Friday, November 14, 2008

Time for New GI Bill

My favorite columnist Nicolas Kristoff looks at data showing that America's economic leadership has more to do with near-universal post-elementary education than with government attempts to expand industry. Highly-educated people innovate, and create the industries that create jobs. Consider how many jobs Bill Gates created for other highly-educated people, who went on to form their own companies that employed other college-educated people, and so on. Think Silicon Valley.

Personally, I'd like to see the GI bill reinvented so that all returning veterans get a chance to educate themselves and, thereby, expand their opportunities. Obama's grandfather, who was a sergeant in Patton's Army in Europe during WWII, used the GI bill to get an education. I believe the GI Bill was a key factor in America's post war economic boom.

Whatever your views on the Iraqi war, the fact remains that the US government asked these men and women to risk their lives, and the US government owes an extraordinary debt to these soldiers. By investing in human resources, and offering financial aid to veterans and family members (who have suffered tremendously during soldiers' absence), the US can do good, and do well economically in the long run.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Work-Family Balance: White House Style

FINALLY, the possibility of genuine, serious attention to work-family issues -- not the past and current BS debate about whether a woman should "work" or not (because the unpaid stuff moms do doesn't count as "work," which is limited to activities that have present or future economic value). Check out the New York Times Magazine story about how the Obama family might manage their leadership and family roles.

Here's the REAL DEBATE (based on, and relevant to, the realities of life, as lived by real people): How can mothers AND fathers do demanding paid work as well as demanding unpaid work (of caring for families, including extended family like grandparents).

Attention will focus on Michelle's ability to "balance," of course. Alas, we'll have to take baby steps on honesty's road... Perhaps someday we can talk about whether it's possible for fathers to have a hyper-charged career and adequately parent their children? Looking at Bush, Jr., and some other not-so-leading sons, suggests sometimes the answer is no.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Birthday Song of Myself

This year, many friends and I have turned 38. So to honor that, I post three stanzas from Walt Whitman's explosive poem, Song of Myself, which references his self at age 37. OK, it's a year late, but take heed, the message remains relevant to the extreme. So Kudos to all my October-birthed friends.

Song of Myself
by Walt Whitman
From Leaves of Grass


I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their
parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.


The past and present wilt--I have fill'd them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day's work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?


The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab
and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Monday, August 11, 2008

More Empathy Please...

Somewhere I picked up this notion that empathy and sympathy are distinct, and that empathy is more sophisticated and highly rare. Basically sympathy is the ability to appreciate the emotional state of another, with reference to similar emotions once experienced. For example, you see someone crying over a loss and you remember a similar loss and how sad that made you feel, and so you are able to understand the other's emotional state. Some adults are, for example, sympathetic to the pleas of children because those adults remember what it was like to feel like a child.

Empathy, however, is not necessarily based on commonality. It is an act of imagination, whereby you try to feel what someone else might be feeling, even despite a lack of personal experience. The greatest actors, for example, are masters of empathy. Meryl Streep was never a holocaust survivor, and yet she was able to endow Sophie with the emotional power of a woman who chose between life and death, for herself and others. Streep is so empathetic that she was able to humanize the devilish Editor in the Devil wears Prada.

Being the nerd that I am, I checked the dictionary. Webster describes empathy as "the capacity for participation in another's feelings or ideas." Or "the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it." Sympathy springs from the french word for "having common feelings." Sympathy refers to a "unity of harmony in action or inclination to think or feel alike...emotional or intellectual accord."

So sympathy is like silver, and empathy like gold: both are valuable and precious. I'm not denigrating sympathy. It's the core of community life: common emotional understandings and values make civil life and common law possible. But empathy is essential when different types of people come together. And I'm not just talking about multicultural societies, I'm referring to diversity within families. Men must live with women, conservative fathers with wives and children itching for change, introverts with extroverts, cautious moms with daring children, etc.

The Golden Rule is perhaps the basic block of Western/Christian morality. Treat others as you would like to be treated. I'm convinced, however, that's not enough. Adherence to the Golden Rule often leads to resentment, and frustrated expectations of reciprocity. It assumes that what one wants is also what others want, and that is not so. My mom (and I imagine, many other moms) once said, perplexed: I did everything for my children, and you're not happy. I had often asked for one thing, and been given another. I had asked for what I wanted or needed, and was given what the giver believed I should want or need, based on their wants and needs.

I remember when I was 11, I once received a gift from an older relative of $10 shampoo, which today probably doesn't seem like an odd gift for a tween, but back then shocked me. She also treated me to expensive skin analysis, even though I had smooth, clear skin. That same year, I bought black licorice jelly beans for all my friends, and was shocked to discover that most people hated black licorice. That year, my study of empathy was launched. Yes, these are silly examples. How about the immigrant parent who works two jobs, so that the quiet, artistic son can go to medical or business school, and become a success someday?

I imagine empathetic failure is the crux of most family/marital problems. Not to mention international imbroglios.

So how do we know what someone feels, without reference to our own feelings and ideas, i.e., how do we experience empathy? For starters, we listen. Most of the time people will say what they mean, however cryptically. Often, if we've established a pattern of listening, people will speak their truth. It's tempting to think: they don't really know what they want/they're wrong, etc., especially if the speaker is younger and/or less experienced, but why assume that we know better, given our extremely limited knowledge of their situation? That always blows my mind: how quickly most people assume they know better or have good advice to give.

Here's what I think: each of us has had years of experience living our lives, feeling our feelings, perceiving those around us, and adjusting to our place in the world. We are all experts on ourselves. Sure, our views are often distorted. Sometimes we do want the wrong things. And, true, many people seem woefully un-self-aware. But, ultimately, I am THE expert about me, and you are THE expert about you. And generally, we don't know what's best for another individual, though we might have suggestions and much help to offer. Really, how on earth could another know what's best compared to the person who has spent their whole life learning about themselves, consciously and unconsciously?

From a religious standpoint, each person has a soul, and that separateness should be respected, even as we realize our common bond as humans consecrated with souls. Practically speaking, if we want to use someone to further our goals, empathy might best be avoided: learning to feel what another feels might distract us from doing what we need to do to get what we want. If we truly allow ourselves to feel another's pain, and experience their desire, we might not manipulate them into sublimating their goals in favor of ours.

It's easy to see why empathy is so rare. But, the best kind of love requires empathy.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Power Tools

For my 38th birthday, I bought myself a Craftsman power drill (19.2 volts) with two batteries that charge in an hour. Because what good is power if it doesn't last, right?

When I asked several handy, practical friends which power screwdriver to get, the first question they asked was: who's it for? Me, I responded, somewhat surprised. Is it so odd for a woman to want power tools for her birthday? There are plenty of girly things to do with a power tool, like drilling holes for studs to hook heavy picture frames and full-length mirrors. And assembling simple furniture and shelves to store and display the brass and turquoise jewelry I craft. Yes, traditionally my husband has been the one to assemble furniture, but as his career has grown more demanding, I've assumed more of the supposed manly jobs. And really, how complicated is a power driver? Sewing machines seem more complicated, and yet women have managed to use them for a century or two.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


So, I've been musing about heroes. I've been re-watching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my tween son, and we've been talking about what makes a hero. My son is referring to the term as used by the Ancient Greeks, where Hero is a godlike champion fighter, as was Achilles.

The reason I love watching Angel and Buffy (again and again) is because of the heroics, and I'm referring to the emotional heroics as much as the physical. It's wish fulfillment, of course. In our me-centered world, it's exhilarating to see "people" acting on behalf of others, even to the detriment of their interests and lives. That to me is the real fantasy, and the supernatural creatures are only a small part of the surreality. Buffy has a mission to save individual lives and sometimes she has to save the whole world, with the help of her friends with whom she interacts daily. Some of her friends have special (magical) powers, and some are powerful mostly because of their love and their will to help. Everyone has flaws, and my favorite characters were once horribly evil, but have sought, and after much struggle, obtained redemption.

Many characters literally give their lives to save others. And Buffy has to do something even harder than dying for love; she has to live through the tedious everydayness of financially supporting and physically taking care of her younger sister. In Season 6, "Real Life," rather than something supernatural, is the "Big Bad," and the villains are human. And there's even a musical episode! If you haven't seen Once More with Feeling, you must. The emotional lives of the characters are so complex, and the ensemble cast is awesome.

I get a lot of flack for watching so much TV, but I generally pooh pooh such disapproval. Joss Whedon creates extraordinary fiction that makes me laugh and think deep thoughts. (Really, what is the meaning of life?)

Yes, this is escapism. But watching strong, confident men and women be champions for themselves and for the people they care about -- this is too good to pass up.