Sitting in Lynn Cullen’s Shadow

The first time I called Lynn Cullen’s talk radio program was in 1999. I was living in my parents basement while finishing graduate school. I have no recollection of why I called or what I wanted to say, I just remember what she said to me. Her sister Susan was on the air with her and they both repeatedly told me how much they liked my voice. “Your voice belongs on radio” they said.

I was so incredibly flattered, melting like butter at the compliment from two women I really admired.

Last night I found myself sitting directly behind Lynn Cullen at a play in a small community theater in Carnegie. She arrived while I was in the lobby and I noticed people approaching her, her responding with gracious appreciation. I didn’t approach her. I don’t think Lynn Cullen knows who I am by site, but she might know of my blog.

My wife and I slid into the second row and I looked up – there she was. And then the lights dimmed.

The play was ‘Etty’ and it was engrossing, horrifying, and exhilarating.

Lynn was directly in front of me, her lush grey hair pulled to the side with a ribbon so I could see a thin chain around her neck. She barely moved during the performance, except for some knowing nods. I was in her shadow, I thought. I also have long graying hair, albeit streaked with purple.

The phrase “sitting in Lynn Cullen’s shadow” ran through my mind repeatedly as I made mental notes about my review of the actual show. Was it because we are both progressive women? Was I daring to equate my blog with her storied journalism career? Did she pave the way for me to be a woman with opinions who didn’t cower to what others expected me to say or think?

Perhaps because we see her face front on video or only hear her voice on the radio that seeing her from the back was food for thought. She did not cast a literal shadow in the theater, it is pure metaphor. But I felt a connection being aligned with her in those moments both of us listening to the words of another woman who chronicled her experiences.

Running into someone ‘Pittsburgh Famous’ is usually a thrill as that veil between them and us everyday folx lifts just enough to remind us how fragile it is, dare I say to expose the expanse bridging our experiences? Observing Lynn Cullen so graciously and deftly navigate each fan (or foe?) contact that evening was a masterclass in grace, comportment, and Pittsburgh manners.

I get tongue-tied and awkward when people approach me about my blog or other work. Most of the time, I don’t recognize them or remember their names because of my anxiety. “It’s not you,” I explain. Sometimes I’m a little afraid they will yell at me and these days, I can’t help but wonder if worse could happen. My wife reminds me that my blog is so niche, it’s unlikely someone who didn’t care for me would care to approach me.

The first time I was on Lynn’s show as a guest was 2005 when I proposed she interview foster parents and talk about the 120th anniversary of my employer, Family Services of Western Pennsylvania. Four of us crowded into her studio and I handed over treasured records from the 1880s. Lynn was almost reverential as she turned the pages, knowing that the stories behind the details were precious. It was a great segment.

I listened to her show for years. I even created a Facebook group for her fans in 2009 (City Paper has taken it over.)

I never saw her again because of my social anxiety. She invited me to speak at an event around inclusion and diversity, but I panicked and backed out. A few years later she agreed to meet with me to offer some advice for a project I was running. I also panicked and backed out – it was so awful that I called a mutual friend to notify her because I realized I didn’t have a way to contact her.

She was gracious.

I never told her about my anxiety as explanation. But my sense of shame pulled me back from being an active listener. I had let her down and that gnawed at me. I realize it probably didn’t have the big of an impact on her, but for me it is profound.

I did email her once to ask her to define a progressive.

I’ve sent her hundreds of press releases over the years, but nothing ever caught her interest. I hate that the person in local media most qualified to talk about projects like #ProtectTransKids may not know about it and that it is my own fault.

That’s why I didn’t approach her at the theater. She has forged a path for me and I have not treated that legacy with respect honesty.

After the play, the actor/playwright asked for feedback. Lynn was in my line of sight to the playwright so I noticed her actively listening and reacting to what people had to say, including me. She didn’t see me, of course, because I was behind her.

But she nodded as I spoke.

Nearly 25 years after that first compliment about my voice, she’s still listening to what I have to say.

Lynn Cullen via Pgh City Paper


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