My granddaughter is getting the best of the best from the Golden Age of children’s educational entertainment : Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, early Sesame Street, Harry Nilsson’s The Point, and Free To Be You and Me, the project attempting to move the culture beyond stereotypical thinking about the roles of men and women. Conceived by Marlo Thomas and the Ms. Foundation for Women, the all-star cast included Alan Alda, Harry Belafonte, Mel Brooks, Michael Jackson, Carol Channing, Cicely Tyson, Robert Morse, Diana Ross, Tom Smothers, Voices of Harlem, and The New Seekers among other luminaries. We had the album, of course, and a VHS copy of the televised version of the album, and listened to the cassette tape in the car.
Rosie Grier, defensive tackle for the New York Football Giants and the Los Angeles Rams, appeared in a short skit singing, “It’s Alright to Cry,” a segment that received more attention than many of the other arguably more artful numbers as a pensive Grier endorsed the open expression of feelings, even by a large, physically dominating, man. Shocking at the time? Apparently, and the more challenging in that Rosie Grier was a large Black man, the sort of man presented in Shaft or Superfly as a pretty dangerous character.
Cultures change slowly, and Marlo Thomas and friends probably hoped for the more immediate disruption of stereotypical thinking about race, ethnicity, and gender; we’re still encouraging young women to believe that they can do or be anything, but delivering a cautionary note to them in that we find it necessary to bring up the topic.
In the year that Free To Be You and Me was released, Senator Edmund Muskie, the candidate expected to unseat sitting president Richard Nixon, removed himself from contention when he appeared to cry during a press conference. Real men do cry, but discussion of the subject still makes men uncomfortable, and the public display of emotion (other than anger) is rare.
I cry a lot. I’m frequently moved to tears by witnessing acts of kindness or generosity. I cry when ordinary people are treated more gracefully than they expected. Most of my ordinary crying happens in a movie theater or in front of the television, although the occasional novel can hit home as well. My behavior would be described as choking up; my voice thickens, my nose starts to run. I wipe my eyes, snorkle for a few moments, and try to keep that storm of emotion to myself. I’m not embarrassed exactly, more aware even in the moment that my tears usually spring from unresolved issues of abandonment and powerlessness, issues I feel I ought to have put behind me decades ago.
I cried this week as we brought our good old dog to the vet’s office, knowing we would be driving home without her. My wife and I and one of my kids held her as she left, loving her entirely. I sobbed uncontrollably. For a long time.
It strikes me as more than alright to show sadness, and regret, and loss, and love. We fall in love, have children, adopt pets with the knowledge that we will be inevitably face real pain. We do it anyway. We spend much of our alloted time in looking ahead and looking back and relatively little in the moment. We try to seize the day, but it moves so quickly and I, for one, am easily distracted.
But in that moment, as I felt the enormity of losing a dog I loved, there were no more plans to make; there was no past or future, only immediate nd overwhelming emotion. I was useless, of course, and did not offer comfort to my wife and son, ordinarily my first instinct, but I expect they understand.
I often catch myself being myself and find my foibles relatively amusing unless they ramble out of control; I endorse mindfulness as a way of life, recognizing that I probably take myself way too seriously. What I’m after is authenticity and integrity, qualities that can remain more hypothetical and abstract than I would like for much of the time. Every once in a while, as was true last Thursday, I am simply and visibly what I am. That comes close to my definition of integrity, and I don’t intend to apologize for being painfully in the present.
I’m not sure where we are in this upside down chapter in the life of a polarized society, pretty sure there’s not as much equality and justice as Marlo Thomas had hoped we’d find in the four decades since Free To Be, but also aware that the culture has changed. It seems changes of this order take longer to seep into the fabric of a nation than we had expected; “Old ways is best ways,” remains a recurring theme, and we do take a few steps back after leaping forward. On the other hand, emotions once freed tend to stick around.
It’s alright, I think, to cry.