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Life on California's beautiful Central Coast

Is this the year empathy ends?

America

I remember the moment in 2002 when I was first labeled an empath. Except the woman didn’t use that word. She said something else.

“You’re a classic people pleaser,” she said, somewhat jabbingly. Was she smiling or sneering? She was a sharp woman – in brain and tongue – and typically spoke her mind. I couldn’t exactly tell if it was an insult or a compliment. I mulled the words over and over in my brain, like you might worry a flat stone between your fingers before skipping it across a lake.

I wanted it to be a compliment. But it wasn’t. I wanted to deny the allegation. But it was technically true. I liked it when people around me were happy. I was willing to do most anything in my power to help them be that way.

15 years later, my empathy has only gotten worse. Age brings clarity of vision about the nonsense the world throws at us. Some of my personal trials – several of which are directly attributable to empathy-based decision making – have stressed the limits of my heart and well being. But I persist with the empathy, because to me it seems the only way to live a grounded, moral, religion-free life.

It’s behavior traceable to my grandmother on my dad’s side, who as my father puts it, “was a saint.” Fifty years ago, Grandma E would have been described as “virtuous,” a word we don’t use much in America anymore.

A nurse, mother to four boys, Sunday School teacher, endurer of medical challenges, political volunteer, charity donor, patient wife to a difficult man .. the list goes on. She had friends everywhere. Everyone loved her because she truly cared. If you met her she wanted to know who you were, where you came from and where you were going.

She didn’t do any of this consciously – it was just how she lived. Self was the last thing on the list when it came to her priorities. In fact, her health suffered as a result. I imagine her alive today, hearing the phrase “self care” and laughing about it. First she had to take care of everyone else. Self care could wait.

My empathy takes a different tact. I am concerned with the daily interaction of human beings and the well-being of my family, friends, colleagues and community members. Small details matter to me. I am the person picking up other people’s dog poop at the dog park and broken beer bottles on the sidewalk. I am the enforcer of “thank you” and ” have a nice day” at the parking kiosk or the grocery aisle. I take my friends’ dogs when they can’t walk them and bake pies for people who don’t know how.

Yes, I do some of this because I have time on my hands and can’t spend all of it working. But mostly I do it because I think society crumbles if we aren’t kind and big-hearted and giving of the resources at our disposal.  And now, finally, I am getting to my point.

A recently article by Om Malik in the New Yorker declared that “Silicon Valley has an empathy vacuum,” and described the impact of the Internet’s algorithms and technology’s fast-forward pace innovation on our culture.  I would expand the scope of Malik’s thesis to a broader and perhaps more frightening one. It is my belief that our current president, the stress of his surprising and unexpected election, and the pressure of a social media-fueled society is turning into a backlash on empathy at large.

President Obama called out the fallback of empathy as an American value set repeatedly. A couple of notable comments he made on the subject:

“Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.”

“We live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained.”

Search for “Donald Trump quotes about empathy” and you get something else entirely – a selection of articles about the rare instances when the current President appeared to be concerned about something other than his own victories or ego. “Beautiful little babies” in Syria, for example.

A Forbes piece from last year asserts that Trump is in fact a master of empathy, but in a manipulative way. “His instinctive understanding of his fans’ emotional states and his willingness to exploit them drive his success,” wrote Emily Willingham. Empathy becomes a weapon, and not for good. Perhaps it should be distrusted, if it is merely a con to twist emotions in a certain direction.

Which brings me to the headline that prompted this blog in the first place. From the Washington Post: How Trump’s budget helps the rich at the expense of the poor.

USA Today: Trump budget cuts safety net programs, hitting states that voted for him

Post again: Trump’s plans to cut food stamps could hit his supporters hardest

While the one percent may include the majority of Trump’s friends and fellow global businesspeople, he was elected by poor Americans. Their priority for his campaign? Jobs. Jobs and a return to prosperity for struggling small cities and towns that have been left behind by the tech economy. Towns where Medicaid and anti-poverty initiatives are essential to survival.

They took a chance on Trump because perhaps he could bring his business acumen to their micro-economic struggles. Instead, they will be more likely to die early and hungry. That is the ultimate lack of empathy. Somewhere in heaven, my aforementioned grandmother, a lifelong Republican volunteer, donor, and campaign-runner, is horrified.

I won’t quit empathy easily, especially under these circumstances. My grandmother’s legacy deserves more than that. If you need me, check the beach. There’s an awful lot of trash to pick up.

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Running with dogs

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Yesterday my family and I were talking about dogs. You could safely call us “dog people.” We all have dogs, and have since I was 13 and my brother was 9, when we adopted our first dog, the amazing Kasha Montana, from a classified ad in the Santa Barbara newspaper. I will remember the drive to pick see her for the first time until the day I die.

It was my brother who wanted a dog so badly that he begged my parents to let us have one. As we had recently moved to a sprawling ranch outside of Los Olivos, and we were old enough to play with her responsibly, they didn’t have much choice but to say yes.

We’d picked out the name Montana because it was one of our mutual favorite states after many family road trips. But Kasha was a good name, one that I’m even fonder of now that I’ve been to Kasha Katuwe (Tent Rocks) monument near Cochiti, New Mexico. Sometimes life surprises you. Until my first trip to New Mexico I always thought her previous owner named her after wheat cereal. But it stuck. It was a great name and she was a great dog.

She was the first dog I ever drove around with in the car, after I got my driver’s license. And she appeared with me in Runner’s World when I was 16 years old and writing about why I loved running so much. We didn’t run together every day, but she was my first running dog.

I never spent a lot of time thinking about “when I’m grown up, I’ll have a dog that .. ” or “when I’m older I’ll go running with my dog every day.” Then again, I never spent any time thinking about “when I’m grown up I’ll have a family and two kids.” Which I don’t – and that’s OK.

But I do have a dog, my crazy corgi, and I spend a lot of time in the company of dogs. It turns out that dogs, like children, are better raised by a village. It also turns out that when you have suffered severe emotional trauma, dogs can help you heal.

This morning I woke up from deep sleep in an S shape. B – the corgi – was curled up behind my knees. Sam – the Rhodesian – was curled up next to my face and chest. This is our little pack, I thought to myself. We are completely safe and happy in our own little world.

While it was still dark, we went out to run. I’ve run with a lot of dogs over the years, but these two are the most fun. Sam is the ultimate running dog. Essentially he lopes along humoring us while B and I struggle to keep up. There’s a reason why they say that Rhodesians are the ideal running dogs. They make marathons look easy.

For the corgi, on the other hand, it takes a half-dozen steps to make up for one stride made by me or the near-miniature horse. But Bulleit has a heart that must be about as big as his body. He pushes himself to the limit to keep on hanging with us. It’s the kind of thing that makes me feel proud, like a parent would. I realize a lot of people think the idea of “dog mom” is absolutely ridiculous, and I get that. But I’m not just his owner, so maybe it’s best put to say that I’m proud to be part of his pack.

This weekend the three of us ran 9 miles together on Saturday, and Sam and I covered 10 on Sunday (we left B at home to rest). Miles go faster with friends, whether they have four legs or two. Sunsets are more spectacular and moments of joy more joyous. I know I can trust these two not to leave me behind. And that’s a lot more than I can say about some of the people I’ve met.

 

 

 

A letter to my niece

Hi RLE,

You are one week old today, and Donald Trump has been President for 12 days so far.

I am so glad you are too little to understand what this means. But to be honest, even those of us who claim to be “grown up” are still figuring that out. It has been 12 long days of surprising twists, turns and turmoil on a national stage.

Let’s just say that so far it has been a pretty dark time to be a conscientious American who favors equal rights and liberal social policies. I have shed a lot of tears on behalf of many friends who are affected by sudden changes to immigration, health care and environmental law. And I’ve been sleepless at night worried about where we are going to end up in the weeks, months and years ahead.

You are going to grow up in California, which is essentially a different country from the America that decided our current President was a wise choice.  For the most part, people here are reasonable and fair. They don’t judge others based on their gender, sexuality, religion or color of their skin. I am sad to say that in the year 2017, that is not a universal standard in the United States of America. Some of us (including me) were deluded into thinking it was until quite recently. Turns out we were very wrong.

Our current president does not believe that you or I deserve to be paid equally to a man doing the same type of job. He does not believe that we deserve access to affordable health care. He does not believe we are entitled to make decisions about our own bodies and their reproductive capabilities. He does not believe that global warming is happening. And he believes that America should close its borders to immigrants, severing the 400-year-old umbilical cord that made this country what it is today.

On January 21, I went out and marched down the street in Santa Barbara with several thousand others, because I don’t think any of this is OK. So did more than a million other women and men around the country. We walked and we shouted and we sang and we cried, because it is our right as voting Americans to do so. Your dad and mom and older brother were out there marching too. It felt like one of very few constructive things we could do to stand up for an open, free, authentic America that upholds the Constitution and welcomes everyone.

I’ll write you more letters in the coming months, because I want to keep a record of this odd national journey we find ourselves on these days. Please know that your family is out being outspoken on your behalf. We want you to have Title IX intact so you have opportunities to play sports, Roe v. Wade standing so you can make your own decisions about your body, and when it’s time to go to work, you should be paid just as much as the guy in the office next to you. Even if the President doesn’t think so.

We love you,

Your aunt Leah

“I went to your blog but you hadn’t posted in forever!”

Hello, readers. (If there are any of you still out there!)

I recently learned that occasionally folks will come by here, checking to see if I have posted anything, and seeing yet again that I have not. I apologize for the long hiatus. Life took some unusual detours, and only recently have I felt like I am getting back to being myself again.

My hope is to begin remedying the “lack of regular posts” situation in the year ahead.

Lately I have been traveling for work and running, to places like Mississippi, where I ran in the inaugural Gulf Coast Half Marathon from Gulfport to Biloxi. It was my first race in quite awhile and it was great to be back out there competing again.

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My most recent work trip was to Philadelphia, where I took advantage of any free moments to check out the Barnes Museum, Reading Terminal Market, and of course the famous LOVE statue, temporarily housed on Dilworth Plaza in front of Philadelphia City Hall.

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If you’d like to see what I’m up to, or what B the wonder corgi is up to, you can follow us on Instagram, where we post daily updates about our adventures.

My personal account: https://www.instagram.com/leah.etling/

Bulleit’s account: https://www.instagram.com/sbcorgi/

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We’ve been really happy to finally be getting some rain in Santa Barbara County this winter, leading to beautiful green landscapes at home in the valley.

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And amazing runoff experiences like this one from the Ocean Meadows Golf Course this morning:

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Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you’ll read more from me soon.

Another stellar local sunset

Taken earlier this month at Hendry's Beach.

Taken earlier this month at Hendry’s Beach.

Stellar Santa Barbara Sunset

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I took this photo last night at Haskell’s Beach, next to the Bacara Resort in Goleta. Enjoy – and season’s greetings from the South Coast!

A couple things I learned at my high school reunion

I went to my first high school reunion last weekend. It wasn’t the tenth, 15th, or 20th, the timeline on which such events are normally held. Rather, it was the 17th summer since my class of 1997 headed out of Santa Ynez Valley Union High School.

Why now? Well, that was my fault. I planned the darn thing.

Class reunions, by traditional American protocols, are supposed to be organized by the president of the class. I wasn’t in student government – nor had I even gone to a single party in high school that wasn’t school-sanctioned or associated with a team, club or class that I happened to be in. I wasn’t an especially popular kid, and often felt like I didn’t fit in.

You could probably best describe my high school self as a very focused student-athlete. I had my share of crushes on boys and problems with other girls and lots of very vague and hopeful plans for the future, but mostly I was running down a road or had my nose in a book. I was comfortable in those spaces. They were easy and attainable and rewarding and didn’t involve a lot of risk. Being social was a lot harder.

So fast forward more than a decade and a half and change, and why was I stressing out big time over Facebook RSVP’s and trying to track down the few people who didn’t seem to have any social media presence whatsoever and cajoling others to ask their friends to ask their sister-in-law if she could make it? I guess because at the end of the day, I liked high school, and just about all of the people who were there with me, even if we didn’t know each other as well as we could have or should have.

I loved going to high school football games and cheering on our team. I loved being on the Yearbook staff and writing up all the cool accomplishments everyone had all year. And I loved graduation, knowing that we all had the rest of our lives to do amazing things, and were just getting started on our very own magical mystery world tours.

Not even half of our class members were able to make it to the event, but I’m glad we had it anyway. It was at a park on a hot summer Saturday, but people brought their kids and a couple kegs of beer and some stayed all the way until the end. There were a lot of laughs and fond memories and even the chance to get to know people that we didn’t really know back then. There was also really good BBQ, thanks to a great guy named Chris Perez.

Here’s a short list of things I learned from the reunion experience. If you’re thinking about planning one or even trying to decide whether or not to attend, maybe they’ll help.

1. It’s OK that you look older – maturity is really attractive.

2. It’s amazing to see the adorable kids of people you knew when they were just kids themselves.

3. Cliques were dumb. And are even dumber now.

4. You never know if you’ll ever get the chance to see these people again. And they’ll probably bring back some memories of times that you haven’t thought about in years.

5. It never hurts to think back to when you were 18, and life was just getting started. What did you dream of? And what could you start doing tomorrow that would help make those dreams come true?

With many thanks to the class of ’97 members and their families who made it out to this summer’s very random event.