The news is filled with reminders that 70 years ago today, the tide turned on the beaches of Normandy, France, when the United States led Allied Forces in an offensive that changed the course of World War II, leading to victory on the European front, or V-E Day, on May 8, 1945. My father served in that war, although he was stationed with the U.S. Army in the Persian Gulf. And while his brother served with the Army in the war’s European theater, I’m not sure if my Uncle Norman was part of the charge on D-Day. As I think about this historic anniversary, I’m reminded of how difficult it must have been for my grandparents to have two of their three sons in harm’s way.
I’m also reminded of something else—something that lies at the heart of civilization: Love. I’ve been reading the letters that my father wrote home during the war, and recently found a trove of other memorabilia. Just this afternoon—on the anniversary of D-Day—I opened a folded brochure that serves as the illustration to this post—a “shopping guide for allied soldiers in the French department stores.” The famed Au Bon Marché (known today as Le Bon Marché) made this guide to the metro available “with heartiest greetings,” as the publication proudly declares. The French, the ne plus ultra of all things civilized and cultured, knew that even far from home, a soldier would have someone to shop for.
The guide includes some helpful translations, as you can see in the first image. I think this one’s my favorite:
What kind of ladie’s [sic] lingerie have you? Quel genre de lingerie pour dame avez-vou? Kel janr de’r linsh’ree poor dahm away voo?
In all seriousness, the French knew that they and their allies were fighting not only for freedom from oppression, tyranny, and injustice—they were fighting for the preservation of the very thing that makes the world go ’round.
This is a wonderful time to be a real person. Ordinary people—folks just like you and me—are popping up all over the place. You see us in ads for e-readers, Fords, room fresheners, and more. Today’s conventional wisdom, according to AdWeek, suggests that real people make a brand seem “more genuine and authentic.” If you happen to be a real person and possess an opinion, Madison Avenue wants to know what you have to say. Martha Stewart? If the brouhaha in the blogosphere is any indication, maybe not so much.
The domestic diva got herself in the soup for remarks she made in an interview with Stephanie Ruhle of Bloomberg Television. Here’s what Stewart said:
Who are these bloggers? They’re not trained editors at Vogue magazine. I mean, there are bloggers writing recipes that aren’t tested, that aren’t necessarily very good, or are copies of everything that really good editors have created and done. So bloggers create kind of a popularity, but they are not the experts. And we have to understand that. [Emphasis added].
As you can imagine, Stewart ignited quite a firestorm in the blogosphere, especially since many bloggers gauged her comments as hypocritical; Stewart has been a keynote speaker at BlogHer and her publicists actively seek bloggers to help promote her merchandise.
I’ve sat this out until now, but after considering the incident, it does seem to merit some discussion about nuance, authenticity, the nature of expertise, and what bloggers can and shouldn’t do.
I don’t at all mind that I’ve not been asked to serve as one of Martha Stewart’s brand ambassadors, although, had I been approached, I would have said yes. I have admired Stewart’s aesthetic and contributions to the domestic arts for years. But I find her comments troubling, especially in light of her active recruitment of bloggers. As many bloggers will tell you, our authenticity as real people who use real products gives us enormous credibility. There’s a case to be made for life experience contributing to expertise. It would seem as though that’s what the Martha Stewart brand was looking for.
So what exactly do we mean by the word “expert” anyway?
Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, defines an expert as one “having special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience.” Let’s deconstruct this a moment, using my blog and one of its sections as an example.
In naming this site “The Midlife Second Wife,” I made two explicit declarations: I have lived a fair number of years and am therefore no spring chicken, and I have married for the second time. I am, at the present moment, 57-years old and have been cooking for at least 35 years. A section on my blog features recipes, many of which are mine and all of which I have prepared. In working with these recipes over the course of a lifetime, it’s fair to say that I have “tested” them. Every recipe I’ve shared on the blog has been wildly popular with my family and friends (trust me, I’m not about to share the occasional flop with you), so it’s safe to assume they are “very good.” In cases where I include recipes from some of my favorite cookbook authors—dishes I also have in my regular cooking rotation—I have asked for, and received, permission to reprint them. I make no claims to be chef, professional cook, or restaurateur; in that sense I am not an expert. But you can take to the bank the fact that I’m an excellent home cook with decades of experience in the kitchen. In that respect, I am an expert.
As for blogging, I bring experience as a published writer and editor to the enterprise. While the Oberlin Conservatory Magazine is hardly Vogue, it is nevertheless a beautiful publication featuring the students, faculty, and alumni of one of the most respected music schools in the United States. I served as its editor for 10 years, from 2001 to 2010. I also majored in English with an emphasis in creative writing at Oberlin College, so I learned a thing or two about what it takes to craft a narrative.
These are my credentials—I know many other bloggers who have résumés with similar bona fides. I present mine here not because this incident is about me, but because I’m a blogger, and the Stewart incident raises the question about what we choose to blog about, what our experience has been, and how we go about the whole enterprise. I’m happy to offer my opinion in areas where I believe I have something worthwhile to contribute, and where I can provide useful and enlightening information in what I hope is an enjoyable read for you. I also tend to agree with Linda Lacina, who posits in Entrepreneur.com that the real battle bloggers might consider waging isn’t necessarily with Martha Stewart, but with shoddy content. That could have been the point Stewart was trying to make, but unfortunately, her remarks painted all bloggers with a push broom-sized brush.
Let me add that I have never—and I promise you that I will never—pass myself off as an expert by adding to the critical literature on figure-skating, cross-bow hunting, parachuting, or hand surgery. What I will do is write, to the best of my ability, about what I know. In cases where I feel compelled to write about what I don’t know, but wonder about (hand surgery, anyone?), I’ll bring in the experts. (I’ve already interviewed a few on Monday Morning Q&A.)
And I promise to edit myself as carefully as I can.
If your 12- or 13-year-old child or grandchild were being bullied, would you want her to hear a YA author–one who had herself been bullied–speak about hope and survival? Even if she wrote a novel about bullying that had the word “ass” in the title?
Students in the seventh and eighth grade at Cumberland Middle School in Virginia missed out on the chance to hear award-winning author Meg Medina address them at a school-sponsored anti-bullying event–one to which she had been enthusiastically invited–because of the title of her highly praised new novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick Press). The book features bullying as its central theme, and occasionally uses language that Medina–and a bullying expert–say kids use to torment their victims.
Medina, of Richmond, was invited in March by the principal of Cumberland Middle School to speak in advance of National Bullying Prevention Month in October. Less than three weeks before the September 17 event, he sent her an email canceling her talk. The reason? Concern over how some members of the community might react to her book’s title. Ironically, September 22 is the start of Banned Book Week sponsored by the American Library Association.
The drumbeat of concern was actually rumbling for a few days. Prior to receiving the principal’s summary cancellation, a school official sent Medina a message, asking — at the principal’s request — that she refrain from mentioning the full title of her book, not use “offensive language,” and not show the book’s cover.
Here is an excerpt from Medina’s response to the school, which she posted on her website’s blog:
For me to come to your school and distance myself from my work feels disrespectful of me as an author, but worse, it feels dishonest in dealing with the students, most especially those who are on the receiving end of harassment that already makes them feel ashamed. If I refuse to even name my book or tell them that the title comes from hearing those awful words firsthand, I would only be adding to that shame. … I believe that one way we adults can help is to acknowledge the reality of what our kids are experiencing…
Medina did suggest a compromise. Perhaps the school could send a letter home to the parents about her upcoming appearance and her books? Parents who would find the material offensive could opt out.
No deal. The door slammed shut after the Labor Day weekend.
When asked if she had intended to read from Yaqui Delgado during her presentation at Cumberland, she says: “I don’t typically read from my books when I do school visits. If anything, I’ll read a page. I speak about writing, and the kinds of books I write — books with strong Latina characters. I tell the kids what my books are, and that I write for all age groups, and then I launch into the focus of the session.”
The title of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass comes from the novel’s opening line, a message delivered by Yaqui Delgado’s lackey to Piddy Sanchez, the book’s 15-year-old protagonist. Piddy is new at the school. She has no idea who Yaqui Delgado is or why she wants to hurt her. The book, praised in the Washington Post as “richly developed” and “unflinching,” includes a harrowing example of cyber-bullying.
YA Author Meg Medina
The child of Cuban immigrants, Medina grew up in Queens, where for two years, starting in the seventh grade, she endured the trauma of bullying. She calls that time a “fight for my dignity.” It is “the shard of experience” that inspired Yaqui Delgado.
The Issue of Censorship
Acacia O’Connor coördinates the Kids’ Right to Read Project in New York City for the National Coalition Against Censorship and its joint sponsor, the American Booksellers’ Foundation. She says that the NCAC is seeing many instances of censorship of late, particularly with respect to uses of profanity. “We work on a new case about once a week,” she says. “Since August 1st of this year, ten new challenges or issues involving schools and libraries have come to our attention.” O’Connor recently wrote about Medina’s situation on the NCAC blog:
At the heart of [cancellations such as Medina’s] lies the belief that we can clean up the world by erasing the parts some people dislike.
O’Connor says that author Judy Blume, a NCAC board member, brought the Medina-Cumberland County Schools issue to her attention, calling Blume a “guardian angel” to YA authors who are going through these controversies.
“I think it’s regrettable that there has been so much lead-up and enthusiasm surrounding [Medina’s] talk,” says O’Connor, “especially with her expertise and familiarity with the topic of bullying. It’s unfortunate that students won’t be able to hear her wonderful message because of a misunderstanding over the use of a particular … word.”
A Bullying Expert Weighs In Dr. Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist and Bunker Professor of Education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, is a national expert on bullying. He directs the Youth Violence Project at UVA and serves as a program director of Youth-Nex, the university’s Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. He first met Meg Medina when he was asked to comment on her book as part of a panel for the Virginia Festival of the Book.
“One of the biggest barriers to helping victims of bullying is their reluctance to seek help,” says Cornell–a reluctance born out of fear. “Adults are often blind to the presence of bullying, and our bullying prevention programs often fail to reach students who are in trouble. Medina’s book is a terrific illustration of these problems and has the potential to reach young people who need assistance and otherwise would not receive it.”
Cornell understands that the wording of Medina’s title might be troubling to some parents and teachers, but he hopes that they won’t judge the book by its cover–that they will take the time to read it. “I think [the title] reflects the reality of how many young people speak to one another.” He calls Medina’s book “a good source of insight” for parents and teachers who might not appreciate the way that bullying pervades youth culture, or how limited prevention programs can be.
Praise from Reviewers
In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews called Yaqui Delgado “a nuanced, heart-wrenching and ultimately empowering story about bullying.”
School Library Journal even had a word to say about the book’s cover in its starred review:
Lots of action with a realistic setting, dialogue, relationships, problems, and solutions make this book a winner. The cover–a blue locker with graffiti for the title–will attract reluctant readers. The content will keep them reading to the end and wanting more.
Judging a Book by its Cover
The book’s cover, however, was what Cumberland County school officials were judging. That, and a promotional trailer.
Requests for an interview with Dr. Amy Griffin, Cumberland County Superintendent of Schools, went unanswered. Her only on-the-record comments appear in Richmond Magazine’sblog and a statement that she sent to Richmond television station WRIC, in which Griffin notes concern about the title of Medina’s book and “inappropriate language” used in the promotional trailer.
In the Richmond Magazine blog, Griffin is quoted as saying: “[Medina’s book] really more to me seemed to address high school and inner city.”
One final, tragic note: On September 13, four days before Medina would have given her presentation at Cumberland Middle School, the New York Timesreported on yet another bullying-related suicide. Students had relentlessly taunted and cyber-bullied Rebecca Sedwick, urging her to kill herself. She did as they suggested, jumping to her death from a platform at a cement factory. Rebecca was 12 years old. She lived in Lakeland, Florida. She was in middle school, as were her tormentors.
Disclosure: I am participating in the Verizon Boomer Voices program and will be provided with a wireless device and six months of service in exchange for my honest opinions about the product.
Earlier this month, Pam Flores of ComBlu—a social business and influencer marketing firm—interviewed me for her company’s blog, Lumenatti. One of ComBlu’s clients is Verizon; you might recall my earlier post (“Hey Boomers—Verizon Will Hear You Now”) in which I discuss my participation in the Verizon Boomer Voices program.
I want to share Pam’s article with you because you are either a Boomer (in or out of midlife), or you love someone who is. And here’s why you should care:
According to an article in Forbes.com (cited in my interview), five misconceptions come to mind when advertisers think about the Boomer demographic:
1. Boomers aren’t tech-savvy.
2. Older people aren’t cool.
3. Older adults don’t spend.
4. The “golden years” are a time of relaxation.
5. The older generation is always loyal to a brand.
Do you agree with any of this? After you’ve had a chance to read the interview, I’d love to hear your thoughts! You can share your comments below, or directly on the ComBlu site.
Thanks—and happy tech-ing and spending, you cool people, you!
This post has been updated to include new information.
Imagine losing 10 years of your life. What, exactly, do you lose? If the question is theoretical, the answers come quickly:
Time with your loved ones.
The chance to learn and laugh and love.
The chance to live a normal life.
But what if the question is not theoretical? Imagine, for example, the magnitude of loss for the three young women in Cleveland, kidnapped a decade ago at the ages of 14, 16, and 21, and held captive in a ramshackle house owned by a man who allegedly snatched them from the natural course of their lives, subjecting them to unimaginable horrors.
By now everyone in the world knows his name. On August 1 a judge sentenced Ariel Castro to life in prison without parole, plus 1,000 years, has been indicted on more than 300 charges, after Castro pleaded guilty to 937 counts, including kidnapping and rape, as part of a plea deal to avoid the death penalty; he had also been charged with aggravated murder for beating one of the women after she became pregnant, forcing her to miscarry.
Imagine conceiving—and then losing—a child in that way.
One of the women did give birth; her daughter, now six-years-old, was born in captivity, and in captivity she lived, until the group’s dramatic release in May.
Imagine what these women have lost. Take your time reading the inventory:
Time with their loved ones. And, for one of them, a last goodbye and a chance to grieve for the mother who died in her absence.
The chance to learn and laugh and love.
The chance to live a normal life.
For Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight, the last 10 years were spent, not in a waking dream, like a coma patient, but in a waking nightmare of unspeakable hell.
Imagine the courage it must take to survive such torment.
Imagine their future. Can you?
Video statements posted recently on YouTube provided the women with the chance to speak publicly for the first time about their ordeal. The video also provided the world with the chance to replace the faces of their youth, seen on missing children posters and in news reports, with the faces they grew into: lovely young women, poised, on the brink of new lives, and very much in continued need for privacy as they heal and recover.
As for courage, here’s what Michelle Knight had to say in her prepared statement, included in a transcript of all three videos provided by newsnet5.com:
I may have been through hell and back, but I am strong enough to walk through hell with a smile on my face and with my head held high and my feet firmly on the ground.
According to published news reports, the women released their public statements so that they might thank their countless supporters, including people who have, to date, donated more than $1 million to a fund established by the Cleveland Foundation.
It is called, appropriately, the Courage Fund.
On the one hand, it seems as though there’s not enough money in the world to give back to these women what they have lost. On the other hand, with 10 years of their lives vanished, they have much work to do to begin building their futures—an education to acquire, skills to learn, and a reorientation into a world that is considerably different than it was 10 years ago.
Not to mention the healing.
I’ve made a modest donation to the Courage Fund. Would you consider doing so as well?
If you would like to contribute to the future of these young women, please make your donation through the Cleveland Courage Fund at clevelandfoundation.org\courage or by mail at Cleveland Courage Fund , c/o the Cleveland Foundation, 1422 Euclid Ave., Suite 1300, Cleveland, Ohio 44115.