at my partner. “Him too?” We both nodded and said yes. “Oh, how nice!” And off we all went on our separate ways wishing each other a lovely evening.

Less accepting were “Fran” and “Judy.” (These two women whom we never directly interacted with nonetheless received names and backstories from us.) They each had separately but identical reactions to our presence. Glares. Heads shaking. Tsk-tsk’s. Both worked hard to literally turn their back to us so they wouldn’t have to be exposed to us. The couldn’t look at us, especially if one of us had an arm around the other’s chair – not even necessarily making direct physical contact. During the times where there was some public display of affection it was consistent with the dozens of others we’d be circling the Promenade Deck. These people would physically turn their bodies so as to not have us in their sight lines. On the final night of the cruise "Fran" came into the dining room smiling and radiant. They seated her so she had a diagonal view of where we were seating and she saw us and her smile disappeared and a darkness overcame her. She glared at us her whole meal. I’m sad for her that just our being together (and the other LGBT couples on board) resulted in such a change in her demeanor.

Being who you are is a privilege and carries responsibility. It’s not always comfortable. Authentically being who you are isn’t just a gay thing. It’s why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are popular and Hillary and Jeb are less so. I’m grateful for the ability to be out and proud about who I am, knowing that isn’t true to too many. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Go Away

I’m just back after two weeks away. A holiday. A vacation. A luxury that has been years in the making and planning. Sure my contract provides for three weeks of time off per year, but as a workaholic I’ve never quite been able to justify take the time, despite the support of the team I work with. In the past 3 years I’ve turned back (“use it or lose it”) over 6 weeks of time. I’m not alone. 500 million vacation days lapse each year according to The Boston Globe. The hectic and stressful preparation for being away is matched by the whirlwind and obligations upon the return. The time in between is worth it, especially if you can ‘check-out.’ I did stay connected every few days as that’d probably be more stressful than not – but I was able to really get into a different way of being for a while. With that perspective it was amazing to come back and see what happened in the world with some fresh eyes.

The two weeks at the beginning of November is really a short period of time in the context of a year (4%), but it seemed much longer based on what happened while I was away. Trees went from a bountiful template of colors to largely bare. Pumpkins have been replaced by Christmas décor and holiday songs in every aisle. The psychological change that society makes into the holiday season is significant and it’s interesting to come off of a break into the holiday ‘rush.’

Politically there were a bunch of debates. Truly silly season. I agree with Edward Morrissey in TheWeek when he writes “Stop calling them 'debates.' They're game shows.” A couple of candidates for President dropped out.

There were some weather issues that dominated headlines and other things like earthquakes that momentarily held the spotlight. Being out of touch meant those came and went unnoticed even in a cursory review of what happened. Same with a whole series of attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other places where violence is the norm.

All of a sudden, though, my social media newsfeed started changing. It nearly instantaneously transformed to a sea of red-white-and-blue as the hundreds of connections I have simultaneously changed profile pictures to support France after the Friday the 13th bombings in Paris. It was an interesting phenomenon to experience this tragic event from the responses first, then seeking out what actually happened. The response felt so small compared to the event, but what else can people do?

I didn’t return and get back into a daily focus of world-events for many more days. By the time I was fully tuned back in there was a neat narrative surrounding the events. It was almost like reading a script or watching a TV show. (How many stars will you give it?) Evil ISIS hates everything the freedom loving world represents so they destroy it through terrorist attacks. Global outrage ensues and a plan to bomb the hell out of ISIS is agreed to by everybody. But it’s hard to do since ISIS isn’t actually centralized, so let’s “take out” some places we think they are instead. Boom! Oh, yes – let’s nail a suspect. The one guy who masterminded 8 simultaneous attacks. And let’s raid the place he was at months ago. Oops, we couldn’t find him ahead of time, but now we’ve found him in 12 hours! The message is clear: we need to be afraid of the terrorists but not so afraid because there’s “no credible” threats to be worried about.

There is no justification for the actions that happened in Paris. None whatsoever. But violence isn’t the answer. Violence begets violence. Is there nothing that history has taught us but that? The rhetoric is nauseating enough. But then there’s a whole series of emergency measures (in France, in England, in the US) to further curtail rights. One proposal attempts to punish those who criticize the Government in the U.K.  The goal is to empower the State to protect the People – something that has failed consistently.

Since September 11, 2001 the United States and most of the world have enacted massive amounts of legislation that has invaded privacy and taken about centuries of liberties that have been fought for. Phone calls are logged, emails are read, purchases are tracked. All in the name of safety and security. On Friday November 13, 2015 France’s 9/11 occurred. The tragedy is horrible. But it’s only the latest. 14 years later the restriction of freedom, the tracking of people and the invasion of privacy did not prevent this, the London attacks of 7/7 or so many others.

Let’s not keep doing the same thing. Let’s do what I did. Go away. The world needs a fresh perspective. Or maybe the terrorists could just go away. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Suggesting a tip

I was a terrible waiter. The summer of my freshman year in high school I took a job as a waiter at a higher end restaurant. I figured if I was going to be a waiter I might as well do it for a place where the total bill was high – and therefore the tips would be high too. How delightfully naïve I was. The ultimate insult came not from being stiffed on the tip – there were plenty of justifications for that (“they forgot” “they didn’t like the food” etc.). It was when they would leave $0.10 or $0.25 or $1.00 on a $150 bill. It was a clear memo: we know we should tip but you were so horrible that you only deserve a few pennies. I think I lasted six weeks and spent most of them bussing tables rather than serving. Today I make it a punchline: I tell people this was when I learned that I preferred to be served rather than to serve! There’s a movement on that would change all that.

Danny Meyer’s Restaurants (which runs establishments like Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe in New York) announced recently (10/15/15) that they were instituting a “no tipping” policy starting in November. “Meyer’s group plans to increase menu prices and raise hourly wages for kitchen employees to $15.25 from $11.75 at The Modern. The increase will fall in line with the new state minimum wage of $15 an hour for fast-food workers. Menus will make it clear that prices include “hospitality”, and checks will not provide blank lines for a tip.”

Part of the justification is that the wage difference between kitchen employees (cooks to dishwashers) and wait staff has continued to grow disproportionately. (Various laws prevent tips from being pooled and shared.) Will it take away an employee’s incentive to provide excellent service? I would doubt it since they’ll likely be fired if they provide bad service.

Cruise ships are a good example of this policy. Many years ago at the end of your week envelopes would magically appear in your stateroom, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, etc. seeking tips. Woe is those who traveled without cash. At some point in the past decade that switched to a daily convenience fee being billed to your account. You can still add a cash tip at the end for those who have done exceptional service. There hasn't been a noticeable change in the quality of service in my experience. 

In many parts of the world wikitravel warns about tipping: “Giving a tip is not expected and offering one would be considered at best odd and at worst condescending or demeaning.”

A few years back when traveling in Sweden my friend and I had a lovely dinner and got the bill. We couldn’t tell if the tip was included or not – so ingrained in our being was it to tip the waitress. We ultimately asked her and she laughed at our Americanism and explained it was all included. It was quite convenient not to have to do the calculation and determine if we were going to be boorish or over-the-top in our tipping.

Evan Horowitz of The Boston Globe wrote an analysis about the policy. He wrote: “Abandoning the long-entrenched practice of tipping is a major departure from the restaurant norm, but in virtually every other industry, it’s management — not customers — who decides what employees should be paid.”

Moving wait staff to a regular employee status provides stability to the employee, additional funds to shore up Social Security and appropriately requires the establishment to price their product based on their actual costs. As Horowitz says: “Even if there were no tips, waiters and waitresses would still need to get paid. And the money would still come from customers. It would just appear on a different line of the bill, be it higher menu prices or an automatic service fee.” It’s a suggestion that is more than a tip!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Limitation on Decency

I used to watch “The Cosby Showas part of NBC’s “Must See TV” line-up on Thursday nights. It wasn’t one of those shows I absolutely had to watch, but if I was able to see it then I would watch it. It held the 8pm slot for all eight seasons and was an innocuous look at a upper middle-class family with issues – they just happened to be African American. The show was accessible to everybody, producing ratings and honors that previously hadn’t occurred. It won a bucket load of awards, including the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. The show lived on in syndication from 1997. In 2015, the last television syndicators stopped running the show, though it remains available on Hulu. Events of the last few years are unlikely to have ever been part of the show's premise.

Bill Cosby, the show’s protagonist and namesake, had been a successful comedian and ad pitch man before taking on the role of Clifford Huxtable. After that, he continued to produce and star in television shows. He was a staple on our sets from the 1960s through the 2000s. He was somebody we knew, we felt comfortable with … and dare I say … we trusted.

Wikipedia states: “As of September 30, 2015, Cosby has been accused by at least 54 women of either rape, drug facilitated sexual assault, sexual battery and/or sexual misconduct, with the earliest alleged incidents taking place in the mid-1960s. He has denied the allegations and has never been criminally charged. Most of the acts alleged by his accusers fall outside the statutes of limitations for legal proceedings.”

There have been a slew of colleges, universities and other institutions that have withdrawn honorary degrees, awards, etc., based on the rumors. The comedian has refused to address them, stating that he doesn’t respond to “innuendo.”

“President Obama got into the conflict saying “there is no mechanism to revoke Bill Cosby's Medal of Freedom.” He then went on to say that having sex with somebody without their consent is wrong and is rape. The link was unmistakable – the President believes the allegations are true.

But they aren’t. At least, not legally. Nothing’s been proven. 54 people making similar accusations leads one to a very clear conclusion, and that’s why he’s become a pariah and can’t work and his namesake show is off the air. 

Wikipedia explains: “The purpose and effect of statutes of limitations are to protect defendants. There are three reasons for their existence:

     >  A plaintiff with a valid cause of action should pursue it with reasonable diligence.
>   A defendant might have lost evidence to disprove a stale claim.
>   A long-dormant claim has ‘more cruelty than justice’ ”

There’s something suspicious about 54 people not saying anything for decades. Bill Cosby carried no particular role of authority (like a priest or others). Awful, repugnant, and indecent are the actions that Cosby’s accused of. There’s also something wrong about convicting a man without a trial. It seems un-American to this most American of men. Perhaps this proves that there’s a limitation on decency?