17
Aug
2018
0

Off Assignment: Letter To A Stranger

TO THE DIGGER IN THE PANAMA CANAL EXPANSION

BY ROCHELLE NEWMAN-CARRASCO


I was in the crowd near the steps of the administration building the day the Panama Canal was handed back to the Panamanians. December 31, 1999. Just minutes before the countdown clock ticked off its final seconds, I watched protestors march toward the building, dragging an American soldier burning in effigy. From a distance, it was hard to decipher what they were yelling. A large hand-painted banner reading “Yanqui Go Home” pulled the garbled chanting into focus. Yankee go home. The phrase was repeated over and over, in spite of the fact that, by then, most Zonians—Americans who resided in the Canal Zone—had already packed up and left. My brother-in-law, who is Afro-Panamanian and a Canal engineer, had asked me to stay close, not to wander away as I was prone to do. Then he dropped his hat onto my head, hiding my red hair, minimizing my otherness.

With no warning, as if to cool things down, a tropical rainstorm cracked open the sky, unleashing buckets of water. The crowd soaked up the cool wetness, shouting in unison—Cinco, cuatro, tres, dos, uno. Tears and raindrops streamed down faces as people watched their country’s flag assume its rightful place atop the historic Administration building. Hundreds of balloons were released. With that, the divisive story of the US-run Canal Zone also came to an end. This American colony-of-sorts, which had occupied hundreds of miles of prime Panamanian territory since Teddy Roosevelt “took” it from Colombia in 1904, was American no more.

“The Canal wall rose behind you, fifty feet into the air. Standing against it, you were a miniature, a tiny giant, powerful enough to reshape the waterway connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific—the path between the seas.”

In the decades that followed, my relationship with the country evolved. Intellectual curiosity gave way to a deeper intimacy. America was reframed as América, pushing the boundaries of my limited perspective. There had been speculation that Panama would fail at running the canal once the US pulled out. National pride stood strong against low expectations. Not only did things continue to run smoothly, but in 2007, a major expansion was approved. Close to 6 billion dollars was allocated to accommodate a growing number of oversized ships no longer built to Panamax standards—specific dimensions required to move through the Canal. I had once taken a partial transit on a tugboat and watched in awe as this small vessel accompanied a large ship and helped position it for safe entry into the canal’s narrow locks. A few years later, the expansion underway, I was introduced to a senior canal official who granted me access to this massive construction project in progress.

That’s where I spotted you—inside of this Modern Wonder of the World. It didn’t seem like you were on a break. It seemed more like a moment of meditation. Dozens of workers were drilling, excavating, dragging cable, pouring concrete—they were building a city that would soon be submerged. You stood apart, alone, hardhat in hand. The Canal wall rose behind you, fifty feet into the air, if not more. Standing against it, you were a miniature, a tiny giant, powerful enough to reshape the waterway connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific—the path between the seas.

I was transfixed by your stance. In you, I saw a statue that deserved to be crafted. Neither in stone nor in clay, had anyone honored the original canal workers—the ones that looked like you, black workers known as Diggers. My husband’s grandfather was a Digger, originally from the West Indies, as many Diggers were. He was on the “silver roll”—which refers to how workers of color were paid. White canal workers were paid in gold. Were you the grandson of a Digger? Were you being paid fairly now?

The van I was in, filled with mucky mucks and VIP’s, traversed the dry canal basin. A monotone expanse of grey rock was broken up by pops of color: green cranes, bright yellow safety vests, fluorescent orange cones. The expansion project was already besieged by rumors of corruption, assertions that mistakes were being made—concrete wasn’t being poured correctly, danger lay ahead. Our guides, representatives of the Panama Canal Authority, assured us that wasn’t the case. By their accounts, things were on track. I asked if anyone had been killed yet, knowing the original Canal construction was linked to thousands of deaths, disproportionately black. “Six people,” I was told. “Impressive,” someone said before changing the subject.

A distant relative of the historic Canal figure, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla of France, was sitting next to me in the van. He was proud of this blood connection and found every opportunity to make sure we all knew it. 20,000 people died when the French tried but failed to build the Canal, but of course my seatmate never mentioned that. Nor did he share how Bunau-Varilla helped the US manipulate Panama’s split from Colombia to further their agenda. I thought about challenging his questionable narrative but decided to avoid conversation, pressing my face against the glass instead. I could still hear his stories. He shared them with anyone who would listen. A man seated just across the aisle seemed spellbound. Or, perhaps, he was just being polite and had nowhere to turn.

When the van rolled to a stop, there you were, a few feet away, framed within my window. Our eyes met. I wanted to get out, but it wasn’t allowed. I wanted to hear you tell the story of the work being done, of your history with the Canal, of your family ties. I also needed you to know that I was family of sorts. I wasn’t like the other van passengers, in spite of my whiteness, in spite of my North American, USA-ness. But I had to remind myself, those were my needs. They weren’t yours. You were expanding a canal, creating a passageway wide enough for millions of ships and stories to move through.

(Published in Off Assignment, 8/2/18)

30
Oct
2017
0

Humanity and Insights Still Priority: Facebook and Clorox CMOs Align at AIMM Meeting on Power of Cultural Relevance

(Originally published ANA Blog)

October 24, 2017

By Rochelle Newman-Carrasco

What does a 150-year-old CPG brand have in common with a 13-year-old social network that has almost 1.2 billion people active everyday? The CPG brand is Clorox, a company that “makes everyday life better, every day.” The social network is Facebook and their mission was recently revised to not only connect people but to “bring the world closer together.” Clorox is based in Oakland and, as a result, is part of one of America’s most diverse cities. In contrast, Facebook is part of the Silicon Valley area, notoriously lacking in diversity. At the latest Alliance for Inclusive & Multicultural Marketing (AIMM) membership meeting, both companies’ CMOs, Eric Reynolds of Clorox and Gary Briggs of Facebook, sat down to discuss their companies’ views and efforts on multicultural marketing and diversity in a panel moderated by Michael Lacorazza, EVP at Wells Fargo and co-chair of AIMM. The day-long AIMM meeting was held on the Facebook campus in Northern California.

AIMM members, a group of nearly 40 founding members comprised of brands, agencies, media companies, research firms, and trade associations, are in the process of developing a set of best practices that can aid marketers in more effectively connecting with today’s diverse consumer segments. The alliance is also committed to bringing multicultural to the C-Suite and vice versa. As part of that journey, the alliance spends time with CMOs like Reynolds and Briggs and taps into their perspectives on everything from metrics and measurement to internal alignment. Reynolds, as an example, reflected on the value of a multicultural Center of Excellence to organizations that are earlier in their development as culturally fluent organizations. He went on to say that while the COE structure is no longer employed by Clorox, it is likely they wouldn’t be where they are today without having had a separate multicultural group.

“That expertise has to be incubated before it is integrated,” Reynolds added, explaining that cultural expertise has been embedded into the brands themselves. Success stories bear out the wisdom of the approach. “80 percent of Kingsford Charcoal’s growth comes from Hispanics,” Reynolds shared. “Even Burt’s Bees is demonstrating strong appeal to Black and Latino segments.”

Briggs acknowledged that Facebook has not been as focused on a structure that fosters multicultural expertise but they have been working on diversifying their organization and ensuring that Facebookers feel that they are in community and not a group of one. “We have been vocal about our commitment to the rights of immigrants, women, and the LGBTQ community. We are globalists and optimists,” Briggs said, acknowledging that politics is not something Facebook can avoid. Reynolds also addressed the ways in which Clorox navigates the line between commerce and social responsibility by keeping conversations going internally and staying aligned with core values.

The two CMOs were also aligned on the importance of speed and agility when it comes to generating creative work and quick wins that could “walk the halls.” In the area of hiring, speed was viewed as more of an obstacle than an asset. The desire to fill openings often leads to more homogeneous talent pools but both CMOs agreed that homogeneity is ultimately in conflict with a drive for innovation. Citing the NFL diversity hiring practice known as the Rooney Rule as inspiration, Briggs made it clear that diverse slates are a requirement and any deviation from this mandate requires his sign off. Reynolds underscored how important retention is to his organization and how much of Clorox’s focus is placed on making sure the company culture is inclusive and inspiring.

Personalization was a shared area of interest for the CMOs, both recognizing the consumer ability to control more in terms of how they tune in or tune out advertising messages than they ever have before. According to Briggs, “Everything gets better when a brand becomes more human.” Reynolds underscored how important it is to their brands that they don’t rely exclusively on big data and on squeezing out information on such an individualistic basis that they lose sight of the humanity needed to really connect in emotionally compelling ways. “If we lose our people mission we’re in trouble,” Reynolds stated.

As the AIMM meeting unfolded throughout the day, many of the themes from the morning CMO panel reappeared as part of committee initiatives. As an example, the Total Market Committee had begun to explore structures that lead to better multicultural marketing outcomes. Early indications from a directional study point to Centers of Excellence as a structure that correlates with growth. Additionally, the Talent and Education Committee announced a partnership with the AEF, via the creation of the MADE (Marketing and Advertising Education) Internship program that would help to bring diverse candidates into the advertising and marketing arena as part of their education, exposing them to real-world scenarios in ways that academic institutions have not been able to emulate.

30
Oct
2017
0

Like A Local: 7 Unique La Brea Avenue Shopping Experiences

(originally printed in Travelmag.com)

Located in the heart of Los Angeles, La Brea is home to a carefully-curated design district featuring retail trendsetters in streetwear, home design, and men’s and women’s fashion. The perfect mix of iconic and innovative finds awaits along La Brea Avenue, from Pink’s Hot Dogs to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, La Brea Bakery popovers to the hottest pop-up stores.

DistrictLaBrea(photo-rcarrasco)

Spanish for “the tar” and known for its fossil-filled tar pits, La Brea also has flagship and one-of-a-kind stores bubbling up everywhere, particularly between Melrose and Wilshire Boulevards. One could easily spend a day exploring La Brea Avenue’s impressive offerings. Below is our guide to the unique shopping experiences you don’t want to miss.

Aether  

Aether (Photo: Paul + Williams)

Pronounced “ether,” and meaning upper-air, this urban athleisure mecca for weekend warriors features men’s and women’s fashion. A walk-in freezer chilled to nine degrees sits in the middle of the 4,000-square-foot store. Where else can a shopper in Southern California test out a coat for colder climates? The 45 modular wooden crates used for rearranging displays give this industrial space the ability to shape-shift and provide fresh shopping experiences for fans of this modern line.

161 S. La Brea Ave.

Shop Super Street

“High-low” is how founder Lucy Akin describes the Shop Super Street aesthetic. It’s not only a great way to describe the eclectic brand assortment, but it also speaks to the store’s cultured-meets-casual atmosphere and attitude. Female-skewed streetwear and skateboard selections are rare, and Shop Super Street stepped up to fill that void. Palace skateboards are displayed on the walls, and streetwear designers (like Huf) hang alongside luxury labels (like Moschino) and newer LA designers (like socially-conscious Bliss and Mischief). Fashionistas have made Shop Super Street their go-to designer destination, either shopping in person or tapping into their convenient, same-day delivery service.

458 S. La Brea Ave.

American Rag Cie

American Rag Cie (Photo: Rochelle Newman)

A master of reinvention, American Rag Cie has been on the cutting edge of fashion and pop culture since it first landed on La Brea in the mid-‘80s. Almost half of American Rag’s 12,000 square feet is dedicated to denim. Shoppers will find an exhaustive selection of jean brands, including RRL, Baldwin, Unbranded and countless others. The shop also carries an assortment of hip designer clothes, shoes and accessories, along with an eclectic collection of DVD’s and gift items. Their fantastic collection of vintage clothing is among L.A.’s best. After spending hours immersed in an unrivalled international fashion experience, shoppers can stroll into the adjoining Maison et Café, American Rag’s French inspired housewares arm. Café Midi, their small café, has sidewalk seating, making it a great place to lunch and people watch.

150 S. La Brea Ave.

Sake

More than a store, Sake is an inspired, posthumously-created, collection of streetwear honoring the visionary design work of Jack Phoenix, a.k.a SAKE. A hit and run victim, SAKE was only fifteen when his life was cut short. Still, his body of work was extensive and had already captured the imagination of young skateboarders and urban influentials. The work of local artists and designer friends is also on display on hats, T-shirts, sneakers and other merchandise. This exceptional space includes an area for intimate live performances and has recently featured several up-and-coming hip-hop artists.

114 S. La Brea Ave.

Undefeated

Opened in 2001, this local, pioneering streetwear label has gone global, attracting trend shoppers and influencers from around the world with their sense of LA attitude. Still synonymous with limited release and hard-to-find sneakers, Undefeated now occupies a larger space just across the street from its original La Brea home. Apparel and accessories share the newer space with an extensive footwear selection for men, women and kids. The original La Brea space is often converted into a pop-up store in partnership with brands like Nike. Don’t be surprised if you spot folding chairs set up outside and “sneakerheads” camping out overnight to be first in line for an exclusive shoe release. Perched above the original store is the Undefeated Billboard Project, where chosen local artists are invited to display their work on a highly visible billboard.

111 S. La Brea Ave.

Golyester

Golyester (Photo: Rochelle Newman)

This vintage wonderland proves the saying that everything old is new again. Open since 1976, Golyester is the go-to place for studio shoppers in need of pre-‘70s fashions for projects like Feud, starring Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis. Browse the museum quality textiles, shoes, jewelry and artifacts to find a few must-have pieces for your own wardrobe. Prices reflect the outstanding condition of this rare vintage selection, but sale items also abound. The knowledgeable staff, who has been known to negotiate, enjoys sharing its passion for the past with customers.

450 S. La Brea Ave.

Gravity X Catalyst

Gravity X Catalyst (Photo: Rochelle Newman)

Hidden across from Mood Fabric (of Project Runway fame), Gravity & Catalyst combines two chic brands in one minimalist boutique setting. In addition to their own jewelry and apparel, they bring in handpicked, locally-made goods, such as Flores Lane candles and Ashkahn greeting cards. These rare finds here are only the tip of the iceberg. A deeper look into the shop reveals a secret menu for bicycle services, custom engagement and wedding rings, and a company with character: Catalyst aims to be socially conscious and partners with nonprofit organizations, including Justice Speaks, which works to end human trafficking.

620 1/2 S. La Brea Ave.

24
Jul
2017
0

Panama City Like A Local: Casco Viejo (published in TravelMag.com)

Panama City Like A Local: Casco Viejo

by Rochelle Newman  |  Published July 23, 2017

A few miles from the Panama Canal–one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World–awaits the UNESCO World Heritage site of Casco Viejo. Along with being a wonderful place to soak in history, the oceanfront old town is gaining a reputation as the “SoHo of Latin America” for its variety of cultural, shopping, dining and nightlife venues.

Surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean, Casco’s seawall was built in the 1670s to protect the city from pirates. The old town area, also referred to as Casco Antiguo and San Felipe, has sweeping views of Panama City’s modern skyline, including a glimpse of Frank Gehry’s multicolored museum of biodiversity.

Once abandoned, the area, which is home to the Presidential Palace, is still a work-in-progress. The contrasts are part of its charm. With its cobblestone streets and narrow sidewalks, Casco’s 28 or so blocks are very walkable (which is not often the case in Panama City). Parking is limited and Panamanians have their own rules on the road, so leave the driving to Uber or taxis.

Even with Panama’s heat, Casco Viejo is a refreshing experience day or night. Here are a few fun stops and hot spots.

Restaurants and Cafes

Comida tipica (Panamanian home cooking) is best understood by wandering into a neighborhood fonda (smaller, cheaper diners) to check out what the locals are having. Chances are you’ll spot rice and plantains. Be on the lookout for bowls of sancocho– the soupy stew is a national dish made with seasoned broth, chicken meat and root vegetables. Most fondas are on the outskirts of Casco Viejo, but a few, like Fonda Leon (Avenida A between Calle 4 and 5 oeste) and Fonda Pritty Pritty (Avenida Central and Calle 3) are within the old town area. Pritty Pritty is especially popular with police, as a local precinct sits directly across the street.

Insider Tip: For foodies, rumor has it that a new fonda Lo Que Hay, meaning “whatever’s around” (Calle 5ta and Avenida A), is opening on Sundays only. This pop up fonda is the comfort food alternative from Panama’s hot new chef José Carles, whose sixteen-seat award-winning restaurant Donde Jose (1100 Ave. Central) serves a ten-course Panama-centric tasting menu and requires reservations many months in advance.

Panamanians have transformed the working seafood market El Mercado de Mariscos (Avenida Balboa & Calle Eloy Alfaro) into a gathering spot for lovers of ceviche, corvina and cerveza. Located at the foot of Casco Viejo and along the Cinta Costera (a coastal beltway), El Mercado boasts plenty of food booths blaring salsa music and serving fried and grilled fish along with some of Panama’s favorite side dishes, like patacones (fried plantain patties) and arroz con gandules (pigeon peas).

Inside a Casco Viejo ruin, another fish market experience awaits after dark. The Fish Market (Avenida B between Calle 8 and 9 Este) began as a food truck. Their new digs incorporate a bar, picnic tables and twinkling lights. The blackboard menu features seasonal and fresh seafood choices, which change frequently. The popular fish tacos, however, are always in demand. Note: Cash only.

For a fun taco experience with a tropical twist, head to Tacos La Neta (Calle 3era and Central) for “Los Tacos Tropicales de Panamá.” Chorizo queso, cochinita pibil (slow roasted pork) and carnitas are go-to choices for meat lovers. Fish and vegetarian options are also available, and the appealing prices make it easy to mix and match. The homemade hot sauces are innovative too, especially the Mole Unido, with coffee as a key ingredient. Wash it all down with aguas frescas or creative cocktails, like a Pineapple Sour or a Chica Mágica, a blend of flor de Jamaica and smoky mescal. Sweet tooth? Finish up with tres leches cake or a flan de caramelo or mole.

The American Trade Hotel (Avenida Central and Calle 8) is a symbol of Casco Viejo’s resurgence. Locals are drawn to this former gang denizen for many reasons, not the least of which is cultural pride. This five-story colonial style structure was the city’s first skyscraper, designed by a Panamanian architect in 1917. Today, in partnership with the Ace Hotel brand, it acts as a social hub, housing The Dining Room, one of Casco’s finest restaurants, as well as a vibrant lobby bar. Café Unidos, a craft coffee roaster, cafe and bakery, is attached to the hotel space, as is Danilo’s, a globally respected Jazz Club with a local commitment to developing young Panamanian talent.

Bars and Nightlife

Famous for its view and its vibe, the rooftop-bar at Tantalo (Calle 8 Este and Avenida B) comes alive at sunset and goes late into the night. It’s no wonder Panama’s most fashionable young party-goers flock to this venue. Their stated goal? To stimulate the senses. The restaurant’s food is noteworthy, as is its four-story live plant wall that thrives on reclaimed water. Tantalo’s mixologists capture the essence of Panama in every cocktail, using ingredients like yerbabuena, muddled watermelon and passionfruit pulp.

It would be easy to walk past Siroco (Calle 7 Este and Avenida B), with its random barber chair and small bar just past the entrance. Further inside, the whole picture changes. Two-stories of exposed brick surround an open-air dining space where chefs, on view in an open kitchen, transform octopus, lamb and lobster into foodie favorites. An air-conditioned room is also a first-floor dining option. Upstairs, a terrace lounge is perfect for stargazing, and a spacious indoor bar area is set up for dancing and entertainment.

Raspadura, a type of unrefined sugar made from freshly concentrated cane juice, is what makes the rum at the Pedro Mandinga bar (Avenida A, between Plaza Herrera and Calle 8.) so special. The first artisanal rum distillery in Panama is named for an oft forgotten historical figure who escaped from slavery. Authenticity abounds. Tip: The late afternoon Happy Hour is an exceptional value. If beer is your thing, the same team is behind La Rana Dorada (Avenida Elroy Alfaro and Calle 11 Este), an excellent microbrewery at the entrance to Casco Viejo. Try a beer boat sampler for a taste of several local brews.

Sweets and Snacks

To cool off, try an authentic hand-shaved snow cone, known as a raspao, from one of the many street vendors. Or visit Rass Panama (Calle Ocho Este, Casa Morales) for a twist on this frozen favorite. The front grill of a Diablo Rojo, the brightly painted buses of Panama’s past, is selfie-bait and is used as the display case.  The fun raspao flavor names dip into Panama’s diverse cultural mix, including the tamarind and ginger-flavored Bad Buay, a nod to West Indian Patois.

The popsicles at Palettamerica (Calle 8 and Avenida B) are dripping with delicious creativity. Try the Panameña, a banana gelato pop with a Nutella center. Tropical fruit flavors like Maracuyá are frozen with a leche condensada (condensed milk) inside.

Artisanal chocolate shop and café Oro Moreno (Calle 6 and Avenida A) is making history in a historic location, the home of a former President. Founder Yoshiris Peña is pioneering the tree-to-bar process in Panama. Locally produced chocolate is teamed up with unexpected fillings like culantro and ají chombo, an herb and a pepper respectively.

Third Wave Coffee

Panama produces some of the finest coffee in the world. Until recently, however, it was exported globally with little attention to local consumption. Now, Casco Viejo is the epicentre of Panama’s third wave coffee cafes, like the aforementioned Café Unido at The American Trade Hotel.

Start your day at Casa Sucre Coffeehouse (Calle 8a Este and Avenida B), or enjoy breakfast all day at this renovated convent from the 1800s. Coffees include Panama’s finest and pair well with pastries or delightful tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Pick up some hard-to-find coffees to take back as gifts.

 

The smell of roasting coffee fills the air at the Bajareque Coffeehouse (Avenida Central and Calle 1), where their award-winning beans are roasted on site. Among them are Geisha beans, one of the world’s most expensive. The coffeehouse is owned by a family whose own fincas, or farms, are located in Boquete, Panama, a mountain town known for clean air and outstanding coffee.

Shopping

Young designers are emerging in Panama, and LUPA (Avenida A and Calle 5) is the place to find locally made clothing and artwork. An eclectic selection of books, posters and fun pop culture items are on display along with an on-trend, international selection of fashions, sunglasses and accessories.

Molas, the iconic Panamanian handicraft sewn and worn by members of the Guna (aka Kuna) Indian tribe, are a must-have for visitors and locals alike. On Paseo Las Bóvedas, along Casco’s sea wall, Guna women display their work. (Tip: negotiating is expected). Now, in concert with indigenous designers, Franklin Panamá (Avenida B and Calle 7a Este) has taken mola patterns and applied them to scarves, ties, shoes and other luxury items. A portion of sales supports cultural preservation and education in the Guna Yala community.

Weil Gallery (Avenida A and Calle 3) is the go-to spot for work by local artists, canal zone collectibles and other one-of-a-kind finds. Panama’s diverse indigenous communities are represented with work from Wounaan, Embera and Guna tribes. This avant-garde gallery is known for its attention to research and authenticity; visitors can count on the knowledgeable sales staff for insight into the work on display.

Note:  Travelers unfamiliar with the area are encouraged to avoid the outskirts and stick to Casco’s well-policed streets. Ex-gang members with deep community roots are available through Fortaleza Tours to provide an insider perspective on Casco’s post-Noriega transformation.

26
Sep
2016
0

The Bride Wore Sweats

(Originally published in Purpleclover.com)

We had been living in a state of undefined togetherness for about a quarter-century when we decided there should be something on paper to connect us in an official way

In June of 2015, on the day the Supreme Court recognized marriage equality, I was visiting my stepdaughter in Woodstock, New York. Technically, she wasn’t my stepdaughter because, after almost 30 years together, her father and I were not married.

Why is it that the English language can keep up with every technological advancement to come our way, adding new vocabulary by the minute—”Googling,” “texting,” “sexting,” “blogging,” “vlogging”—and yet be so resistant to a dictionary update when it comes to long-term relationships? I have searched for something more dignified than the word “boyfriend,” particularly since my “boyfriend” is a card-holding member of AARP. The options are few.

“Lover,” “significant other,” “longtime companion”: All better suited for someone who is gay or geriatric. Then there is “POSLQ,” a census acronym that is fun to say, reminds me of a possum and translates into Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters. The term “spousal equivalent” had potential until I realized that it reminded me of a sugar substitute. Carlos is my spousal equivalent. All the great taste of a husband and only half the commitment.

In 2007, Carlos and I had been living in a state of undefined togetherness for about a quarter of a century when we decided there should be something on paper to connect us in an official way. We were growing old. Together. Carlos creeping toward his sixties, with me twelve years behind. We started doing what older people do. We talked about aches and pains, ailments and losses—loss of hair, loss of teeth, loss of hearing, loss of people, loss of parents. Some prematurely. We thought about security, social and otherwise. We thought about getting married.

For him, the word triggered failed marriage memories. For me, it never meant much at all. There had to be something else. Contrary to popular belief, we were not common-law. California abolished common-law marriages well over one hundred years ago. My research finally led to another clunky couple of words that seemed well suited to the needs of commitment-phobic couples in search of marriage-light: “domestic partnership.”

One morning, the two of us rolled out of bed and decided it was time to go to our local city hall and check this domestic partnership thing out. The process seemed to be something akin to getting a parking permit or a dog license: a few forms, a $25 check, a small investment of time. I barely brushed my hair. Carlos wore some stained gray sweats. Mine were blue, with holes.

We entered West Hollywood City Hall. Two women behind the counter were in the midst of conversation. We waited a few minutes for a “may I help you” or some such customer service-oriented cue but, since none came, I spoke up: “Excuse me.”

The conversation stopped but neither of the women came any closer to the window. One looked at her watch as if we were already taking up too much of their time.

“We’re here to become domestic partners.”

Almost immediately, the woman’s “I can’t be bothered” posture straightened up and her dull go-away face brightened.

“Oh, domestic partners,” the younger woman said in a sing-song manner that didn’t seem quite right for parking permits or dog licenses.

“Oh, that’s wonderful, here you are,” said the older woman. She clapped her hands together before pulling out some paperwork for us to read, date and sign.

Sensing that the grinning clerks were overly invested in our every move, we quickly wrote our check and signed on the dotted line.

“Now if you’ll please stand over there by the reception desk in the main lobby,” the younger clerk instructed, her voice oozing with anticipation.

“We’ll bring out your certificate in just a few minutes,” said the other.

City hall seemed to grow quieter the longer we stood. Carlos and I shared an occasional glance, an uncomfortable smile, but nothing was said. I thought about the two of us together. How we met. How I followed him home. The friction. The fights. The lust. The love. The life we were living together. I thought about the one question that everyone always asked: Why don’t you just get married?

And my standard answer: We’re waiting to see if we’re really right for each other.

The response elicits laughter. It seems like a joke but may be closer to the truth than he or I care to admit.

Just as I started to feel impatient, I saw the ladies heading toward us, certificate in hand. Hand-lettered calligraphy. The closer they came, the clearer the certificate got, until an official hand-off was underway. The certificate left their hands and entered ours. That’s when the screaming began. Startling shouting came from the direction of the reception desk greeter. Shouts also came from above, where a second story opened onto the reception area. West Hollywood City Hall workers filled the area around us and above us. High- and low-pitched voices without harmony, but with unity, all shouting the same word over and over: “Congratulations! Congratulations!”

Carlos and I were both startled. Confetti was being thrown from the balcony, little flecks of shiny silver, gold, blue and red. It floated down around us, landing in my hair and catching on my clothes. Then it suddenly hit me. It’s a wedding. Our wedding. In the city of West Hollywood, at a time when gay marriage wasn’t even on the horizon, domestic partnership was as close as a gay couple could get. I had failed to understand any of this, until a blizzard of confetti surrounded us like we were in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. I was humbled as I recognized what I took for granted. We were an opposite-sex couple; a couple that could marry or not marry as we saw fit.

Almost a decade later, there has been progress on the marriage equality front. Perhaps a new vocabulary for spousal equivalents isn’t far behind. In the meantime, I’m still stuck with the word “boyfriend,” but after thirty-three years it grows on you. Like a comfortable pair of wedding sweats.

13
Sep
2016
0

Tenements & Air Rights: A Cautionary Tale

 As published in Lilith.org: http://lilith.org/blog/2016/09/tenements-and-air-rights-a-cautionary-tale

Veronica ML

In Welsh, it’s called Hiraeth. There is no English equivalent. It’s a nostalgia one feels, a homesickness for a place that doesn’t exist anymore. For me, it’s how I feel when I visit my old neighborhood, New York’s Lower East Side. I haven’t lived in Manhattan for over 20 years, but I have been back and forth enough to adjust to and even appreciate changes. On the West Side, The High Line is change at its best. I’m even excited about the recently approved Lowline, an underground park-like experience that repurposes an abandoned trolley terminal at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. My anxiety over what feels like an Etch-a-Sketch erasure of an historic community wasn’t triggered by things happening below the pavement. My sense of loss really kicked in when I read that Katz’s Delicatessen had sold its air rights.

The phrase air rights struck a nerve. It was a term I had heard before, but this time it seemed personal. I turned to Google—all the while thinking, Yes dad. I know you would have had the answers for me, but you’re not here anymore. None of my relatives are. Not on the Lower East Side. Not physically. But if you can sell air rights, who’s to say people don’t linger in that air long after they’re gone?

I searched for New York City Air Rights. Once known as Transferable Development Rights, or TDRs, they originated with the 1961 revamping of the city’s zoning laws. In essence, if a building adjacent to a construction site is lower than neighborhood zoning laws allow, the developer can acquire the building’s unused air space, add it to his or her project, and erect a taller building. It’s a legal concept captured in the Latin phrase Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos–Whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to Heaven and down to Hell. While there are those who believe this maxim dates back to Roman Law, many trace it to Franciscus Accurcius, the Italian legal scholar, whose son was invited to England and made it part of British law. That said, there is evidence pointing to a Jewish connection; some say the idea is expressed in the Babylonian Talmud, and can be traced back as far as Rabbi Akiba, whose death is believed to have occurred in 132 A.D.

Once purchased, air rights can be used to build directly over a shorter structure or to add height to a separate construction project, one that is only marginally related to the original shorter structure from which rights were procured. As buildings soar higher, the shadows they cast on the streets below get longer, airflows are restricted and light is blocked. It is not the first time the city has wrestled with this reality and it likely won’t be the last.

As far back as 1916, New York zoning codes were written to, in part, address concerns raised over the seven-acre shadow cast by the Equitable Building. Built in Lower Manhattan in 1915, the Equitable Building was once the largest office building in the world, occupying a full city block at 120 Broadway, between Pine and Cedar Streets. The new zoning laws imposed setbacks from the curb as a way of ensuring that sun always reached the street. As a result, wedding-cake style architecture emerged, giving both the Empire State and the Chrysler Buildings their distinct look and adding to the iconic New York City skyline.

Tenement history also holds cautionary tales about restricting light and air. My grandmother used to tell me about the tenement she grew up in. She shared stories about tenements where people died in fires, from disease, or from rolling off a roof or a fire escape in their sleep. Not only did the organizers behind the Tenement Housing Law of 1901 assert that human beings had a “God-given right to light and air, but they made the following demands—demands that seem relevant to this day:

Not only should the height of new houses be regulated according to the width of the streets, but the erection of additional stories to houses already standing on narrow streets should be forbidden. In a city like New York, where the price of building lots is ever on the increase, the natural tendency is to make the houses higher and higher, until in many of them the amount of daylight which reaches the rooms on the ground floor is so small that only the upper stories are fit to live in, the rooms in the lower stories being too dark and damp for anything but an abode for rats.  Sufficient air space should be left behind the houses to allow thorough ventilation, nor should the corner lot be permitted to cover the entire lot; and streets should be open from end to end, so that all houses have free ventilation both back and front.

The Welsh have a word for it. That sense of loss. Maybe Yiddish does too, but I wouldn’t know. In our house Yiddish was the secret language, something the adults spoke when they didn’t want us to understand their conversation. A language not taught, not passed on–in the name of progress, one might say. To some air rights may look like progress. To me, they look like a step back in time, when only the affluent could be sure they lived above it all, never needing to look down at the shadows and the stifling streets below. With its tenement-tall structures, the Lower East Side, once the most densely populated area in the world, has maintained an expansive feeling, more village or hamlet than a cramped urban jungle. Little by little, my old turf, sandwiched between the East River and the Bowery on one side and Houston and Canal on the other, seems more like Katz’ iconic pastrami sandwich–piled high and swallowed up.

 

2
Sep
2016
0

Why the Ad Industry’s Diversity Model Needs a New Brief: The Phrase ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ is Doing Our Industry More Harm Than Good

Originally Published In Advertising Age

When Kevin Roberts dismissed gender equality, referring to it as a “non-issue,” I was reminded of Ad Age editor Ken Wheaton’s recent column on the positive role women might play in what is often referred to as the “diversity problem.”

Credit: iStock

Mr. Wheaton is relying on change coming from those women with “hiring power,” which, in effect, means white women. I appreciate his optimism and his faith in my gender but, in my experience, which spans three decades in multicultural marketing, I have found white female ad execs just as likely as their male counterparts to shy away from serious conversations about systemic racism in our industry.

Kevin Roberts was inadvertently right about one thing. We need to stop talking about gender and racial diversity as a problem. Our industry’s impotence when it comes to dealing with structural racism and gender bias isn’t a “problem,” because if it were, it would be fixed. That’s what we do in advertising. We design strategies to solve problems.

What we have here, however, are systemic flaws, deep-seated embarrassments and uncomfortable truths — the kind that don’t get fixed because they don’t get faced. Let’s be honest, we are an industry of non-racists at best (and we are not always at our best), but our track record as anti-racists leaves much to be desired. Marlon James, winner of the 2015 Man Booker prize for literature, underscores the distinction in this video.

Black America doesn’t need advertising as much as advertising needs Black America. The same holds true for Latinos, Asians, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and the list goes on. Hiring is only the tip of the iceberg. Recruiting and retention depend upon an informed, measurable commitment to:

  • cultural recognition
  • relevance
  • respect.

Outdated HR practices and entrenched corporate cultures only serve to inhibit productive dialogue about:

  • conscious and unconscious bias
  • microagressions
  • gender and cultural identity
  • the role of allies and advocates.

The more I hear the phrase “diversity and inclusion,” the more I believe that the pairing of these words is doing our industry more harm than good. The words have become rather meaningless, even dangerous. They lull us into a false sense of security, providing a feel-good mantra that checks all the right boxes but does none of the heavy lifting.

Somewhere along the line, the word “diversity” became more about otherness and less about inventiveness. In some contexts, diversity and inclusion equate to adversity and confusion. Communities of “others” get aggregated or bucketed under the diversity umbrella while the existing power structure remains intact. From the point of view of the dominant-culture observer, diverse communities seem to share something in common — the “adverse” effects that come with not being straight white non-disabled males or, by extension, white females.

Mr. Roberts’ assessment of the state of gender equality doesn’t account for the fact that race and gender do intersect. His certitude that advertising women have arrived is a response to employment trends in which white females are making inroads more quickly than women of color. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. In the eyes of decision makers, be it conscious or unconscious, white women are familiar — giving them one less perceived “adversity” hurdle to clear. It has been said that familiarity breeds contempt, but, in advertising and corporate America at large, familiarity inspires comfort, confidence and camaraderie. Not creativity.

As for inclusion — what could possibly be wrong with something that sounds so, well, inclusive? It rules out exclusion and promotes acceptance, right? Yes, but it’s inclusion into pre-existing structures with pre-existing rules written by — well, you know — dominant culture decision makers. Without disruption there can be no real inclusion. Change, by definition, requires creating a new system. To quote French-Cuban journalist Paul Lefargue, “inclusion with strings attached is exclusion by another name.”

Let’s not kid ourselves, there will be more Kevin Roberts types — the kind that say the wrong things and step down. Or worse — the kind who think the wrong things, say nothing, and get to stay in their jobs. Either way, there will be a lot of talk and little will get resolved until we reframe the whole (to quote Mr. Roberts) “f-ing debate.” Looking for new words to replace diversity and inclusion is pointless if we are not actively imagineering new ways of looking at our workplace and our world. “Diversity and inclusion” gets reduced to a quantity and quality conversation when what it’s really about is disruption and innovation. We must get comfortable with cultural conflict and collisions as we navigate our intersected lives. Diversity isn’t our industry’s greatest problem. It’s our most visible symptom.

21
Jul
2016
0

Take Your Tears Back Now

(As published in Lilith Magazine July 2016)

When she was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer, my mother was 50. The cancer was advanced. Stage IV. The doctors gave her two years.

“You can’t tell me how long I have to live,” she told them. “I’ll decide.”

And so she did. For 14 years, she went in and out of remission. She had multiple surgeries. Non-essential body parts were removed. She became a grandmother, twice. She took acting classes, joined support groups, wrote poetry, discovered facials. She did cancer well. She went from overweight housewife with low self-esteem to role model. She gave hope to other women. With every passing year, her confidence grew.

But when her eyes turned yellow, she knew it was time to stop fighting. The cancer was back, and it had reached her liver. This time the doctors gave her three months. She would prove them wrong again.

My mother went home after her doctor visit. We spent time together that evening, and I asked her if there was anything she wanted to do, before…. We would make up for lost time, I thought. We had three months.

“How about we go to see Jackie Mason together?” she proposed. “I always liked Jackie Mason.”

“I’ll get tickets,” I promised.

The next afternoon, my father called me at work.

“Your mother won’t wake up,” he said. Then there was a long silence.

“But we had three months,” I said.

My father didn’t answer. He had already hung up.

I didn’t buy the tickets, I thought. I was always cancelling on my mother, but this time she cancelled on me.

My mother stayed in bed for the next three days. Alive, but not awake. The first day, I sat on the edge of her bed and waited. I wanted to be there when she woke up. Her breathing hissed like air escaping from a tire. Every breath was followed by a weak cough. Her eyelids flickered.

“Mom, it’s me, Shelly,” I whispered.

She looked in my direction.

“I had a daughter named Shelly once,” she said. Her voice trailed off and she disappeared again.

What did she mean? I wanted to believe she was confused. Was I already a distant memory? A nostalgic footnote as her life drained away? Over the years, I’d done so little to be part of her life. I was always working. I never stopped to spend time with her when that’s all she’d wanted. A lunch. Facials. A mother-daughter weekend together. I made promises I never kept.

Two days later, as if by choice, she cut three months of suffering short. She was sitting in a chair, her hair combed, a pillow tucked behind her head.

“She asked me to take her out of the bed,” the home hospice worker told us. “She wanted to sit.”

All of the histrionics, the dramas, low self-esteem, self-doubt, the woulda-coulda-shouldas, fears, self-sabotage, the need for control — all of the wasted energy that stood in the way of her happiness — and it was all over in seconds. On an exhale.

Even before my mother died, I was a crier. It didn’t take much. A frustrating encounter at the airport. An argument with my husband. An order gone wrong in a restaurant. Crying came easy, always triggered by an unwelcome incident.

After my mother’s death, the tears were out of control. One minute I was fine and the next minute I was fighting for breath, sobbing and heaving, eyes swelling, nose running. In the middle of meetings, my eyes would start to sting. I blamed allergies and pollen as I escaped to the bathroom, or would act as if I’d dropped something, lowering my head to search for a mystery object under the table.

“Go to a spa,” friends suggested.

“Get a massage.”

“A massage would do you wonders.”

Spa, spa, spa. Massage, massage, massage. That’s all I heard from everyone who knew me, and even from those who didn’t. As much as I didn’t like people digging into my body and moving around my stress, I couldn’t help but give the spa idea some thought. My friend Nellie recommended a place in Arizona.

Not only would I get a massage, but by the time I got off the phone with the resort sales rep, I had signed up for their week-long Life Enhancement program. The $3,250 price tag added to my stress. I hung up the phone and cried.

Then, out of the blue, a few days later, a check for $3,333.33 arrived from my grandmother. My mother’s mother was tight with money. She even charged interest on loans to her own children. She’d recently been advised by her accountant to start “gifting” each of her children $10,000 a year in order to avoid or defray taxes. My two brothers and I were each given one-third of what would have gone to my mother. The idea that the unexpected check was in a sense a gift from my mother made it easier for me to feel good about getting my life enhanced. Thanks to my mother, I was making an investment in myself. If she taught me one thing, it was not to wait for a death sentence to work on a life worth living.

A few weeks later, I landed at the Tucson airport. I spotted my name on one of the cards being held up by an attentive row of drivers, each waiting for his respective guests. My driver stood out. Better looks, better health, better posture. I started to cry.

“I’ll take that,” he said, reaching for my luggage and never mentioning the tears.

Looking out the window of the limo was like looking at the postcards my parents had brought home from their one-and-only trip to the Southwest. All pink and gray and pale yellow and green. Cacti and cliffs and adobe houses. It was a summer evening, and the desert heat had switched places with the desert breeze.

We turned onto a gravel road and drove past a gatehouse. The sun was setting, as if on cue. An interracial couple was finishing their check-in. I watched them from behind. Half of an interracial couple myself, I felt comforted by a sense of alignment. People like me stay here, I thought, trying not to stare when the man turned around. He was the film critic and TV personality Roger Ebert. I started to cry. My I-belong-here confidence gave way to no-I-don’t insecurity.

In the first session, all of the Life Enhancement participants disclosed why they were there. Turned out I was spending the week with a group of highly paid individuals, all of whom were highly flawed. Myself included. People struggled with everything from over-eating to over-drinking to over-working and lots and lots of low self-esteem. Each day we followed a schedule of highly structured exercises and activities. I sat through lectures on moderation and work/life balance, struggled to hold a downward dog pose in a yoga class and tried to sit cross-legged on a pillow and “be here now.” I began to think about my mother. She was an over-eater and an under-achiever. My mother would have gotten a lot out of a program like this. Shame she would never get the chance.

As I walked along the cactus-trimmed paths around the property, I saw an unusual number of young women in the company of older women. They looked like mothers and daughters. By the end of the day, I found out why.

“Are you here with your mother?” one of the guests asked me over my gourmet yet guilt-free dinner that night.

“No. No, I’m not,” I responded, debating whether to mention that my mother was dead. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, so many of us are,” she said. “It’s Mother-Daughter Weekend, after all.”

The next day, on a whim, I decided to see a hypnotherapist. The Life Enhancement program included a menu of wellness options and hypnotherapy was one of them. Maybe it could help me control my crying.

“Just relax and tell me about yourself,” the hypnotherapist said at our get-acquainted session. “When did all this crying start?”

My mother loomed large as I described a childhood that was undeniably dysfunctional, but not in any obvious ways. There was no alcoholic parent or child or spousal abuse. No drugs or gambling. No divorce, although I always wished there would have been. Just a detached father and a depressed mother and three kids treated like adults well before a child should be.

“My mother couldn’t handle us. She was in over her head,” I offered. “She may have been agoraphobic, but I’m not really sure.”

I wasn’t hypnotized, but I shared as much as I could remember. What I did know was that my mother had a hard time leaving the house. At times, she would spend whole days in her nightgown, eating and crying until well into the night.

As the session ended, I had an eerie feeling that my mother was somewhere in the room.

The next day I returned for a follow-up session. I would be hypnotized for the first time. The details of how I got into the trance are slightly unclear. I recall staring at some sort of focal point, a stone or a chain. There was an object of some sort. Then there was the backwards countdown from one hundred to I’m not sure what. I do remember feeling heavy, and in spite of being aware of my surroundings, it was easy to just go with the flow.

The hypnotherapist guided me down a staircase and to a door that opened into a room.

“There’s a bookcase by the door. On the top shelf there is a big book. Can you reach it?”

I reach for a big black leather-bound book and pull it off the shelf.

“Your mother wants you to give the book to her,” she continued. “She wants you to know that she’s OK and that she’s ready to take back all the pain and sadness and tears that you were holding onto for her from the time you were a little girl. You absorbed all of that for her, because you didn’t think she could handle it alone. Back then, she couldn’t. But now, she can. So she wants you to pass her the book and by doing so, she wants to take all the tears and sadness back. She knows what to do with it now.”

My face burned and itched as a hot stream of water flowed from my closed eyes. Tears ran down my cheeks and under my neck. I wanted to lift my hand to wipe the wet away, but my hands were heavy. They were holding this book.

“You can’t see her, but she’s there. Give her the book,” coaxed the voice.

My arms reached out into darkness and held the book out until the weight of it lifted.

“Now, you won’t need to cry as much anymore. The next time you feel like you might cry, you’ll count slowly to ten and take a deep breath and the feeling will
go away.”

The hypnotist brought me back into my body and back into the room. “Your mother was in the room,” she said. “I don’t usually experience that so strongly, but your mother was most definitely here.”

The lights were dim and I was confused about what time it was or what I did or didn’t have to do next. Uncomfortable with the silence, my cynical side tried to make sense out of what had happened. The whole mother-in-the-room thing could have been right out of the How to be a Hypnotherapist handbook. But my spiritual self piped up, albeit meekly. You felt her presence during both of your sessions. Doesn’t that suggest something? It had always been so easy to ignore my mother when she was alive, but suddenly she was all that was on my mind.

I wandered from the hypnotherapy session into another form of therapy — mindless shopping. The gift shop offered workout clothes, diet books, and meditation tapes. I really didn’t need a new pair of sweats or another way to prepare skinless chicken. I certainly didn’t need the Sounds of Water.

Two women were busy behind the counter finishing up with other customers. I looked at the jewelry display in the glass case that separated me from them. I was head down, lost in the copper bracelets and iridescent mood rings, when I heard, “Can we help you?”

“Yes, can either of us help you with something?”

I looked up, prepared to give one of the women my soon-to-be new possessions along with my soon-to-be-maxed-out credit card. The two women were standing side by side. My eyes moved down from their faces to the shiny name tags perched just above their breasts. Their names became clear to me one at a time. Ellen. Ruth. My mother’s name. Ellen Ruth. In that order.

I gasped and dropped what I was holding. My mother’s presence was undeniable. It hit me over the head with a pair of name tags and made sure I understood. She was there. Telling me. Letting me know. There is something after death. Call it life. Call it energy. Call it what you will. The saleswomen seemed perplexed, and I just couldn’t find the words so I left the gift shop empty-handed, looking for a place to cry.

As I walked out into the cool Tucson air, the sadness slipped away, replaced by a sense of comfort and calm. I took a breath and counted to ten. The tears didn’t come. My head was clear. My heart was able to take in what had happened.

This had been our first ever Mother-Daughter weekend together, and I didn’t want to ruin it. Stillness was important now. I remembered my mother’s last words to me. They weren’t about forgetting. They were about letting go. I took a deep breath and walked back into the store. The women were still standing side by side, their nametags aligned.

“I had a mother named Ellen Ruth.” I told them. Once. I whispered to myself.