Photo from Seahawks.com, Rod Mar

The Pacific Northwest is my home and there are dozens of reasons I love living here. But thanks to last night’s Superbowl victory by the Seattle Seahawks, it just got a little more exciting.

I grew up with sports – football chief among them.  The Miami Dolphins won the Superbowl the same year I was born (and, unfortunately, haven’t won another one since) and even though I grew up on the West Coast, I spent my youth cheering for Bob Griese and team. My dad patiently taught me about holding calls and 2-point conversions and there were always two or three Nerf footballs lying around our yard.  There were other sports we loved, to be sure, but following football was as much part of our lives as going to church on Sunday, and it was something we did as a family.

In high school I dated the quarterback for a while and froze my butt off in the stands every Friday night cheering on our team. I loved the rush of sitting with my friends, doing the wave, and rising as one entity, screaming with joy when one of our boys hit the end zone.

I watched helplessly in college as one of my friends was hit so hard he ended up paralyzed and suffered bleeding in his brain. He never recovered and spent the next few years of his life in a nursing home where he ultimately died of the brain injury. The community of students and staff rallied closely around his family and Eric’s room was rarely empty for the remainder of his days.

For the past few weeks our town has been a frenzy of excitement and I have been reminded of the power of community. A few years ago, the team and its supporters began using the phrase “12th man.” The idea picked up steam and while it may not have originally been intended, the fans of this team have become an integral part of its success. 12 man flags fly all over town and at the end of every victory, both the coach and players thank the fans. Beyond giving the team a home field advantage by generating so much noise the opposing team can’t hear each other, the fans have folded the coach and players into the life of the town so deeply that they have become intertwined. The players appear in local hospitals and schools, and the owner has a rich history in Seattle as well.

There is something really amazing about feeling as though you are truly a part of your team. However absurd it sounds, the sentiment of ownership, of pride, is palpable in this town right now. From the young coach who folks thought couldn’t lead an NFL team to victory to the quarterback who was told to stick to baseball to the owner whose major accomplishment prior to buying the Seahawks was helping Bill Gates start one of the most successful technology companies in the world, this team was built on hard work and a dream. (Okay, yes, and a boatload of money, but not the most money in the league by any stretch of the imagination.) I love the fact that prior to this Superbowl, none of the players on this team had a championship ring. Each and every one of these players got their first Superbowl ring last night. Each and every one of them appears to have taken Coach Carroll’s philosophy of playing to heart: that every minute of every game is as important as another. I would venture to guess that many of the fans are doing the same, given the consistent efforts of their team.

I am aware of the many controversies involved with professional sports and struggle with many of them. Are players being exploited by the league when they are asked to hit and take hits that are increasingly dangerous? Is the game too violent? Is it necessary to pay these players such exorbitant sums of money? Why is the NFL considered a non-profit organization and, thus, exempt from paying taxes while raking in obscene amounts of money? But I won’t deny the feeling of community and camaraderie that comes from cheering for this team who acknowledges the part their fans play in their success. In his post-game speech in the locker room, after calling out each individual player who made a spectacular play, Carroll asked the team to cheer for, “The 12s – there is something that’s so real, they are so much a part of what we do…” I can’t say that I’m not a little bit thrilled that this group of players who had the dubious honor of being the underdog went on to such a resounding victory, and they did it without nastiness or rubbing their win in anyone’s face. As for the fans, so far Seattle has stayed true to its reputation by not letting this win spark riots and looting all over town. I, for one, am happy to see the ‘Hawks go out on such a high note and I suspect their fans will ride this high for a while. There is something powerful about being swept up in the momentum of a group of people all rooting for the same thing, whether its a political rally or a sporting event or a group of friends watching a movie together all pulling for the heroine. It feels good, especially when your team wins.

I don’t know how the Dalai Lama does it. Except maybe he was never the parent of a teenager. Because when the explosion happens, like a fiery plume from the Deepwater Horizon, up from the depths, burning through water to spray into the sky and rain down, it’s hard to respond with love instead of panic. As the person under fire, I’d like to curl into a ball, tuck my head and limbs underneath me, and slink off to safety. As the parent, I know the thing to do is stay calm, dig deep into the recesses of my brain for parenting strategy, and endure the onslaught as I try to slow it down.

At the end of the talk someone from the audience asked the Dalai Lama, “Why didn’t you fight back against the Chinese?” The Dalai Lama looked down, swung his feet just a bit, then looked back up at us and said with a gentle smile, “Well, war is obsolete, you know ” Then, after a few moments, his face grave, he said, “Of course the mind can rationalize fighting back…but the heart, the heart would never understand. Then you would be divided in yourself, the heart and the mind, and the war would be inside you.”

My war is inside. Not only because I want to fight back, to dispute each thrust (even those that come out of nowhere – from the left and the right when my focus is straight ahead) with an equally adept parry, but because I am her mother. Because while my own wounds are stinging, I hurt for her, for the wound that is the source of all of this, the one thing she won’t let me see.  The one thing I don’t have an answer to because she keeps it so well hidden.  And because I know fighting back won’t change a thing. My head wants to delve in and examine, understand why she is so upset. My heart knows that the only way to fight fire is with water, the only way to fight hatred and fear is with love.

As the insults and hurtful words rain down, I struggle to stay in my heart. I wish that the sheer volume of my love was enough to spill over and fill her up. I want my boundless affection to swallow her anger and fear, consume it and move on like The Blob, spreading love like so much blue slime, neutralizing the pain. I want her to find the part of her that simply can’t accept my love and touch it, probe it, examine it. I want her to push into it even as it hurts and discover that it holds no sway anymore. I want her to discard it like the decoy it is and turn to me with open arms.

As the fireballs fly, it is increasingly difficult to stay open and radiate love. Every instinct I have pushes me to close down, pull in and fling well-aimed water balloons, or at least put up a shield. Eventually fatigue creeps up and I remember to listen to my heart. No matter how much it hurts, the only way out is love. I’m trusting the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m going on blind faith, here, that if I just refuse to fight back and repeat myself, eventually the message will get through. I love you. I love you. I love you. No matter what.

Americans love a dichotomy. Black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Reducing any situation to its most basic elements is a specialty of ours, forcing a decision about which “side” you’re on using carefully crafted sound-bites, facts and figures and charts chosen strategically to illustrate the stark differences between those two sides. Make a choice. Are you in or out?

When I was in high school and first discovered dichotomous keys, I couldn’t have been happier. Of course, growing up with sports-loving boys and men in my house, I already knew about playoff brackets – those visual aids used to whittle the pool of teams down to just two, eliminating half of them every time until you got to the final championship game. I found them stark and calming, clear and concise.  But I was interested in life sciences in school, so learning that I could key out any plant or animal using a very similar method gave me chills. (Yeah, I know – total geekdom.)

I went around gleefully separating plants in my neighborhood by simple or compound leaves, evergreen or deciduous, flowering or non-flowering. Occasionally I came across a question I couldn’t discern the answer to, either because I didn’t quite understand the distinction or because the plant’s characteristics lay in somewhat of a grey area.  In such cases, I tended to blame my own ignorance, assuming that there was a definite category in which everything belonged that simply eluded me. I forgot one simple thing: humans created the dichotomous key to make our own lives easier and more understandable. The key was not a Real Thing to which the laws of nature adhered. It was a false construction that was somewhat helpful but not absolute. No matter how hard I tried to force a particular organism to fit into my perfect notion of what it was, there would likely still be outliers and things I couldn’t account for.

I have found it helpful to remember that fact in my daily life.  Here are just a few of the false dichotomies I have encountered in my Facebook feed in the last 48 hours:

  • Is Richard Sherman (cornerback for the Superbowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) a cocky a**hole or not, as evidenced by his comments immediately following the end of last Sunday’s football game?
  • Does refusing to vaccinate your child put everyone else on the planet at risk for contracting sometimes fatal diseases such as measles and mumps?
  • Is breastfeeding better than formula feeding?
  • Is marijuana more harmful than alcohol?
  • Are employees unions ruining our economy?
Some of these questions come from friends, others from pages promoting specific products or ideas or blogs, but they are all the same in that they begin with a statement and end with a question. Most often the question is formulated to stimulate conversation (ie. “What do you think?” or “Thoughts?”). The problem, in my estimation, is that instead of encouraging a wide range of discussion, they generally set up the notion that there are only two possible answers.  That you ought to choose a side and defend it. In my experience, this prevents an actual exchange of ideas from occurring. Individuals spend their energy attempting to convince others that their position is the correct one, generally by attacking the folks who think otherwise. In the end, very little new insights are gained and nobody really leaves feeling good.
At this point, you may be thinking, Duh, so what? Herein lies the rub. If we convince ourselves that there are only two sides to every important story (the mass media is either perpetuating misogyny or it isn’t), and everyone who cares falls into one of those two camps, we are robbing ourselves of the chance to make any forward progress.  There may, from time to time, be a convert or two that heads to the other side after an important life experience or an impassioned conversation, but for the most part, we are inclined to say our piece and throw up our hands. Hate the way your state’s governor is running things? Oh well, just wait until the next election and cast your ballot and hope things go your way. 
In cases like Richard Sherman’s, choosing one side over the other may not matter much to anyone but him, but if we think about how important advances have been made in our lives, it isn’t because a majority chose one side over the other. It is because someone, or a group of people, chose to think outside that false dichotomy, brainstorm new ways of doing things and seeing the world, and listen to individuals who may have seemed crazy at first. Prior to the invention of the birth control pill, it was widely assumed that if you had sex, you were running the risk of getting pregnant. Sex = risk, no sex = no pregnancy. But at some point, at least one person thought,  Wait, abstinence doesn’t HAVE to be the only way to keep from getting pregnant. What if…?

What if, indeed. What if, instead of vilifying the makers of vaccines or those who choose not to have their children vaccinated, we toss that discussion out altogether? What if we recognize the intent (humanitarian, not capitalistic) of ensuring that our children don’t die of diseases like rubella and talk about whether there are safer methods than the vaccines we are currently using?  
I often talk about how my goal is to change the conversation about certain polarizing issues, but I’m coming to realize that all of this back and forth most of us are doing in Facebook and online, taking polls, commenting on incendiary essays and blogs, adding our two cents, is not conversation at all. It is empty posturing.  And while it is likely harmless much of the time (I don’t really mind if you think Robin Thicke isn’t a misogynist pig – it won’t convince me to buy his music or let my kids listen to it in my car), it sets up a pattern that is helping us to forget what actual discourse is. So maybe, instead of changing the conversation, I’m hoping to catalyze a conversation. A respectful, honest discussion of some incredibly complicated issues about which we all tend to have knee-jerk reactions and try to boil things down to two sides – ours and the other guys.

I am writing this as a parent who is incredibly grateful that the school my girls attend teaches media literacy aggressively and early. Beginning in the 5th grade, the teachers present the students with examples of how we are barraged every day with messages that may or may not represent us, but whose sole aim is to sell us something, even if couched in the guise of “entertainment.”

And so I was not terribly surprised to see the article in this morning’s New York Times regarding the MTV reality series “16 and Pregnant.” (Disclaimer: I have never watched, nor do I anticipate ever watching this show. I cannot speak to the relative merits or pitfalls of it, and I’m more interested in the larger theme of media influence, in any case.) The Nielsen company, responsible for television ratings among other things, released a report suggesting that this show and others like it may have “prevented 20,000 births to teenage mothers in 2010.” Don’t ask me how they did the study. I didn’t delve too deeply in to it, but I suspect some other folks will, given the voices that have been raised in opposition to shows like this since their beginning. The people in that camp believe that these shows glamorize teen motherhood by featuring the teens on television, thus rendering them celebrities, and may convince young girls to go out and get pregnant before they are ready to.  Again, I don’t have a dog in this fight, at least not with regards to this particular blog post.  What strikes me is that what both sides have in common is the assertion that television shows, among other media sources, have a strong impact on their audience, so much so that they can influence major life decisions.  With that, I will agree.

Last week on the way home from school, Eve reported that the 8th graders had begun a new unit in their health class involving body image.

“We’ve had two classes on it so far and, man, there’s no way we’re ever gonna get through even fifteen minutes without someone bursting into tears. I mean, even though we know that pictures are Photoshopped and nobody looks like a Barbie doll, some of the girls in my class have such low self-esteem because they think their bodies are all wrong that they can’t stop sobbing.”

I confess to being surprised.  This is a school that has encouraged families to watch the critically acclaimed Miss Representation with their children, a school that has the 7th grade students create their own posters using images from magazines to demonstrate their understanding of media messages and how harmful they can be, a school that embraces and holds up diversity as a source of power. And yet, there are girls who are still so divided in their loyalties to themselves versus someone else’s idea of what they ought to look like that they can’t make it through a class on body image without feeling awful.

Let us not underestimate the power of both the media and the perpetuation of those messages among our youth. Let us continue to talk to our children about what is truly important and worthy. Let us help them to think critically about what they see and hear and decipher which messages are there to lift them up and which ones are there to tear them down and open their wallets.  As Stephen Colbert once said:

“But if girls feel good about themselves, how can we sell them things they don’t need?”