Saturday, September 20, 2008

On Compassion

I recently went to a memorial service for the father of my friend Belle. Belle’s sister, Brady, spoke at the service. She talked at length about how much her father loved animals and she even went so far as to say that he believed a love of animals was a sign of a person’s capacity for compassion. She joked that some people thought her father loved his animals more than his kids. She said it lightheartedly, with a toss of the head; but there was a sad truth to it.

He was an angry man, unkind at times. He was most committed to taking it out on Belle’s brother, the oldest child, Robert. Poor Robert bore the brunt of his dad’s frustration derived from a life lived without any breaks. Despite his cantankerousness, Mr. L felt a kinship with dogs, cats, all animals. He talked to them about his life, he told them his story at the end of his days. He confided in his pets and sought forgiveness, Brady told the gathered crowd.

I hate animals. I don’t hate them. That’s an exaggeration. But I don’t really like them. I don’t want to hurt them. But I don’t really want to be around them either. Unfortunately, I have a cat. His name is The Brain. My husband and I re named him that (his original name was Lenny) when we realized he wasn’t very bright. Aren’t we ironic? We often joke that our cat is an asshole. He’s everywhere you don’t want him to be. When I want to work, he sits on my keyboard and bites my hands. When I want to sleep in on the weekend, he sits on my chest and screams in my face until I feed him. When I want to read, he positions himself between my eyes and the page, biting my wrists with significant vigor. He pees on the bath mat instead of in his litter box, he vomits to get my attention so I’ll feed him. See what I mean? Asshole!

All of that being said, I would never hurt him. I spend about $3 a day on cat food so that he gets the fancy canned food he likes. He sits on my belly while I watch Project Runway and we fall asleep together mid-way through. He’s lived with me for 14 years, a gift from my husband after a fight early in our relationship. Some gift. A cantankerous cat that squawks in my face all the time, wakes me up at 4 a.m. and leaves excrement in the bathroom because for some reason, the litter just isn’t fine enough for him.

So I don’t hate animals. I just don’t LOVE them. I’m familiar with all the studies that say that animals make people happier, prevent depression, keep old people from withering away and falling into abiding sadness, giving up on life. But this whole angle that Mr. L maintained that a person’s treatment of animals is indicative of their true character, their innate humaneness, is a crock, if you ask me. These people that were heartbroken during Hurricane Katrina because dogs were stranded, but were completely immune to the human suffering are a conundrum to me. Why would the dog stuck on the roof cause a person to pick up the phone and give money but a woman stuck inside her home, would not? I know I’m offending the animal lovers out there. But before you skewer me…consider this:

I believe empathy towards your own family comes first. Then friends. Then humans. Then animals. If a father is persistently unkind to his children, he’s a not a good father and I’d go so far as to say, he just might not be a good man. All people have good and bad in them; no one is all bad. An unkind moment doesn’t make someone evil. But a life spent yelling at one’s children, disparaging them at every turn, dispensing violence in frustration, is a life spent inhumanely, without compassion. No matter how kind you are to animals.

I’m not implying that we should be dismissive or unkind or abusive to animals. Not even close. But lets measure compassion by how we extend it to our own children, our spouses, our loves ones, our species, first and foremost. We can give the love leftovers to our pets.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

My Palin Epiphany

I’ve been perusing everything there is to read about Sarah Palin looking for support, for a reasoned rationale for my intense gut level disdain for this first ever, Republican, female Vice Presidential candidate. As if I need more reasons than those plastered all over CNN and the New York Times, not to mention US Magazine, within the first few days of her nomination. She’s for everything I’m vehemently opposed to. She’s ‘for’ censorship and book banning at public libraries, freewheeling gun-toting NRA-style shoot ‘em ups, pre-emptive war, pro-life policies even in the most extreme cases of rape and incest. Do I need more reasons to feel nausea and disgust? Do I really need further support points to justify my fiercely profound contempt?

I want to be pleased that a woman can potentially reach the executive office. I want to be delighted that the glass ceiling in politics has seemingly been shattered. But I’m not. This is not what I had in mind, I’ll admit.

I’d hoped for a female candidate that was actually pro-woman. Pro-anyone who maybe hasn’t had a fair shake. For instance, those tired and huddled masses that I’m pretty certain she wants to keep from entering our fair land. For gays who’d like the same rights in a long term relationship as their heterosexual counterparts. I’d also hoped for a female candidate that was anti-war - aren’t women tired of sending their sons and husbands off to battle? And how about a candidate that brought to bear her shrewd mothering skills as an influencer/negotiator to build bridges.

Not bridges to nowhere – which Ms. Palin claims she kaboshed, when truth be told, she was for, until it was no longer expedient. “I told Congress, thanks but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere!” Palin misleadingly told the cheering crowd after the announcement of her nomination by Senator McCain. In point of fact, when she was running for Governor of Alaska, Palin supported the 15 million dollar initiative, to be funded by Congressional earmarks, intended to connect the small island of Gravina to the mainland. But when earmarks became evil in the public eye, being against them became a meaningful platform on which to run. And Ms. Palin conveniently said no to the bridge.

I don’t really care about this bridge. But I was hoping for someone who built metaphorical bridges between people who are politically, religiously and socially on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Based on her record as Governor of Alaska, it seems her only interest is in firing those that disagree with her and hiring all of her high school buddies. McCain is the self-proclaimed party-bridger, working both sides of the Congressional aisle. How does he justify Ms. Palin’s actions in Alaska, firing the public safety commissioner who refused to fire Palin’s former brother-in-law after a nasty divorce from her sister? And what about the fact that she engineered the firing of the city’s attorney after one of Palin’s supporters informed her that the attorney had put a stop work order on his housing project? And what about the fact that she hired her high school pal, Franci Havemeister, to direct the State Division of Agriculture, when Ms. Havemeister cited her childhood love of cows as a primary qualification? Palin is also known for calling anyone who opposes her a ‘hater’. It’s abundantly clear that these behaviors are in no way consistent with using understanding to build coalitions amongst parties with differing points of view.

But after all my reading and all my culling together of support points, I finally realized something. I dislike her intensely for reasons far more personal than politics. A new friend recently said to me: “If you don’t like someone, it is probably because they reflect back to you something about yourself that you don’t like.” I’d heard this before. This pycho-babble, Oprah-style, introspective, self-help sentiment wasn’t new to me. But I always seem to forget it when I’m deep in the throes of hating on someone. I pondered new friend’s words. And about an hour later it hit me.

I loathe Ms. Palin because she actually believes she’s qualified to do this job with a year and half of governing a sparsely populated state under her belt. Having built an ice rink in Wasilla and said no to an earmarked bridge, she actually believes she has the know-how to rebuild our economy and war us out of trouble.

As a woman, I’ve always been measured in my approach to my career. I’ve never pushed for a promotion until I was absolutely positive I could do the job expertly on the very first day. Men pushed ahead with reckless abandon, generating a kind of fearless momentum that I interpreted as irresponsible. Often times these men pushed so fast and so far ahead of their own capabilities that they floundered in their new roles. Sometimes even getting fired. But they took with them the higher title into the work world, no doubt parlaying that into an even higher titled and salaried position somewhere else. I always dismissed this behavior as impulsive, self-satisfied and negligent.

I’m not claiming to be a selfless do-gooder. I work in corporate America. As we’ve all witnessed through the rampant corporate malfeasance in recent years and months, it is quite easy to become disconnected from the fact that the money one spends in the corporate world, that one takes for doing a job, is expected to generate a long term return for the people that own the company. But I’ve always considered this point very seriously. When I spend money on a marketing campaign, I’m very concerned that that money belongs to someone else and they expect to get it back and then some. It is not just cash that dropped from the sky. So I better be darned sure that I know what I’m doing when I take money for myself as well as those business endeavors I’ve been entrusted to carry out.

I’ve watched others, more aggressive, pass me by. But I’ve always felt right and confident in the jobs I’ve held. I could’ve pushed harder, faster, climbed the ladder more quickly. But I’m patient and, more pressingly, in need of the approval of others before pushing on to the next level. I’m a woman, and as such, a pleaser at heart. Ms. Palin, as she stated so straightforwardly, is basically a pitbull with lipstick. I assume that means she’s not an approval seeker. Of this, I’m envious because it points out my own cautiousness, my own need for others to give me the nod. This does not, however, translate into Palin appreciation.

Through analyzing my disgust with Ms. Palin, I’ve realized the personal really is political. I dislike her politics. I mistrust her person. I’d want her to not just be confident in her ability to do the job, but to have shown some evidence that that confidence is warranted. Seeing Russia from Alaska doesn’t count. Simply being from a small town doesn’t count either. It’s reckless, self indulgent and downright negligent to assume that these are qualifying factors.

I’m working towards gratitude that a woman could achieve this level of success in the political arena. She may indeed be the first ever female Vice President. Admittedly, I’m not quite there on the road to celebrating her achievement. I’m really nowhere near half way there, in fact. Perhaps, when women are broadly represented on the national political stage, I’ll be able to accept a range of views and ideologies. But for now, I’m wanting a gal that reflects an underdog-friendly point of view and has the resume to prove she’s viable. I guess, in the end, my personal politics dictate that I want a candidate just a tad more like me.