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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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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

DAL

Hurled Bones: The Tom McCord Story

As a very young kid, Tom McCord was the very first person I ever knew who was “different.” He was my dad’s very good friend.

Tom didn’t drive a car, so when he came over to our house to spend time with us, we’d go pick him up at his parents in Santa Ynez Oaks. He was the only grown-up I knew who lived with his parents, which made him seem lucky in my eyes. He didn’t walk quite right, one of his legs seemed to drag behind the other. He didn’t talk quite right, either, so I had to listen closely to be able to understand him. But other than that, he was the coolest person ever. He’d get down on his arms and knees, let me jump on his back and give me a pony ride around the couch. He taught me about toe-jam. He called me Lea-bongea-banana-nana-fo-fea. And I could tell from the way my parents treated him and laughed and smiled more when he was around that he was a very good friend.

I’m not sure how old I was when I could understand why Tom wasn’t like everybody else. I’m sure I asked my mom at some point. There had been an accident, she explained, and he had fallen from a high cliff in Northern California. For a long time, he did not wake up. My dad went to visit him in his hospital room, while he lay lifeless in a coma for many months. But Tom didn’t die. I’ve always been convinced that the overwhelming positivity that imbues his soul is the reason he was able to wake up.

My dad, William Etling, has written some amazing things about Tom that summarize the kind of person he is. A few excerpts:

“Tom was my best friend at Santa Ynez High, class of 1971. He was a good student, surfed, was on the wrestling and football teams, was funny, good looking, and well liked by all. Upon graduation he headed off to Humboldt State, where one terrible night in 1973 a fall from a beachside bluff left him in a coma. He was 19 years old.

Through it all, this gregarious, kind, open-hearted guy, who always had a bevy of friends from all walks of life, honed his stellar sense of humor and a fearless, ebullient charm that melts the heart.

When I visited him at his home in Socorro, New Mexico, we went out for breakfast, and he greeted everyone he met. If they weren’t friends before that moment, they were after. Making his way down the street with the swinging gait his injuries left him, he had a trail of smiling people in his wake.”

People generally don’t react well to those who are different than the rest of us. Whether it’s a physical or mental handicap, an accident, disease or injury that has changed someone’s body or mind or spirit, treating that person equally and openly doesn’t come naturally to some. I like to think that knowing Tom so early in my life helped me be kinder to those who are other-abled.

Tom has lived independently in Socorro, New Mexico for many years. He has a job at the library there, and somewhere along the way one of his coworkers, librarian Kathryn Albrecht, realized what some of us already knew. Tom had a gift for language. He knows more words than anyone I’ve ever met. And his ability to put them together, poignantly, as poetry, is divine.

Before there were computers, Tom would write my dad amazing letters. He saved them all. They were wondrous tales of words intertwined with emotion and big, brilliant statements about the universe. Some of his poems are like that. Others are smaller, sweeter, sneakier. Albrecht’s collation of the poems Tom left on her desk at the library is now a book, “Riding on Hurled Bones.” Speaking as someone who doesn’t care much for poetry, it’s a remarkable piece of writing. You should buy it, and read it, but more importantly, perhaps, you should meet Tom McCord.

There will be two book signings in Solvang and Los Olivos next Friday and Saturday, Aug. 9 and 10. I’ll be at the Saturday event, and I’d encourage you to come to either one. As Dad writes: “The greatest gift of all we take for granted. It’s lost in the day-to-day round of petty annoyances. Just being here, alive, drawing breath, and looking on in wonder at the mystery and majesty of it all, is the ultimate miracle. A few special people, like Tom, risen from the dead, hold that truth in their hearts. If only we all did.”

Tom, thank you for everything you have opened my eyes to in this life. Toe jam first, followed by a lot of really big life lessons that I’ll forever cherish, because I knew you.

The Riding on Hurled Bones Tour 2013 comes to Los Olivos August 10 from 6-8 pm, with music, wine, and the inimitable Thomas Joseph McCord, signing his new book. 2920 B Grand Avenue, Los Olivos, CA 93441.

Tom and Kathryn

Tom and Kathryn

My parents on their wedding day. Tom on the left, my aunt Donna on the right.

My parents on their wedding day. Tom on the left, my aunt Donna on the right.

Disappointment at Mattei’s Tavern

As a Santa Ynez Valley native, I’ve been eating at Mattei’s Tavern for my entire life. It’s gone through many versions as a restaurant, and had many owners and chefs. At one point it was a Chart House, with a memorably terrific salad bar. The most recent iteration, Brother’s at Mattei’s Tavern, left a very high standard to live up to. By the way, you can still find the Brothers Nichols and their fine cuisine at Sides Hardware and Shoes just down the street in Los Olivos, and I would recommend you take your business there as opposed to the “new” Mattei’s Tavern. Brothers will also be opening up the Red Barn in Santa Ynez come November, and that should be a welcome addition to the local steakhouse scene. Unfortunately, the Hitching Post has fallen off the preferred local dining list, since it’s constantly packed with tourists having their own Sideways experience.

The moment we walked in the front door at Matteis this Saturday night, I knew things had changed. The bar/foyer area was once my favorite part of the restaurant, especially in the winter when the fireplace is burning. It’s  now been revamped in such a way that feels a bit like a processing area. The day we were there, two weeks after opening, it still reeked of fresh green paint, which was quite unpleasant. The bench seating along the right wall is far removed from the cozy feel that this room always had in the past. Gone are the paintings of the Matteis, by their son, noted portrait painter Clarence Mattei, that once hung over the fireplace. Also absent was the big host’s podium that used to be directly to the right of the front door. The room was lighter and brighter, but it felt too bright to me.

Though the restaurant was less than half full, we were seated at a table directly across from the kitchen, basically alongside the restaurant’s main thoroughfare. The temperature was extremely warm due to being so close to the stoves. With heavy foot traffic of the staff passing to and from the kitchen, and the warmth, we knew we would not be able to enjoy our meal at this table and had to ask to be moved. The staff was happy to accommodate our request and we were reseated in a table on the enclosed porch, formerly known as the wicker room. Gone are the comfy wicker chairs that were once here, replaced by modern cloth chairs that weren’t all that comfortable. I also noted the lack of table cloths – it felt a bit too casual without them.

The wine list is fabulous. I would expect nothing less from a restaurant owned by Charles Banks, former owner of Screaming Eagle, and now involved in many winery ventures including Jonata on the Central Coast, Sandhi Wines and Mayacamas Vineyards. There are options for every price point. I don’t know that they’ll be moving many $1,400 bottles of Bordeaux, but it’s certainly possible if they attract the kind of clientele that Mr. Banks will hope to have come to his boutique hotel. That will be developed on the Mattei’s property in the coming months/years, so the historic character of this place will be quite altered in the very near future. You can read more about the development planned for the Inn at Mattei’s Tavern in this Lompoc Record article.

You can read more about the meal we had and why we were so disappointed in the food in my review on Yelp. Suffice to say it was disappointing. You might argue that we came in with a bias and were predisposed to dislike everything, but I would argue that I was very excited to visit somewhere that is so important to me. I hoped we’d have an absolutely amazing meal and be telling all our friends how great it was. In the past, I have been lucky enough to have not just great meals at Mattei’s, but made memories. At the price point now, it would have to be an extremely special occasion for me to ever dine there in the future. Based on this poor first experience, I don’t think I’ll ever go back.

Even before our appetizers arrived we struck up a conversation with an older local couple one table over from ours. The woman said: “I hope you have better luck with your food than we did.” With a look of disappointment, she told me how sad she would be to tell her 10 children that the restaurant they had enjoyed so much over the years wouldn’t be somewhere they’d be able to eat as a family anymore. I agreed, and unfortunately I suspect many other locals will as well. I know many of us had hoped that we’d still be able to enjoy this restaurant and historic space as we had in the past. Alas.

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