The day after.....

I grew up in a working class family, my father was a beautician, then life threw him an unexpected curveball and he became a construction worker, then a factory worker. My mother was a stay-at-home mom for a while then a librarian and a school administration assistant. Neither of my parents had college degrees. Out of the four siblings, three of us earned our bachelor’s degree, one his master’s – juggling multiple jobs to pay for tuition, family commitments and busy work schedules. I went back to university at 30 graduating at 34. My brother graduated at 32.

We were not from a family of privilege - never given new cars, rent money, insurance, college tuition – we were quite simply responsible for our own achievements. I thank my parent’s everyday for that tough lesson. Because working hard, setbacks and struggles create a very real and deep sense of accomplishment once you actually reach your goal. Those hurdles allow you to look inside the travails and difficulties of other people’s lives; it allows you to walk in their shoes, to relate, to empathize, to see a commonality, to develop compassion. Those financial struggles shaped my brothers and me.

In our home words mattered, stories ruled. I was raised in a household where books held court on every chair, ottoman, table and shelf. Where bookcases lined our walls. My father’s usual position was sitting cross-legged on the floor with a cigarette and a beer with an open book in his hand – usually WWII or science fiction. My mother took me to the library every Thursday evening without fail – with words “You can pick any and all books that you want” left unspoken. So each week, I left that plain nondescript brick building with a precariously balanced stack of books, carefully making my way back to our car. The stories within each cover were so alluring that I read by the streetlights as we made our way home on cold wintry nights – hoping we would be stopped by a red light, giving me a moment of uninterrupted light to read just one more sentence. When I got home I took them to my room, spreading them out on my bed as if a beautiful oriental fan, as if they were a treasure found, a thing of beauty.

I read constantly. And I listen closely to the words spoken by others - to the rhythm, the cadence and nuances. And I have always loved to observe. Being a shy quiet child I would often sit in a room full of adults, remain unnoticed, allowing me to take the full measure of their personalities, to observe the unspoken undertones of what was actually happening below the surface.

I was fortunate, lucky, blessed call it what you may to become a Great Ape keeper at a prominent US zoo. It’s a tough job, both physically and emotionally demanding, relentless and never-ending, and probably the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. My daily work with gorillas taught me to observe subtle body language and facial expressions, to analyze how someone carries him or herself in the world. How every gorilla is unique, how they project their personality and how it affects other troop members, who has an aggressive nature, who was maneuvering for higher status and who was the peacemaker.

So it was with much alarm that I watched this presidential election play out over the last 15 months and accurately predicted its outcome. I don’t say that with an “I told you so” smug self-satisfaction but rather with a profound sense of sadness and loss.

There is much blame to go around… to the media with your arrogant dismissing of Trump, with your guffawing when his name came up as a possible candidate, your silly self-absorbed predictions and now your amazed “we” didn’t see this coming. Well, CNN and MSNBC (not including Chris Matthews) you apparently forgot the definition of journalism – you forgot to speak truth to power, you forgot to do in-depth reporting, you forgot to ask tough questions and to keep asking until you got a coherent answer, you neglected to call Trump on his hate-filled rhetoric. You neglected to confront lies that were sprinkled about so liberally it made one’s head spin, you forgot to ask logical questions to a person who brought people together through fear and hate-filled words. You forgot that once there were people who said, “Have you no shame?” when it was unpopular to do so.

You neglected to get your asses out of your chairs, out of your insulated studios and actually go talk to Americans that have very real concerns, very real financial difficulties – you dismissed them at our peril. You brought in the usual crowd to preach to us from both sides of the fence but you forgot that that small group does not represent the kind of family I grew up in. Do us all a favor, at the very least own it, learn from it, and have the decency to take responsibility for your inability to recognize what true journalism looks like.

To the people that voted for a 3rd party – your call, point made, but all of us now have to live with your point.

To the Clinton supporters – It was never a given.

To the white college-educated children that voted for Trump, please tell me why our country is so bad that it has to be made great again? Please find Iraq on a map, please tell me how many Iraqis have died since we invaded their country 14 years ago. Please share with me your knowledge of world affairs, please tell me who the leaders of Germany and the UK are? Please tell me why war looks like such a positive thing – when I rarely see the likes of you signing up to enlist. I would venture a guess that if there were a draft in this country, you might have a different perspective when chanting “USA, USA, USA.”

You are privileged, you have food on the table, you have an opportunity to go to university. And yes you actually don’t have to take out loans to get your bachelor’s degree - you could work several jobs to pay for your schooling – maybe it takes you 7 or 8 years to get your degree but you and you alone earned it. We are not a bad country, we may be flawed, we have historically interfered in other countries affairs (something that always comes back to haunt us)– so please be curious about our history, please read, please take the time to inform yourself and be thoughtful in your approach to complicated issues. And please tell me how you plan to change the world for the good?

For working class families – I am you, I came from you. I want to say this, please don’t think for a moment that this man has any concern or interest in your life. He would no more give you the time of day than he would have given my factory-worker father a heartfelt and sincere “How are you?” My observations tell me it is simply not in his DNA.

For those that embrace the hate, the blaming of our problems on others, the ones who chose “them vs. us” – I got nothin.

Words do matter – both as a tool to heal, to serve as a calming balm, to inspire one to greatness or to incite and destroy.

Throughout my career in the zoo world I have had the absolute privilege of working with people who are committed to being the voices of the abused, the hunted, the disrespected, the casual throw-aways. Several weeks ago I hosted a meeting of 10 women conservationists, some from zoos, some who work in the field. Throughout the room we had inspirational quotes on the walls – because words do matter.

These committed individuals step in, step up and speak for animals, protecting them from greed, from disregard and from cruelty. Animal species that make up this big beautiful poetic world we live in – animals that offer us such a sense of awe and wonder when we see the rangy beautiful lope of a giraffe running, or the protective nature of an “Aunty” elephant, animals that form friendships, that are loyal, that mourn the death of their offspring – like a mother gorilla carrying the dead body of her infant for days.

University students spent two days listening to the speaker’s stories, listening to their words, learning from their individual and diverse journeys. The one consistent thread from each speaker was the power of books and how the written word had influenced their commitment to the environment and empowered them to give voice to the voiceless. Not only was I and everyone in that room inspired by the speakers words, I was incredibly heartened by this younger generation that longs to make a difference, that value and want to protect our natural resources – that want to be writers, photographers, artists and scientists all giving voice to the good within each of us – through their own words and stories.

“We are not here to curse the darkness but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.” John F. Kennedy


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