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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

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.”

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

Italy: the outtakes

Last night in Venice. Will just rallied Dad and I for a walk down to the Piazza San Marco. He hadn’t gotten to see Harry’s Bar, and wanted to check it out. The sidewalks and the piazza are still packed with people at 9:30 p.m., and it’s pleasantly warm out. Plenty of couples strolling around with arms entwined. I see why people say this city is so romantic. Especially at night, it’s got a sensual ambiance to it. In a week or two summer season will be full swing and you won’t be able to take a step without running into a street vendor or a visitor from anywhere in the world. I’ve been to London, Paris, Copenhagen, New York City. There’s a crazy fusion of culture here in Venice, too. But what I enjoyed most here was getting lost this afternoon on my way back from shopping and watching the real Venezians head home after a day at work. Normal people, living in this crazy historic city unlike any other in the world. It must be strange to live here.

Tomorrow we head home. I’ve been all over the world with my family and this trip brought back a lot of memories of adventures at home and abroad. It’s interesting to go somewhere together as adults, all with our own separate lives, and see what our particular interests have grown to be. My brother, father and I are all rather obsessed with photography. We also all like to get up early and see things before the rest of the world is out and about. This morning and in San Gigmignano I bumped into my dad while out for an early morning run. We both had independently headed for the castle above Lake Bled to check out the daybreak view.

Having Abigail along on this trip made it really fun for all of us, especially Will of course.  And Will is to be commended for driving the Vito van more than 1200 miles through Tuscany, to the winding narrow road that took us to the Cinque Terre, all the way up to Lake Como, and then through the Alps and into Slovenia. As my mom said earlier tonight: “This wasn’t as much a vacation as it was an Italian road trip.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Ciao for now.

William & Abigail

I didn’t get the chance to toast William and Abigail at their engagement party last month in LA, so this post will have to suffice.

You can tell a lot about a couple by the kind of friends they keep, and I’ve never known two people with as many outstanding and interesting friends as my little brother and his fiancée.

For those who know my brother Will, you’d probably agree that he took our Etling-trademarked social awkwardness and turned it inside out. As a musician who has played shows across the country (including at the House of Blues, the Viper Room, and the Rose Bowl), a self-taught carpenter, outstanding surfer, and an amazing graphic/visual artist and photographer, my brother excels at everything he does. He’s a brilliant, sensitive, well-rounded, thoughtful individual. I’m lucky to know him, luckier to be related to him.

My future sister-in-law, Abigail Sample, is a Mississippi native with a sweet and competitive personality. I’ve never played a more cutthroat game of croquet or Scrabble with anyone else. Abigail has a deep devotion to her family that syncs perfectly with Will’s (her two sisters and their husbands also live in Los Angeles). She is a fun, active, outgoing woman who inspires loyalty from everyone she meets. She’s a great companion for my brother and as you’ll see from the photo below, they look like they should be in an Urban Outfitters catalog. Too cute!

Their wedding in October will be one of the highlights of this year, but more importantly I’m looking forward to watching them have a lifetime of happiness together. Congratulations, W&A!

William and Abigail