Compassion & The High Bar

Both of my parents are professors. Dad teaches economics, Mom grammer and English composition. Once a year, every year, throughout my childhood, a magical thing happened in my parents’ home. Mom- she of the homemade everything, would present at diner one night to the family- the largest box of chocolates ever made. This miraculous box of candy (an otherwise generally forbidden commidity in our health-conscious home), would last from the early part of December until sometime in the new year. The mysterious benefactor, it was explained, had been a student of Dad’s. The idea that my dad could affect someone enough to inspire that awesome annual tribute always stayed with me. I honestly don’t think I would have appreciated what Dad did for a living if that one student hadn’t shown me in such a dramatic (and child-friendly) way. My dad taught his first course the year before my birth. I’m 36. Mom and Dad retire this month.

I made a website for them. My sister and I can’t afford to throw them a surprise retirement party, but we talked them into hosting a modest gathering on their own and we’re both flying up to attend. I’m making a paper version of the website in a beautiful handmade album to present to them. That, at least, will be a surprise. The website houses 73 entries from former students. It includes at least one tribute from every graduating class since 1966 except for 5 and some are still coming in. I had no idea so many people would respond. I was also completely unprepared for how it would affect me.

When I was a single mother holding up the grocery line with my WIC coupons I used to swear to myself that if I ever made it out of poverty and fear I’d remember to show compassion to all those less fortunate. I would never stop smiling at a child when I noticed the naked space on her mother’s left hand. I’m a democrate, a feminist, a champion of the underprivileged. Compassion is one of my highest values and I’m strident about the responsiblities that attend the fortunate. I overtip. I give to charity. I slow down so the slow can catch up. My heart bleeds. I believe in the hopes of the huddled masses and love the poor and wretched. What cost is there to too much compassion? Can you possibly hurt anyone with empathy?

I’m beginning to think you can.

“[he] taught me a lot–a lot about economics, a lot about self discipline in my thinking and work habits, and contributed to my becoming a teacher. Like him, I’m proud to say that I am regarded as a strict but conscientious teacher from whom people learn a lot, because they are compelled to do their work carefully. He set high standards, imposed fair but demanding requirements. As a freshman in his microeconomics course, I first learned of the abilities I always held in reserve, but knew nothing about. I scaled to new heights of intellectual rigor and achievement and I’ve never lost it. I’m not sure I would have found it without him. I’m sure there are hundreds, if not thousands, who gained that from him. What a wonderful legacy for a college teacher. When I am grading and providing feedback, and striving to be fair to all students, I think of how he set the standard for fairness and objectivity and making us all play by the same rules. He helped us all get ready for life, to be professionals.

When I defended my senior thesis, of which I was very proud, and on which I worked hard, he taught me another lesson. He shellacked me pretty well with questions I couldn’t answer and hadn’t anticipated and taught me the difference between advocacy and research and between correlation and coincidence. Once again he showed me the importance of open inquiry and careful thinking. (I passed with honors, anyway, and I’m sure he helped see to that along with my thesis adviser!)

Anyway, Bill Whitesell is a man I respect greatly, and who I think of regularly in my work and when I try to have an impact on my students. I have also had the opportunity to affect several hundred people as they prepare for their careers, and have a chance also to serve in government with distinguished and capable people–largely because of the intellectual awakening that he and they helped me gain and because of the special gifts they each gave me in personal growth”
Written by a man who graduated when I was 5.

Then there’s this excerpt from a student who had Dad almost 20 years later:

“…to get an A, along with nice comments (the constructive criticism was standard), and a “thank you” from Professor Whitesell was huge. It was so huge that it stayed with me for a very long time. My eventual career path in corporate and financial public relations included lots and lots of writing — often speeches, quotes, presentations, or position papers for CEO’s and high-ranking executives to deliver on Wall Street, in front of Congress, or with members of the media. Sometimes, I was intimidated by the speaker for whom I was writing, sometimes I was intimidated by the intended audience, sometimes I was intimidated by the subject matter. Always in the back of my mind, though, was the knowledge that I had impressed Bill Whitesell. And, if I could impress Bill Whitesell, these folks would be a walk in the park. I’ve drawn on that confidence countless times, and it has been like the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.”

Everything that people have sent in tends more or less along these lines. Some are funny, some heartfelt, some short some very long, but they all point to Dad as very hard grader and a lovely person.

I keep thinking about the Flow book that blew my mind a while back. He talks about our contemporary drive to raise the self-esteem of children as being wrong headed. Not because self esteem isn’t important; it is. Self confidence is the best predictor for successful careers, marriages, and overall life satisfaction. He says self esteem comes, not from repeated successes, but from a few hard-won ones.

My daughter got so many merit badges from brownies that she ran out of vest space after two years. She would not have been able to tell you what any of them were for. She gets a trophy at the end of every soccer season regardless of how her team has done.

I wonder if we’re so eager to protect children from the idea that they have failled that they don’t realize it’s a possibility. Or, more likely, I wonder if most of us don’t wander about with a vague sense of dread that we might really be failures, only we’ve been protected from those tests that might tell us so.

What my Dad gave his students was the absolute knowledge that they had been tested. Over and over I hear the gratitude for having been pushed harder and further than they knew they could go by a man who believed in them and forced them to believe in themselves.

Of course I don’t get letters from the kids he failled. And for every person who remembers that they earned that rare Bill Whitesell A there are all those kids who make the A’s rare. For every A Dad gave there were several B’s, many C’s, quite a few D’s and some F’s. Every semester my dad failled kids who didn’t try hard enough, didn’t come to class often enough, or who just weren’t smart enough. And I feel sorry for those kids.

Of course those kids did fine and I’m not really worried about them. They blamed Dad, or they decided on a different major, or they developed better study habits. But some maybe internalized it, and knew themselves to be failures. I don’t know.

An economist’s daughter, I am, of course, familiar with a standard bell curve so called because it resembles the cross section of a bell. Create a graph. On the vertical axis write “people” on the horizontal write “success”. A few people will map far to the right on the success line. These are the students who write my dad. These are the people whose speeches get heard, whose money matters. The majority fall in the fat of the bell. Average successes. They make enough, are happy enough, raise their children well enough. By whatever criteria you evaluate success, the highest vertical of people will land here. If it’s a good bell curve, about as many people will land close to the axis as land far from it. We see them with their cardboard signs and shopping cards. Hamstrung by illness or abuse, damaged, clinging close to the zero point on our graph.

Under the dome of the bell the average are safe, but those on the margins steal from each other. I believe it is right that the wealthiest help support the poorest, but should the fastest be hobbled so the slow don’t feel bad? If the test is made easier so that every student who’s come to class can get his yellow belt, will I fail to see the next master? If we take education funding away from gifted and talented programs to fund programs for kids with ravaged home lives who must first learn basic social skills. Does admitting that compassion has a price make me heartless?

The bar is set at 12 feet. Only one person clears it. That person knows she is the best.
Set the bar at 10. Three people clear it. They all feel proud. The one person who could have cleared 12 feet never knows it.
Set the bar at 8. Half the people make it over. They don’t care too much that they did. Some feel like they might have been able to do more. Others feel like they’re not really good, just lucky. Everyone vaguely feels that they haven’t really been tested at all.
Set the bar at 6. Now almost everyone can clear it. No one cares. One girl who would have been among the three to clear 10 trips because she wasn’t paying attention.

The bar is set at 12 feet. Only one person clears it. The rest feel like failures, and hate the one. They decide the bar’s impossibly high, blame the bar and feel OK about themselves.
Set the bar at 10. Three people clear it, the others feel even worse. Can’t make even this.
Set the bar at 8. Half the people make it over. They don’t care too much that they did. Some feel like they might have been able to do more. Others feel like they’re not really good, just lucky. Everyone vaguely feels that they haven’t really been tested at all.
Set the bar at 6. Now almost everyone can clear it. No one cares. One girl who would have been among the three to clear 10 trips because she wasn’t paying attention.

I don’t know. Does someone always have to get left behind? Do you always sacrifice one end of the bell for the other?

I wish I could say with conviction: I have been tested and not found wanting.
I wish I could say: I’m the kind of person who can do things that are hard to do.

If you’re drowning, who do you want pool side:
me emoting with you, feeling your pain, empathizing with your fear, “oh darling, that must be so hard for you! You must be so afraid!”
Or some asshole shouting: “What’s the matter with you!?! Paddle you idiot! Swim! Quit that stupid flailing around and roll over onto your goddamn back and breathe!”

I think I want someone to kick my ass.

So like me, to want things I can’t give though. I’m better at compassion, at empathy. And while that feels good to give and get, I don’t know that its’ helpful. Does my compassion help people stay stuck. Would it be better, braver, to risk angering my friends by calling them to account. Would I be judgmental or heartless if I stopped giving comfort to those staying stuck? If I comfort my stuck friend, listen, empathize, am I getting in the way of the time where being stuck hurts so much they begin to move forward again? Am I willing to trade the short run popularity of being “supportive” for the long term thanks that may not come if you hold someone’s feet to the fire? Do I have the courage to tell my friend that I think he’s making a mistake, doing something immoral and dangerous, repeating mistakes and make him angry or do I standby until the next relationship blows up in his face and be that “good frined” who helps him pick up the pieces. Again.

Why is it everyone I really respect is a graduate of the school of hard knocks, and yet I’d lay down my life to prevent my children from ever having to enroll?


36 Year Old Tree

I’m invisible.
I don’t go to work someplace where people see me.
Not so attractive anymore that I’d catch your eye.
Not so unattractive that I collect scornful glances.
At the grocery store I’m another woman in a line with a cart and a toddler.
If the checker looks up, she doesn’t see me.
On a good day, she’ll smile at my son.
My children see me through children’s eyes.
They see me for what they need, not who I am, and that’s as it should be.
My husband looks at me, looks to me, for sex, for clean socks, for a constant steady friend. He says being near me makes him feel peaceful, he says I’m the source of everything good in his life. He loves me deeply, but he’s simply not interested in the life of my mind. Something I’ve always known.
My best friend is married with a full-time job and a busy life half a country away.
It’s ironic, really, that this place is where I come to feel seen. Where no one sees my face and no one knows my name.
But I have felt seen here.
Maybe I shouldn’t need to feel seen, acknowledged, recognized.
Maybe the inner workings of a 36 year-old stay-at-home mom aren’t interesting.
I pay attention to my children, to my husband, to my friends and my house and my responsibilities. I pay attention to self-growth and continuing education.
I pay a lot.
I don’t make much.
I see quite a bit.
But nobody cares what I see.
Or how it looks to me
I keep up my end. I don’t make a mess. My life is intact. I don’t call attention to myself, don’t get in fights or run up the credit cards. I’m not sneaky. I don’t cheat or gossip.
No one looks at me and shakes their head.
No one frowns in disapproval or scowls in worry.
No one looks or frowns or scowls at all.
I’m Responsible.
If a woman lives and no one sees her, does she really fall?

Halloween Free Association

I had a lunch date with my 3-year old yesterday. He’s a delightful companion if a bit of a menace with a soupspoon. Did you know you can’t feel corn in your hair and people won’t tell you it’s there? It just suspends itself like a miniature bad hat.

Speaking of hats, this is the first Halloween that he’s been old enough to have definite opinions about what he’s going to wear. They are emphatic and change frequently, but all feature some sort of headwear. Reminds me of the Christmas I ill advisedly asked my daughter what Santa would bring her a week before his scheduled North Pole departure. Her answer was immediate and sure: “ a little knitted kitty with a little knitted pillow and a little knitted bed and a pet mouse.” Couldn’t be something Mattel or Hasbro. Couldn’t be something I could hit Toys R Us for at the last minute and just pick up. I spent some long nights knitting and Santa still “forgot” the mousie.

Egan wants to be alternately: a firefighter, a cowboy and a robot. Kaki is at least consistant. She had a fear of spiders a while back that I banished by establishing her sovereignty over the species. I wove a long bedtime story of Kaki the Queen of Spiders and thereafter any eight-legged beastie was a loyal subject come to do honor to his queen. She wants to dress the part. This will be her most conventional choice yet. Last year she was Cosette from Les Mis (but hey, I was Leela from Futurama to gratify a weird fetish of Scott’s who insists I look just like her, but with two eyes and red hair) and before that, in reverse order she’s been: a glitter dragon, a unicorn, a fairy’s cat, an alligator, Santa Clause, Elmo, an Elf, and Elvis.

I’m trying to spot firefighter, cowboy, robot similarities so that I can be prepared. Of course, he’ll end up something totally unrelated, like a pumpkin. Last year at this time he couldn’t say pumpkin. Or he could, only it sounded exactly like monkey. When you take your children to select their jack o’ lantern vegetables and your son talks excitedly and loudly, with pointing, about all the monkeys he sees, people watch with pity and alarm. Which is better than what they do when your son, who hasn’t mastered the illusive “tr” sound, walks through the Home Depot parking lot talking excitedly and loudly, with pointing, at all the big cocks.

If he were a little younger and not so prone to his own opinions I’d dress him up as his totem superhero. All parents develop superhero names for their kids, don’t they? Egan’s is (da, da, DDAA) The Randomizer. The boy has an uncanny ability to disappear things to the most obscure and random locations as well as to say or perform things utterly unrelated to anything else. At Kaki’s school birthday celebration, her teacher acknowledged his presence: “and you all remember Kaki’s little brother Egan.” Kaki (well I actually) had brought him to school for Show and Tell at the grand age of three days, so there were murmurs of assent and recollection among the fourth graders to which Egan replied “Hi. My name’s Rudy.” I have no idea who Rudy is.

For a while he wouldn’t drink milk with diner because “My Uncle Bobby says no” He has, not only no Uncle Bobby, but only one uncle- named Wan. In DC. Whom we haven’t seen since July and who likes milk. The other day I opened my jewelry box to discover half a banana and I’ve turned down the sheets in my bed to find a tube of toothpaste carefully enshrined.

He is particularly interested in the workings of our CD player. We’d already retrieved a chess piece from the VCR when we realized a number of our DVDs and CDs had gone missing. We watched surreptiously until we caught him, mimicking the gesture precisely, sliding discs between the components. He’s put socks on his hands to fall asleep. Once, an odd rattle during one of the louder Lord of the Rings sequences yielded a plastic ball, a wooden triangle and two small pigs in the subwoofer. The randomizing ripples. After a DVD we’d rented for Kaki went missing, I discovered the entry “find Atlantis” in Scott’s palm pilot.

And now, in the spirit of randomness, I submit a list of words it’s funny to hear a three year old say:
Trusty Sword (apparently there is no other kind. I’ve never heard him say the word alone)
Headphones (said “essotassers”)
Binoculors (pronounced superknockers)
Calculator (pronounced “fieldtrip”)

You’ll notice that pumpkins and trucks no longer make the list.

Who I Wanted Her To Be

I always assumed my daughter would eventually be strange to me. I baffled my parents and have wondered since her birth how the familial alien would manifest in her. My best guess to date has been a sort of Family Ties-esque money-driven republican child, but even that I could intelligently debate. But no, my daughter has begun to show signs of something that truly troubles me, finding, as only family can, not the weaknesses you knew you had, but the sensitive core ones that are so much a part of you that you think of them not a personality traits, but as Truth.

My daughter does not like to read. At her age I was never without a book nearby and was capable of vanishing into ancient landscapes for entire days, coming back at bath time dazed and stiff. My daughter will listen while I read to her indefinitely but despite having been steeped in really good books since she was young, she would simply rather draw or knit or string necklaces than read. Hell, she’d rather stare off into space.

If she didn’t love music, or didn’t love theater or cooking or just about anything else I can think of, I’d be OK with it. These are interests some people have and some don’t and while I have enjoyed sharing my interests with her for nine years now, I didn’t really expect that to go on indefinitely. Reading, I’m discovering now, is different for me. It’s more than an interest, it’s a way of being and to reject reading is to reject something fundamental about who I am. This was a love I didn’t expect to even need to impart, I assumed that intellectual curiosity was a given for any intelligent person. Here’s the scary, ugly thinking: If my daughter does not like to read, does it mean she lacks curiosity? Is she maybe, just not that smart? If she is not curious, can I respect that? I will love her, of course, no matter what, but for her not to be full of interest and wonder is, for me, like a minister having a child uninterested in the holy. Alien. I just can’t relate.

So here it is. I guess I’m no different than my parents before me. I have a child and I just can’t relate. I can love, support and honor who she is, but can I bring myself to respect it? Can I respect someone who is not curious? And why does it have to be this, this thing I had not even identified as the one trait that all my friends and mentors have shared?

Because it is so sacred to me I’m not sure how to parent it. My daughter doesn’t like to read, but she doesn’t like to shower either and I do not hesitate to insist that she do so at least every other day. I don’t worry that requiring showers will destroy her capacity to love showering later. I don’t worry that forcing it will only set her resistance in her mind, but I do hesitate to mandate that she read.

Yes, she only recently learned to read, yes she may still be struggling with the mechanics of reading which may be interfering with the pleasure she may take in it. Maybe I just haven’t found the right book to inspire her, maybe she’ll grow out of. Maybe all those things a parent tells themselves. Maybe I’m a curiosity bigot and this is my challenge not hers, to accept my child for who she is, not for who I want her to be.

Kids, Words

Important Information
Today was Kaki’s first day of school, so we’re walking across the parking lot holding hands and she’s just grinning ear to ear. I catch her eye and smile. She giggles: “I just can’t stop smiling, but I’m too grown up for that now”
Third grade, it seems, is when you can’t just walk around grinning anymore.

Sentences I’ve actually heard myself say:
“No! You can’t sneak your magic wand to school in your shoe.”
“Bread is not for hugging.”
“Sledgehammers aren’t for babies!”
“We sit on chairs, here, not kitties.”
“You know, you can’t really tell a person’s age by how long it takes them to poop.”
Last night I gained insight into my son’s language and comprehension skills. He understands simple direction: “That pan is heavy. It will hurt if you drop it on your foot. Put that down please.” And he obligingly drops the cast iron fry pan. What he lacks, it turns out, is the interpretive ability to realize that a dropped pan hurts Mommy’s foot too.

Whizz Quiz
Q: What are the words you don’t want to hear from you (almost) 3 year-old son as he rides on your shoulders at his sister’s birthday party?
A: I have a potty accident.
This ties Egan up with his sister’s previously held Ickiest Mommy Moment prize earned by vomiting into my ear.

Words are Weird
Egan measures height in necks.
“Do you know how big I am Mommy?” he demands coming in from the garage where he’s been all afternoon with his dad.
“No. How tall are you Sweetie?”
“I’m three necks tall!”
Well, some body part anyway- necks, feet, whatever.

On a related theme, Kaki and I are playing Concentration. You clap out a rhythmic pattern while chanting “Con-cen-tra-tion. Ed-u-ca-tion. No repeats or hes-i-tations. Category is:” and then the winner of the previous round gets to pick a topic- cars, countries, verbs, classmate’s names, etc and you alternate between the players supplying examples without losing the clapping pattern or falling offbeat. We’re doing countries and because I’m anal, I’m moving south geographically through the Americas and because Kaki’s not, she’s not.
Me: Canada
Kaki: Spain
Me: United States
Kaki: Iraq
Me: Mexico
Kaki: Bologna
Me: Bologna??
Kaki: Oh! I meant Turkey.
Me: helpless laughing
Kaki: I get the food ones confused- Turkey, Hungry….”

Egan knows that his happiness is important to me. When he wants some new item or privledge he’ll lobby: “Please! So I can be so happy!”

Finally, When Egan is tired, he reports that he’s “out of steps.” This appeals to me. I’ts as if there is a stockpile of steps one has available in a day and once they’re used up, you pretty much just stop where you’re walking and wait to be carried.
And on that note, I’m going to bed. I’m out of types.


Me talking to Husband while driving with Kaki and Egan in the back seat: “And you know Dad will pick the wine at the restaurant. Not just anything is good enough for his *phony snob voice* discriminating palate”
Kaki piping up from back seat: “He does NOT!”
Me- baffled:” What honey?”
Kaki- indignant: “Gapa does not have whatever you said
Me:” I said he had a discriminating palate. That means Gapa’s mouth can tell the difference between tiny changes in tastes.”
Kaki:” Oh. I thought discrimination was a bad thing.”
Me (finally catching on): “Oooh, well, it is sometimes, but not here. Usually, it’s used to mean not liking people because they’re different.”
Kaki:”Yeah, like it’s not OK not to like a person with brown skin”
Me:” No, it’s OK not to like a person with brown skin, but you need to have a better reason for not liking them than their skin. If they’re a mean person and have brown skin, it’s OK not to want to be their friend, like you don’t want to be friends with people who have white skin if they’re mean. Gapa is discriminating because he can tell the little differences between wines. You can be discriminating by telling the little differences between people. The important thing is to know what differences matter and which ones don’t. Like Gapa can’t be fooled into thinking a wine is good just because it’s in an interesting bottle or has a pretty label. He tastes it and smells it and spends time getting to know it. Like you decide who is and who is not a good friend, not by how they look, but by how they act and how they treat other people.”
Kaki: “So it’s good to be discriminating?”
Me: “Umm”
Kaki:”Cause they tell us at school that it’s wrong.”
And I’m stuck, cause all the words I know- picky, choosey, discriminating all sound negative, judgmental, so I backtrack: “You make choices all the time, right? You choose to spend your time playing with one friend instead of another at school. It’s important to make sure that your choices make sense. Are you choosing your friends for good reasons- they’re loyal, they’re fun, they’re trustworthy, or for reasons that don’t really make sense when you think about them? If you don’t play with someone at school because they look different or because the other kids don’t play with them, then you’re discriminating in the bad way. It’s important to make choices yourself.”
Kaki: “So there’s good discrimination and bad discrimination?”
Me “Yup”
Kaki: “How do you tell which is which?”
Me: “Well, sweetie, you um…. You have to learn to discriminate between them.”
Kaki: “Mom!” and mercifully, she starts to laugh cause I don’t think I could have done it anymore.


Is There a DOCTOR in the House?!?

My son as the 11th Doctor Who at Dragon*Con 2010
My son as the 11th Doctor Who at Dragon*Con 2010
A great moment, if not a great photo. A pipe burst in the ceiling, causing water to pour from a light fixture. Luckily, two Doctor Whos were on the scene to address the problem with their sonic screwdrivers (before hotel security removed everyone from the area)
A great moment, if not a great photo. A pipe burst in the ceiling, causing water to pour from a light fixture. Luckily, two Doctor Whos were on the scene to address the problem with their sonic screwdrivers (before hotel security removed everyone from the area)

And then … there was THIS: