Sunday, June 19, 2011

Extraordinary, Ordinary People

    I recently read Condoleeza Rice’s biography/autobiography entitled Extraordinary, Ordinary People. I was intrigued to learn that she grew up in segregated Alabama. Her family endured the white revolt against integration in the tumultuous Civil Rights movement with the bombings and other terrifying and violent events of the 1960’s. Somehow I never learned of her background during her tenure as Secretary of State while in George W. Bush’s administration. Somehow I thought she came from less humble means and was sort of a blue-blood African American. While she does have an impressive pedigree, her parents were just teachers from the southeast, her dad also a Presbyterian minister. Hard-working, tough people who persevered and made the best of a lousy situation. “Whites and blacks lived parallel worlds, their paths crossing uneasily in only a few public places,” she says. They kept to their neighborhoods, their churches, their jobs, their part of town and played it safe in the larger community where majority whites made the rules.

    Having been a small child in the middle of Civil Rights and living up north where there was far less tension, I was sheltered from this insanity. Not that New Englanders aren’t ever prejudiced – I guess most everyone is to an extent – but I missed the drama that played out in the Southern states during that era. (I well remember the hippies though).

    Having grown up above the Mason-Dixon line, I always thought of myself as unbiased, not stupid enough to lower myself to prejudice, but in truth I was plain ignorant. Out in the Boston suburbs I just hadn’t been exposed to many minorities other than Irish Catholics (and in city, there were plenty of them) or the occasional Jewish person. The general sentiment seemed to be liberal open-mindedness toward minorities and blacks…or maybe I just didn’t hear lots of demeaning talk reflecting superior, racist attitudes. That certainly didn’t pervade the culture in New England the way it did in the deep South.

    At my high school in the Philadelphia suburbs, we Christians were actually in the minority in a large Jewish community. I found that a fabulous cultural eye-opener and I learned many new traditions. Today, I very much enjoy my Jewish friends and truly love going to synagogue, and Jewish music, worship and food. Still, this mixing of cultures didn’t have the nasty, "better-than", contentious tone that the white-black dynamic had.

    It wasn’t until I went to college in South Carolina (in the ‘80’s) where and when I began to see how very different those cultures really were. Even nearly 20 years out from integration, there still existed attitudes among girls on my hall who said they “couldn’t room with a black girl”. This absolutely stunned me. I know they looked at me funny when I sang as the only white girl in the Gospel choir. I’m sure I looked very weird.

    The fact that Condoleeza Rice’s parents were able to live in such a hypocritical and unfair society and not be resentful toward white people, is amazing to me. They had their high standards and integrity for their own lives and that of their daughter, and they didn’t capitulate to a victim perspective. Ms. Rice says they aimed to work harder to be better at anything because of their social disadvantage. That she (Condoleeza) pushed herself to achieve stellar personal goals and ultimately break through several political and academic glass ceilings (first black Provost at Stanford University as well as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State), is a testament to her tenacity and honorable parenting of her mother and father. They clearly instilled in her a sense of pride and self worth.

    I hope many people, of all colors, are inspired by her story.


    Sunday, June 12, 2011

    The Misguided and Foolish Ethics of Powerful People

    We’ve all had fun with the Anthony Weiner story, at his namesake’s expense but the jokes are starting to get very old and tired. The news that his wife is pregnant and claims she’ll stay with him makes it even less humorous. The contact with the seventeen year old is just another piece of tiresome news. Enough already!

    Beneath all this is a sad pattern that seems to proliferate among powerful people, particularly men. Human Behavior and Relationship Expert and Aussie Patrick Wanis says in his blog last month that men in power can be sensation-seekers who thrive on taking risks, and it’s all the more easy for them because they have greater access and opportunities to cheat than the average man does. “Powerful men face greater temptation because they have power, control and command over other people. Power leads to cheating because it can lead to delusions of invincibility, entitlement and the male ego-drive to win, conquer and dominate.” Isn’t it interesting how people lose their perspective and good judgment when they acquire influence, money and control? Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods, Mark Sanford, Bernie Madoff, Mel Gibson…Whether it’s affairs, inappropriate behavior, unethical or illegal business decisions, drunken temper tantrums, racist rants… it usually comes back to bite the offender.

    This isn’t totally limited to men: look at Martha Stewart. How stupid was it to listen to a broker who foolishly ignored insider trading laws to give her news under the table so she could sell her stock before the big announcement? Did she think she was special? But men seem to be the main ones who get caught in this web of ethical blindness. Consistently, these powerful men, especially politicians, seem to forget the golden rule, as mentioned in a New York Daily News article, “Would it be okay if one of my constituents saw this or my wife saw this?”  Duh. Seems obvious to the rest of us but I guess in the heat of the moment, it’s not on the radar.

    Then they appear before the media and the viewing television audience at the press conference, tearfully apologizing. I love the half apologies that sound like this: “I regret that others were hurt by my actions and my work has been compromised” – basically communicating: I’m sorry I got caught.

    Dr. Wanis quotes Britain’s Lord Acton in his classic quip from 1887, ‘All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.’”


    Sunday, June 5, 2011

    Not Enough Time

    Will there ever be enough time to do all the things I need to do? Forget all the things I want to do. I’ve given up on that until the kids are out of the nest -- or at least the first two are gone. Maybe in retirement? Maybe when I’m in “the home”? If only I didn’t need rest! If I could stay up into the wee hours like Martha Stewart reportedly does, only sleeping a few hours, I’d have that additional discretionary block of time. I keep thinking (silly me!) that I can work once the kids are in bed…I’m clearly stuck in the past when they were small. Now that time is 10:00 pm, at least for my oldest. Hello, I’m catatonic by then -- no brain cells left! Or if I could get up at 4 am and work in the quiet of the early morning. I just don’t have the energy. Sometimes family life sucks all the oxygen out of my day and it feels very unproductive.

    Then perhaps I’m too much of a perfectionist and feel that it’s not okay to not accomplish something, or many things, in one day. Perhaps there’s wee a bit of compulsiveness in that as well? The need to achieve, complete, check items off the list. Yeah, just a bit compulsive. Underlying these two negative labels is, I think, the real issue: control. Didn’t I write a blog on having an “off year”? How about an off day? I’m the first one to disparage the American tendency to overwork, stemming from our hardworking frontier spirit.  It fit frontier life; it doesn’t fit our cushy 21st century/Information Age life, yet I’m the last one to practice what I preach. What a hypocrite. I still want to be in control.

    My seven-year old is crashed out on the club chair in the next room, worn out from fatigue of a sleepover with a friend. Yet he seems even farther away. I question whether I’ve been too busy for him lately. I think that gut instinct is usually correct. My tendency is to beat myself up and feel overwhelmed with questions of how to change. I know intellectually that a more effective means to better the situation is o examine little ways – do-able steps -- to change so he can have the time from me that he needs…and I still can have time for myself and my work.

    I truly wish parenting and housekeeping had a formula that could be followed so that we could function on autopilot, not having to reevaluate situations on a daily basis. All rules and responses could fit for every situation and every child. Would that be so much simpler? At least for me. Of course, that would make everyone else’s life a living hell…and it really wouldn’t work for me either because of the lovely theory of chaos. This was prevalent all through Michael Crighton’s fabulous novel Jurassic Park (the book was infinitely better than the film) and highlighted how chaos theory actually pervades our existence. Nothing is totally predictable, not the least of which is the weather. Any variable can jump in and upset the balance. Of course, the mathematics behind it has a complex and supposedly explainable pattern but I’ll never understand it and I’m guessing neither will most of us. Things will still feel chaotic and disconcertingly unpredictable.

    I can’t totally wrap my mind around that theory and accept it in practical reality when I live in a culture that places so much emphasis on getting what you want when you want it. What a clash of philosophies: the reality of not being able to control everything and practicing acceptance and living in a world of repeated attempts to “control your destiny”.

    Time to take a look at step one again.