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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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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.

 

 

 

“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.

On giving up the newspaper

The LA Times didn’t show up in the driveway today. I didn’t think much of it at 5:45 a.m., just figured the delivery guy was running late, and it would be there when I got back from my run.

But it wasn’t there. And before I got up the front walk, I realized why: I’d written CANCEL on the last bill in big letters, and sent it back. They’d cut me off from my print junkie ways – because I asked them to. Then I promptly forgot about it, probably because I felt a little guilty.

I felt a little piece of my journalism pedigree get torn off in that moment, like I’d dog-eared a page, put down the book and walked away because I couldn’t figure out the ending.

It feels like that for me with newspapers now, every time I think about it. Since 2006, when my best-ever reporting job spiraled into insanity for reasons better explained over cocktails, I keep anticipating some kind of death star moment for the entire industry.

But it doesn’t go like that, of course. It’s a slow, protracted, infected-with-a-mystery virus kind of death. And the good doctors have given up because they realize the patient is low-income and finding a cure won’t bring much fame their way.

Meanwhile a shiny-faced distant cousin has shown up, whose name is CONTENT. CONTENT, whose name is all caps because he is a demanding and insatiable little rogue, professes good intentions but mainly just wants to be fed. He doesn’t care about craft or wordsmithing or Finding the Story. CONTENT is a brat, but he’s healthy and here to stay. We have to put up with him. So, many of us once journalists have been hired to babysit CONTENT. He’s not our favorite, but we appreciate that his parents are willing to pay for his care. They can afford it – they’re big companies with deep pockets.

I spend nine hours a day with content. It exudes from my pores. But I haven’t called myself a reporter or considered myself journalist since I quit my last newspaper to travel the Western U.S. back in 2009. I figured that one day I would work my way back, be an editor in Santa Fe or cover Santa Barbara County government and courts or write on international track meets and European travel in tandem. I’m qualified for all of those jobs.  None of them seems realistic these days as a long-term career.

I have to be positive and point out that there is amazing writing and reportage being carried out today, and it’s accessible to all of us because of the Internet. The New York Times Magazine and the New Republic, in particular, are producing some of the best stories I’ve ever read on a regular basis. Pacific Standard, right here in my own backyard in Santa Barbara, is finally coming into its own as a sharp thinking person’s magazine. There is great journalism online, and I challenge you to differentiate it from the content that is yanking your shirt tails and demanding your attention every second.

I gave up my newspaper, after always subscribing to a paper since I was 16, for three reasons:

  1. Because I read insatiably on the Internet, and gain a far more vast realm of knowledge than I ever could with one regional publication, honing in on my interests and passions.
  2. I am ready to accept the fact that I may never be able to return to journalism as a profession. It doesn’t feel like a heartbreak anymore to admit that out loud.
  3. The Times puts some of their best stories online before they ever appear in print. So I would find myself rereading articles from the day before, and wondering why I cut down a tree to do that.

There was a time, when I was reporting, when the short walk to get the newspaper off the driveway in the morning was the best moment of the day. I knew that when I grabbed that paper and unfolded it, I’d see a story I had written on the front page. A story that told my neighbors something about their community and the world around them.  A story I cared deeply about, even if it was a small one.

I miss that feeling. I guess I always will.

Heartbreak in Boston

I started wishing that I was in Boston for the 117th running of the Boston Marathon last Friday, in the morning.

You can scroll down and read proof in the post below: “You know you’re a runner when .. it’s Boston Marathon weekend and three days before the race you start thinking about how exciting it would be to be in Boston right now. Even just as spectator or a volunteer.”

I’ve qualified to run Boston twice in the past, but never registered. My lame excuse? I didn’t have someone who would be willing to take the trip out there with me for the race. Marathons are emotionally and physically grueling experiences. They’re impossible (at least for me) to run without someone’s arms to collapse into at the finish line.

The fact that the dead and injured victims of this senseless, evil, horrific attack were mostly spectators – people who were there to support their loved ones, or maybe even just watch strangers sweat and struggle to the finish line – is to me one of the cruelest wrongs of all. They were there to send their cheers and well wishes onto the passing runners, to help them reach the finish line by standing by. Someone decided to do them grievous harm.

WHY?

There’s no answering that, and no logical explanation will ever come. I simply can’t accept the inhumanity of it all. An eight year old boy, there to cheer on his Dad running the race, died for no reason. So did two other young women in the prime of their lives. As of today, more than 80 people are still in the hospital with serious injuries suffered in this attack. There is no why, just awful wrong.

If you know runners, or are a runner, you may understand that we have a solidarity among us that runs very deep. As part of the contract staff of Running USA, I have learned that one of the reasons for this is that it starts at the top. The people who produce running events and road races in this country are some of the best people there are. They are kind, compassionate, logical, smart businesspeople. They work in an industry that brings out the best in its participants. Everything they do, every decision they make, is for the runners.

Every year at the Running USA conference, Boston race director Dave McGillivray and his team from DMSE Sports  (who produce the Boston Marathon on behalf of the Boston Athletic Association) are out on the course with us for our morning runs. They are one of the top race production teams in the country. Detail-oriented, exceptionally organized, cautious and competent. Somehow they manage to take care of 20,000 runners, and hundreds of thousands of spectators, without a glitch, at a storied and historic event. It’s a monumental task, and they knock it out of the park.

And now this.

There’s a quote making the rounds via social media, which is spot on: “If you’re trying to defeat the human spirit, marathon runners are the wrong group to target.” (Credit to David and Kelvin Bright)

I would expand that to include the running industry at large. Our sport has experienced a boom in participation that’s going on more than a decade. Huge increases in participation numbers have been recorded by our Running USA statisticians as Americans take to the roads. Those of us who have been running for our entire lives have welcomed them joyously. We would love nothing more than for everyone to be a runner, whether you jog a mile or race 26.2.

My colleague Christine Bowen, who was in Boston and thankfully uninjured in the attacks, put it this way: “We are all part of this amazing industry and I know we will all stick together and come out even stronger, but it’s going to be an emotional road.”

But if anyone can take on an emotional road, it’s the running industry, its runners and the people who love them. See you out there.

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A few ways to contribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon attack:

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Friday musings

Just a lot of miscellaneous thoughts that are junking up my brain today.

You know you’re a runner when .. it’s Boston Marathon weekend and three days before the race you start thinking about how exciting it would be to be in Boston right now. Even just as spectator or a volunteer. But you are glad, for once, that you’re not a truly competitive elite runner, because going into a race that big and important has to be one of the most anxiety-inducing experiences ever.

Marketing slogan that made me insane this week .. “Because places of profound beauty can’t stay hidden forever.” How about making it a little simpler: “Let’s take something beautiful and ruin it with a maddening crowd!” Sigh.

Want to laugh really hard? Watch this:

My favorite part is when he says “Listen ladies. Romance is deception.” Mr. President, you are a very smart man.

-Finished reading Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” I did not like that book. And I especially hated the ending. Oh, the depravity!

Have a great weekend, everyone.

My people

I used to carry my Fisher Price people around with me wherever I went. They were my village. Here we are in the bath:

peopleAs an adult, finding my people was a little more challenging. They didn’t line up for my attention quite so easily. My oldest friends are people I have known since high school and college. I made friends fairly easily at my many jobs and in the running community, but finding a group of people with whom I truly clicked in a big, dramatic, lightbulb-going-off-but-it’s-actually-a-firework-and-feels-like-a-transformer-just-exploded sort of way never happened until last year.

My people are awesome.

They are brilliant and kind and hilarious. They are fascinating, with backgrounds from around the world. (Some are boring Americans, just like me.) They are extremely hard workers, earning advanced degrees, starting businesses, traveling internationally, making scientific discoveries, creating better ways to do things, saving the environment, changing the way we look at the world. They put others before themselves. They have helped me see life, and happiness, in an entirely new way. I used to think that to be joyous would require a great love affair. It turns out that all it really takes is amazing friends – the kind of people who can make sitting on a couch at Restoration Hardware one of the best afternoons you’ve ever had. The kind of people who will show up at your doorstep with miso soup when you’re having an off night. The kind of people who help you with home improvement, encourage you to write a book, and get excited about chocolate pie. The kind of people who can make a boring triathlon volunteer assignment into three hours of pure hilarity.

This weekend I realized, with a sickening feeling, that some of my dear people may not be in Santa Barbara too much longer. They are grabbing new opportunities, heading out to do amazing things with their careers and their lives. This place isn’t meant to be their permanent home. I understand this and want them to be hugely successful and happy. That doesn’t mean I won’t miss the heck out of them – and shed more than a few tears –  when it is time for them to go. And in the meantime, every chance we have to hang around together is that much more significant.

I do wish I could put them in my pockets, like my Fisher Price people, and carry them around with me everywhere. But keeping them in my heart will have to do. My friends – please know that you have been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. No matter where we are, I hope I’ll still know you.

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