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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.

trash

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

Once upon a time in Santa Ynez

Once upon a time in Santa Ynez, a beautiful Southern California valley known for its fast horses and perfect pinot noirs, there was raised a little girl who probably should have grown up to be a Luddite.

After all, she was brought up on Little House on the Prairie (the books, not the TV show). Television was expressly verboten in her family, because they lived too far out in the boonies for cable and satellite dishes were prohibitively expensive. Instead, she harvested acorns and played wilderness-themed games with her little brother. They ran around outside, built forts and treehouses, and used their imaginations a lot.

The day her father brought home their first computer, an IBM PC circa 1985, she typed: “Dear Mr. Bill Etling, Thank you for making me a self.” She was trying to thank her dad for building her a wooden bookshelf with cut-out hearts, which hung in her bedroom. The rather adorable typo was officially her first. The shelf still hangs in her bathroom today.

Her elementary school didn’t get computers until she was in fourth grade. Classes would trek to the computer lab to play games – Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego were her favorites. But in fifth grade, thanks to a technology-savvy teacher, she discovered NYCENET.

The New York City Educational Network was an early internet set up to provide educational connectivity between public schools in New York City. An enterprising teacher came up with the idea that expanding student horizons by connecting them with other students across the country would be a tremendous learning opportunity. They set up a 1-800 number, which was supposed to be shared only with the teachers. But the West Coast students had to enter the number into an old-school modem to access their NYC counterparts. Hours of pointless chatting from home computers ensued.

The unusual experience of talking to kids so far away, living such different lives, was an eye-opener. So was the lesson on how 1-800 numbers worked when the access was revoked for running up hundreds of dollars of charges on the New York City School District’s phone bill. So in the sixth grade, she tried a different approach. She set out to get a pen pal in every single state.

Dashing off letters that were mailed to “Any School, Any Sixth Grade, Town, State, Zip Code,” she received hundreds of responses in reply. Not wanting any potential pen pal to be disregarded, she answered every single letter by hand. Some of the pen pals became correspondents for years. She never got every single state crossed off the list, but the local newspaper ran an article about her quest, and it was there that she got the idea that writing articles for a newspaper might just be a good career.

These are the things that I can’t tell you on my resume – but they give you the start of the story of how writing, communicating, sharing information and using technology became part of my life’s work and world view.

With William in Brokaw, Wisconsin, where our grandmother Etling was born in a small paper mill town.

With William in Brokaw, Wisconsin, where our grandmother Etling was born in a small paper mill town.

That first day

I hate Alzheimer’s disease.

I imagine I hate it the way some people hate cancer or auto-immune disorders or rare genetic conditions. I’m sure I hate those things too, but Alzheimer’s keeps showing up and reminding me of its power to reduce, dislodge and set adrift. In a time of life when people should be enjoying their memories, taking stock of time passed and things accomplished, this disease takes all of that away. It confuses, upsets, deconstructs. And it wreaks further havoc on the afflicted’s family, as they do their best to cope with the situation while watching the person they love fade away before their very eyes.

The pervasiveness scares me the most. My family is coping for the second time in four years. Almost every friend I have has a grandmother, grandfather or other relative who is affected.  All of their families have stepped in to be caregivers to their loved ones for as long as they can. It is stressful, all-consuming, life-altering. It is the only option.

I’ve written articles (many years ago now) about the research being done to understand Alzheimer’s and why it attacks the human brain. Some of this vital research is being done in Santa Barbara, at UCSB. I have confidence that these scientists will figure out a way to cure and treat it effectively, but I wish the science was there already. The medicine available now seems like too little,  too late.

That first day that someone you have known your whole life doesn’t know you is awful. You can prepare yourself, and guess that it will probably come soon, but when it happens it still rips out your heart. There isn’t anything anyone can say to make it better. You can’t be angry at them for not knowing you – it isn’t their fault. Their confusion, combined with your shock, becomes that moment when you search for the right identifiers to explain why they are supposed to know you.

“I’m your granddaughter.”

“I’m your daughter.”

“I’m your son.”

It’s so hard to know what you are supposed to say next. If I could redo that moment, I think I’d say: “I love you.”

The way we were on Waikiki

I feel old.

Going back to a place you lived 23 years ago will do that to you.

Especially if it has changed a lot.

It makes you appreciate the things that haven’t changed that much more. Even if some of them are strange.

At the Hilton Hawaiian Village, the lobby of the apartment building where we lived still has the same furniture. This is weird, considering that it’s been updated to a Hilton Vacations resort and was filled with families, dragging their boogie boards and beach gear with them. This made me happy. It reminded me of when we were almost the only kids living there with a bunch of old people.. and Charo. They didn’t have any of the nice huge flower arrangements in there anymore, either.

Lobby of the former Lagoon Apartments, now the Lagoon Tower, Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Lobby of the former Lagoon Apartments, now the Lagoon Tower, Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Lagoon lawn, where we played baseball with the limited other kids in the apartment building.

Lagoon lawn, where we played baseball with the limited other kids in the apartment building.

Lagoon island, now with less foliage and a waterfall. They stlll don't let you get off the paddleboat.

Lagoon island, now with less foliage and a waterfall. They stlll don’t let you get off the paddleboat.

Exterior, Lagoon Tower.

Exterior, Lagoon Tower.

The ABC stores, still ubiquitous, were around every corner. The Lagoon Pantry wasn’t nearly as dusty and intriguing as it used to be – maybe tourists actually buy things there? Benihana looked dated and had bad Yelp reviews. No more restaurant in the bottom of Tapa Tower.. and the Golden Dragon in the Rainbow Tower was gone too. Tapa Tower karaoke? Nope. The penguins were still there, but I couldn’t find the flamingos. They’ve moved the luau away from the Super Pool, probably to accommodate more people. And they lock up the conference center, so bored kids can’t do cartwheels across the ballrooms. But there are still fireworks every Friday night, and a man who eats fire. Kaisers was breaking, people were surfing, the beach was packed.

I thought about all the great memories we had there and how lucky we were to have truly unique Hawaii experience. And I got to run for the first time from the HHV all the way down past Diamond Head, stopping to take pictures of the lighthouse. Everything seemed smaller and a little less amazing than I remembered it, and the Kalakaua strip was more like Vegas than Hawaii, with all the high end stores.

Fort DeRussy looked the same. A jogging path now circles the lagoon. The pizza parlor, Lappert’s Ice Cream, and Hilton Hawaiian Village barber Leon of Copenhagen – check, check, check. My 11-year-old self still wanted to argue about pineapples. Dole whips continue to be delicious, the perfect treat on a hot day. We went to Local Motion, but there were no bikinis nearly half as awesome as the hot pink one my mother once bought. Ala Moana is now ginormous, four levels, hard as heck to navigate. I recognized the koi pond where we used to take the escalator, and not much else.

Hanauma Bay was still full of gorgeous fish. Sunset, Banzai, Waimea, as beauteous and packed as ever. And my favorite beach – Makap’u – still wild, with crashing waves and hot hot sand. A random tidal wave siren sounded as we walked around, daring me to notice how much things had changed – but how many others remained the same.

Hilton Hawaiian Village memories

We lived in Penthouse 5 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Apartments from June to December 1989. My father was assigned to the Honolulu office of General Telephone and Electric for a special project – as a civil engineer, he planned the undergrounding of phone lines for the state of Hawaii. As a lifelong surfer, he was thrilled to bring us to Hawaii for what could have been permanent residency. As kids who loved to boogie board and play at the beach, we were thrilled to be there.

Life at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Apartments was a trip. From our balcony we could see a free fireworks show every Friday night, as well as the elaborate preparations for the weekly luau, which included the fire eating performances of Siva Afi – at least, I thought that was his name. Googling it now I realize that is actually the name of the traditional Samoan fire knife dance he was performing. Whatever moniker he really went by, my little brother and I were quite impressed with his fire swallowing skills.

We took long walks down Waikiki, swam laps in the apartment pool every day, shopped at the Ala Moana Mall, and on the weekends would tour different parts of the island. I became obsessed with Dole Whips. I also was thoroughly convinced that pineapples grew underground, like potatoes, because despite passing row upon row of pineapple plants as we drove past the Dole fields coming back from the North Shore, I never saw a single pineapple above ground awaiting harvest.

Thanks to an expense account from my dad’s company, we ate out a lot. This six months of my life is probably why as an adult I’m a bit of a profligate foodie. My brother and I would “rate” each restaurant using a Sanrio sticker book we’d gotten at the Japanese grocery store in the Ala Moana Mall. That place had the best bakery – and amazing apple fritters – that I have ever had.

Little things about living at the Hilton stand out: being Charo’s neighbor, we’d see her in the elevator. She had a permanent show there at the time. There was an elderly man named George in our building who liked to ask my brother and I, every time he saw us, “Do you know why they called it Hawaii 5-0?” We’d always say no. He’d gleefully answer himself: “Because Hawaii was the 50th state!” One day we finally got to ride the paddle boats out into the lagoon in our front yard. We were dismayed to find you couldn’t de-board on the little island in the center. There were a few other kids in our building. We played baseball with them on the lawn next to the lagoon, they’d never played before.

It was a strange place to live, with the constant comings and goings of tourists and a permanent party right outside at the resort, and probably wouldn’t have been right for us long term. But for our temporary paradise vacation, it was an amazing spot to call home. Here we are standing in front of the lagoon – in our front yard!

Penthouse at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Apartments