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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

A Springboard to Accomplishment

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

When we are being honest we will admit that our culture isn’t perfect.  This is true of every culture on the planet.  We all have our strengths, but we also have our weaknesses.  And unless we are willing to cop to those weaknesses, they will continue to plague us.  I started thinking about this yesterday after listening to this piece on Morning Edition about Eastern vs. Western perspectives on struggle.

The piece begins with a poignant description of a fourth grade classroom in Japan.  As the children are being taught to draw three-dimensional cubes on two-dimensional paper it is the child who is having the most trouble with the lesson who is selected to do his work on the board.  Reporter Alix Spiegel aptly notes that in the U.S. this would be considered cruel and unusual.  We would never want to publicly humiliate a child by announcing his failure to grasp the material.

In the Japanese classroom, though, the reaction is vastly different.  As the child fails to get it right and repeatedly keeps trying, the other students patiently wait (apparently without any kind of teasing or mockery – that alone impressed me a great deal) until he finally mastered the cube, at which point his fellow students broke out into applause.  In Eastern cultures this kind of struggle is part and parcel of the learning process; something to be embraced and conquered rather than a source of shame or inadequacy.

My children are growing up smack dab in the middle of America.  We’re doing our best to expose our kids to a variety of cultures, and to help them understand at a core level that there are lots of different approaches to life.  The fact remains, though, that in this part of the country long-standing cultural norms are strong and not often diluted by influences from other cultures.  We will have to work hard to infiltrate those norms with awareness of different paths.  This may be easy enough when another culture’s way of doing something is more fun or interesting.  But getting kids to sign up for more struggle is going to be a tough sell.

Already IEP is reluctant to keep after something that he finds tricky.  When a sweater sleeve gets turned wrong-side out he comes to me to right it.  When he gets to the final few bites of oatmeal in the bottom of the bowl he asks for help in scooping them out.  And far too often (work- and school-day mornings do not lend themselves to embracing struggle…) I oblige him.  There are times, though, when I decline.  When he can’t find a puzzle piece and wants me to help him look.  When he turns a backwards shirt around on his own because I’m in the shower.  When he cuts his food with the side of his fork because I’m busy feeding his brother.  And in these situations, when he figures it out for himself, his pride and satisfaction are palpable.

I try in these moments to point out to him how capable he is, and how good it feels to do something successfully even though it was hard.  I think I need to step back even further, though.  Explaining to a four-year-old in abstract terms that “Isn’t it nice to have a genuine sense of accomplishment?” won’t get us to a place where he fully embraces struggle as a part of learning.  We are all steeped in the belief that it is superior to find things easy in the first place, rather than to conquer things that are hard.  Overcoming that belief will require us all to experience firsthand the value of the struggle.

Struggle is uncomfortable for most of us.  We don’t see it as the springboard to accomplishment.  But perhaps with time - and some struggle itself – we can.

Mandate Schmandate?

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Everyone’s talking about the mandate* and it makes me cringe a little bit.

While I’m not afraid of expressing a controversial opinion on this blog, I typically try to avoid Red vs. Blue politics here.  I will say today, though, (not that it will surprise many of you) that I’m pleased with the election results and optimistic about what the next four years will hold for our country.  Nevertheless, I really don’t like all this talk of a mandate.

The premise, of course, is that when a candidate wins by some margin wider than a hairline fracture he or she is entitled to make sweeping changes rather than ”tinkering around at the edges,” as GAP put it to me last night.  My initial response to that was that anyone who is elected President of the United States had better be doing more than tinkering around at the edges.  Yet I still struggle with the mandate.

My objection is that it’s arrogant – that it implies some sort of carte blanche permission to ignore the other side and use your victory to push and shove whatever legislation you want into reality.  And I don’t believe that’s any way to lead a nation where very nearly half of the voting public cast their ballot for the other guy.  For the record, I don’t think President Obama operates this way.  Rather, it is within the media punditry that it keeps popping up.  This is still relevant, though, because we hear from media personalities far more than we hear from the president (he’s a bit on the busy side), so their nonstop yammering has a significant influence on how he is perceived.

My bristling at the mandate was briefly quelled by this post at The New Republic which eloquently addresses the broader impact of President Obama’s re-election and the message it sends about what kind of America we want to be in the future.  Reading it I nodded at the discussion of the “referendum on liberalism” and agree that if the nation voted against that referendum then those votes should mean something.  So it isn’t so much the behavior underneath a supposed mandate that bothers me as it is the rhetoric piled on top of it.

As it turns out, I’m apparently in good company.  Yesterday Ezra Klein tweeted “There’s no such thing as mandate. There’s only what you can get done with the Congress the Voters have [given] you.”  And this morning on Morning Joe David Axelrod said of the mandate, “That’s a foolish word and it’s generally untrue.” **  Thanks for having my back, guys!

So why-oh-why, then, must people parade about speaking as though Democrats have been given a permission slip to bully the right into submission?  The Republican party dug its heels in with far-right candidates in a number of races (Akin, Mourdock, etc.) and lost.  I don’t see how rubbing their faces in it with talk of a mandate is going to make anything better.  These are polarizing times and if we’re going to get anything worthwhile done in the next four years it’s going to be because both sides were willing to cede some ground for the common good.  Given the losses the Republicans suffered in this election they may have to cede more ground than their Democratic counterparts, but it’s still a two-way street.

I’m glad the president won himself a second term.  I’m excited to see what he does with it.  I think he is an accomplished and diplomatic negotiator.  I just wish the media would quit obfuscating that fact with all of this hubbub about a mandate.

*Mandate mentions can be found here, here, here, and many other places.

**See the 3:35 mark for the beginning of this discussion.

A Well Informed Electorate

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

This is sort of a cheat post because I’m getting ready for much of my extended family to start getting into town to celebrate SSP’s first birthday.  But I had a thought that piqued my interest, and I’m curious about your perspective.

I was chatting with my sister the other day who mentioned that she’d just dropped her ballot into the mail.  She lives in Oregon, which is one of two states that permits voting by mail.  Ballots are mailed to the homes of registered voters about three weeks prior to an election, at which point voters fill them out and return them either by mail, or at a designated drop-off location.  She mentioned in passing that voting by mail has facilitated some of the most informed voting she’s done.

While voting by mail doesn’t necessarily change how she might vote for a race as big as the presidency, it has a lot of impact on how she votes in local elections and on various ballot initiatives.  Rather than showing up at the poll, finding herself unfamiliar with various propositions, and then not voting on them, she reads them on her mailed ballot, researches them, and then casts her vote.  I find this to be a wonderful antidote to so much of the uninformed voting that I suspect goes on.

I wonder, though, if this “do your homework” approach is just a quirk of my sister’s.  She’s a highly academic person with a strong proclivity for studies of all kinds.  So it’s not surprising that she would go about it this way.  But would you?  Do you think your votes would be better informed if elections were conducted as a take-home, open-book exam, rather than a pop quiz?

They Deserved Better

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

It wasn’t in any way shocking yesterday when I read that International Cycling Union (UCI) was stripping Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles.  We all saw it coming.  The storm had been brewing for weeks, if not months or years.  So when I learned that he’d been banned from cycling altogether via UCI President’s Pat McQuaid’s statement that, “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling,” it was just about what I expected.

‘Twas not always thus, though, was it?  In retrospect it all feels a bit foolish, I think.  Our unflagging support.  Our unquestioning allegiance.    

The unlikelihood of a reign like his was what made it so great.  That he beat the odds, at life and at sport, made him the hero that we all wanted to believe in.  Unfortunately, things that seem too good to be true often are.  Now, of course, we know that this was the case with Lance Armstrong.  Having been exposed for participating in the, “most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme sport has ever seen,” his fall from grace has been swift and comprehensive.

As for the pedestal of shame on which he sits today, he earned it, but my heart goes out to his kids.  His older son is about 13 and his older daughters are about 11.  They are old enough to remember helping him accept his final trophy in 2005.  And they are certainly old enough to have believed that their dad was the hero and champion we all thought he was.

I love my dad immensely.  And he was absolutely the hero of my own childhood.  But I have to imagine that spending your childhood looking up to a father who was not only your hero, but a hero to an entire sport, and (on certain days of certain summers) to an entire nation, is an altogether different experience.  What pride they must have felt and how tall they must have stood knowing that their dad was Lance Armstrong, conquerer of cancer and winner of more Tour de France titles than anyone in history.

I started thinking about his older kids yesterday.  Eleven and 13.  You’d be hard pressed to pick a more difficult time of life – a time more plagued with insecurity and more infected with adolescent meanness.  The middle school years are brutal enough on their own.  What fresh hell must they be for these kids now, having to walk into school with the knowledge that it was all a lie, that their dad cheated, and everyone knows it.

Perhaps I’m overblowing it.  Perhaps Armstrong’s kids are being left alone throughout this mess.  Perhaps my concerns are for naught.  But even amidst the most gracious of pre-teens his children won’t emerge from this unscathed.  I feel betrayed by Armstrong and I’m not even a cyclist or a follower of the sport.  The disillusionment they must be feeling far exceeds anything I’ve ever experienced.

I’m sure a lot of people are feeling let down by Lance Armstrong.  But there are five in total, and three in particular, who will feel this sting longer and stronger than any of the rest of us.  They deserved better than this.

Closing the Gap

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Ice cream trucks, bikes, Slip ‘n Slides.  Swimming pools, snack bars, and Girl Scout camps.  Backyard explorations and family vacations.  As a kid, my summers were filled with all the things that many Americans wax nostalgic about when we talk about being out of school for three months each year.  But all of a sudden I may find myself a proponent of banishing the tradition of summer vacation.

It all started here, with Dylan Matthews’ post on Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog about French President François Hollande’s proposal to eliminate homework.  Matthews measures out the value of instructional time versus homework and the conclusions are not that compelling.  However, in the final paragraphs of the post Matthews asserts that for real improvement in academic performance we should eliminate summer vacation.  And from there my curiosity was piqued.

I posted a question to my Facebook friends and Twitter followers (@Gale_TDT):

“What if school became a year-round affair?”

The responses were quick to roll in and quite varied in opinion.

Interestingly, the two teachers who weighed in were against it.  One made the argument that under a calendar with smaller breaks peppered throughout the year teachers would constantly be in ramp-up mode, and unable to maintain traction on content and curriculum with students they don’t see every school day.  Others who spoke out against abolishing summer vacation did so for personal reasons – fond memories of their own childhood summers, or extra time for their kids to participate in other educational formats, such as art and music camps, traditional summer sleep-away camps, or merely for more time with a stay-at-home parent.

Most of the parents (working parents in particular) were all for it.  And I can see their point.  From a purely logistical perspective having kids home full time for 12 weeks places incredible childcare demands on two-working-parent families.  One working mom also made the point that much of the summer is so hot that kids end up having to spend most of the afternoon inside anyway, and that vacation days in the spring and fall would be more enjoyable.

As each respondant explained his or her position I was surprised at how substantiable most of their opinions were.  Each person had a reason, and usually a fair one, for their vote for or against year-round school.  However, the one thing that all the answers had in common was that they were very local, even micro, in their perspective.  Each person responded with a thumbs up or down based on how year-round school would affect them personally.  I think, though, that if we’re going to answer this question in any compelling way, we have to look at a broader range of stakeholders.

Let’s talk for a minute about the achievement gap.  If you’ve watched “The Race to Nowhere” or any of the other recent documentaries on the state of our public education system then you’re well aware that some schools produce kids who are equipped to perform well on standardized tests and thereby improve quality of their future educational and professional opportunities.  Others do not.  Not surprisingly kids who find themselves at the top of the achievement gap typically hail from well-funded suburban school districts and have parents who are heavily involved in homework, science projects, and the like.  Those at the other end of the gap live in under-funded districts and have parents who are not involved in their academic lives.  Also not surprisingly, the boundaries of this gap fall clearly along socio-economic and racial lines.

The obvious answer here is, “Well, close the gap.”  But the trouble is much bigger than the gap, as this piece from National Affairs points out.  Amidst other poignant observations made in the article, author Frederick Hess notes that,

The truth is that achievement-gap mania has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. It has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform.

When we factor No Child Left Behind into the equation, the narrowing and hollowing only continue, as Hess explains:

Because of the way “achievement gaps” are measured — using scores on standardized reading and math tests — any effort to “close the achievement gap” must necessarily focus on instruction in reading and math. Hence many schools, particularly those at risk of getting failing grades under NCLB, have fixated on reading and math exclusively; other subjects — art and music, foreign language, history, even science — have been set aside to make more time and resources available for remedial instruction. … All of this has eroded traditional notions of what constitutes a complete education.”

The reason I bring this up is that educators across the board note that the education gap is the greatest at the beginning of the school year, when privileged kids have lost little academic ground due to various camps and weekly outings to the library, etc., and when underprivileged kids have been left to their own devices, watching television, and fending for themselves.  As one of my pro-summer vacation Facebook responders commented,

I think kids need a change of scenery, and some time to refresh. Also, camps can be really good learning experiences too. They can allow lids to develop specialized passions, whether it be going away to a music camp, sports camp or traditional camp. These are opportunities that just aren’t afforded to kids while they are in school. I think the real issue is, how do we provide enrichment opportunities that all can afford so there is no excuse for kids sitting idle over the summer?

I think she has a point, but I also think there’s a better way.  Why is it too much to ask that our educational system afford those kinds of opportunities?  Why is it too much to ask that kids be allowed – nay, encouraged! – to find their passions within the confines of a curriculum?  Why can’t we broaden that curriculum to help students find and foster those passions?  What kind of educational system evaluates only two subjects?  What kind of educational system isn’t creative enough to measure performance in a more meaningful way?

I think that year-round school could provide a big leg up to underprivileged kids, without depriving more advantaged kids of the enrichment opportunities they’ve come to love about summer.  If we do it right manyof those experiences could be worked into school, and would then be more universally available to all kids.  I’m not saying this will be easy.  I’m not saying it won’t be expensive.  But I am saying that the people being most significantly shortchanged by the current system are the kids.  We’ve created the wrong incentives.  And in a generation or two we’re all going to pay the price.

I Want To Climb My Way Up To Middle Management

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Do you remember the first Monster.com commercial?  It shows a series of children telling the camera in a defeatist, dead-pan tone what they want to be when they grow up.  They say things like “When I grow up I want to file all day long,” and “I want to climb my way up to middle management.”  For a job-posting website it was pretty brilliant because coming out of the mouths of babes we adults were harshly confronted with what a lack of aspiration looks like.  No one tells their fifth grade teacher they want to climb their way up to middle management, and yet that is what so many of us end up doing.

This commercial came to mind the other day as I read this article from The Daily Beast about how women should stop trying to be perfect.  In it the author, Debora Spar – a 20-year professor at Harvard and now the president of Barnard – laments that today’s women were essentially snookered by feminist liberation movement of the 1960′s; what was to have been a breaking of chains has since become a shackle.   She comments:

Indeed, rather than leaping with glee at the liberation that has befallen women since the 1960s, we are laboring instead under a double whammy of impossible expectations—the old-fashioned ones (to be good mothers and wives, impeccable housekeepers and blushing brides) and those wrought more recently (to be athletic, strong, sexually versatile, and wholly independent). The result? We have become a generation desperate to be perfect wives, mothers, and professionals—Tiger Moms who prepare organic quinoa each evening after waltzing home from the IPO in our Manolo Blahnik heels.

I’m with her, to a point.

Reading the above passage and much of the rest of Spar’s article I felt ambivalent.  On the one hand, Yes!  Amen!  We’ve saddled ourselves with unrealistic expectations.  Let’s acknowledge that so we can properly deal with it.  On the other hand, Wait a minute!  Who ever said I wanted to be all of these things, much less at once?  That, for me, is the rub.

Spar holds up in her article Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton, and Marissa Mayer as examples of women who’ve tried to “have it all” and failed.  Condi fails in the romance department.  Hilary fails in the style department.  And Marissa fails in the work-life balance department.    Yes, these women are easy examples because they are highly visible, public figures, whereas housewives in suburban Cleveland live much more anonymous lives.  (No, Bravo!, that was not a suggestion…)  Nevertheless, by holding these women up as the example of “having it all” they (whether intentionally or not) become the yardstick by which the rest of us are judged.

As I scrolled through the comments left in response to Spar’s article one in particular struck me.  The commenter calls out the same organic quinoa/Manolo Blahnik passage that I quoted above and responds with the following points.

  • While these women’s struggles are valid, they are the elite of the elite and do not represent the common struggle of the contemporary woman. I’m sorry, but the average woman trying to have it all and striving for perfection cannot afford Manolo Blahnik heels…
  • [Spar] seems to lose sight of (or at least not fully define) what “having it all” means. In my life, having it all does not mean- high powered job, fancy clothes, clean house, happy husband, kids in private school, head of the PTA or all the other socio elite examples given.
  • There are all kinds of women, mothers, and wives out there and there is room for all kinds of lifestyles. A woman could easily feel she “has it all” when she makes $30,000/yr as an art teacher, has a hard working a loving husband who is a construction worker, and two children in public school and after school programs.

And most importantly:

  • According to this article though, we are lead to buy into the idea that this woman still doesn’t have it all- because she doesn’t make much money, and doesn’t own her home, and doesn’t have a huge fund for her kids future Harvard education.

That is where I think Spar does all women a huge disservice.  Only if we’ve achieved the success that she dreamed of in her life have we achieved success at all.

So what about that Monster.com commercial?  What about working your way up to middle management and stopping?  What if you don’t gun for the VP slot that opened up because you know it will take a toll on your family life?  What if your kids are happy enough sharing a bedroom because the less demanding, lower-paying job also means you can be home to read them stories at bedtime each night?  What if you’re happy in clothes from Kohl’s instead of Kors?  What if you’ve achieved health and happiness and balance without all the pomp and circumstance of a high-powered career?  At least in that light middle management doesn’t look so bad.*

Near the end of her article Spar notes that,

Feminism wasn’t supposed to make us miserable. It was supposed to make us free; to give women the power to shape their fortunes and work for a more just world. Today, women have choices that their grandmothers could not have imagined. The challenge lies in recognizing that having choices carries the responsibility to make them wisely, striving not for perfection or the ephemeral all, but for lives and loves that matter.

I think what she’s missing is that many women have already made that choice quite wisely.  Many of us don’t feel pressured into the definition of perfection that she describes.  But somehow I walk away from her article not feeling that I’ve accomplished something if I’ve found happiness without her brand of perfection.  Rather, I feel that I’ve settled for something with which she herself (the article kicks off with her own impressive professional pedigree) never would have been satisfied.  In the same breath that she tells us all not to give in to the myth of perfection she somehow manages to perpetuate it.

We need this national conversation.  But we need it to be honest.  It doesn’t serve anyone’s purpose to talk out of both sides of our mouths.  To be fair, Spar makes many excellent points in her piece.  But the one she drives home the most – both implicitly and explicitly – is that perfection has a single definition.  And that is the point I find most damaging.

——————–

*There are tradeoffs, naturally.  If your middle management job makes you want to put your head through a wall then that’s a different story.  But just because a job is mid-level doesn’t necessarily predicate from also being interesting and engaging.

Sooooo….. How’ve You Been?

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Last weekend my dad went to what must have been (if my math is right) his 45th high school reunion.  He is all about both catching up with old friends and reminiscing about old times.  Rarely does he miss a reunion.

My 15th reunion would have been last year, but none of us was really on the ball enough to plan anything.  We tisk-tisked ourselves over it and sort of collectively vowed to get ahead of the curve for our 20th in now-four years.  I went to my tenth, and have since intermittently wondered whether or not I will go to my 20th.  I had an okay time at the reunion six years ago, but it wasn’t an experience that had me aching for more of high school.  (Who really aches for more of high school anyway?)  This question of “to go or not to go” had been put to bed for some time (“Don’t go” was the answer), but lately I’m beginning to reconsider.

The reason this question has become interesting to me again?  Social media.  Specifically, Facebook.  I’ve been wondering: does keeping up with old friends in the online world make us more or less likely to go to some effort to see them in person?  Are we less likely to go because we already know what people are up to and how they’ve changed?  Or are we more likely to go because we’re more engaged with them?

I have a remarkably different view of my former classmates now than I did in 2006.  At my tenth reunion I saw my peers as I did on the day we graduated.  The cool kids were the cool kids.  The awkward kids were the awkward kids.   When you haven’t seen someone in ten years, you have almost no choice but to pick up where you left off.  And one weekend doesn’t really provide the opportunity for meaningful updates of any kind.  Everyone fell immediately back into their old roles and their old cliques, which was only marginally enjoyable.  So why might the next reunion be any different from the last?  Since then I’ve joined Facebook.

You might argue that Facebook doesn’t really provide the time or space for meaningful updates either.  But it does provide the opportunity for regular updates, and I would argue (despite the prevalence of highly curated content – we only show what we want people to see) that via frequency and recency Facebook gives us the opportunity to see our former classmates as they are today – on vacation with their kids, complaining of delayed flights, marveling at a delicious meal, or lamenting an exceptionally poor job of presidential debate moderation.  And I have found that were I to meet my high school classmates for the first time today, my impressions of many of them would be vastly different from the perspective I had in high school.

Getting to know these people all over again through status updates and profile pics has helped me see them with fresh eyes.  People with whom I once had nothing in common, or who intimidated the bejeezus out of me are now just people; people who might share my interests in cooking, or my left-leaning politics, or my passion for travel, or our roles as parents.  Now that I can see these people as people, rather than adolescent archetypes, I think I could enjoy them so much more.  And since I don’t have to waste time asking them what they’re up to – I know who’s been elected to the city council, who’s traveling the world, who’s landed a few national commercials, and who’s started her own business – I can skip over the logistical catch-up and have more interesting and meaningful conversations.

Call me crazy, but I’m kind of looking forward to 2016.

In Poor Taste at Best

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

There are days when it seems like the 1950s were so long ago.  I mean, I haven’t gone to a sock hop in ages!  But then, just when I was starting to get nostalgic I was provided a comforting dose of antiquation via Nanny and TheKnot.com.

I’m kidding, a little bit.

As you may recall from posts earlier this year, Nanny got married last spring.  Like countless brides before her (myself included) she used TheKnot.com to keep many aspects of her wedding planning efforts organized and on track.  The wedding was gorgeous and perfect and so suited to her and her husband.  They’ve been happily trotting along as newlyweds for six months now, so TheKnot.com decided it was time to check in with her and… suggest that maybe it was time for her to start thinking about getting pregnant!

Pushing parenthood on newlyweds just to drum up business for your baby planning website is in poor taste at best.  Nanny was irked, and rightfully so.  I, on the other hand, was completely perplexed.  Who decides to get pregnant because a website suggests that it’s time?  Seriously.  Who?

The marketer in me understands the organic growth strategy.  Get more business out of your existing customers.  It’s a solid strategy as it is always easier to keep an existing customer than to find a new one.  But for websites like TheKnot there is a relatively short shelf life for its value proposition – usually no more than a year.  And if anything is as prone to make a woman feel neurotic, out of control, and in need of assistance in planning as a wedding, it’s a pregnancy.  Nevertheless, I still question the tact at play here.

I can think of so many interesting ways for a site like this to try to maintain a relationship with its client base.  Reminders of monthly anniversaries and creative ideas to celebrate the little markers en route to the first anniversary.  Wedding-related holiday gift ideas.  And perhaps a cute, only-slightly-forward note around the one-year mark that says something like:

 We try not to bother you too much because we know you’re quite busy in your life as a happy newlywed, and we would never want to be pushy.  We just want you to know that when the time is right, if you want help planning for a baby we’d love to hold your hand along the way.

Competing for the mindshare of busy young women is no small feat.  I grant them that.  But just because something is hard doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still require finesse.  The 1950s were great in a lot of ways.  But women have more options on the table today than mere procreation.  TheKnot would do well to remember that.

Insulated

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

I’m not a big Twitter user.  I tried to be.  Actually, I’ve tried a few times.  But I fail every time.  It’s a failure I’m willing to live with.  Most people aren’t that interesting in 140 characters, and I have little patience for Tiny URLs and hashtags.  Nevertheless, a Tweet from Emily Nussbaum (which I found via a slide show on HuffPo) gave me something to chew on.  A few days ago she tweeted,

“I’m better off than I was 4 years ago, because back then, I had a 2 year old and a baby. Thank you, Obama!”

Obviously President Obama had nothing to do with the fact that her kids are now six and four.  Obviously, she’s making light of the current election-year climate, in which candidates try to take credit or cast blame for everything that has happened in our lives since the last time pollsters dedicated their lives to ruining my children’s nap time with robocalls.  The march of time happens no matter who’s in office.  And much of the good and bad that befalls us between election years has little to do with who took the oath of office on a fated January day.

I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Is it good that my life is so insulated from the politics of the Oval Office?  Is it good that our elected officials can dicker and lobby and negotiate over issues for weeks and months and on a daily basis the only ways in which it affects me are through the coverage I listen to on NPR?

I suppose it means that I’m lucky.  I am not in the military.  I don’t have “pre-existing” medical conditions.  I am not a gay person who wants to get married.  I am not a small business owner (not that small business ownership is a misfortune of any kind).  I don’t even have any kids in the public education system.  But does that mean that only people in certain sectors of society are actually affected by the policies set by our government?  As an average white woman living in the middle of the country should I really be that far removed from the repercussions of my government?

In the long run, I am not.  But on a day-to-day basis it sometimes feels like it, and part of me is grateful for that.  I am thankful that I am healthy, have a good job, am not subject to military deployment, and live in a part of the country that is reasonably economically stable.  My life today is vastly different from my life four years ago, but – much like Emily Nussbaum – that is due to the presence of two little boys who had not yet arrived on the scene during the 2008 election.  My life is more full but less restful.  It is less predictable and more filled with adventure.  It includes more diapers and fewer dates with my husband.  It is filled with more hugs and more spills than my life was four years ago.  These things would all still be true if John McCain had been elected.

Even though the layer of insulation that exists between me and the federal government is a byproduct of a largely privileged life, I’m not convinced it’s a good thing.  It allows me – when I’m feeling lazy – to disengage from the political world more than I should.  It allows me to focus only on my own existence, and not on those whose lives are drastically affected by policy shifts.  It gives me the opportunity to live an insular life that negatively impacts the degree to which I am informed about the world around me.

I try to do a decent job of looking outside myself; of understanding how our government’s actions have real and vivid effects on so many other people in this country.  I have no idea how I succeed on this score compared to other people.  I’m sure I could do better.  And I’m sure I could do worse.

In four years my two boys will be seven and four.  There will be things about that life that are vastly different from the life I live now.  And those changes will come about largely independent of whether President Obama wins a second term or not.  That doesn’t mean, though, that I get to stop paying attention.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Yes, the world is bigger today than it used to be.  Than it was when I was a kid.  Than it was before televisions, or telephones, or airplanes.  Than it was before industrialization.  It is much, much bigger.  But bigger itself isn’t a problem.*  They are the byproducts of bigger that have significantly changed the way we experience life.**

With “bigger” have come the suburbs.  With “bigger” have come fewer community ties and relationships.  With “bigger” has come the internet.  And with “bigger” has come a life that affords us more anonymity within our daily lives than any culture has ever had.  And again, anonymity itself isn’t bad.  It’s what we do with it that can be.

Anonymity is a tricky thing.  For some people, it is immensely freeing.  For others it is an incredible yoke.  And for all of us, to some extent and at some time, it creates opportunities to behave badly.

I can cut you off in traffic because you have no idea who I am.

I can leave a snotty comment on your blog post because I will never see you face-to-face.

I can be rude or aggressive to you over the phone because you’re some faceless person in a call center somewhere.

I can deny you the respect you deserve as a fellow human being because our relationship isn’t a relationship at all, but rather one fleeting, momentary interaction in an endless series of similarly fleeting interactions.  But would I do these things if I thought you knew me?  Would I behave differently if someone I know were watching?  Do I temper my actions when my children are watching?  Would I be ashamed to tell a friend or colleague or pastor of my actions?

We can all answer yes to these questions some of the time.  But I fear that there is a growing trend in our society today that would have us answering yes to these questions more of the time than is right or good.  I’m not saying I don’t slip up.  I do.  You do too.  But I’ve also been on the other end of other people’s slip-ups.  So have you.  We know how bad it feels to be disrespected.  And we know bad it feels to disrespect someone else.  Both are pretty miserable.

I like myself better when I am kind.  When I am patient.  When I am gracious.  When I am thoughtful.  When I am tolerant.  When I am courteous.  When I am the kind of person I’d want to be seen being, even when no one sees me.  I do not want to be a doormat or  a pushover or a victim.  But I want to behave in a way that comports with those values.  And I can’t help but believe that we’d all be happier if the people around us did too.

A big world makes certain actions easier.  But it doesn’t make them right.

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*Well, it can be, of course, when it comes to matters of disease, food supply, and other matters of the human condition, but that’s not really my point today.

**And when I say “we” I mean first-world, industrialized-nation people.