Flirting with Rita and searching the memory for mistreatment of women
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It’s funny how photographs bring things back. One thing, then another.
Take the picture on the wall of my den, of me and Barack Obama.
I like that picture: me in my beat-up old blue blazer, worn khakis and worn-oat loafers (with beige socks that look like an especially cool white in the picture) and the elegantly attired-but casually conversational Obama facing each other on folding chairs in a curtained-off area of the fairgrounds horse arena.
He leans forward with elbows on knees and hands clasped as he makes a point and I scribble notes into a 4-by-8-inch reporter’s notebook with a red Bic pen. Behind Obama in the photo taken by Kristina Barker, then a Rapid City Journal photographer, an American flag stands.
First it brings back the obvious, of course, which is that in the spring of 2008, I spent some time — specifically, six and a half minutes — face to face, one to one, with the guy who would be president.
I was reporting Obama’s campaign visit for the Rapid City Journal, and I got one of the interviews he provided after a speech at the county fairgrounds. Tom Lawrence and I still debate who got the most time with the candidate, and the difference could be a matter of seconds.
What a cool day that was for a newsman in Rapid City, where leaders of the free world — or even those who soon will be — don’t show up all that often.
Neither do national news reporters, whose presence — usually during a presidential visit or presidential campaign — can also be a bit of a thrill for a small-state newshound like me.
So I can be forgiven for doing a little flirting with Rita Braver, can’t I? Well, let’s just see about that.
When I say a little flirting, I mean five or six seconds. I think that’s about how long it took me to say: “Obama’s fine, but you’re the most exciting thing in town today.”
That was probably an exaggeration on my part. I mean seriously, was there anyone or anything more exciting in this nation in 2008 than Barack Obama? Probably not. In Rapid City or anywhere else.
But for a news reporter who was in his mid-50s, as I was at the time, running into an Emmy winning senior correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning was pretty cool. No, scratch that. Really cool.
Rita Braver was looking at some jewelry in Prairie Edge downtown, where Obama had himself made a quick stop for, as I recall, a quick purchase for Michelle and the girls. After he left the store, I walked past Braver and slowed enough to make that brief comment, which I considered a compliment.
I didn’t want to stop, feeling like that would be too intrusive or unsettling. And I wasn’t seeking or expecting a conversation. She seemed engaged by the jewelry. And I just wanted to drop off a word or two.
Braver smiled slightly at my comment, glanced at the younger woman with her — either another news pool reporter or a CBS staffer — who also smiled as Braver resumed her shopping. And I resumed my reporting day, later confessing to my wife that I had been flirting with a big-time news reporter.
Mary shrugged, as I recall, knowing full well that the only reporter I was interested in seriously flirting with was the one a couple desks away in the Journal newsroom. In other words, her. Besides, it was a decidedly one-way flirtation. Braver had bigger things to worry about than words from a passing gray hair.
But I told the “flirting with Rita” story a few times over the coming months, in a self-effacing way, then sort of forgot about it. Then this week when I got to looking at the Obama picture on my wall and remembering that day, I also remembered speaking to Braver and wondered if I was out of line.
After all, I’d seen Bob Schieffer years earlier at a presidential event in Sioux Falls and didn’t do anything but smile and nod. I certainly didn’t say: “The president is fine, but you’re the most exciting thing in Sioux Falls today.”
So now, almost 10 years later, I feel uncomfortable about the comment, which I thought at the time was complimentary and fun. But maybe it was just sexism dressed up in seemingly friendly words.
Maybe it was even a little creepy. And I hate the thought of being creepy, even a little.
It’s a small thing, perhaps, in the current flurry of big things in sexual harassment and assault. But from small things, small perceptions and small gender-based treatments and distinctions, big things can easily grow. And some can grow into big, bad things.
And we’ve seen headline after headline on that lately.
Some might argue that I’m overthinking the Braver thing. And maybe I am. I tend to overthink things. But if you're not thinking a lot these days about gender and unequal treatment and sexual harassment and assault, you’re probably under-thinking things.
And under-thinking these things can hurt people.
If you happen to be a guy who is not a complete dope, you’ve probably spent some time over the last few months considering the way you’ve behaved around women.
The way you have spoken. The way you have acted. The way you think about women, their value and their rights.
And if you’re like me, you might have gone all the way back to your teenage years, searching the recesses of recollection for something you did or said that didn’t make you particularly proud, in retrospect.
I know I have. So have some of my friends. I was speaking recently with one of them over cups of hot, creamy beverages — mine chai, his latte — at a downtown Rapid City coffee shop.
“Oh, I did some things that today I’d have a hard time explaining to my daughter,” he said, referring to decades-old blurry periods of inebriation where the rules of appropriate behavior seemed more flexible than perhaps they actually were.
Or certainly than they should have been.
Nothing criminal in my friend’s case. But certainly some things that were questionable, especially when viewed through today’s magnified lens.
There were, of course, times during that “free love” period (we’ll hold off for another time consideration of whether it was really “love”) where the Boomers among us experienced and, we might argue, even benefitted from a more open attitude toward sex. Too open? Maybe. Probably.
I was fortunate during that period to spend most of my time in the boonies of central South Dakota, far from the front lines of the Sexual Revolution. Where I was it was more like the backwaters of sexual interest and anticipation.
And I was lucky as well to spend the entirely of that period, and my life before and since, sober. As I’ve said before, I’ve never been drunk. I don’t think I could stand to drink enough alcohol to make me drunk. And I’ve never been what I would call stoned.
Oh, I smoked a little pot a few times in college. But I didn’t much care for it. And I never felt high. More like intellectually stuffed up, as if I had a head cold that settled in the gray matter.
It was pretty clear pretty early in life that mind-altering substances weren’t for me. Still aren’t, although I think the way we’ve included marijuana in the failing war on drugs has been unwise and counterproductive. But that’s another story, for a future commentary on this blog.
Back to this national period of reckoning on sexual harassment and sexual abuse, and the necessary period of male soul searching.
After Braver, my next stop along the road of reflection was a long ways back, to something I did as a teenager. That something was similar to what you saw Al Franken doing in that grope photo with a sleeping Leeann Tweeden. The difference was there was nobody there with a camera to document it.
Wait, the other difference was I was a pimply faced kid of about 14 or 15. I think the girl was a year younger, and wasn’t asleep. And a bunch of us were goofing around in somebody’s backyard, teasing and poking each other. You know, teenage stuff.
But somewhere in that play I intentionally reached out my hands to touch the girl — probably while wearing a goofy face like Franken was wearing in that photo — in a way that afterwards didn’t feel right. The girl pushed my hands away, without any sign of anger that I remember. And my hands stayed away. Then we went back to goofing around.
Days later, though, I still had an uncomfortable feeling about what I did. And usually when I feel uncomfortable about something I’ve done or said, there’s a reason for it. Without defining it in such a way at the time, I think I understood that I had disrespected her.
I hadn’t thought and wondered about that for years. Decades. But the widely circulated Franken picture brought it back, as the Obama picture brought back the comment to Braver. And I have to wonder if that teenage girl so long ago felt diminished by what I did. Also, how often did she have to put up with that, from other boys? And were there other “jokes” that got more aggressive, even more sinister?
The other thing I thought about was whether the girls I hung around with when I was young ever grabbed or pretended to grab me in such a personal way, joking or not. I couldn’t think of any time they had.
So, even in that generally lighthearted teenage play, there was this sexual distinction, a way of treating girls differently from the way boys were treated in return, or expect to be treated, or should be treated. And it was a diminishing distinction, light hearted or not.
As I grew older, I was lucky to hang out with a group of smart, interesting girls who were friends but not girlfriends. That meant we got to talk about things that mattered to us, without the awkward atmosphere of romance. It also meant I got to hear from them about how they wanted and expected to be treated, and also about instances where they were mistreated by other boys, some of whom I knew.
And I got to see some of that in ways I might not have been aware of had I not been educated by friends, who were girls.
I was also lucky back then to be afflicted with a sort of cautiousness when it came to girls and dating. That was a period where I was isolating myself emotionally for a lot of reasons, including a generalized anxiety about a great many things, which magnified and mixed with despondency as my father was dying and after his death, when I was 16.
So, I was hesitant and sober in situations when some other guys my age were neither. That helped me make better decisions about my own behavior, and my treatment of girls, and later women. I was also lucky during the first 16 years of my life to have a strong model of affectionate, respectful behavior toward women in my home. Even after his death, memories of my dad reminded me of who he was and how he treated others, including and especially my mother.
That’s a good grounding for a life. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t and don’t make mistakes. Even when properly grounded and mentored, the males among us have a remarkable capacity from dumb moves. And I have a volatile personality that can surprise people, including me. And I can sometimes speak to people with undue and inappropriate language and harshness.
That has been true in my first marriage and, at times, even in this one -- failings over which I ponder and pray. And that behavior could be especially true at work in the hurried, often-tense environments of newsrooms in Sioux Falls, Rapid City and Pierre.
So I said things to people, including women, some of whom were my supervisors, in tense situations that were disrespectful, but not in a sexual way. I can’t remember saying or doing anything that would qualify as sexual harassment. I think and hope my memory is good on that. I do remember when one of my editors, a man, called me in to his office with a concern about something I said during an argument with my immediate supervisor, Maricarrol Kueter, an extraordinary editor for many years at the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls.
“Did you really tell Maricarrol to kiss your …?” he asked.
I have many weaknesses, but lying tends not to be among them. So I said, yes, I did. To which he said something like: “Well, that's out of line, of course. But more than that, I’m concerned about that being considered sexual harassment.”
I was surprised by that, and said: “A couple things: Kueter is my supervisor, not the other way around. And I'm pretty sure she didn’t think I was speaking literally. I guarantee you she wasn't intimidated. In fact, she threw me out of the newsroom and told me cool down, and not come back for at least two hours. And I did what she told me to do.”
But still, the boss wanted me to talk to her. So I did. Kueter shrugged it off and said something like: “Just get back to work. We have a paper to put out.”
I loved that about Kueter, an East River farm girl from a large Catholic family who was as strong and smart and organized as any editor I’ve known: Get to work. We have a paper to put out.
But it occurs to me now that I might not have ever really apologized to her for my insubordination and childish disrepect. Nor did I thank her for her forgiveness. So I think I owe her that in person sometime soon. Meanwhile for our purposes here: “I apologize, MC. And thanks.You’re the best.”
I guess those bits of memory don’t seem like much in an era of well-publicized serial harassment and criminal abuse by high-profile men in media and politics. But it’s enough to think about and talk about during a hard-but-hopeful period of national reckoning and reflection.
And next time I see Rita Braver, I’ll try to keep my mouth shut.