Month: May 2011

Does achievement have a gender?

Does achievement have a gender? That’s the question that kept nagging at me after I read an obituary of a well known and well respected journalist.

The obituary’s first line read: “Arguably, the best female reporter/writer in the history of Chicago journalism……”  And my first reaction was… female? Why the restriction? Why isn’t she just one of the best reporters?

The paper’s online ombudsman is on Twitter (it was his tweet that brought the obit to my attention) so I Tweeted a quick comment about my reaction. And his response was even more intriguing to me: “Give her the “female” as a badge of honor….one more hurdle to overcome in that era.”

I don’t disagree with him in principle. I know he and the author of the piece are great at their jobs and meant no disrespect. I just wondering if that’s an honor, or a limiting label – then, or now.

Do we still need to measure gender? Or for that matter, any other label? Do we only compare Asians to other Asians? How about LGBT people? Or differently abled people?

I don’t know how objective or important my opinion is on this one – I am a guy, after all, and have never had my gender limit the possibilities of what I could achieve in a job. In my career, I’ve worked almost exclusively for women, and with one Cruella de Vil-esque exception, they were all great managers and great leaders. The women I’ve worked for have had more consensus-based, flexible, results oriented management styles, and they were always more aware of a need for life/work balance.

If I think about it beyond that, however, I’d realize that all of those women reported to male managers or executives. The glass ceiling may be less obvious, but it seems to still be in place.

So….I’m thinking it IS still a matter of importance how we describe people – and how we describe their accomplishments.

Am I being too sensitive? I’m curious to know your thoughts. 

No answers here

The main job of any writer is to make sense of the world around them. In my work, I try to help my readers think about ideas and events in a different way. If I’m lucky, I can dig deep enough in a subject to provide context and really put things into perspective.

But even the most experienced writer can’t solve every puzzle, or resolve every question. And I have no rationale, no context to understand why, on a clear Sunday morning a month ago, my sister Shelle took her own life.

It’s usually so easy for me to write, but it’s been such a challenge to line up words in a sentence about her death. Suicide is such a final choice, and all of us who knew and loved my sister are still in shock.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours, awake and half asleep, talking with other family members, trying to replay the events in my mind and answer the unanswerable: why? I never thought I’d be saying goodbye to her so early. Or picking out music for her memorial service. Or reading a medical examiners’ report about someone who was so alive to me.

We can all try to get to WHY but the truth is, we’ll never know what led to that sequence of events. I know she was in significant physical pain; her liver had been damaged years ago and she’d been experiencing massive physical symptoms; she described the pain as someone “tightening a belt around my midsection and pulling.”

And when you lose your health, it devastates every single other aspect of your life – your relationships, your work, your family life. And so it was with my sister. The lightness we all need to have balance in our lives was blotted out for her. We offered our help and our love. Why did she make the choice she did?

I have regrets – did I do enough? Should I have known? My last text message exchange with her reads like a cry for help in retrospect, but at that moment, it was just like hundreds of other text messages she’d sent me.

I feel guilty. I wonder if I took the process for granted – that if she really, really needed help, she’d ask. We had a similar situation in our family where someone suffered from severe physical pain that drove them to a suicide attempt. But they got the help they needed – both mental and physical – and went on to a much better phase of their life.

I wanted that so much for Shelle, and I am deeply sad she couldn’t be here for it. My heart hurts for her husband and my nephews, her two sons, both of who are still school age boys.

I don’t know that I will ever understand why. And perhaps it’s not for me to know. It reminds me of the lyrics from “I Don’t Like Mondays”:  They can see no reasons / ‘Cause there are no reasons / What reason do you need to be shown?  No “reason” can ever really be an answer. A dear cousin told me something that made so much sense to me. She learned it from the teachings of Catholicism but I think it’s a universal thought: The moment that someone leaves life, or goes to their God, is an intensely private one, and a sacred moment.

I will never understand what prevented her from making another choice. But ultimately, I need to learn to let go, to forgive her (which I already have – as if I was ever mad), and to honor her memory. I love my sister so much, and I don’t want the way her life ended to define in any way the person she was before that.

I want people to remember how sweet and tenderhearted Shelle was, how shy she was as a child. How loyal she was to all of us. I want everyone to know what a great big sister she was, spending hours with me when I was a kid and carting me around with her once she was old enough to drive. She was 7 years older than me, and as soon as she had wheels, she had to take me to my weekly allergy shots, but she never complained once.

I want people to know what an amazing nurse she was, and how she was such a perfect combination of my parents – my dad’s perseverance and work ethic, and my mom’s heart and empathy for others. My other sister reminded me how funny and silly Shelle could be – like my mother, she never met a camera she couldn’t make a face at!  I want people to remember what a great friend my sister was, and how our house was filled with her friends.

We no longer have that family home, but when I close my eyes and think of my sister, it’s there I see her: in our game room watching TV, in her bedroom with the seizure-inducingly loud wallpaper, playing her Bay City Rollers (and later, Styx and REO Speedwagon) records with her friends, at our kitchen table with our Mom, in our backyard splashing around in our swimming pool.

And she’s home now, both there in my mind’s eye, and home with my mother, both of them resting high in the hills of Cambria County. I have to pray she is finally at peace, and pray that all of us who loved her can move forward in healing and reconciliation.