Parents and Public Schools

Tensions were running high during the public comment period of a school board meeting.  A parent was addressing the Board. “I expect when I send my son to school, when I put him on the school bus in the morning, that he returns home at the end of the day in exactly the same condition – not a hair on his head hurt!” The parent was pleading for more safety measures. He was yelling at us, so great was his fear.

This was in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11, during my tenure on the Guilderland School Board, a suburb of Albany, New York. Speculation that terrorists might hit ‘soft’ targets like schools was in the news and Columbine had happened less than 18 months prior.  We had, in fact, taken steps to secure our buildings and were reviewing procedures and options for cameras, to see if more should be done. As always budgets were tight.  It was a fraught time.

I had two children in district schools at the time. As much as I sympathized with the parent’s fears, I thought his demands were impossible to meet. We could not guarantee the kind of safety he was looking for, no matter what we did. Children fall on the playground. They get into tussles with their peers – never mind guarding against a determined gunman. If we are lucky children will come home from school with some minor bumps and bruises – either the physical or emotional kind. I knew we could do more to protect children from intruders and from fellow students who might turn to violence – prior to these tragedies school doors weren’t even locked in our district. No one wore I.D. We could pay more attention to student mental health. There were lots of steps to take, but the essential truth was, and still is, that there are limits to what can be done. We can only protect our children so much.

I was reminded of that challenging time when I read a quote last week from a school board candidate in my district who was running under the banner of parental control. Elections are coming up in one week. The gist of what the candidate said was that she did not accept the premise that the school system was a partner in raising her child – instilling values and guiding her child was her responsibility. She went on to say that schools should stay away from those controversial topics that strayed into morality or hot button political issues. This may seem on its face to be unrelated to the safety issue described above, but I believe there is a common thread that connects them.

Both reflect the desire for parental control. We want our children to be safe and we want to be the ones imparting values. We want to ward off undesired influence. I would argue, though, that when you send your child to public school you relinquish some of that control. Once a child boards a school bus, they are hearing all kinds of things. If you aren’t comfortable with that then home schooling or sending the child to a private school that is in accordance with your philosophy and approach is probably a better option.

I am not suggesting parents don’t have a role in public schools – they have a critical role. For one thing, parents serve on school boards. I did –  for 9 years. I wanted to represent other parents by bringing forward concerns I heard about or experienced myself. That’s the main purpose of the board: to serve as a conduit between the community and the administration, sharing information and facilitating two-way communication. As a board member, though, I was one of nine – I did not have power as an individual. I had input, but majority ruled, as it should in a democracy. It is a well-calibrated system of checks and balances. Board members, as parents themselves (though not all members are parents) or as representatives of parents, shape policy and set the big picture course for the district. Individual board members are effective to the extent that they can convince colleagues of their position.

Aside from presence on the board, parents are essential partners in the success of public school systems– from the highest level (district-wide excellence) to the achievement of individual students. Contrary to the belief of the candidate in my district, schools are also essential for the development of our children. Our children should not grow up in a vacuum. I would argue that schools should not avoid those issues. They should not purposely seek them out, but often they emerge as a natural outgrowth of innocent conversations about current events or sharing of family stories. When a child hears something that is inconsistent with lessons from home, it provides parents with a teachable moment. They can either explain how/why we differ or consider another perspective and perhaps adjust. Either way the child’s life is enriched, and the family’s bonds are strengthened. Children are capable of understanding that different rules apply in different spaces – they figure that out pretty quickly when their parents take different approaches (ask dad first?) and/or grandparents, not to mention different teachers, or behavior in a house of worship versus the playground.

One last point that is essential to understand if one advocates for ‘parental control.’ School boards operate in the context of federal, state, and local laws and regulations. The pandemic, with its mask mandates, was another flashpoint for those angry with school boards. Initially boards may have been free to make their own rules, but once the federal, state or local health department stepped in, there was no choice. Railing at school board members was pointless. But, even when (or if) school boards are not constrained by those rules, think about this: Boards are faced with many parents demanding masks (or some other policy counter to your own), and masks are of limited use if they aren’t universal. It isn’t as simple as ‘you want your kid masked, so mask them.’ The effectiveness relies on widespread use. This is true in other contexts too – in most cases curriculum can’t be divided up so that groups of children in a given classroom learn different things. So, which parent voice wins? Whoever yells loudest? And what about staff risks and attitudes?

Add to that the fact that districts have their own ‘medical directors,’ a position designated by the board – a person who meets state licensing requirements who is giving guidance in just this scenario. If the medical director advises that children and staff should mask, the board shouldn’t substitute its own judgment. If they did, they would open themselves up to legal liability. In the case of non-health related issues, the board will have likely received input from other experts (educators, engineers, architects, accountants – depending on the topic). Those considerations, the well-being and wishes of the entire community, expert guidance and the legal context, weigh heavily on board member decisions – and they should.

Parental control may sound good, but in the real world it has limitations. In my experience, parents have many opportunities for input and influence in public schools. And they receive lots of information (though districts can always improve in outreach). Those parents that are not willing to accept the constraints (and in some cases even welcome them) are probably best served by home schooling or choosing a private option.

The Slippery Slope

In the wake of Trump’s presidency, I have been very concerned about the loss of respect for truth and integrity. The discussion I had with my accountant, which I wrote about in my last blog post, did nothing to allay my fears – not because my accountant is without integrity, but because he was unwilling to acknowledge a difference between Biden and Trump when it comes to that quality. My accountant said, “They all lie.” And since they all lie, he concluded, not in these these exact words, “Democrats are being unfair to Trump, Biden is just as corrupt.”

I do not accept that. I believe all politicians ‘spin.’ They present things in a way that reflects most positively on their ideas and actions. They leave out counterarguments. They cherry pick facts. Politicians of all parties do that. We need to distinguish that practice, which is distasteful (but apparently an effective communication strategy in a world beset by short attention spans), from lying and corruption. I will grant that there can be a slippery slope between spin and lying, but we need to examine the rhetoric and call it out when it crosses the line. We cannot throw up our hands and say, “They all do it,” and accept it.

I worry about our capacity for discernment especially after listening to Bill Browder’s assessment of Putin’s reign of terror in Russia and the war in Ukraine. Browder was interviewed by Preet Bharara on his podcast Stay Tuned. I highly recommend listening. Browder has 22 years of experience working with Russia and has seen first-hand Putin’s brutal management style. He described a Russian state hollowed out by Putin’s corruption. In setting the tone at the top, taking his percentage from all the oligarchs the way the head of a crime family does, Putin has not only robbed the country of assets and resources, but has created a culture where everyone along the line does the same. Everyone takes a percentage up the chain of command. In doing that, the essential structures of governance, the paving of the roads, the maintenance of fighter jets, the stores of fuel, have been compromised. Browder suggests that the poor performance of the Russian army is related to this culture.

One of the ironies of the war in Ukraine is that Zelenskyy was elected on a platform of fighting corruption. Ukraine was recognized as having a major problem with it and the people were fed up. Zelenskyy offered a different message. Putin is more comfortable with neighboring countries that either have a puppet as its leader or at least someone corrupt enough to be manipulated.

Corruption in the United States is also a problem, but I don’t think it is endemic to the system. Influence peddling has always been practiced. We have not rooted it out, but politicians have been forced out of office, they have been charged and jailed for their offenses. We have laws against it. I am worried that corruption can become the norm if we aren’t vigilant. I see a straight line between the practice described by Browder, that approach to aggregating power, and Trump. I believe Trump subscribes to a philosophy aligned with Putin, he has as much as admitted it. It is entirely about individual power and wealth – there is no concern for the greater good. Trump cloaks his desire to be the most important, powerful person in the world in patriotic rhetoric. Nothing he has ever done suggests that his patriotism is genuine or reaches beyond his narrow self-interest. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Trump is a murderer, as Putin is.

Some of Trump’s self-interest resulted in policies that benefited the economy, at least according to some analysts. To the extent that this is believed, those folks support Trump. But the grave danger isn’t in those policies (I would argue that those policies aren’t good for the country either, but that is not my point here). The greater long-term danger is in the underlying culture. Policies can change relatively easily. A tax cut can be reversed. Culture is more difficult to meaningfully transform.

In my academic and professional life, I took courses and training in internal auditing. The purpose was to give us tools to evaluate whether existing policies and procedures ensured the integrity of a given operation (in my case the efficacy of New York State funded programs). In every training that I received or delivered, the main message was the importance of ‘tone at the top.’ This was management’s essential responsibility – modeling the behavior and setting the expectations. That’s why I put so much emphasis on this when assessing the risk that Trump represents. The Republican party must reject Trumpism and instead nurture new leadership – people that offer core values of honesty and ethical behavior. I believe that many in leadership positions in the Democratic party do that, most importantly, Joe Biden – but not all of them. When Democrats fail to meet that standard (i.e., Sheldon Silver, Charlie Rangel, etc.), they too need to be cast aside. If you are a Republican and believe that Democrats are as guilty of corruption and lying, then I implore you to not accept that – make sure the Republicans put forward a worthy presidential candidate so that person can be elected. Please cast Newt Gingrich aside – I don’t know why he still merits attention, he gets trotted out on national media platforms as a spokesperson as he was just this past weekend. Why does he still get to weigh in when he has no standing to comment on issues of honesty and integrity?

My accountant asked me about Hunter Biden. I replied that if Hunter Biden did anything illegal, he should be prosecuted. If there is evidence of criminal behavior, he should be investigated. The investigation should follow the evidence and if it implicates Joe Biden, then he too should be prosecuted. The Bidens and Trumps should be held to the same standard. I would like to hear Trump supporters say the same thing about Don Jr, Ivanka and Jared – and about the January 6th insurrection. It is important that we continue these investigations until we uncover the truth and assign accountability. We can’t just sweep their actions under the rug and say it is time to move on. The precedent that sets, the message that sends, is dangerous to our country’s future as a democracy.

We cannot close our eyes to corruption and lies. We cannot let it become the norm. We need to redouble our efforts to expect and enforce ethical behavior at all levels – in government, in business, in media, in our relationships. We must be truthful, and we must call out lying. This is the slippery slope that allows authoritarianism to creep up on us.

Burnout

I have a running joke with the guy who prepares our taxes. When I call to make the appointment he responds, “Now I know tax season is done! I am in the homestretch,” he says with delight in his voice.

The joke is that I am almost always the last of his clients to call, usually with only a few days to spare until the deadline. This year I called on April 5th, a little early for me. Last year he was in shock when I called, and it was still March.

We have been working with the same guy for roughly 30 years, since Gary went into private practice and our taxes became too complicated for me to do myself.

Anyway, the point is not that I am a procrastinator, though I am that. My point is actually the conversation he and I had when we met this time. Over the years we have had many discussions, including an annual update on our respective families. I have always enjoyed our session – as much as one can when the ultimate purpose is to figure out our tax bill.

In all those years, we both understood that we do not share the same political affiliation. He is aware of the organizations I donate to – the usual laundry list of liberal causes, though they are mainstream compared to some of the more leftwing groups out there.  I know he is more fiscally conservative, befitting a CPA.  

Somehow during this visit our conversation strayed farther into the political realm. The Covid relief program came up and he shared his perception that it was ill-conceived, with folks who didn’t need assistance getting it. His message was, “if you saw what I saw, if you knew what I knew, you would agree with me.” I acknowledged that it is entirely possible that the program wasn’t designed appropriately – I know little about it, and I have no personal experience with it. I don’t doubt that our government is capable of mismanaging a program. The difference between our perspectives is the motives we ascribe to it and the conclusions we draw.

I think he sees governmental ineffectiveness and believes it is proof that there is corruption at the root, that inherently it will be flawed, and we shouldn’t support those programs. I see ineffectiveness and I want us to try harder, do better, build oversight mechanisms to ensure the money goes where it is supposed to go.  

What was interesting to me about our interaction this year was that it was more pointed but fortunately it didn’t get unpleasant. We agreed that we have different priorities. As a bottom line, I am more concerned about civil rights (including reproductive choice) than I am about our economy. He is more focused on our nation’s finances and what he perceives as a diminishing work ethic among our younger generations.

Before we got to the point where we concluded that we would agree to disagree, we touched on a wide range of subjects in addition to Covid relief,  such as police, U.S. support of Israel, Hunter Biden, Ivanka and Jared. Don’t you talk about that stuff with your accountant? With each topic, we quickly came to a dead end. We shrugged and kind of laughed. We were not going to come to a meeting of the minds. In between we returned to the task at hand – my (and Gary’s) 2021 tax return. We ended on a reasonable note, appreciating that we could have the conversation since so many could not.

Naturally, as I drove home, I pondered our divide.  Aside from understanding that much of it came down to differences in our respective priorities and foundational beliefs, I had another thought. We are creatures of our environment and experience. Being an accountant for all these years, watching the endless (absurd? irrational? circular? targeted?) changes to the tax code, interacting with a certain segment of the population, would shape one’s perspective. My accountant may not have seen the people for whom the Covid relief program was a lifesaver. This is true in all professions – high school teachers, doctors, police detectives, the list goes on. When you do a job for a long time, you may not even realize that your view has narrowed. You may think you’ve seen it all, but it is still a narrow slice of humanity.

I think about Gary, who is an endocrinologist (he treats many diabetics). He has patients who are non-compliant – maybe they drink too much, eat an unhealthy diet and/or don’t exercise. There is a danger that he could become cynical about people’s ability to manage their disease – I don’t believe he has. I believe he has maintained his compassion, but it would be understandable if that faded. It would not be acceptable, and it wouldn’t be good for his relationship with his patients if he were to prejudge them, but I can imagine it happening.

Or take another issue that all doctors face: insurance and the bureaucracy that has developed around medicine. Having negative experiences with insurance companies, where they look for loopholes to deny coverage, could color one’s perspective. It could lead to giving up more easily before getting the patient the treatment they need. The quality of care can be compromised if one isn’t vigilant.

Both challenges can lead to burnout among practitioners.

I think about my dad who was chair of a social studies department of a New York City public high school. He retired as soon as he was eligible at the age of 56. Not because he was tired of teaching or because of the students – he still enjoyed being in the classroom. It was all the red tape, all the obstacles, and the lack of resources that drove him to end his career. I think it is fair to say, after over 30 years in education, he was burnt out. Today we see educators leaving the field in droves, long before getting their 30 years in.

Every profession is susceptible to it, and if not burnout per se then being so entrenched in the negative that it becomes the lens through which you see the world. I knew it was time to leave school board service when my frustration intolerance got the better of me after nine years. But that was a volunteer position – I could step back without consequence to my family’s well-being. Not everyone has the luxury that I or my father enjoyed. He had a good pension; he could move on.

In some instances that jaded, cynical perspective can be dangerous. I’ve written before about the hazards police officers face, on many levels. Police officers see us at our worst. The consequences of approaching a new interaction with a citizen expecting the worst is problematic. I imagine, after years on the job, police officers may not have the most balanced view of humanity. I’m not blaming them, I think it comes with the job.

The question then is: what can we do about it, if anything? How do we keep our perspective broader than our circumstances allow, whatever profession we practice? How do we guard against the creeping cynicism that may be inherent in any work we do? Self-awareness may be the first step. We need to admit to ourselves that we are susceptible to the bias in the field in which we work, and then we need to pursue professional development or other experiences that keep us fresh. It is not an easy task, but a necessary one.

When I got home and told Gary about my visit with our accountant, he looked at me incredulously. “You had that conversation with the guy who is going to tell us how much tax we owe?” I nodded. I choose to maintain my faith in humanity.

Duality

As has often been the case recently, I got to thinking after attending a talk at the University at Albany. Anthony Ray Hinton, author of The Sun Does Shine, was the featured speaker at the annual MLK Celebration. Mr. Hinton served 30 years on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. Through the efforts of the Equal Justice Initiative, and his own forbearance, he was released from prison in 2015.

Mr. Hinton’s speech was both inspiring and heartbreaking. I find myself noticing that a lot lately – the duality of good and evil in this world. The tragedy of the injustice of Mr. Hinton’s prosecution, the racism and cruelty he endured, is countered by his faith and the steadfast effort of good people. Mr. Hinton told his story through tears. I found it painful to hear, it was uncomfortable – but we need to bear witness to the damage done when our systems fail, when people entrusted to carry out justice fail. I am no psychiatrist and won’t pretend to be one, but I have to guess that Mr. Hinton suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. How could he not? The fact that he isn’t in a constant rage, he shared his humor and compassion, not just his tears, in his speech, is a testament to his strength. To be willing to relive his trauma so that we may learn from it is a gift.

As I sat in the audience, I thought about the courage of individuals who come forward after experiencing something so harrowing, those who are willing to expose their suffering, to live it again, and I am humbled. I don’t know what to do with all the emotion. I want to fix it – I want Mr. Hinton to be able to heal. I want to prevent another person from experiencing the injustice. It feels overwhelming. But, if I don’t come away moved to action, even if it feels inadequate to the task, then Mr. Hinton’s willingness to dredge up his pain will be for naught.

We ask a great deal of survivors of trauma. We ask them to tell their stories so that we might learn. We ask them to not make us too uncomfortable while they tell their truth. We ask them to continue to function in this world, despite the fact that they have seen and experienced the ugliness of mankind. I think of my in-laws giving testimony as part of Spielberg’s Shoah Project. I have written many blog posts about their journey. It took a while for my father-in-law to recover from the process of giving testimony. There was a personal cost to doing it. He wanted the story known, he wanted it documented, but he paid a price in reawakening pain, depression and anxiety that had been pushed down. I believe it was worth it to him and to my mother-in-law, their experiences are now preserved for the ages, they cannot be erased from history even after their time on earth expires.

When we hear the stories of survivors, it often includes a message of hope. People who stood up, who made survival possible. In Mr. Hinton’s case, he had the emotional support of his mother and best friend, as well as Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (and the staff of that nonprofit). My in-laws were aided by their families, ‘righteous Gentiles,’ and luck. I am thankful for those forces for good, Paula and David would not have survived but for their efforts and their stories would be unbearable if not for those acts of courage and kindness.

I watch the war in Ukraine unfold and I see the same duality. The barbarism unleashed by Putin, countered by the resolve and courage of Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people. Gary and I attended a local prayer vigil in support of Ukraine. The Archbishop of the Albany Diocese, Edward Scharfenberger, spoke, cautioning us to not give in to despair. He said despair was a tool of the devil. While I don’t believe in God or the devil, those aren’t words or ideas that resonate for me, I do believe humanity has the potential for good and evil. I think he is right to say that if we let despair win out, then we cede ground to the worst among us.

It is daunting and frightening to open one’s eyes to the pain and cruelty abundant in our midst. It is easier and tempting to bury our heads in the sand or focus on our own immediate needs (like worrying about the price of gasoline), but that is shortsighted. That’s how evil wins. I also come back to Mr. Roger’s seemingly simple statement to look to the helpers in times of crisis. I think that offers comfort, but it isn’t enough. I myself need to be a helper in whatever ways I can. I am not José Andrés, the remarkable chef who has made it his mission to respond to humanitarian disasters around the world. But, I can donate to his organization. I can write this blog and maybe move others to take action in whatever form available to you.

We need to bear witness and we need to do what we can to do good in this world. I hope you will not let despair get the better of you and together we will do the work necessary to ensure, to paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King Jr, that though the moral arc of the universe is long, that it bends towards justice.

The Ukrainian National Flower – in solidarity – picture taken in Cooperstown, NY August 2021

Compassion Anyone?

A flash of insight can come at the most unexpected time. I was driving to my poetry group on Saturday and I was thinking about why I was so agitated that morning.  Why was I feeling so ‘judgy’ of others? I suddenly understood something that maybe should have been obvious, but somehow wasn’t.

            Here is what I understood: If I don’t feel the emotion that the person is sharing, I am prone to judging them. If I can feel, really feel, the emotion, I am less judgmental.

            I think of myself as an empathic person. When someone shares their troubles with me, I usually feel their pain or frustration. Sometimes too much. However, there are instances where I don’t, especially these days. I was attributing that to being spread too thin and my general sense of frustration with the state of the world. It occurs to me, though, that isn’t the complete story. I have been ‘judgy’ before the pandemic.

            When a friend or relative is sharing something I can relate to, perhaps have experienced myself, I am able to recall the emotion readily. The disappointment or sadness or anger comes flooding in. When that person shares an experience or feeling foreign to me, that’s when I am predisposed to judgement. If I can’t connect their reaction to my own, I am left to intellectualize – then judgement can follow.

            I may not express it– I usually know enough to keep those thoughts to myself. But I stew in it. I’ve been stewing a lot lately. I won’t say to the person that I think they are wrong or over-reacting, but it is what I am thinking. My powers of empathy are more limited than I care to admit. Sitting in judgment doesn’t feel good, though. I don’t want to be a harsh appraiser, especially of those I love. Plus, I think it is counterproductive. Even if I don’t outwardly express it, it creates distance, or it may leak out in other destructive ways.

            Thinking about this as I was driving, the ‘aha’ moment hit me: maybe if I can’t feel what the person feels, there is another path to empathy. What if I imagine what it feels like to be that person? Not through the prism of my experience, but through theirs. So, if a person is expressing their terror of getting Covid, something I don’t feel to that degree, rather than thinking about whether they are justified and thereby trying to convince them they shouldn’t be so afraid, focus on what it feels like to be terrified. Being terrified is an awful state of mind – I can empathize with that irrespective of the cause. During the conversation, I may share some information that I hope allays their fear, but it would be delivered from a place of compassion, rather than judgment.

            Maybe the divisions among us would be helped if we tried to understand the emotion first, acknowledge and connect to it. Maybe if we named the other person’s feeling – fear, anger, hopelessness – and remembered what that emotion feels like even if it was in a different context– we could start a more fruitful conversation.

            For example, anxiety is something I have experienced, but I have had only one panic attack and that happened when I was an adolescent. Others experience panic as a regular expression of their anxiety. And, I may not be set off by the same triggers, nor have the same physical reaction, but I still know how horrible it is to feel panicky.

            My anxiety manifests in rumination, as I wrote about last week. But, even at the worst of times when I was living in my head, I was functional. Not as productive as I wanted to be, but I wasn’t paralyzed. If someone was to share their experience of ruminating, I would reflect on my own. If they were so tied up in knots that they couldn’t get out of bed, I would feel sorry for them but wonder why they couldn’t manage to get it together. While listening, it might instead be more helpful to imagine myself in my bed so overwhelmed that I can’t get up– how terrible would that feel?  – rather than thinking about whether I would react in the same way as my friend did.

            Maybe we can’t help but see things through the prism of our experience, but it is too limiting. This might be one way to be more open to others.

            I wish I could report, having had this insight, that I was free of judgment the rest of the weekend. It probably isn’t reasonable, or even desirable, to suspend all judgment. There are times when it is appropriate to criticize. Sometimes a person is so dug into their emotional state that they have lost all perspective. A compassionate loved one can offer another view. It likely won’t be well-received if it is delivered in a judgmental tone – the compassion is key. The problem is sometimes I don’t feel much compassion and that is the point of this whole essay. How do I find the compassion?

            It takes some work to locate it and I have to be willing to put in the effort. Yesterday, once again in the car, I passed two lawn signs that got me angry – a kneejerk judgment. Having had the insight the day before, I tried to test my ability to find compassion.

            The first sign read “Fuck Biden.” Great way to advertise your politics! Why would I want to have compassion for someone, why would I want to try to understand someone, who puts up a sign like that? They are entitled to their view, but in putting it out there like that, it invites anger. Should I do the work to look beyond that, to understand their rage? That is a big ask. The answer, for me, was no, no compassion. I stayed angry. My anger met theirs, metaphorically.

            The second lawn sign demanded “Unmask our children now!” My first reaction to it was to mumble ‘asshole’ to myself (actually Gary was driving and I had to explain I wasn’t calling him that). This one was easier to swallow. I could envision having a conversation. Though I am not a parent of a school-age child (I am a grandparent of a preschooler), I can imagine the frustration of dealing with the pandemic and the desire for my child to go back to ‘normalcy.’ It is unlikely that I would come to a meeting of the minds with the parent with that lawn sign, but the starting point wasn’t as hostile. As I mulled it over, my stomach muscles unclenched a bit. I would call it a semi-successful effort to find compassion.

            These two examples aren’t quite the same thing as listening to a friend or family member express something I don’t feel, but there are parallels. My goal is to walk around holding less hostility in my gut. Does my suggestion hold any water for you? If you have other ideas for how to do that, I’m all ears.

Am I Paying Attention?

The last public event I attended before the pandemic shut everything down was an appearance by Scott Simon, the NPR broadcaster, sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute. He talked about his career in journalism and the book he had recently written. In the course of the discussion, he said something I made note of and continue to think about. He said, and this may not be an exact quote, but I believe I got it, “If you have the same convictions at 42 as you had at 22, you aren’t paying attention.”

Hmmm, I wondered, do I agree?

As I sat in the auditorium, I think I construed convictions as equivalent to values. And, my values have not changed over the years: honesty, integrity, kindness are steadfast principles and always will be. So, at first, I rejected his premise. Subsequently, I looked up the word conviction: a firmly held belief or opinion. Ahhh, that is a different question. Have my opinions changed?

What were my convictions when I was 22?

When I was 22, I had just graduated from the public administration master’s program at Columbia University. It was 1982, an important year in my life that I have written about here. What did I believe?

I was a Democrat and, though Ronald Reagan was popular, I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980 (it was the first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote). I didn’t believe in Reagan’s message – he campaigned on small government, tax cuts, trickle-down economics and the whole ‘greed is good’ mentality. I didn’t buy it. I still don’t. That is one conviction that hasn’t changed.

Over the many years since then, even with the disappointments in our government, all the instances that corruption has been uncovered and scandals revealed, I still believe in the potential for good governance. I was 12 years old during the Watergate hearings; old enough to understand the implications.  I knew big corporations were just as problematic, though, if not more so. Over the years my understanding has become more nuanced, but I grasped early on that the common denominator was human nature. People could abuse power and money in any setting. Justice and fairness are best served by checks and balances. I stand by the notion that elections and oversight from journalists and governmental entities are more effective mechanisms to ensure the greater good than the “free” market. The market has its benefits, and I still call myself a capitalist, but a strong government is essential for the common good. That opinion has not changed. 

In 1982 I believed in Gary, and our future together. That hasn’t changed either. I believed in the importance of family. My thoughts on one aspect of that has changed. Forty years ago, I thought I could be a career woman and a mom at the same time. I no longer believe that, at least for myself. In fact, I had to let go of that conviction to maintain my sanity. I honestly think I was headed for a nervous breakdown if I didn’t adjust my expectations. It took a long time, a solid decade or more, to not blame myself for not achieving the dream of a successful career and happy, healthy children and husband.

As time passes, I see just how challenging it is for women to balance the competing demands of career, motherhood and all the other roles we play (wife, friend, daughter, etc.). I was not able to – at least not at the same time. Sequentially it might have been possible, but not all at once. Perhaps the particulars of my circumstances conspired against it. Gary’s career was, and is, all-consuming. I didn’t see how both of us could be pursuing work that demanded so much of our respective energy and still attend to our children appropriately. We weren’t rich enough to pay for nannies or housekeepers. We didn’t have a support system of family and friends that could substitute either. Something had to give. Maybe I could have sustained a job, but not a career. I was fortunate in that I could make a choice. I left the workforce, except for some freelance assignments, for ten years.

I also had to come to terms with the fact that my career wasn’t what I envisioned anyway. When I graduated with my MPA, I hoped to make meaningful contributions to public policy. Early on I found myself working for Pittsburgh’s Department of Finance and a decade later I was at the Department of Tax and Finance for the state of New York. This was not what I had in mind. I believed in the importance of an efficient and effective system of taxation, but when I thought about ‘public policy,’ I wanted to help people more directly by improving the quality of community life or helping people move up the economic ladder. That was quite a stretch from what I was doing buried in the bureaucracy. My career path was unfulfilling. It made sense to step off it. I am very glad I did.

I think there is truth in what Mr. Simon said. Our convictions should evolve. We need to be paying attention – to other ideas, to new information, and other perspectives. We need to test our beliefs to see if they hold up. Sometimes it is painful to let go of a closely held belief. Unfortunately, these day too many of us don’t do the work of examining our opinions. We are entrenched in our ideas, stuck in our echo chambers. One constant for me, at 22, 42 and now as I approach 62, is I am always wondering, questioning and thinking. In answer to the question I posited in the title of this post, yes, I am paying attention. Many of my opinions have remained, some have evolved.

Have your opinions changed since you were 22? Which ones? Care to share? It would be interesting to hear how and why your beliefs evolved.

The Journey Continues – Ethnicity

Note: Two weeks ago I posted the first part of an essay exploring my Jewish identity. I missed a week – life got in the way. The first part of the essay examined Judaism as a religion. Here is the second part of that essay.

The other strand of my Jewish identity is more deeply engrained and easier to define – my ethnicity. Wikipedia tells me that ethnicity can be understood as a group that shares a set of traditions, ancestry, language, culture (food, dress, rituals), among other things. Far more than the religion, I felt and continue to feel very connected to those elements; they are my history, they are part of my DNA.

            Do other ethnicities feel the same way? Is it the same for Americans of Irish or Italian descent, for example? I feel an affinity with other Jews – especially those whose origins are in the New York City area. The sense of humor, the cultural references and worldview tend to be similar to my own. When I meet someone who shares that, it feels like an old shoe in the best way, I am at home.

            Some cultural bonds are stronger than others. If I am traveling abroad and come across a fellow American, I may feel a connection, but I might not. Depending on where they are from, they may have totally different sensibilities. To the outside world there may be a definable American culture, but especially these days, there can be essential differences.

            I don’t feel the same kinship with Israelis. We may share a religion, but we are culturally quite different. Whether they are Israelis living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan or when I traveled to Israel, I notice striking differences. I love Israel and found it beautiful and endlessly fascinating, but it didn’t feel like home. The people are blunter, more direct (maybe that is a good thing, but it isn’t how I function). The food is wonderful, but not the things I was used to.

            There is a great fear among American Jews that we are being assimilated into nothingness – that there will be nothing left of Judaism as time goes by. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard sermons from rabbis warning of this, exhorting the congregation to renew their efforts to preserve our identity. I think part of the challenge is the divide between the religion and the ethnicity. Rabbis define Judaism in religious terms, which is understandable given their education and training, but perhaps self-defeating. In my experience, they don’t put much value on being culturally Jewish. For me, though, that is the stronger pull. And the culture isn’t just food and humor. It includes a set of values – questioning authority, being a mensch (a good, kind person), and valuing education are at the core. There is an intersection between the religion and the ethnicity in those values. I think for many the rejection or discomfort with the religion is about the emphasis on faith in God and on a text that is centuries old. That text has much to offer, the Torah is worth studying but for many of us it cannot be the source of all teaching. [I can imagine an observant Jew reading the last two sentences and being horrified and cursing my chutzpah. Who am I to pass judgment on the Torah, how could I be so disrespectful? I mean no disrespect. I am writing how I feel, how I experience the religion. I envy those with unshakable faith, who find comfort and guidance in the Torah.)

            I want a Jewish identity to survive in this world. After more than 5700 years of persecution, I don’t want to see us melt away into whatever country we happen to live. For some the religion will sustain them. Some may have found a comfortable combination of the two. For me, it is the culture. Will that be enough? I wonder what choices our children will make.

Notice the Disney menorah

My Journey

One of the themes of this blog has been exploring different aspects of my identity. One central question I have grappled with is: What does it mean to me to be a Jew? This is part of a longer essay.

            At 61 years old, I think I have finally figured it out. As a young person I was confused by the different strands of Judaism. It took a while for it to dawn on me that it is both a religion and an ethnicity. Those two things are not one and the same. When I was child, those strands were all tied up together.

            To further complicate things, as a religion there are different levels of observance. I have not studied other religions, so I don’t know if others feature such a wide range of practice. We have three main branches: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Each branch, as their respective names suggest, represents a level of practice of ritual. The Orthodox adhere to many rules and regulations. On the other end of the spectrum, with very few restrictions on everyday life is Reform Judaism. Beyond Orthodox, on an even further extreme we have Hasidism, recognizable as the men who wear black hats and side curls, and the women who wear wigs and modest clothes; they live in very insulated communities. We also have secular Jews, those who have been born into the faith but do not practice it. And, we have everything in between. Even if the family you are born into provides a place on that continuum (mine was even less than Reform), each individual needs to figure out where they fit in, if they fit in. It can be confusing; it certainly has been for me.

            Over the years I explored whether I accepted Judaism’s religious tenets. As a young person I immediately hit a stumbling block. One of its foundational beliefs is monotheism. I was, and continue to be, uncertain about the existence of God. Most religious Jews either don’t share that uncertainty or they ignore it and observe the laws and rituals anyway. I tried that latter path as I continued my journey.

            One of the troubling things I have found is the sense that the Jewish community stands in judgment of itself, judging those within it who make different choices. Each segment casts an eye on their own members assessing whether they are Jewish enough, on one hand, or are they too dogmatic or zealous on the other? Maybe I imagined those appraising eyes, but I don’t think so.

            The family that I married into was far more observant than my family of origin. This created a tension for me. I was willing to practice many of the rituals because of my respect for my husband and his family’s history as Holocaust survivors. I hoped the religion would ‘take,’ or I would take to the religion.

            When Gary and I married we kept a kosher home. We went to synagogue regularly, not just on the high holidays. I made seders. We hosted Chanukah parties where I made latkes and we lit candles all eight nights. We sent our children to Hebrew school. I studied with the rabbi myself. Our home features Judaic art and we have mezuzahs on our doorposts.

Our breakfront – always ready for Chanukah. You would never guess we were Jewish.

Despite all of that I never uncovered a belief in God. I never felt a sense of belonging to the community in our synagogue either. I liked our rabbi, but my connection didn’t go beyond that. I would have been happy to find a home there, but I didn’t. I continued to try to make it work, but then I hit another major obstacle – 9/11.

            After 9/11 it felt like a door closed, both in my heart and mind.

            On that never-to-be-forgotten Tuesday, a sunny, clear late summer day, life came to a halt: the airports closed, Amtrak shut down, regular television programming was suspended. Fear was palpable.

            My parents, who were retired, were visiting. Dad, recently diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, was facing chemotherapy. His doctors were in Albany, near me, though they lived in the Catskills, over two hours away. They were considering getting an apartment in the area so they wouldn’t have to deal with the long drives while he was being treated. That very morning, we were planning to look at some apartments. In fact, we did go to look at one, but everyone was so distracted we decided not to continue. They went home and I waited anxiously for Leah and Daniel to return home from school.

            Thankfully they came home safely but I couldn’t take my eyes off the television – the images of the towers coming down were seared into my brain. Watching the firefighters rush into the billowing smoke and ash while everyone else ran away from it filled me with awe and fear for them.

            It all felt so strange. Without airplanes flying overhead, without the Thruway truck traffic that I ordinarily heard even inside our house, there was an eerie silence. Whenever there was a loud noise, it was startling. Was that a bomb? Was that gunfire? Those possibilities had never occurred to me before.

            We had to re-evaluate the risks of everything. Some things returned quickly – Gary went to work, the kids went to school but other things were slower to come back. The second weekend after the attack, we went to synagogue, we did not want to give in to the terrorists.

            The four of us walked into Temple Israel’s cavernous sanctuary on that Saturday morning, as we usually did. Attendance was bit lighter than usual, but plenty of people were there. We took seats in our customary location and opened our prayer books. Like every other time before, I read the English translation of the Hebrew and listened to the rabbi’s sermon. This time a coldness came over me. Something was wrong. I felt alienated from the proceedings. It hit me that the words and rituals were separating us from other people, reinforcing our separateness. The people in the sanctuary might be drawn together by reciting and chanting the prayers, but we were walled off from everyone else who didn’t participate. How could this be a good thing? We needed unity.

            I thought about all the different religions in the world. Each with its own structures, physical and otherwise. Each tradition offers an identity to adherents – and by providing those identities, they necessarily define ‘others.’ If 9/11 proved nothing else, it showed how toxic that could be. Taken to its extreme, it results in violence and death.

            Of course, this wasn’t the first time that I questioned the value of religion. I was well aware of history and how often wars were fought in the name of God. Despite that, when Gary and I had children, we wanted to give them a foundation in Judaism. Neither of us had strong faith in God, per se, but continuing the legacy of our Jewish identity was important to us. We knew that they would make their own choices as adults, but we thought it was important to give them roots, especially in view of our respective family histories.

            In September of 2001, Leah had already had her bat mitzvah, she was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. Daniel was preparing for his rite of passage, he was 12, and his bar mitzvah was coming in six months. We had been attending services regularly for the prior 7 years to give our children that foundation. I knew we would continue our commitment through Dan’s special day, but something changed for me on that Saturday in September of 2001.

            I spent many years trying to focus on the good – the positive values, the moral compass Judaism offered and the community it created. I tried to overlook, or compartmentalize, the portions of the teachings that held no meaning, or worse, were terribly anachronistic. Clearly in the modern world we rejected animal sacrifice and slavery, though those practices were still included in our Torah readings.  Aside from those obvious ones, there were other stories and rules that didn’t resonate. Spending so much time on the minutiae of the rules of the Sabbath seemed pointless to me. The general idea of observing a Sabbath day, on the other hand, was genius. Putting aside work, turning off electronics and turning inward and focusing on family, is a brilliant practice. But splitting hairs over whether one could plant a seed in a garden on the Sabbath or carry a purse, frustrated me. Too much energy was spent on parsing those rules instead of digging for more meaningful guidance.

            I think, in that moment on that Saturday in September, something crystalized. I realized I had come to the end of the journey. I was done with trying to make the religion an integral part of my life. I could continue to practice the rituals that were meaningful to me, but I wasn’t going to struggle to be religious anymore. Letting that go didn’t happen all at once, but I knew something inside me had changed.  

Letting Go

Being able to let go of something – a person, a belief, a dream, a habit – is terribly difficult. I can’t say I have done it successfully very often, certainly not as often as would be healthy for me. I was thinking about this the other morning when I woke up feeling lighter. It was not because I had lost weight (I wish!), at least not in the physical sense. But a noticeable heaviness had lifted from my shoulders and heart. It happened while I wasn’t looking; snuck up on me. It was not a conscious decision, but rather an accumulation of thoughts and actions.

As I reflect on the times that I have successfully let go of something that was dragging me down, I realized that this was my pattern. It wasn’t like I could just decide to move on and, boom, I did. It was more subtle and required sustained effort. I would be making progress and I didn’t even realize it – until I did.

The earliest I remember it happening involved my first serious boyfriend. That relationship lived in my head and heart far longer than was healthy. It was clear that it wasn’t working. We were too young, he wanted to be free to see other people, I wanted commitment. I couldn’t let go of what I saw as our potential future together. I blamed myself, I thought it was some deficiency in me.

Finally, after months of mourning and wallowing, I consciously put my energy into college courses, nurtured new and existing relationships and took better care of myself physically. Eventually I got the payoff. One night, long after we had officially broken up, he called because something reminded him of me. I realized, in that moment, that I didn’t feel hurt or longing when I heard his voice. I could have a conversation with him, but I wasn’t invested in some outcome. I was okay where I was – I was free. I couldn’t tell you when it happened. It was an accumulation of all the actions I had taken – some of them awkward and painful, some more rewarding. But, the combination of time and effort, did its thing, and I moved on.

I had a similar experience in graduate school, though this time it had nothing to do with a relationship. I was torturing myself that I wasn’t doing as well in my classes as I expected. The breaking point came when I got a B on my Cost-Benefit Analysis midterm. I was devastated. A B might not sound like a bad grade but, in my experience in graduate school, it is more equivalent to a C. It felt like failure. The fact that I had a 17-month old baby and was pregnant with my second was no excuse. I went to see the professor, trying hard not to cry. I told her I was very disappointed in myself. She assured me that no one in the program, I was in the public administration doctoral program at the State University of New York at Albany, thought I was a B student – regardless of the grade I got on that test. I tried to let that sink in.

I was still overwhelmed – our house was a mess, toys, laundry, and piles of paper everywhere. I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth, but I expected more of myself. Gary was in his third year of his residency program in internal medicine and was stretched to the limit. My parents and friends tried to talk sense to me. My folks paid for a cleaning service to come to our house every other week to help ease the burden. It was helpful, but I had to clean up before they could do their work!

I couldn’t turn off the pressure until something clicked. While I wasn’t conscious of the moment, one day I realized the critical voice in my head had quieted. I accepted that I was doing the best that I could and that would have to be enough.

A year and a half later I took a leave from the doctoral program. Gary and I realized that financially the ends were not meeting, we did not want to accumulate credit card debt, so I went to work for the state. Family had been called upon enough to help. Ultimately, after working for a couple of years, I decided I didn’t need or want to complete the doctoral program. I had done the coursework and taken the comprehensive exam, but I would still need to write a dissertation to finish. I concluded that I didn’t need the credential for my career. I didn’t want to be a professor.  To work in government, a PhD in public administration didn’t add much value, I already had a master’s degree. I made the decision to leave. I let it go without regret and haven’t looked back.

More recently, when I awoke that morning feeling lighter, it dawned on me that I had let go of the dread and helplessness I felt about my mother’s health. It was not that I wasn’t still worried about her or that I didn’t care – of course I did and do. But I had been carrying a sense of responsibility for her condition that was causing great stress. After months of trying to find an explanation and treatment for Mom’s breathing problems, I finally accepted that it wasn’t in my control. Gary, my husband the doctor, who has been advising me throughout this journey, pointed out to me repeatedly, “If different cardiologists and pulmonologists, who have years of training and experience, can’t come up with an answer, don’t you think it is unreasonable to expect you to?” As much as I wished I could fix it, or at least understand it, I couldn’t. The first three times he asked me that question, it didn’t take. I knew the answer, but I had to internalize it. Finally, when I wasn’t consciously aware, I woke up that morning realizing that I had.

I was doing the best that I could and that would have to be enough. It is hard enough to deal with the losses and disappointments that life brings us. Adding blame and guilt, when it is misplaced or unearned, is a burden too much to bear.

Now if I could only figure out how to let go a bit sooner, I would be grateful. But, as they say, the only way through it is through it.