A New Era! Plus Raising Boys and Girls

Michael Ian Black and Marisa Porges

Welcome to the Quarantine Creatives newsletter, a companion to my podcast of the same name. I am so grateful to those of you who have signed up to have me in your inbox every Sunday morning, and honestly blown away by the response to this newsletter after just one issue. (If you missed it, you can read the first issue here) If you enjoy what you’re reading, please feel free to share this newsletter with friends and family!

It’s Biden!!!

After a long, strange week where I think we were all obsessively refreshing the news, yesterday just before noon, we received the final verdict in the election- Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won both the popular vote and the electoral college!!

I could feel many of us collectively breathing a sigh of relief. Since the numbers started trending more favorably towards Biden on Friday morning, I felt so buoyant. It was like a weight that I didn’t even realize I had been carrying for five years was finally lifted off of my back. I was breathing easier and felt more clear-headed than I had in a long time. That turned to pure joy watching him speak last night and feeling like we are well on the path to healing. We were dangerously close to fascism. I’ve spoken with a number of guests on my show that have understood this threat at a deep level and have been able to articulate it eloquently, and I take that threat seriously. We triumphed through the simple act of voting. This was a hard fought victory, and it happened one ballot at a time.

Joe Biden will be our 46th president, and equally as exciting for me, Kamala Harris is stepping into the second highest office in the land. A woman. A black woman. An Indian woman. For the first time ever.

My wife is South Asian, and to know that our 7 year old daughter will now grow up in a world where she can see herself represented at the highest levels of government is really meaningful to me. My daughter doesn't have to imagine herself in the job of an old white man- she will have a role model that looks like her! To say it’s a little emotional for me is an understatement.

As the news came in and I shared with my family reports from Twitter of car horns honking and the deafening roar of millions of hands clapping in cities across the world, my daughter told me that she wanted to go out and honk our car horn. We live in a purple town- my neighbor on one side proudly displays his Black Lives Matter sign, while the neighbor on the other side has a We Support and Defend Our Law Enforcement Officers sign. Even though nobody else was out celebrating, my daughter went out to our minivan and honked the horn for probably 2 minutes. She was beaming!

It seems fitting to be talking about the next generation, as this past week’s shows were dedicated to looking at the different ways that we raise boys and girls and how we can set our sons and daughters up for success in an ever changing world. Both of the interviews described below were recorded before the election, so I wasn’t able to directly engage with either guest on the meaning of this moment, but you’ll see, the theme of having strong female role models does come up, as well as some discussions about our current political moment.

Episode 50: Michael Ian Black

I remember first seeing Michael Ian Black on those I Love The 70s/80s/90s, etc shows on VH1 back in the early 2000s and really keying in to his dry sense of humor. In that series, each episode was devoted to one specific year, and a group of panelists would comment on some of the major moments of that year in pop culture, music, politics, etc. Michael stood out because he had the ability to really find exactly what made that moment significant and could also deliver a joke around it. Of course, as time went by I began to discover more of his work, especially as an actor including in Reno 911 and both the movie and series Wet Hot American Summer.

Michael is also an author who has written several books. His latest, A Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son, tackles the challenges of becoming a strong, sensitive, empathetic man in 2020. Knowing Michael’s comedic sensibility actually drew me to the book in a way that probably wouldn’t have happened been had it been written by a college gender studies professor, even though the concept of shifting masculinity is fascinating to me. Michael explained to me why his inexperience in the area of gender may have actually been an advantage:

“Part of the reason I was reluctant to write [this book] was because I’m not an expert at this stuff. I’m not a gender theorist, I’m not a historian, I don’t even have a college degree. But my editor was sort of like, well, why not you? Meaning, why not a lay person writing about this stuff and the fact that you might have a more accessible take on it might be useful.”

The book takes an intimate and raw look at Michael’s own past and times when he has not always lived up to his own ideals. As a comedian, I wondered if it was hard for him to take on a more serious book like this and really open up in a vulnerable way:

“I definitely wasn’t trying to write a ‘funny’ book, and, uniquely maybe for comedians, that’s hard. Because that sense of humor is our defense and to trust that people will still like us when we’re not being funny is really hard for comedians.”

Michael is very open about his own background and how it shaped his image of masculinity. His father struggled to say “I love you” and he died unexpectedly at the age of 39 when Michael was just 12 years old. His mother came out as a lesbian before his father’s death, and she and her partner spent much of his childhood deriding male chauvinists, which to young Michael, felt like an attack on the entire sex. Knowing that he may have struggled with finding positive male role models as a child because of his upbringing, and that many boys grow up idolizing figures like John Wayne or James Dean, I asked him who he thought was a “perfect man” growing up:

“Alan Alda, obviously. I mean, who doesn’t think Alan Alda is a perfect man? That seemed to be the only guy that my mom liked was Alan Alda, and Ron Darling of The Mets. Although I think she just thought he was cute. So Ron Darling physically, and look, his last name is Darling so you’re not going to go wrong there, and then Alan Alda in every other way.”

This book is written as a letter to Michael’s son as he heads off to college, and it both represents the wisdom that Michael wishes his own father had been able to pass on, while also distilling what Michael has learned over his life. Michael’s parenting style seems to be one based on honesty and allowing for vulnerability too. Sometimes I struggle when raising my own kids with finding the line between trying to instill some kind of “toughness” or “strength” and going too far in the other direction, with the “participation trophy” mentality that many parents exhibit today where every kid is a winner all the time, no exceptions. Here’s how Michael responded to that:

“Kids aren’t stupid. They know when they did their best, they know when they’ve accomplished something for real or when they just went through the motions. And I don’t feel obligated to praise my kids to high heaven every time they wipe their own asses. And part of that is because I want them to know that when I do take the time to tell them how proud I am of them, which I do, I want them to believe it. I want them to know that that’s true, but more than that, I want them to know how to take pride in themselves.”

There’s a really important chapter in the book where Michael dives into issues around sexuality and all that goes along with that: consent, intimacy, one night stands. As somebody whose sex education was one part Catholic guilt and one part “abstinence only” as taught in my Ohio public high school, this chapter was especially important to me, and felt like the type of conversation that parents and children should be engaging in, awkward as that may be. Of course, Michael had the luxury of being able to write this all down and hide behind the page, so I wondered what kinds of sexual conversations he was able to have in person with his own children:

“The kind of dialogues that we’ve had haven’t been as formal as ‘sit down, I want to talk to you about informed consent and about the relative merits of one-night stands.’ It’s been more casual and conversations that happen in the moment, as part of something else perhaps.”

Michael also cites the work of journalist Talia Lavin in his book, who I interviewed last month about her book about the rise of white supremacy. I remember remarking to Talia that I expected her book to be about the KKK and white on black violence, but that her scope was much broader, bringing in antisemitism and misogyny as well. In other words, it was really hard to just talk about one of these issues in isolation.

I found the same to be true in Michael’s book. I expected a book simply about gender issues, but it became clear to Michael as he was writing that he couldn’t just tell the story of male privilege without also discussing white privilege and the role of class in all of this too:

“The fact is, once you start looking at some privilege, it’s very hard not to look at all privilege because they’re so intwined. Power structures exist, and they tend to privilege a very small number of people. And in our case, in our country, historically that has meant white men, and you could also say white straight men if you wanted. And, I guess you could say white, wealthy, straight men, because it was certainly land owners initially who had all of the power and privilege. So that leaves a lot of people out. And it’s very hard to just talk about the man part of that, or just the white part of that, or just the wealthy part of that, and now increasingly, harder to talk about just the straight part of that. It’s very hard to write about one of these topics without writing about all of these topics.”

We also discussed current events. This conversation took place prior to the election, so there was an interesting comparison of how masculinity was portrayed and projected differently by Donald Trump and Joe Biden on the campaign trail. I also couldn’t help but draw parallels to some of the arguments that Michael makes in the book about the male need to project “strength” and the mask debate that has been raging since the spring. Here’s Michael’s thoughts on that topic:

“If your entire sense of self is wrapped up in strength and invulnerability, when you say I care more about my life and the life of people I love than showing strength, in a weird way, it’s admitting weakness, it’s showing a kind of vulnerability. It’s absurd, and yet, the people that seem most resistant to wearing masks seem to be men, and in particular, a certain kind of man.”

Towards the end of the interview, Michael discussed what he had learned traveling cross-country as a touring Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle in the early 1990s. That experience left him with the feeling that we’re all a lot more similar than we are different, a belief which has been shaken for him in the past four years. I mentioned a fun NYT quiz that I had done recently which strangely restored my faith in our shared similarities. Here’s the quiz if you want to try it out:

I don’t mean to be Pollyannaish in my belief that we are more similar than we are different. I certainly recognize that there is a lot of work to do on racial equity and fighting off some of our other larger demons as a nation, but it seems that when you take partisan affiliation out of it, more Americans tend to agree on major issues like climate change, gun control, abortion, etc., or at least they are much closer on these issues than the extremists on either side lead us to believe.

This book was a joy to read. It had just enough humor mixed in with serious topics. I highly recommend checking it out! I also recommend listening to the full interview with Michael as it was a fun and surprisingly deep conversation.

Episode 51: Marisa Porges

On Thursday, I welcomed Dr. Marisa Porges to the show to discuss the flip side of the same coin- raising girls to be their best selves. Marisa has a really fascinating personal backstory. She was one of only a handful of female fighter pilots in the Navy, then worked on counterterrorism in the Obama White House, traveling all over the Middle East and interviewing former members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. She now leads The Baldwin School, a school for girls ages Pre-K through grade 12 outside of Philadelphia.

I have been fascinated with the journey of educators and school administrators during this time, as I feel like the decision of whether to go fully in person, fully remote, or offer some hybrid is just a series of least bad choices. As a parent, I faced this dilemma when it came to my own second grade daughter. As I’ve discussed on the show before, my wife and I made the very difficult (and honestly for us, surprising) decision to homeschool this year, with me acting as my daughter’s teacher since late-August.

I was really curious to hear about both Marisa’s thought process as she looked to this current school year and more importantly, how the girls have adapted to life with masks and social distancing:

“Children are really adaptable and flexible and if you help them practice that way of being and way of thinking they can rise to the occasion and we’ve seen it here. There were concerns early on if, especially the youngest girls, have to wear masks all day and stay six feet apart, and what is that going to be like? And we practiced with them a few times the first few days of school and by the second week, it’s the new routine.”

We then moved on to discussing Marisa’s new book, What Girls Need: How to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient Women. It has elements of memoir, pulling on Marisa’s own life experiences and those of her students, to illustrate her points. She also offers parents practical steps that are often very easy to integrate into a weekly routine that help girls develop their self confidence and collaborative skills.

I asked Marisa why she wanted to write this book:

“Decades and decades, 50 plus years, after so much of the feminist movement opened doors for women, and yet, we still look around and even when we see a woman on the ticket for the VP, we also see underrepresentation in Congress, or at the senior levels of Fortune 500 companies, or in tech companies, or in finance companies, or in all these other places that our young girls want to go.”

One of the topics that Marisa discusses at length in the book is the need to teach our young girls to negotiate. This is an essential life skill, whether it’s about getting the best deal on a car purchase or helping to close the wage gap:

“When receiving job offers, studies have shown about 50% of men ask for more money, compared to only 12% of women. So whether it’s that, just training women to know to ask, or the fact that women have fewer mentors statistically speaking than men. And we know it’s mentors who make that opaque box a little more transparent.”

Another piece of negotiating is presenting a reasoned argument to persuade somebody to your side. Marisa sees the importance of advocating for a position for young girls, which may take the form of a Powerpoint or other interactive presentation. Here is her advice for little ways that parents can encourage this:

“The next time they ask for a dog or a game, a toy, a sleepover party, whatever it is, send them off and say come back in 30 minutes and pitch it. When you give them a little direction, the information is at their fingertips, and they will come back and surprise you how far they take it.”

One of the issues that many women encounter in the workplace is that of “mansplaining,” or having a male colleague over explain a concept which is already well known. This can also take the form of men repeating an idea from a woman in meetings or as men constantly interrupting.

“I do think this is where helping our girls practice from an early age the act of speaking up, giving them tools that make them feel personally comfortable speaking up, and that looks different for different kids. Sometimes we see our girls speaking up by raising their hand and voicing their thoughts. Some of them prefer to do it in writing. Now we see, interestingly enough, that via Zoom on video it looks different. Some of the girls who speak up in class are less likely on video or remotely, but other girls who are more quiet prefer that mode.”

Of course, one of the more high profile recent examples of some of these behaviors was during the vice presidential debates, when on two occasions, Vice President Mike Pence interrupted now VP-elect Kamala Harris, and she responded with the now famous line “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” This happened after Marisa’s book had already gone to print, but I wanted to know her thoughts on the significance of that moment:

“I think it stood out to so many women everywhere. It stood out to me as somebody who’s been in moments like that and not had that response. I think so many women also saw that as an example of how we all want to be. I do think finding role models like that, particularly a black woman who can stand her ground in such a way that is clear and forthright and unemotional but powerful, it’s a great example for our girls to see.”

Marisa’s book was a great read for parents and her interview was really insightful!

50 Shows and Counting!

I wanted to take a quick moment to say thank you for all of your support over the last six months. It’s hard to believe that I uploaded my 50th show this past week and that it is still going strong for the foreseeable future. I have really enjoyed getting to speak to a diverse range of guests across the media and entertainment industries. I have done a lot of learning and growing during this time, and I hope being able to listen in to some of these conversations has been beneficial to you in some way.

What’s Coming…

Next week on the show, I’ll be speaking with two very talented young kids.

On Monday, I will be talking with Joshua Turchin, who is already a multi-hyphenate at the age of 14: composer, musician, singer, dancer, actor, and talk show host. He composed a musical called The Perfect Fit that debuted at a theatre festival last year, and he recorded a cast album for the show fully remotely over the summer that includes Broadway stars like Laura Benanti and Nikki Renee Daniels. Next week, he will be streaming a live concert of the show from New World Stages (tickets here). He also hosts his own Broadway talk show, The Early Night Show, that features interviews and performances all done remotely during this time.

Thursday’s guest is scheduled to be Leah Belle Faser, who at 16, just released her debut country album Crossing Hermi’s Bridge. It was recorded over the summer under strict COVID protocols. We’ll discuss her writing and recording process.

If you have questions, comments, thoughts, ideas, or anything else that you’d like to share, please feel free to email me anytime: hracela@mac.com

If you’re an Apple Podcasts user, please consider leaving a rating or review for Quarantine Creatives. It only takes a minute, but it helps bring in new listeners.

And please consider sharing this with a friend that you think might enjoy reading this, or better yet, share it on social media so you can tell hundreds of friends!

Share Quarantine Creatives Newsletter

Stay Safe!