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Big News, Big Move

I’m sitting here on the floor of the living room in the Goleta condo where I’ve spent the better part of the last 20 years of my life. It’s taken me a while to get here, but now that most of the furniture is gone and I’m officially the co-owner of a house in another state, I guess I’m finally ready to publicly share my big news: as of this coming weekend, Santa Barbara will no longer be my home.

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This place has been both my beloved home and the bane of my existence for many years now. For all my fellow ex-News Pressers, I know you’ll understand what I mean by “I could say it all started with a strange woman named Wendy ..” That fateful summer 11 years ago changed so much for all of us. And I have to note that for all of you whom I’m still in touch with, nothing makes me happier than to see how well you’re all doing in the revised iterations of your lives.

But at the end of the day, the paper’s dramatic and ungraceful downfall has nothing to do with my present life. In fact, it catapulted me out of Santa Barbara County, to two great years in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles working with awesome folks like Don Murphy, Bert Etling, Tony Prado, Stephen Curran and Tonya Strickland. SLO was where I first became good at taking care of myself, so I guess I have crazy Wendy, indirectly, to thank for that.

Because I loved it here so much, I clawed my way back to Santa Barbara, taking two jobs to make ends meet. One thing you may know about me is that I always love my work. No matter what I’m doing, or how frustrated I might be at certain moments, I’m the daughter and granddaughter of some ridiculously hard-working European and Scandinavian immigrants. I’ve lost all of my grandparents now, save one, but their workhorse legacy is present every single day of my life. I never lost that second job, and it’s been one of the highlights of my career to be a contractor for Running USA these last 9 years.

I’m trying to transition here to something less positive, that I don’t really want to talk about, but if you are friends with me on Facebook you have probably already heard this. In mid-July 2015, I was dragged out of my home in the middle of the night by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department because my ex-fiancé falsely claimed I had beat him up (in fact, I was defending myself when he tried to throw me down a flight of stairs). They didn’t care that I had reported domestic violence by him on prior instances. It was a brutal and upsetting experience and shook my faith in the system. More significantly, it shook my faith in myself.

I’ve been a difficult person my entire life, from childhood to today. My parents are gracious about this, and I’m consistently apologetic. If we’re friends, you are patient, and I appreciate you. I probably should have been in therapy many years ago. It took the incident I’ve described above to shake me awake and make me fully commit to taking care of myself. It’s something I have to work on daily. Whether it’s forcing myself to take the time for running, yoga, walking my dogs or reading a book, that balanced downtime might seem frivolous, but it’s usually the most important thing I do every day. Life is not just about work, family, fun or achievement. It’s most importantly about balance in all things. If you are like me (Type A to the hilt), that’s something you need to remind yourself of regularly.

So how does all that context lead to this big news, a sandy living room rug and two dogs who aren’t sure what’s happening next? It’s the outcome of a pretty cool love story, rooted in trust, friendship and hard work. It’s precious to my guy and I, so I’ll keep it private. But I will say that one of the things that has bonded us so closely is that we both knew we each needed a fresh start away from Santa Barbara and some of the things that had happened to us here. To be able to do that together has been a true blessing. Thanks to his service to the U.S. Marines, my flexible career, and the support of my parents, we have closed escrow today on a new home outside of Bend, Ore.

I am mostly spilling my guts here to explain myself, and in doing so express my appreciation for those who have supported us so whole-heartedly. We have some absolutely incredible advocates in Santa Barbara County, and we love you all. Even if we haven’t seen each other in awhile – thank you. Thank you for supporting me and being part of this ridiculous journey called life. If you’re ever in Oregon, please do let me know.

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Barney Brantingham retires

In this week’s Independent, Nick Welsh covers the retirement of everybody’s favorite Santa Barbara columnist, Barney Brantingham. When I started at the SBNP as an intern, people used to ask me all the time if I’d met Barney and if so, what he was like. I’d respond that he kept to himself in the newsroom but he sure did seem to know what was going on around town. It seemed like it was no big deal for him to churn out a column almost every day of the week while making it look like the easiest job on the block. I admired that work ethic and tried to emulate it. It was an approach that served me well in my newspaper days.

But the place where Barney really showed his true colors was when everything went to hell at the paper in 2006. He was much loved by the readers – he very easily could have hung on there for a very long time without too much strife. But he walked out early and covered the rest of us walking out for the Indy. That took guts, and it made me sure I was doing the right thing when I departed.

Barney was Santa Barbara’s Herb Caen, a name that probably doesn’t mean much except to us newspaper types. But he loved the town and he covered it through the eyes of the people who live here – the kind of writing that we don’t really get to read much anymore. Thanks, Barney, for being a mentor to me and a much-loved voice for our city.

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Is this the year empathy ends?

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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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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.

On track

Twenty years ago today, I ran in my first high school track meet at Santa Barbara City College.

It was one of the best days of my life, and a day that would change my life.

I was a freshman walk-on who had run in one track meet before, a junior high affair with no real competition. It didn’t count.

I had no expectations for my race, other than anticipating that there would be plenty of girls faster than me, from bigger schools outside of Santa Ynez. I told my family not to come to the track meet, because I figured I’d finish somewhere in the middle of the pack, and I didn’t want them to waste their time.

I was taking the whole thing so unseriously that midway through the track meet I snuck out of the stadium, which we weren’t supposed to leave (such a subversive), and ran down into the Santa Barbara harbor, where I found my Grandfather Mitchell working on his boat.

photo(20) Surprising him, I mentioned that I’d be running in a race across the street in a little while, and if he wanted to take a break, he should come by. I’m sure I warned him that I probably wouldn’t be very fast or beat many people.

The memory of the race itself – a 1500 meter distance, is not perfect. I wasn’t nervous, or scared. I just went out there and ran my heart out. After the first lap, there was no one in front of me. So I kept running. It was a beautiful day, there were tall palm trees swaying, I could smell the ocean. People were probably cheering me on, but all I could see was the red rubber track. My focus was entirely on the act of running, which felt like the most perfect act of physical being that I had ever experienced. I ran faster. No one caught me, in fact, everyone had fallen a half lap behind.

I won the race. My time actually would have won the varsity race. All of the sudden I wasn’t some anonymous little freshman walk-on anymore. Somebody asked me why I hadn’t run cross country in the fall. I think I told them that I thought a three mile race was a little far.

My grandfather was ecstatic. My family isn’t known for its athleticism on either side, and there I was acting like I sort of knew my way around this whole running thing. He drove home, arrived well before the high school bus, and told my parents, brother and cousins. We happened to be having a family dinner at my grandparents’ that night.

When I got there, they had made be a congratulatory sign, and it hung from the front door. My birthday was in a few days, and I remember walking up that sidewalk to see my family and feeling like I had not only done something that I could be proud of, but that they could be proud of too. In one single day, running became one of the most vital parts of my identity. 20 years later, it’s still that.

I’m not as fast as I used to be. Competition hasn’t been important to me in the last few years. I’ve lost two of my ever-loving grandparents, both who were very supportive of my athleticism. But I still try to run every day if I can.

Running, to me, is the heart of my life. I have failed in so many ways in my almost 35 years. I’ve let people down that I care about, I haven’t achieved all my personal or professional goals, and I’m far from being the person I thought I’d be at this point. But I’m also better and kinder in many ways than I ever thought I could be.

Every single day, running invites me to come back and try again. It gives me a fresh start and leaves me assured that I will survive, look forward, and find the right path. I will keep going, keep trying, and get more things right tomorrow than I did today. Two decades later, I am on track, and I’m OK.

This piece is dedicated to my grandparents, Ben and Marion Etling, Renton and Doris Mitchell, and to my parents, Bill and Debra Etling, who have always cheered me on in my races and in life. Thank you, I love you.

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Goodbye is the hardest aloha of all

Two of my favorite people are due to leave Santa Barbara next week. They’ll be back, in fits and starts, but their time living here has come to an end. If the skies seem a little less blue starting next Tuesday, it might be because the Hammedillos have left the area.

Chris and Danielle – you have no idea how much we will all miss you. Me especially. Your good-natured, laid back, fun loving, kind and generous natures have been so appreciated. I’ve never had friends who fed me as many delicious meals as you have, or were so generous with their open door policy. Miso soup and quesadillas are going to be decidedly less delicious from here on out. There won’t be any more line dancing without you, Danielle, or Korean soap operas either. And Chris, I know I’m doomed to try less interesting beer from this point forward.

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not that you both happen to be from my favorite state, the Land of Enchantment.  I’m jealous that you get to go back there, but happy for your families that they will be able to see you more now. And I’ll come visit, you can be sure of that.

I’m sad that we didn’t meet sooner, but so glad we got to have this year of hanging out together. I can’t finish this post without a thank you to Kelly, because without her I would never have known you. Be well and brilliant, and I know we’ll see you further on down the road.

Love, your friend and sister, Leah

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