Speak Up

Watching last night’s Democratic National Convention speeches was historic, because for the first time in my lifetime a woman was nominated by a major party in a national election.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.  If you’re a woman, the path that was paved for you, starting with all those suffragettes who fought for the right to vote a hundred years ago, has become a little smoother and less steep this week. I find that inspiring.  I remember hearing Madeleine Albright speak at a dinner in Wellesley a few years ago, when Hillary was Secretary of State, recounting that her little grandson, who was used to seeing women in that job, asked if men could ever be Secretary of State!  I remember taking my children to vote with me in the 2008 national election when they were 5 and 3 and barely old enough to understand.  I told them about my grandmothers being born in 1907 and 1910 into a world in which women had no say, and that when they were just 12 and 9, women finally had a vote.  I told my kids that they had a privilege and responsibility to vote, because for women, it wasn’t always the case that they had a voice.

In this important election year, a lot of people are so bothered by the two choices, that they say they may just stay home and not vote.  A lot of these people are women.  I wonder what their ancestors would have said, after having battled all those years to gain the right to vote.  They would frankly be appalled.  I was at a dinner party recently with a man who confessed that he couldn’t bring himself to vote for a woman who was so imperfect, even though he had no problem voting for a problematic man.  I was stunned, wondering how to respond.  But thankfully he caught himself by saying, “I guess I just expect women to be better, but now that I think about it, that’s pretty sexist, isn’t it?”  I smiled and said, “Yes, it is.”  A hundred years ago, women were put on a pedestal and called “Angels of the House” and their job was to be the moral arbiter for the family.  But that did not mean that they had any power beyond the home.  Apparently, those beliefs are still with us today.

I wonder how many women are not in history books because they had to be angels in the house, wanting to please everyone and look good?  How many modern women, even with full careers, spend way too much time focusing on being more thin and more perfect?  I seem to be surrounded by women like that, who may be lovely people, but they funnel their upset with the world and with the status quo into an upset with things they can control: their bodies, their houses, their kids.  Now that we have a woman this close to the presidency, I  wouldn’t be surprised if magazine articles started to exhort women this fall to start baking more cookies and working on those abs, because god forbid we should all start wanting to run for president.  I’ll never forget reading Susan Faludi’s book, Backlash, in the early 90’s about society’s backlash against women’s career strides. The news media were reporting on a new “trend” of women leaving their careers to bake cookies, and even though the trend didn’t exist, the reports definitely laid on the pressure to conform to it.

What I learned from Hillary, who is very flawed and has made mistakes, is that she never gives up, she doesn’t take the slams from others personally, and when she gets hit, she gets up again.  She has a larger purpose, which extends way beyond the fact that people think she looks too old and her pant suits are odd, and according to Trump is only a 1 on a 1-10 “looks” scale that he applies to all women to diminish and shut them up.  But she doesn’t stop.  She just keeps speaking up.  And whatever you think of her politics, you have to admire the fact that she was not shamed, unlike a lot of women, into silence.  That’s why I’m with her.

As you find your world stage, particularly if you are a woman, remember that you can focus on pleasing everyone (which is a bottomless pit), or you can be yourself and speak up. The world needs to hear what you have to say. So let’s stop focusing on how thin we are and whether we are liked by everyone, and instead ask what talents we’re bringing forth to truly change the world.  Whether we end up in a history book or not, let’s remember that our kids and our grandkids are watching us this year now more than ever.

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Be the 10%

I recently re-read a fascinating book by Ben Sherwood called The Survivor’s Club, which recounts tale after tale of survival stories, explaining what works and what doesn’t when it comes to surviving.  In plane crashes, for instance, apparently many crashes are survivable as long as you remember that you have 90 seconds in general to get off a plane safely.  Mr. Sherwood’s advice is to keep footwear on for take-off and landing, know where your main and back up exits are (and choose seats close to exits), and don’t drink on flights so you are alert.  The biggest take-away scientists got from many disasters studied, is that in terms of human behavior, 10% of all people will get in the way and hinder others’ safety, 80% will pretend that nothing bad is happening and freeze, and 10% will make a difference.

Two years ago, just after having read this book for the first time, I flew home with my two children but without my husband from Tokyo to Newark en route to Boston.  The 13 hour flight from Tokyo had terrible turbulence the entire flight and the food was terrible, so that when we landed, the kids felt sick and exhausted.  But because of our quick lay-over, we had to push our way through customs and immigration and then run for our next flight.  My 11 year-old daughter felt panicked and sick when we boarded the flight to Boston at the last minute.  (We were so late, everyone was seated and ready to go and the doors were closing.) We were just about to sit down in our seats when my daughter collapsed in the aisle. In that moment, everything went to slow motion as I looked at my child, out stone cold.  I had no idea what had happened and was terrified.  I turned to a plane packed with 300 people and shouted at the top of my lungs, “Is there a doctor on board?”  Another few seconds went by slowly with no one responding, until finally a doctor’s hand went up, a pediatric cardiologist, and then a nurse.  (The flight attendants, who are trained for emergencies, had zero interest in helping.)  The nurse asked the flight full of people who had Benadryl, since my daughter was awake by then but having an allergic reaction. 25 people raised their hands.  I surveyed the hundreds of people witness to this emergency, and most people were looking down at their phones, pretending that nothing was happening at all.  And 10% looked actively pissed that this little girl was getting in the way of their travel plans.  And there it was:  10% helped, 80% ignored the problem, and 10% got in the way.

The good news is that my daughter was fine– she had fainted and was having a mild allergic reaction to something she had eaten.  I later learned what happened to the nice doctor who helped us and even advocated for us to be able to stay on that flight since my daughter was now fine.  (We were ultimately kicked off the flight and had to wait another few hours until my daughter was deemed safe to fly).  But when the Middle Eastern doctor went to the cockpit to talk to the pilot, they thought he might be a terrorist, so they pushed him back to his seat.  I learned about this because he is colleagues with my friend’s husband. I never forgot how people acted on that plane.  And I remembered from the book that in a life or death situation in which you are trying to survive, some people will be there to help, but most people will get in your way, so you need to be able to advocate for yourself and have a plan.

As you think about what your world stage is, however large or small, remember that you want to always be and surround yourself with the top 10%, not just in emergencies, but in life in general.  There will always be the 10% who get in the way of your dreams, as well as the 80% who don’t understand the urgency of your dreams, thinking that you have all the time in the world to do what you love, so why not just wait another 10 years? 10% will be supportive of you and act on their own dreams as well.  Those are the people to surround yourself with. If you commit to being the top 10%, nothing can stop you.

 

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What You Need

 

I read recently that part of US military training involves teaching what we absolutely need for survival.  The “rule of three” describes a hierarchy of needs, so in a life or death survival situation you can remember what is most important. You can survive only 3 seconds without hope, 3 minutes without oxygen, 3 hours without shelter in extreme weather, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food and 3 months without love and companionship.  When you look at the hierarchy, what is interesting are the first and last ones.  You can’t live even a few seconds without hope in a crisis, because you will give up.  And you can’t live more than a few months in isolation, because we humans are meant to be with people, and being isolated can kill.

But how many of us think we need the following:  a six-figure income, top of the line electronics, a designer wedding, an Ivy League education for our children, the world’s adulation?  For me, raising kids in a hyper-competitive town, it’s easy to get lulled into thinking that I need others’ approval about my life or my kids’ achievements, or that I need a nicely renovated house.  But I don’t.  I need hope, air, shelter, water, food, and love, in that order.  Everything else is icing.

I have a theory about why so many of confuse our needs vs. wants and have a gnawing sense that we don’t have enough.  It’s because many of us don’t feel like we are enough.  How many of us in this modern world truly feel welcome and safe wherever we go?  How many of us feel like there is a long list of invisible rules that we have to follow in order to be deemed acceptable?  In our town, two of the oldest country clubs in the nation have long lists of requirements and contacts in order to be able to join.  One requires 14 different sponsors and a lot of money to even be considered.  (Rumor has it that Governor Deval Patrick, before he became governor, was almost turned down because he was black.) If you want to inquire about membership, you can’t because there is no website or phone number. They don’t want to find you; you have to find them.  This kind of exclusion has worked well for over a century, but I hear that these days they are having trouble attracting younger people who don’t want to jump through all those hurdles to be in a crowd that doesn’t include their friends. A lot of people no longer want the hassle and expense. People don’t want to feel excluded or pressured to conform to other peoples’ standards.

And yet today in Palo Alto, stressed teens are jumping in front of trains and killing themselves—and even though a lot of smart people are working on the issue, they haven’t really figured out what is going on, except assuming that the kids need less academic pressure.  But I wonder if something larger spiritually is going on. Many kids today feel that there are so many impossible rules for them to follow, such as top grades in dozens of AP classes and extracurriculars like starting a company before age 16, that they can’t keep up.  It’s not just about feeling successful, but more importantly about feeing acceptable in their parents’ and society’s eyes. If you don’t feel welcome just as you are, then it’s easier to feel like giving up.

In contrast, there is a greeting shared by the Zulu people of South Africa, which consists of two parts. One part is Sikhona, meaning “I am here to be seen”;  the other part is Sawubona, meaning “I see you.”  Imagine if the teenagers in Palo Alto were greeted with “I see you” every morning by their families and communities?  Imagine if country clubs were replaced with swimming clubs that let in anyone who wanted to come, and the staff greeted everyone with “I see you”?  That is something I would sign up for.

As you think about your world stage, remember what you need.  In addition to air, shelter, water and food, you need hope and you need love.  This week, try saying “I see you” when you meet someone and notice how your heart opens up.

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Be Inconvenienced

As much as I love to travel in order to see the world and be adventurous, it’s frankly not fun being inconvenienced, whether it’s a delayed flight, a hard hotel bed (very common in Asia) or a lousy meal.  On good days, it’s worth it.  On bad days, you start to question your sanity, asking things like, “I traveled half way around the world to live in a city that has no trash cans anywhere in the city?” I understand the concept of “carry in and carry out” when you’re camping, but when you’re walking the streets of Tokyo carrying your trash around, you begin to feel like a bit of a sherpa.

And yet one of the reasons we travel internationally as much as we can with our kids is that not only do we want them to learn to be global citizens, but we also want them to learn to live with inconvenience, since so much of their American life is set up to avoid it.  A few years ago, when we bought a new car, the windows in the back row came tinted.  When I was growing up, only limousines and hearses had tinted windows. Now, most cars have that feature.  When I asked the car dealer why they had tinted windows, he looked at me like I was very slow and said carefully, “Because you don’t want your children to get sun in their eyes.”  I responded passionately, “Are you kidding me?  I spent my whole childhood with sun in my eyes, when I wasn’t fighting over the cooler in the back seat of the car with my sister!”

Today, you don’t even have to get up and change the channel or adjust the bunny ears, which we did constantly in the 1970’s in order to kind of see Hogan’s Heroes on Channel 2.  I’m not even sure what that show was really supposed to look like, given that we never saw it clearly.  Today we have 200 plus channels in high definition and a remote that is so complicated that my eleven year-old has to remind me how to work it.  Today you don’t have to run to the phone to answer it because you’re wearing your phone.  You don’t have to experience being hot inside and relying on dusty fans that don’t work because you have A/C.  And many Americans have homes that are large enough that people can retreat to their own rooms and even sections of the house. (It’s odd to me that as family size decreases, home sizes have increased, but it’s true.)

So what happens when a family of four who is used to living in a 2500 square foot newly renovated house with a modern kitchen moves to Tokyo for a month and stays in a small 2 bedroom for two weeks which is a third the size of our house?  And then because that apartment wasn’t available the whole time, that same family moves into an apartment that is half that size, only 350 square feet and consists of one room?  With 1 bathroom, 2 adults, 1 teen, 1 preteen and way too many suitcases (we forgot to pack light), let’s just say it’s a lesson in inconvenience.  Oh, and did I mention that there is ongoing construction around the apartment? And that many of the Japanese snacks contain dried fish with little eye balls, which my kids (and I) find kind of gross?  This might make really good reality tv for sure.  But mainly it strengthens our resilience, makes us more tolerant and flexible, and definitely makes us more grateful for what we have back home.

Often the path to finding your world stage and deciding how you want to contribute to the world involves learning to live with inconvenience, since it’s only when you allow yourself to feel uncomfortable that you discover what you’re made of.  You may find yourself frustrated at times by your adventure.  But you also may find that you’re stronger than you think.

 

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Love Not Likes

In a world inundated with social media, we have become a culture of ‘likes.’  A quick, cursory ‘thumbs up’ means that you like or approve of a friend’s photo or post on Facebook or Instagram.  Very few people take the time to comment anymore on a post.  Instead, they ‘like’ something.  And the more likes you get, the more approval you feel, on your post and for yourself in general.

For an adult who grew up before social media, I am rational enough not to view the number of likes as a reflection of my self-worth, but for a teenager, that’s a different story.  Still, I remember the days when friends wanted to see each other or if that weren’t possible, at least talk on the phone.  Then it turned to emailing friends with pictures and content meant for them specifically.  Then it turned to social media, in which you’re posting for everyone from your spouse and best friends to random people you knew briefly in grade school.  It’s hard frankly to imagine a gathering of such a strange assortment of people in real life, and yet we do it every time we’re on social media, and not just with cute pictures of dogs.  I’ve seen friends announce pregnancies as well as breast cancer diagnoses.  I’ve also had friends post dozens and dozens of pictures of their wedding for months, knowing that many of those Facebook friends were not in fact invited to the wedding.  Hurt feelings anyone?

Adults can handle not getting as many ‘likes’ as they would like, but for teens who are just beginning to form a sense of who they are and what they like and don’t like, it’s soul killing to define who they are by the number of ‘likes’ they get.  This is why my 13 year-old daughter is not allowed on social media yet.  I told her that she needs to have a stronger sense of who she is before she starts getting defined by others.  But I know that I’m mostly alone on this.  A lot of my friends, who are wonderful, thoughtful people, allow their young teens on social media because they don’t want them to miss out socially, which I understand.  But it seems to me that a lot of heartache comes with that, in seeing the party they didn’t get invited to, or the pathetic number of likes that they got on their latest selfie post with their new outfit.  Girls are now monitoring their social media sites hourly to make sure they know where they stand and how people view them. And some kids, who have been bullied mercilessly on social media, just decide to kill themselves to end the pain. It’s a brave new world, much of it destructive, and much of it hidden from parents of a different generation who are still trying to figure out how to work their cell phones.

I know that social media, in its ever-changing form, is here to stay, but what if we gave it a lot less importance?  What would happen if people spent less time taking selfies and deciding what posts to like and instead spent time with friends in person or writing letters to people who matter to them?  I still have treasured letters from old boyfriends, one who was living in Italy at the time.  The onion skinned paper is worn thin from all the reads that it endured but I still have it somewhere in my attic. It’s hard to imagine the same effect if I had just been able to text him back and forth.

What would happen if we stopped trying to accumulate ‘likes’ and instead focused on accumulating good deeds?  Or if we took pictures of random acts of kindness instead of endless pictures of ourselves?

To find your world stage, think about how often you use social media and how it makes you feel. Most people feel worse after being on Facebook.  The more you get clear about who you are and what matters, the less ‘likes’ will matter.  Spend time with the people who matter and don’t waste time online hoping for likes from people who don’t.

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This is a famous LOVE sign in Tokyo.