Sunday, March 23, 2014

6 Things I've Learned from Being Sick

I've spent the past week on the couch with a box of tissues and not enough energy to make it to the bathroom without stopping to rest along the way. Mostly I've slept through this sickness, but when I've been awake and not coughing I've picked up a few little life lessons.

1-- Take a break before it gets this bad.
Pretending to be a Superhero who never needs a break

Slowing down is hard. ...ok... nearly impossible for some of us. It's so easy for me to look at my friends and know they need to take a break. They are Super Women, doing everything plus some.  It's a lot harder to admit that I, personally, actually need to take a break. That is, until I'm sprawled on the couch unable to move.  Saying no from time to time, taking a day off, deep breathing and classical music are all a lot easier to handle than a week out of commission. I'm certain a virus was involved in my past week, but I could have fought it off a lot better if I'd been rested.

This is a lesson I keep relearning and trying to apply. I hope I'll do better at it.

2-- My kids are a lot more capable than I give them credit for.

by mrgreen09 on Flickr
Not only can my kids cook meals, clean up the kitchen and supervise themselves pretty successfully, they are also kind, compassionate people who actually look pained to see me not feeling well.  I sometimes forget that they are growing up. There is something so wonderful about fading in and out of consciousness on the couch while watching my son and daughter laugh and be happy as they do the dishes together. And when they sit beside me and ask, "Is there anything I can do for you?" I want to say, "You already have. Thank you for being a kind and caring person."

3-- Flowers really do cheer me up.

There is a wreath of flowers hanging on my front door, on the inside where I can see it. It was on the outside, but the wind was threatening to blow it to Kansas so we brought it in about a week ago. The pink dogwood is a beautiful reminder of spring and of my home in Virginia. I've never really understood the point of sending flowers to sick people, but perhaps that's because I've never spent a week lying down with cheerful flowers in front of me. I'm going to make a bigger effort to send flowers more often, especially to friends who are sick. They cost so little and are so cheering. Small things can make a big difference.

4-- Listening to stories is as comforting at 45 as it was at 4.5.

I don't get headaches often, but this illness brought with it a whopper of a headache. Reading is my escape of choice, but it made my headache beyond unbearable. What I really wanted was someone to read to me. So I downloaded the audio version of the book I was reading, closed my eyes, and let someone read to me. It was wonderful. I faded out a few times and had to go back to figure out what was going on, but I also remembered that I used to read aloud to my kids all the time. Even my teens and college students. Reading aloud and being read to is magical and bonding. I'm going to bring this back into our lives by reading a chapter a night again like we used to do. Find a good book. Read to someone.

5-- Relax. The world keeps rotating even if I don't get everything done.
tonynetone on Flickr

There are deadlines, and then there are DEADLINES.  The latter are the kind we drag ourselves through even when we're sick. But the former are the things that felt important when we were well and that we realize actually don't matter when we are struggling to sit up.  And even the all-caps kinds of deadlines rarely involve life and death eternal consequences. So lighten up! Relax and take time to get well. The world will still be rotating when he sickness is past.

6-- Bodies heal themselves.

Human bodies are pretty miraculous that way.  For the most part, illness is temporary. Rest, drink lots of water, provide your body with some healthy food, and voila! The cough and headache go away. The vitality returns. And before you know it you have energy to think about laundry and papers and schedules again, and you'll be wishing you could have an excuse to collapse on the couch and listen to a good book.
Judit Klein on Flickr
Which brings us back to Number 1.  Take a break before it gets that bad.  Schedule time on the calendar for relaxation and consider it an appointment you have to keep.  =)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

This is 45 and Single. Again.

I recently read a blog post titled This is 45 by Emily Mendell. She did a beautiful job describing life in so many ways and inspired me to reflect on my own life.

And so my friends, this is 45 and single. Again.

45 and single again is the detour in life that catches you so off guard your head still spins when you stand back and look at it.  It's wondering where you went wrong while being amazed at all the ways you got things right. It's wishing you could do things over and being eternally grateful you actually can't.
by John Crossley, Flickr
45 and single again is realizing the emotional drama of your teen years passed in part not because you got older, but because you got married and left the dating pool. It's asking your teens for dating advice and putting on reading glasses to check responses to your online dating profile. It's listening with more compassion than you had a few years ago to your daughter's romance dilemmas and crying with her over broken hearts-- yours and hers. It's telling your kids as you walk out the door that you'll be home late and they don't need to wait up for you.  It's wondering what the person across the table would think of your son's long hair or your daughter's obsession with Taylor Swift while knowing that actually, you really don't care what they think.

by Mav, Flickr
When your 45 and single again you stumble over grocery shopping and meals. One less person to cook for throws everything off. Leftovers become regular meals as you gradually learn to buy less, cook less, serve less.  You make mistakes, cook too little and end up plunking a jar of peanut butter on the table so no one goes hungry. Then you realize the kids are just as happy with ramen and stop cooking meals all together. And then you vow to do better, to have family time around the table with real food-- but you know the food is only a small part of what's missing.

45 and single again is realizing you can have a life. And being shocked. You drive by the Scuba Certification place you've seen every day for years and suddenly realize you can sign up without having to justify your actions to anybody. So you pull over and sign up. Right then. It's realizing the world is so wide open there's a feeling of vertigo as the possibilities spill out before you.  And at the same time, it's feeling suffocated by options so limiting you might choke. It's having the wisdom to know that money doesn't fix everything, but the experience to understand that it can smooth a lot of rough edges in life. It's sitting down after you sign up for scuba classes and giving yourself a stern talking to about your own budget. And then loving the classes while wishing you had a husband to take them with you.

It's sitting in church, hearing that children need two parents, catching your child's eye and exchanging a sad smile of apology.

45 and single again is suddenly realizing there are a lot of single women in this world, and you are not alone-- in what you are experiencing or in the men you are trying to date. For every single man in this world there seem to be at least ten single women-- and most of them are more beautiful and accomplished that you ever have been or ever will be. It's consciously looking for the good parts of this new life as you realize you might be here a very long time.

When you're 45 and single again, your bed is a place of mixed emotions. At first you sleep in the same spot you always have, right by the nightstand and reading light. The other side of the bed feels awkward and empty and you avoid looking at it.  But gradually it starts to feel like unclaimed real estate. You inch your pillow over, spread out, feel the coolness of the sheets on the other side. Then one day you sleep in the middle, right on that almost imperceptible rise that used to separate two bodies. It's uncomfortable and you wake up disoriented, like sleeping at someone else's house. But over time it becomes yours exclusively-- this bed, these sheets, these pillows. And eventually it goes from being a place of emptiness to a place of solace.

Being 45 and single again is sleeping with the small bear your daughter gave you, to remind yourself that someone out there loves you.

45 and single again is getting back into the job market. Under duress.  It's putting together a résumé that says nothing about your real skills or who you are. There is no place to put Dedication to Those I Love, Even in the Wee Hours of the Morning or Expert Negotiating Skills From Years of Mediating Sibling Rivalry. You are reduced to filling out applications for part-time employment at wages your children wouldn't accept where the only qualifications are that you are a citizen and breathing. And then not getting hired. 45 and single again is an odd combination of being over-qualified and under-résuméd.

45 and single again is going back to college, finishing the degree you started before life took over. It's sitting in class next to kids younger your own offspring, struggling to memorize things your classmates pick up after one pass. It's wondering if your professor is single and hoping he's not younger than you. It's listening to a lecture on some aspect of life you understand all too well from years of experience, watching the professor struggle to explain it to these kids, and wanting to stand up and say, "Let me help you."

45 and single again is proof that time travel is possible. It's being whisked back to school and dating, backpacks and part-time jobs, living the life of a 20-something in the body of a 40-something, wishing the energy and excitement had come back along with the assignments and date nights. It's standing against the wall at a dance watching a stooped gentleman with grey hair shuffle toward you and ask you to dance while wondering if you remembered to submit your paper.

What 45 and Single Again Moms are supposed to be
Being 45 and single again is balancing motherhood and romance and school and work-- and never ever getting a break. It's being the only one to take out the trash, pick up milk, listen to the kids' sorrows, turn off the stove, fill out taxes, take the dog to the vet, pay the bills, vacuum, lock the front door, pick the kids up from school, or do anything else that needs to be done. It's being on the job 24/7 with absolutely no possibility of getting a break. It's keeping your cell phone on vibrate during the movie in case someone gets hurt and needs you. Right now.

What we actually are

45 and single again is worrying about your kids. Despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, you fear your own mistakes will cause them to become homeless bums with an inability to form meaningful relationships. You watch them have crushes, date, fall in love and get married, and you replay your own life in your mind. Every prayer is for them to be happy and safe. Safe from accidents, from sickness, from heartbreak-- from life. And while you have the wisdom to understand that this is not only unrealistic but unhealthy, you pray for it anyway.

At 45 and single, you are less judgmental. After all, your own life just bit the dust in a major way. At the same time, you have less patience for things that mean nothing.  The preciousness of time is becoming increasingly clear and while it's not flying by as fast as it will at 80, the galloping pace is sometimes alarming. Trivial matters are pushed aside while seemingly small events-- like reading to your kids-- are cherished for the treasures they are.

by Tyler Nypen, Flickr
45 and single again is a pause in life-- a time to consider the whirlwind of young motherhood, the crashing reality of divorce, the painful rebuilding-- and to realize the person you have become is stronger and wiser for all the ditches you pulled yourself out of to get here. It's looking back and looking forward and seeing that you stand at a pivotal moment, a time to redefine your identity. 45 and single again may be the very definition of a mid-life crisis, but it's also the mid-life launching off point. Scuba classes, college, dating and children are the pieces you pull together and arrange on the floor in your room, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, rearranging and refitting into Your Life, Part 2.

This is 45 and Single Again. This is me.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Waiting for Superman

A friend whose opinion I value recently expressed that he's tired of girl power stories.  To be honest, I hadn't noticed that they were prolific. But after he mentioned it, I took a look at my favorite books and movies and saw a definite trend.  Girls are standing up for themselves all over the place. Even defeating bad guys without the help of a man. (Shocking. I know.)

And it doesn't bother me. In fact, it makes me very, very happy.

For a blog post about abuses of girl power, click here:
His concern, if I understand correctly, is that these stories are saying women don't need men. Although he didn't put it in this many words, I gathered that he fears these stories are contributing to the breakdown of the family and trends toward single motherhood and the feeling that fathers- and men in general- are expendable.  Perhaps even hatred and abuse of men.

These aren't the messages I'm getting at all.  I see the proliferation of girls power stories as a backlash against thousands of years of women being told they can't survive without men, that they are weak, incompetent, and should submit to whatever men want-- even if that means abuse. I see the swords and strength as representations of girls taking charge of their own lives and refusing to be abused any longer.

Let's look at Frozen-- Disney's retelling of The Snow Queen, by Hans Christian Anderson. (Hans, Kristoff, Anna, Sven. Get it?  Thanks to Bethany for pointing out where their names probably came from.  Not sure what's up with Elsa.)

Spoiler Alert!!!
If you haven't watched the movie and want to be surprised- read no further. Until after you see it, of course.  Then hustle back on over here and finish reading.  =)

I love this story for several reasons. First off-- the marriage proposal that happens toward the beginning between Anna and Hans is so classic Disney, and so absurd.  They meet, they hit it off, sing a song together, and get engaged. That same day. Ridiculous, right?  Except that... I did pretty much the same thing at age 18. I met a guy, we hit it off, and within two weeks, we were engaged. Not quite in one day-- but close enough. And like Hans, the guy I married turned out to be the bad guy. ("Oh Anna. If only there was someone who loved you.") This part of Frozen felt real to me-- bad guys posing as good guys, sweeping girls off their feet only to drop them on their butts in the snow when they don't get what they want.

On the other hand, I really, really like Kristoff.  He's not perfect, unlike Hans who appears perfect at first. He works for a living, has a very strange "family," and is appropriately shocked that Anna got engaged to a guy she just met that day. Even better-- he's honest with her about how shocked he is. He calls her out for being an idiot. Not in a rude way, just in a down-to-earth, you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me way.  He sticks with her when she asks him to do seemingly irrational things. (A trait that makes me, personally, swoon. Not that I would ever do anything that seems irrational.)  And when she's better than him at some things (not at everything), he's not offended, showing that his own feeling of self-worth is not so tenuous as to be knocked over by a girl's competence.

Finally, the act of true love rings true for the first time in a Disney movie ever. It wasn't a kiss-- which as we all know can be faked. It wasn't even romantic love-- which can be true love, but can also be fueled by passion like gasoline and burn out quickly. This was a sister's love for her sister. Something that had been growing in harsh conditions for years. A love that had been tried in storms and still held true. And the act was not something Anna needed someone else to do to her. It was something she did. It was her own love for her sister that saved her, saved her sister, and saved the entire kingdom.

Which sends the message...

We don't need to wait for someone else to come and bail us out. We can make a difference by loving those around us. Even our own family members. Even when they have been pushing us away out of fear, even when they have hurt us. Selfless sacrifice and love can save the day. Even if you're a girl.

Does this mean girls don't need guys?  Not at all. But maybe we don't need them to save us. Maybe we are strong enough to make a difference on our own. Powerful enough to fight for what we need-- sometimes with a sword, sometimes with selfless acts of love. Whichever it takes.

So what about Superman?

I don't know a single girl who doesn't want to be swept off her feet by a powerful, kind man who will protect her and love her to the end. Even when we're being irrational.  Even when we act tough and say we don't need a man in our lives. Whether we cry when the bad guys show up or pull out our swords and jump into the battle. Or do both. We're all waiting for Superman.

Heaven knows, the world needs more super men.

But while we wait, we can pick ourselves up after abusive or failed relationships, dust the snow off our butts, grab a sword and make the world a better place.

Waiting for Superman, by Daughtry

Monday, January 6, 2014

Learning to Fly

We've just finished the holidays, with Christmas trees, parties, gifts and well-wishes for the new year.  All while wars have raged in Syria, South Sudan and other places, including, sometimes, our own homes.

When people pray for "Peace on Earth," it brings to mind world peace- meaning an end to wars, typhoons and slavery and other big world problems.  That would, of course, be wonderful.

But I feel a greater need on Earth right now for individual peace. Peace for my friend whose husband recently passed away. Peace for another friend who is struggling to support her family as a single mother. Peace for children who have been abused. Peace in my own heart to know that the path I'm on is the right one for me and my family.

by Jayel Aheram on
As much as I hope the war in Syria ends peacefully, I pray even more that the individual mothers who lose sons and husbands in the fighting will be able to find personal peace. And while I hope the entire area affected by the recent typhoon in the Philippines will be able to recover, I think the greater need is for individual people who lost property, children, parents or spouses to find their own inner, personal peace.

We don't have to be trapped in a war torn country to struggle with turmoil. It can happen in suburbia, on a sunny street where everyone is well-fed and clothed. Likewise, we don't need to be living a life of ease to find peace. It can happen in the midst of car bombs and  devastation.

Both turmoil and peace can happen anywhere.

Many things contribute to personal peace. Gratitude- recognizing and acknowledging our blessings, however small they may seem- brings a measure of peace. Living in line with our true priorities brings peace. Serving others- finding ways to bring happiness to those around us with no thought of getting anything in return- brings peace. Discovering the truth about life- understanding who we are and why we are here brings peace.

I invite you to live peacefully. Express gratitude.  Find someone to serve. Focus on your true priorities and let the other things go. And spend time discovering why you are here and who you really are.
by [Duncan] on

In connection with this, I'd like to share some insights I've been pondering about how I gained peace, and to share with you that it was nothing like I thought it would be.

Sometimes in life we follow the path we feel led to, trying to make good choices and be the best we can be, assuming that what goes around comes around and our good choices will lead to happy outcomes. Right away. Preferably this afternoon.  For me, as a Christian, this includes following the example of the Savior and loving God and others to the best of my ability.

While following this path, we are sometimes shocked that instead of leading to a field of clover and warm sunshine, it winds uphill, steadily getting steeper, alongside steep drop offs, through dark caves, over sharp stones and finally abandons us at the top of a jagged cliff where the wind is howling with absolutely no way out but over the cliff.

by on

And we think, "Really?  I followed You here?  Come on!  I kept the commandments. I was nice to my neighbors. I studied my scriptures. I went to church every Sunday. I paid my tithing and donated to the poor. I served people around me. What did I do wrong? Why are you punishing me?  ...wait... are You even real?  Was I just imagining Your voice directing me?  Because really-- it doesn't take a God to know this is not the kind of reward I was hoping for."

And then, as I clutch the edge of the cliff, I hear Him tell me to jump.

And I think, "You have GOT to be kidding! Jump?  Off this cliff? Do you see those rocks below? Do you hear this wind shrieking?  I don't want to die!  This has been crazy enough already, with those dark caves and sharp stones and now this?!  I don't think so."

And then His voice, tiny and still inside me, whispers reminders of other times, smaller times, when He caught me. That time when I needed a house and He led me to exactly the right one. That time when I prayed for help and a friend called with an answer. The many times, over and over throughout my life when I felt lost or alone or afraid and He helped me through. He caught me every time. And even though those times were smaller, they were the same.

And I hear Him tell me again. "Jump."

I say a prayer, peel my fingers from the jagged rocks and throw myself off the cliff into nothing.

And with His hands holding me, I fly.

I catch my breath, amazed that I am not splatted on the rocks below, shocked at the wind in my hair and the miracle that carries me safely, lovingly.  Suddenly, with the world spread out below me and an entirely different perspective, I realize the climb up that mountain wasn't about the dark caves or sharp stones or howling wind, although all those things gave me chances to practice hearing His voice.  It wasn't a punishment or a mistake.
It was bringing me to a place where I could learn to fly.

The greatest peace I have ever found has come from learning to trust-- not myself, or harnesses, or warm fields of clover.  The greatest peace has come from learning to trust Him. Because steep cliffs, sharp rocks and dark caves mean nothing when I know that in His hands I can fly.

by suvival198 on

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Coming Back to October

And then, suddenly, it was October.

I honestly hadn't noticed. Or, maybe I just hadn't thought about it. School started again. The leaves up in the canyon turned so bright we couldn't help but stare at them from the valley. And pumpkins suddenly appeared in fields beside the highway. It was almost General Conference weekend-- something Mormons celebrate every April and October-- one of my favorite weekends. As Naomi said about conference, "It feels like Christmas."

I'm generally a cheerful person with an upbeat attitude about life. But for some reason I couldn't understand, I was slipping.  Snapping at my kids. Feeling like life was hard (which it is, but hey! I'm usually ok with that.) And I had no idea why.

On Friday afternoon Naomi's therapist asked if she could talk to me alone. We do this most weeks-- take a few minutes alone to talk about how things are going from my perspective, while I get a frank assessment of how things look from the therapist's point of view. But this week she didn't talk about Naomi. She talked about me.

She said she wanted me to know that she knew I'd been through a lot of really hard things, but that they were not my fault. She talked about high hopes on wedding and adoption days, and how confusing and hard it is to have those hopes shattered. Her kindness and sympathy toward me were so unexpected, on top of how hard things had felt recently, that I cried a bit. Then I cried a little more in the car on the way home, trying not to let my kids see, staring out the window at tail lights and pumpkin patches as the radio sang. At home, the kids and I had homework, and I tried to concentrate and hide the tears that kept slipping down my cheeks, but at some point I gave up and simply cried. And cried. And I had no idea why.

Peter and Naomi were so tenderhearted. Naomi brought me tissues and asked if she could do anything to help me feel better, which only made me cry harder. And Peter sat beside me and patted my back looking so concerned that I tried to tell him everything was fine, but for some reason he didn't seem convinced. Eventually they finished their homework, gave me one last look of concern, and went to bed.

That night I lay in bed with soggy tissues and realized what was wrong. It's October.

I got engaged in October several life times ago. It was homecoming weekend at BYU and the leaves and air were crisp. He proposed in my grandma's carport. No ring. No prepared words, or permission from my father, or falling to one knee. Just a simple question and a simple response. "I would love to marry you."

I found out he was abusing my children in October, the Monday after General Conference, just a couple of life times ago. Sitting on my front porch, one of my best friends in the world confirmed my feelings that something wasn't right, and less than 24 hours later I had evidence.  I called CPS in October-- the single most difficult thing I have ever done because I thought they would take my children away from me forever. I was terrified but knew I had to keep my children safe. I thought I might die that day. Things moved quickly after that. He was removed from our home in October-- told by police he had to leave. He tried to convince me to appeal the decision, to fight to get him back. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, trying to understand the implications of the paperwork the detectives were handing me, and failing miserably. He packed a couple of things and left with all the kids watching and moved into a hotel, apparently thinking this was temporary. He was arrested and put in jail in October, just before our traditional Harry Potter Halloween party. I don't think my kids knew where he was, since he hadn't been living with us when he was arrested, and I know no one else did.  I put on a brave face and made butter beer and set out all-natural candies and opened the door when the doorbell rang, both to trick-or-treaters and to friends who came to party. I smiled all night and feared the moment someone would ask where he was.  No one ever did. He hadn't been home much for several years. I remember standing at the door, saying goodnight to the last guests who were in spectacular green and gold robes, thinking, "My husband is in jail, and no one knows."

And now it is October again. My kids asked if we could have a big party like we used to, and I did't now why the idea made me shake. I didn't know why breathing in fall air and seeing pumpkins felt so...shaky, unpredictable, scary.

Once I put the pieces together and realized what was going on, once I could put a finger on the most tender spot and identify what had happened to make it hurt, I was ready to heal.  Just acknowledging why I hurt made it so much more bearable, and I fell asleep peacefully that night.

The next day I knew I was going to be ok. I could have another party, decorate for Halloween, and even sing again while making dinner.

I made reservations a couple of days later to attend an LDS Singles Conference in Virginia and set up lunch dates with friends back home for while I was there. I finalized dates for our family Halloween party here at my house, and ran to Whole Foods in Salt Lake to get all-natural candies.

As is so often the case in my life, words from a Taylor Swift song kept running through my head.

"And for the first time, what's past is... past."

Friday, October 4, 2013

Crossing the Line in American Politics

I'm going to take a wild guess that most of us in the US are feeling frustrated with the freakishly bi-polar state of American politics right about now. I'd like to offer three suggestions to get American back on track. They all involve crossing the line.

First, a quick look at how, in my opinion, we got to where we are today.

Long, long ago, back in 1949 when girls wore dresses and lipstick and guys wore fedoras, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) introduced the Fairness Doctrine, requiring broadcasters on the radio and television to present both sides of controversial issues. (Kind of a shocking thought, these days, isn't it?) At the time, there were a limited number of stations possible, and this was a necessary step to make certain one political party did not monopolize the air waves. (For any of you younger people out there who might be wondering- the Internet did not exist. Cable TV did not even exist.) These were the days when, after tucking Johnny and Suzy into bed, Mom and Dad sat on the couch and watched the 10 o'clock news-- hearing BOTH sides of the story.

Then cable television came along and suddenly there were plenty of television stations to go around. Not only could the Republicans and Democrats each have dozens of their own stations if they wanted, so could Communists and Evangelical preachers, infomercial salesmen and music producers (MTV).  Realizing the need to protect each side's ability to have a venue to be heard was no longer so critical, the FCC eliminated the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Enter CNN (Fair and Balanced?), FOX News and many others.

Result? Mom and Dad sit dow to watch the 10 o'clock news with a plethora of options, leading to the question- "Who do we agree with?" and the tendency to watch stations most in line with their own opinions.  After a while, Mom and Dad get so indoctrinated in the only side they ever hear that they can't even remember what The Other Side looks like. When they hear an opinion from across the aisle, it sounds foreign and absurd.
Foreign and Absurd. Notice the bystander's expressions.
They are undoubtedly wondering how this man intends to run a government. 

Enter the Internet, with YouTube and FaceBook. Mom and Dad's kids, Johnny and Suzy, have grown up in a house that only hears and talks about one side of every story. As far as Johnny and Suzy are concerned, The Other Side is evil and wants to destroy freedom in America--much like the 1950's and 60's view of Communism. When Johnny and Suzy get FaceBook pages, they exercise their First Amendment rights to voice their opinions, and let everyone know how right their side is, and how evil The Other Side is. This sparks angry comments, Likes, mean words, sympathetic responses and an increase in the Great Divide of American politics.

Johnny and Suzy don't get their news reports from journalists who have studied the issues and are required to report both sides of the story. They don't even get it from journalists who are now allowed to go all out promoting their own agenda. They get their version of current events from teens on FaceBook who repost witty slams on the The Other Side as if life were a sit com and there was a laugh track for every mean thing anyone says, often without understanding the issues involved or history behind them.

And we wonder why there is a problem?

We are sliding from being a republic to being a schismocracy. It's not that one side, right wing or left wing, is controlling our government. The schism is controlling the country. If we want to get things under control, we have to close the schism. I have three proposals to close the gap.

1)  This is something you can do right now. Grab your smart phone and get apps for multiple news stations, including at least one you do not agree with.  If you are not already, start getting your news from real news sources (aka not FaceBook). Stations to consider? There are tons that lean left, including MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times and to be honest, most others. FOX leans right. If you are sitting on the left side of this schism, please subscribe to FOX and make a point of reading their opinions at least once a week. If you are sitting on the right side of the Great Divide, please subscribe to something other than FOX and read articles on politics from the other pov at least once a week. In this way, we can start tossing lines from one side of the schism to the other, reaching out and, be it ever so slowly, pulling this schism back together.

As Covey says, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." We can't possibly work together if we can't see where The Other Side is coming from. If reading FOX reports makes you see red and curse, you may need to take it in small doses. But for America's sake, keep reading! If NBC articles make you want to vomit, set them down for a bit, take a deep breath, and come back ready to listen and understand.

I'm not saying we need to adopt The Other Side's views. I'm saying we need to see where they are coming from. Throw that line out there, reach out, and start pulling. This schism is not just in Congress and on the Hill. This is all of us. If you want to see responsible negotiations in DC with a willingness to compromise and work across the aisle, then keep in mind, those people represent you.

Did you download a news app or two?
Good job.

2)  Redistricting. This isn't something you can do from your couch this afternoon. But it is something you can at the very least understand, and possibly get involved to change. Voting districts in the US are areas with boundaries, where everyone in one district votes for one or two (in the case of the Senate) representatives. After a census is taken, boundaries get redrawn to take into account population shifts. The problem is that population shifts are not the only thing taken into account. The party currently in control of redrawing the boundaries takes the opportunity to strategically manipulate the lines so their people get the most votes. If you're a Republican redrawing lines, you break up areas that traditionally vote Democratic and keep the Republican areas together, so each district ends up with less Democratic neighborhoods and more Republican neighborhoods. If you are a Democrat redrawing lines, you do the opposite. This is called Gerrymandering.

Result? Widening of the schism. Representatives are elected to represent groups of people who, like those watching MSNBC or FOX, have a very one-sided pov, with so few people from The Other Side that representatives don't need to worry about their opinion in order to be reelected. And when they ask their constituents opinion, to no one's surprise they get a very skewed response.

I think voting districts should be redrawn to be as balanced as possible. In fact, I would not object to a law to this effect. This would get representatives who have to listen to both sides and could eliminate the type of bickering going on right now. Combine this with a populace that is making a concerted effort to listen to news reports form The Other Side, and the schism grows more narrow.

3) Eliminate the Electoral College. In America, when you "Vote for the president," you are not actually voting for the president.  Here's a quick primer. A very, very long time ago in the colonial days, back when girls wore petticoats and mob caps and men wore powdered wigs, it was difficult to get any news information at all.

Not only did the Internet and cable not exist. Radio and television did not exist. Newspapers were local and very expensive. The average George and Mary did not have time or means to read about and understand politics. They were busy tending the farm, milking the cow and sewing little Martha's pantaloons.  The founders wanted a way for George and Mary to be involved in political decisions without unintentionally messing things up by casting uninformed votes. Enter the Electoral College. In this system, each community elects someone to vote for them. This was intended to be someone people knew and trusted to study the political events, travel to listen to debates, and take the votes of the people back home and cast them on their behalf for the president of the United States. Most states give all their votes to one candidate. Period. (Maine and Nebraska are exceptions.)

But (in case you weren't sure), things have changed. Newspaper prices dropped dramatically. Radio, television, cable, Internet, smart phones- and who knows what is coming in the future- have all made it possible for the Georges and Marys of today to be informed. Not that we all take that opportunity. (You are, though, right? You downloaded some news apps with push notifications? Your going to glance at them when they pop up and occasionally read the articles, even from The Other Side, right? Good job.)  Today, the Electoral College serves to widen the schism.

Consider Utah. (Oh man, where do I start?)  If George decides to vote for Obama in Utah, does his vote have any impact on the election? Nope. None. Utah is going to the Republican candidate no matter what. Did Obama have any reason to court voters in Utah? To listen to them? To even take their existence into consideration? (Well, ok. Maybe their existence. But that's about it.)  Or how about a Republican living in Vermont. I assume there is at least one up there. Their vote for Romney made absolutely no difference in the outcome of the 2012 elections. None.

If we went to a popular election, presidential candidates would need to start listening to voters everywhere, not only in swing states. The schism, where Obama can ignore people in Utah and Romney can ignore people in Vermont, would lessen. Every vote would count, encouraging the president to listen to every person. Yes, I recognize that this is a complicated subject and the results of eliminating the Electoral College would be many. I am of the opinion it would improve the state of American politics in part through encouraging presidents to listen to everyone.

So there you have it. Listen to both sides. Redistrict to as balanced as possible. Eliminate the Electoral College. My three-part plan to end the schismocracy in America, close the gap, and get back to being a country we can all be proud of.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Not Fearing China Anymore

I read a book recently called The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi. It was one of the most well- written books I've read in a long time-- an intense page turner that combined believable characters with shocking situations, leaving me with something to think about long after turning the last page.  I don't recommend it for young teens or people who are squeemish about violence.  But if you are up for a well-written, emotionally tough read that will leave you thinking, I highly recommend it.

(Note: It is a companion to the book Ship Breaker, another beautifully written book which takes place before The Drowned Cities and is much less intense. If you'd like to read Ship Breaker first, and I recommend you do, check it out here.)

The Drowned Cities is futuristic, and in it Chinese peacekeepers are trying to stop waring tribes in North America from exterminating themselves. The author took, in many ways, the situation today between the United States and some sub-Saharan African tribes and moved everything west. An interesting concept, and one that made me think a lot about the future of the United States and China.

Like so many, I've been disturbed for years by test scores of American children and how they are falling steadily, especially in math and science, compared to other countries, in particular, China. Combine that with the US's financial situation, and things have been looking pretty grim. I can see where Bacigalupi came up with his ideas.

This past week and a half, my family has had the pleasure of hosting two Chinese foreign exchange students-- Emma and Jessica. (Not their real names, obviously.) They are 14 and 15 and are from, according to them, the best school in their province.

I have been impressed by several things about these two young women. First, they are very polite and offer to help with things around the house. They are well-dressed and groomed and speak English quite well.  Every now and then we pull out Google Translate, but for the most part we can communicate easily without any outside assistance.

I was amazed to learn that Emma began attending boarding school at age 4, and Jessica at age 6, and since they told me this, I have been trying to wrap my brain around what this would do to young children and their social and emotional health. My family did quite the opposite of boarding school-- although technically it could, perhaps, be termed boarding school. We home schooled. I tried explaining this to them and they looked as horrified at our school choice as I felt about theirs!

Without ragging too much on public schools, I'd like to say a few things I've noticed about differences between home schoolers and public schoolers in America. These are generalizations, of course. Individual children vary greatly in just about every way.

Generally speaking, public school kids are way better than home school kids at getting into line quickly, being quiet in halls, sitting still at desks, and dealing with imposed boredom.  The last is a valuable skill in this world, and my own kids' lack of tolerance for all things dull has been a concern. (For example, one of my children, in response to a college assignment: "This is boring and stupid. I'm just not going to do it." I'm sure you can imagine how well that went over.)

Homeschoolers, on the other hand, are generally better at being self-motivated, working quickly, and finding creative solutions to problems. This is a natural consequence of the fact that, unlike public school children, homeschoolers have the option to finish their school work quickly followed by time to go do something creative that they enjoy.

Having the bulk of your time filled with tasks that are assigned by someone else leads to a lack of motivation and an inability to entertain and educate yourself.

In Emma and Jessica, I am seeing an extreme example of this. When I asked what they like to do, they didn't even understand the question. "I go to school," was their response.
"Yes, but what about when you're not in school?"
"I go to boarding school. I am always in school."
"Well, how about on weekends? Or after class is over?"
"I am in class from 6:30 in the morning until 10 pm. When class is over I go to sleep."
After a moment of stunned silence... "How about weekends?"
"I study. My math tests are very difficult." Jessica indicates a 4 inch thick test and Emma nods.
"What do you do for fun?"
They stare at me, and then at each other. Google Translate is not needed. They simply have never had the opportunity to entertain themselves. Later they tell me they don't even pick their own classes. The government does that for them.

So, here they are in America for a month, and shockingly, they have free time!  But I have never seen kids with less of an idea of how to self-direct in any way. They sit on the couch and play games on their phones.  For hours. And hours. And hours. And sometimes they sleep during the day. When we get out a card game, they are quickly bored. When we go to the park, they climb with my teens for about 5 minutes, then wander listlessly or sit and stare at nothing. We were told it would be illegal for them to accept any reading material from us-- which explains why they looked like I asked if they'd like to snort cocaine with us when I offered to let them read the books in our home library. They came for a month with no novels to read, no knitting projects, no stories to write, no sketch pads. Nothing.

I've seen this kind of behavior before, but in a less extreme way-- public school children in America are notoriously poor at finding ways to entertain themselves and they, too, become bored quickly. (Thus their parent's rush to get them back in school in the fall) They, too, rely heavily on electronic games and have often not developed any true interests outside of school. But typical American teens are like Da Vinci compared to what I'm seeing in these two, undoubtedly very, very smart Chinese girls.

Emma said something interesting to me yesterday. "I think your daughter, E, is very smart." I agreed, but thought this was kind of an odd statement. "She made a movie?" asked Emma. I said yes, she did. Both girls nodded. "She is a genius."

Really?  They have 4-inch thick math tests, but filming a movie makes my daughter a genius? I mean, yes- it's impressive, and I happen to agree about E's IQ, (not that I'm biased or anything, as her mother) but this conversation intrigued me. I'm used to thinking the Chinese kids are the geniuses.

And then, after putting that together with their over-the-top amazement that another daughter writes songs and that I write books, and with their own apparent inability to muster an ounce of self-direction or creativity, things began to fall into place.

They are impressed with our ability to think for ourselves. I'm witnessing Democracy v Communism in my kitchen. We are impressed with their math skills, and they are impressed with our ability to be creative.
Chairman Mao Zedong

Chinese schools are, as far as I can see, an extreme example of American public schools. Theses Chinese kids aren't just good at standing in line, they don't seem to know how to get out of line. They aren't just good at sitting in their seats, they don't know what to do when they don't have a chair pointed out and an assignment plunked in front of them.  And they are so accustomed to the state dictating their every move, they are not able to even comprehend the question, "What do you like to do?" When I ask questions about their homes, their country, or their thoughts on why Facebook is not allowed in China, they answer like robots, repeating government-fed propaganda. When I ask for an opinion or idea, they are confused and unable to respond.

I used to be concerned that China might take over the world. And while I still have serious concerns about the US economy and our public school system, I am no longer afraid Chinese students will grow up to dominate the world. Because in order to do that, they'd have to get outside the box of government controlled thinking. And from what I can see, they are sitting firmly in the box, brilliantly waiting for someone to hand them their next math test, while Americans are coloring outside the lines.

PS. Should you want an excellent and very readable book about how the Chinese got to where they are today, (aka- about the Chinese cultural revolution), please take a day or two to read Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jang. It is truly amazing, and is one of those books I keep thinking about for years.