“Tween” Mean

A friend’s daughter struggles to navigate a school landscape filled with “mean girls.” The social scene seems nearly impossible to traverse safely; a devastating look or a barely audible comment is awfully hard for a teacher to notice—let alone regulate. I know because for several years, I was one of the mean girls.

I didn’t start as a bully. I was well-liked in 5th grade,  and—despite being chubby—easily made friends. But then we moved. I was tossed into a group of kids who referred to me as “heavy hitter”.  A talented softball player, I was too chunky to simply be admired for my skill. Compliments were delivered nestled in put-downs.  I felt ambushed; I’d never before been teased at school because of my weight.

And then, in 6th grade, someone scrawled “lezzie” on my locker, and I could feel myself being swept out to sea.

To fight the tide of cruelty, I sought a lifebuoy.  This is not hyperbole; everything feels desperate at 12. I stayed afloat by falling in with a group of “cool” (read: mean) girls. They appreciated my wicked humor, and I used my wisecracks as a “tribute” payment. As long as I made them laugh, I was not their target. I was not mature or self-confident enough to use victimless humor, so I sometimes said devastatingly mean things; I wasn’t going to be banished permanently to the bottom rung of the social ladder.

A girl in our class told a teacher that I—and my “clique”—had teased her on the bus. It was true,undeniably. But I felt betrayed by this teacher. Where was she when I’d been the butt of the jokes? She jumped into the discussion midstream and now expected me to trust her. I didn’t feel safe sharing with her that I’d also been tormented.  As we are all prone to do, she drew a fairly tidy map of the bullied and the bullies.  But I knew even then that tweens often change positions, frantically scrambling for a foothold.

Although our attention usually focuses on high school students who are bullied, a UCLA study revealed that almost half of middle school students surveyed reported being bullied in a week. Jaana Juvonen—UCLA professor of psychology and co-author of the study—notes, “Bullying is a problem that large numbers of kids confront… [I]t’s not just an issue for a few unfortunate ones.” She was surprised that so many students experienced bullying over a 5-day period. A study from the Oregon Research Institute published in The Journal of Early Adolescence found similar results: Roughly 4 out of 5 middle school students reported being verbally harassed at school.

In the UCLA study, bullying included name calling, spreading rumors, or kicking and shoving in hallways. Verbal harassment occurred twice as often as physical aggression, and it cut across all income brackets and ethnic backgrounds. Interestingly, the old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” does not hold true. Students who were physically bullied and those who were verbally bullied felt the same levels of anxiety and fear: All kids who had been bullied in some way “reported feeling humiliated, anxious, or disliking school,” said Juvonen.

A study conducted by the Institute of Education in London revealed that less than 1% of elementary students could be characterized as “true bullies”—those who bully and are not bullied themselves. More frequently, the very same students are sometimes the victims and sometimes the perpetrators.  Dr. Leslie Gutman, lead researcher, explained, “We are not suggesting that schools adopt a soft approach to bullying but simply stating that, on the basis of evidence, bullying is more complex an issue than some people believe it to be.” We must focus on bullying behavior in all its forms. This is much more honest and useful than labeling students as either “victims” or “bullies”—especially  bullying behavior extends to adults as well.

There have been several high profile national cases of principals who bullied parents and teachers, as well as infamous examples of teachers bullying other teachers or students.  Studies from the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) indicate that the professionals most likely to be bullying targets are school teachers and nurses. Dr. Gary Namie, writing in the WBI 2013 Industry Survey, reflected on our national effort to curb student bullying: “How in the world can youngsters ever be persuaded to stop when they witness adult bullying in the schools?”

I am always incredulous and disheartened when a friend or colleague says, “Well, she’s never bullied me.” Or: “But he’s so good at_________ (fill in any particular skill here)”—implying that because this supervisor has other valuable skills that he couldn’t possibly bully others. Just like those surreptitious mean “tween” whisperings—bullying is not always obvious.

We must ask ourselves: Do the stated values of a school match the landscape on the ground? Kids notice everything. Is the entire school staff striving for undisputed, unwavering kindness and respect? And are our educators truly tuned in to the students’ ever-changing delicate social dance? The position of victims and bullies is rarely static, but the behavior is always abhorrent.

Some of the girls I bullied in middle school are now among my very best friends.  And one of my proudest moments in 12th grade was being voted “most humorous” by my classmates. For, although I’d earned the same honor in 8th grade, by my high school graduation I had figured out how to be funny without being mean. I wish there had been a vibrant social curriculum in place to help me learn that sooner.

My dreams of Olympic ski jumping

When asked in third grade what I wanted to be when I grew up, I confidently responded, “A ski jumper.” My turn had come towards the end of a classroom discussion, and all the usual “best” answers had already been taken: astronaut, president, and veterinarian. Not one to go for the humdrum or the obvious choices for girls at that time—nurse or teacher—I thought ski jumper sounded thrilling and valorous.

It was a remarkable pronouncement for several reasons. First and foremost, I did not ski. Nobody in my family skied. We played poker and canasta.

Sure, like much of America in the 1970s, we avidly watched ABC’s Wide World of Sports: “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport…the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat…”  We tuned in each week to gasp and cringe as Vinko Bogataj—ski jumping for the former Yugoslavia—crashed spectacularly during the opening montage. (A clip so well known that American humorist Rich Hall coined a term for watching the wreck over and over: “agonosis”.) We fancied ourselves armchair Jim McKays and judged the finer points of ski jumping while sipping cocoa from our well-worn couch. But, I tell you, we did not ski.

The other considerable obstacle to my Olympic ski jumping ambition was that women were not allowed to compete in this event. In fact, this year will mark the very first time that women will compete in Olympic ski jumping. When those gals launch themselves off the ramp in Sochi, they’ll represent a dream launched many years ago but grounded repeatedly by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).The IOC announced in 1991 that all future Olympic sports would be open to both genders, but this decision excluded all the initial events from the first Winter Games in 1924. Women ski jumpers have petitioned the IOC since 1998 to be able to compete.

Sexism is one reason for the prohibition. Rex Bell, chief of competition at Harris Hill—Brattleboro’s own world-class ski jumping venue—told the Boston Globe in 2012, “The old-timers would say it’s too dangerous for the girls, they’ll fall and get hurt, they won’t be able to have kids, they were not strong enough.”

But it’s not just the “old-timers” with antiquated views of women’s fragility and reproductive health.  In 2005 Gian Franco Kasper, FIS (Fédration Internationale de Ski) president and member of the IOC, argued that women shouldn’t participate in ski jumping because the sport “seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.” U.S. ski jumper Lindsey Van notes that men’s reproductive organs are on the outside of the body.

The female fragility argument—a remarkably tenacious holdover from the Victorian era—is certainly one reason why women’s ski jumping has struggled to gain legitimacy. The other is that the IOC has strict rules about “necessary technical criteria” required for a new event to be included in the games. Claire Suddath, writing in TIME magazine, asserts that women’s ski jumping needed a world championship event before it would be considered world-class caliber. As recently as 2006, the best women ski jumpers competed in the FIS Continental Cup (considered less competitive than a world championship) and had been doing so for only two years. The sport needed more competitive credibility on the world stage.

The IOC’s other main argument, that there weren’t enough women ski jumpers worldwide, seems more of a snow job; women’s ski jumping had more competitors from more countries in 2010 than many other winter sports included in the Olympics. According to the Women’s Ski Jumping USA website, at the time of the Vancouver Olympics, women’s ski jumping had 83 athletes from 14 nations ready to compete; skeleton had only 39 athletes from 12 nations.

Whatever the exact constellation of impediments, women’s ski jumpers finally have their long-fought victory; now they can concentrate on their training. This week the U.S. Women’s Ski Jumping team was announced, and it includes star jumper Lindsey Van, the tenacious Sarah Hendrickson—coming back from a knee injury—and three-time national champion Jessica Jerome. They will all have their sights set on Japan’s Sara Takanashi who is favored to win the gold.

As Russian security forces attempt to create a “ring of steel” around the Sochi Olympic Village, and governments around the world fear for their athletes’ safety, there is real danger that we will watch the popular summer resort become a high profile venue for two warring parties craving the international spotlight. But you don’t have to pay tribute to Putin’s “colossal authoritarian branding”—in the words of Russia historian Leon Aron—by attending the Olympics in Sochi. You can watch dozens of world-class ski jumpers right here in Brattleboro (from the comfort of a heated beer tent) at the Harris Hill Ski Jump the weekend of February 15th and 16th. Go to www.harrishillskijump.com/ to learn more.

We are terribly lucky to have this special event here in Brattleboro. Every member of this year’s Olympic team once competed at Harris Hill. Our hometown ski jump offers the rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of future men and women Olympians as they fly hundreds of feet—at speeds up to 60 mph—and land on a lowly corn field. How perfectly Vermont.

 I never did become a ski jumper, despite my 3rd grade ambitions, but there will be countless children finding inspiration and aspiration at Harris Hill as they watch those skiers soar.

Sometimes dull but never inconsequential

Ukrainian journalist and prominent activist Tetyana Chornovil was brutally attacked on Christmas Day just hours after publishing a story accusing top government officials of corruption. Chornovil, who is expected to recover, suspects President Viktor Yanukovich was behind the assault. Her accusation comes after weeks of street protests against Yanukovich for reneging on a promise to sign an economic agreement with the European Union. Instead, Yanukovich made a deal with Russia that offers Ukraine a $15 billion bailout and lower gas prices—and keeps the struggling nation under Moscow’s thumb. The street protesters fear Ukraine will lose its independence and autonomy if Yanukovich gets cozy with Russia. As The Guardian reports, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians brave freezing temperatures and aggressive security forces to have their voices heard. Democracy—still in its relative infancy there— isn’t a given for them; they must be vigilant to protect it.

Ukraine held its first presidential election in December 1991, in the midst of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. More than 90% of Ukrainians went to the polls. Now, over 20 years later, 72% of eligible Ukrainian voters still regularly cast ballots in presidential elections.  According to the American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara, we’ve not seen turnout above 70% in over a century in this country. The Center for the Study of the American Electorate puts the 2012 U.S. Presidential election turnout at just over 57% of eligible American voters—down from turnout in both 2008 and 2004.

Granted, we do not face ruthless Vladimir Putin meddling directly in our internal affairs (See my July 2013 column “The Bear Wakes”). But locally there’s certainly still plenty of concern and ire over the Police/Fire Renovations, the defeat of the 1% optional sales tax, and the looming substantial increase in our taxes here in Brattleboro. More than one friend, referring to the town meeting vote that approved the Police/Fire project, has said: “What were the reps thinking? We can’t afford that!” I am an elected town meeting representative here in Brattleboro, and I can report that the discussion was long and deliberative. You may not agree with the decisive vote, but it was neither capricious nor uninformed.

When I suggested to another friend— frustrated by past town meeting decisions —that she should attend herself, her response was: “That’s just not for me. I don’t like sitting in meetings for all those hours! Ugh!” I smiled a tight little smile and resisted the urge to say, “Who exactly do you think enjoys hours of messy, tedious democracy in action?” But then I realized, in a deep sense (when I can ignore the fact that my butt falls asleep in those awful folding chairs), I do. Here’s why.

This past week civil rights activist Franklin McCain died. McCain was one of the “Greensboro Four”—a group of African-American students from North Carolina A & T State University that occupied a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960 and ignited a sit-in movement across the South. He told Washington Post contributor Mary C. Curtis that one of the most important things he learned from that protest was not to stereotype people. He explained that as he sat at the counter—feeling utter elation and pride—he warily watched an elderly white woman approach him. She leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Boys, I am so proud of you.” This remarkable moment shaped his views for the rest of his life.

I value town meeting because I hear what my neighbors genuinely think about important local issues. It is an incomparable opportunity to practice withholding judgment and earnestly releasing the urge to pigeonhole fellow residents. I wish more residents viewed it this way. Mirroring lackluster turnout in presidential elections, our local political engagement has also waned. Annette Cappy—Brattleboro’s town clerk for the past 25 years—recently told me she has seen a marked decrease in the number of residents willing to run for office. Cappy recalled that in the past it was not unusual for 30 people in each district to run for 15 town meeting member seats; now there are often not enough candidates to fill the seats. But, Cappy notes, “Running for town meeting member in Brattleboro is basically the same responsibility as that of any other voter in other [Vermont] communities…You go to town meeting and you vote your conscience.”

If you are a Brattleboro resident, and have never served your community in this vital capacity, please consider running. We need you. You can pick up a petition from the Town Clerk’s office; you need only gather 10 signatures from voters in your district to get on the ballot for the March election. Town offices—such as Selectboard or school board—require just 30 signatures.  There are many positions open, including seats on the town school board, the BUHS board, and the board of listers.  All paperwork is due to the Town Clerk’s Office by 5 pm Monday, Jan. 27.

If you doubt the need to keep our democracy fresh and vibrant, consider that a 20-something in my Modern World History course at CCV some years ago, argued that “fascism really doesn’t seem all that bad. Things work better. It is just easier to have someone else making the decisions.” Indeed, which is why George Bernard Shaw—the Irish playwright and co-founder of the London School of Economics—astutely quipped, “Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.”

I’m confident that the people of Ukraine—or those in other tenuous democracies—would be relieved and delighted to have the opportunity to vote on our more mundane, but no less important matters.


Blunders in “Nerdland”

Melissa Harris-Perry—Tulane political science professor and host of the eponymous MSNBC weekend show—began the New Year mopping up a mess she’d made in an ill-conceived segment on her show. In a sketch entitled “Caption That!”, Harris-Perry offers photos for her guests to caption. Meant to be clever, humorous and—let’s admit—kind of snarky, she flashed a picture of Mitt Romney with all his grandchildren.  Her guests, actress Pia Glenn and comedian Dean Obeidallah,  each cracked jokes about Romney’s adopted African-American grandson, Kieran, who Romney holds on his lap in the family photo.

Glenn started off the tasteless humor by singing, “One of these things is not like the other…”; Obeidallah followed, quipping that the lone black baby represents the diversity in the Republican party. The most cringe-inducing moment for me was when host Harris-Perry quips that she hopes that Kieran will one day marry hip hop artist Kanye West’s daughter. Presumably, hilarity would ensue if the Romneys got together with the West-Kardashian clan. (How exactly would this differ from any serious political figure hobnobbing with that egomaniacal, shallow pair?)  The short segment was part of a show that Harris-Perry considers “Nerdland”—a geeky, thoughtful alternative to the muck and mire usually seen on cable news. She missed the mark. Her show’s stated goals were lost in cheap potshots and decidedly unintellectual banter.

As an African-American female academic, Harris-Perry is an extremely unlikely talk show celebrity. She is the only tenured professor in the United States to have her own weekly national platform. She now has a national audience with whom she discusses the complex overlap of race, gender, and class and their complicated relationship to politics and culture. When the show debuted, Michael P. Jeffries—American Studies assistant professor at Wellesley College—wrote an enthusiastic opinion piece in The Guardian asserting that her show represents “MSNBC’s recognition that the public thirsts for earnest intellectual discussion, driven by data and evidence and facilitated by trained professionals.” He noted that black intellectuals “moderating intellectual exchange” are rarely seen on mainstream television.  Harris-Perry, he asserted, seeks to bring the “stuffy” academy to the masses and simultaneously refute the many limiting stereotypes with which black women routinely contend. This was a tall order, but Harris-Perry is certainly well-equipped to succeed and has a clear path to follow.

Longtime CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien, PBS  NewsHour and Washington Week anchor Gwen Ifel, and Good Morning America host Robin Roberts are all high-profile women of color who have successfully charted careers of substance in a field that has been overwhelming white and male since its inception.  But only Harris-Perry publicly walks the tightrope at the confluence of academician and entertainer. It is a decidedly tricky business, and she knows it.

In a Feb. 2012 interview with New York Times writer Brian Stelter she said, “Part of the way I end up here [on MSNBC] is, I think the ivory tower has a ton of brilliant information that doesn’t show up for ordinary people.”  She was amazed when she did a segment on the Rachel Maddow show about race, class and mayoral politics and was immediately confronted with the power of the visual media: “I gave that lecture a million times…but I do it once on Rachel’s show, and it was everywhere the next day.” She’s still grappling with a medium that instantaneously reaches millions. There is little time for subtlety, nuance or explanation, which is why it is so critical to get it right the first time.

It was disheartening to see Harris-Perry—a self-identified African American woman whose mother is white— and her guests stoop to a position that transracial adoptions are funny, that this family is a joke, and that Romney’s grandson is not a legitimate member of his family. Harris-Perry and other liberal academics and pundits who keep tabs on the racism within the GOP, should be more self-reflective and honest about their own prejudices.

Melissa Harris-Perry and Soledad O’Brien both represent the quintessentially American experience: They each have parents of strikingly different cultural backgrounds. From this perspective they can offer critical insight and commentary on American culture and politics. Harris-Perry, as a black woman born into a large, white Mormon family herself, is uniquely situated to facilitate a personal and substantive discussion of the Mormon Church’s past record of racism and discrimination. Instead, she chose a path of anti-intellectualism and broke her own rule about the families of political figures being “off-limits” to critique.

This past November Harris-Perry and influential black feminist writer bell hooks engaged in a public conversation about race, womanhood and politics at The New School in NYC. In that televised dialogue, while discussing the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, they noted that black children are often viewed differently from white babies.  Ms. hooks commented: “I’m hurting because we can’t get past the construction of black children as little mini-adults whose innocence we don’t have to protect.” Clearly, regardless of political stripe, we must all be vigilant about rejecting this damaging trope.

I still have high hopes for Harris-Perry. Her apologies to the Romney family (and to her audience) were not the hackneyed “mistakes were made.” Instead, her mea culpa was unequivocal, direct and unambiguous.  And her willingness to admit her gaffe could signal a renewed commitment to combatting anti-intellectualism and the cable news grandstanding she distains.

As I write, last Thursday’s Reformer sits on the coffee table.  On the front page, our town’s “New Year’s” baby slumbers in his mother’s arms. Nathan Ngaleya, whose mother is originally from West Africa, is a newborn Vermonter. He may have been born in one of the whitest states in the union, but he is one of us.


Thanks, Coach

On New Year’s Eve two years ago, I had a chance meeting with a friend of a friend. We now view our introduction as a kind of kismet—good fortune, fate, destiny. Whatever you want to call it; it transformed both our lives.

First introduced as an actress and musician, she jumped into the afternoon’s sledding party with great zeal and theatrics. Her over-the-top humor and slapstick comedy were hits with our budding Chevy Chase and Lucille Ball, and I instantly admired her forthright demeanor. It wasn’t until hours later, while defrosting over much-needed, first-rate coffee, that I learned she was also a professional and personal coach.

I was intrigued; I acutely needed new direction in my life. After leaving teaching to stay home with my children, I felt pulled—repeatedly—to the field of coaching. But honestly, I hate the term “life coach.” It feels too “California”; I am a New Englander, after all. We don’t hold with that touchy feely business. We are people of ice storms and stacking wood. We revel in a good Nor’easter. We are practical and a bit taciturn. When things get rough in our house, we like to say, “I ain’t dead yet!”  Life coaching?  I didn’t have the patience for that squishy indulgence.

But at the end of the visit, she said simply, “Give me a call. Coaching can change your life.”  I did, and it has.

I could rattle off my personal successes of the past two years, but I might  leave you with the idea that I am a superhero and not the slight, slightly-neurotic, far-sighted, middle-aged gal I truly am. What has changed? I live more in line with my personal values now, and that has made all the difference.

I don’t mean driving a more fuel-efficient car or eating locally, although those can be part of living your values. I mean those values that are so much a part of who we are and want to be, that we may not realize their critical importance in our lives. Naming them gives them the power they deserve. My initial “values” list included dozens of things I cherished: laughter, curiosity, service, accomplishment, and movement. It was immensely pleasing to name those elusive intangibles that make me who I most want to be in the world.

Sometimes stated values  conflict with one another: I want more solitary exercise, but I also want more quality time with my family. And I only have so many hours in the day. But that is the exquisite and intricate dance we must all do. Honestly acknowledging the tension—and making the best choice in that moment—can provide a balm for the harried or the chronically disappointed. There is no “have to”; there is only choice.

Tens of thousands of coaches and organizations around the globe use the Co-Active Coaching model, created by Karen and Henry Kimsey-House and Laura Whitworth, to transform lives and businesses. Although decidedly California in its origin (Ah-ha—I was right!), it recently found a home at the stodgy Ivy League: McClean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate, announced a partnership between its Institute of Coaching and the Coaches Training Institute, the premier Co-Active Coaching training school.  Karen Kimsey-House explained, “We’ve known intuitively and by watching results for twenty years that the Co-Active Model is an effective approach to coaching, and now, with this partnership, we’ll be able to demonstrate that through scientific research.”

I am more joyful—and more satisfied—now that I have embraced Co-Active Coaching, both as a director of my life and as an aspect of my career path. But I recently came to the wholly unexpected—and amusing—realization that it is easier for me to come out as gay than to come out as a life coach. It feels much more revealing to say that I believe living my stated values is a radical act of fulfillment. Sexual orientation? That’s so 90s! But declaring that the right coach, asking the right questions, could transform one’s life and work? Well, that’s chastening; there is shame and embarrassment wrapped up in admitting that we might need help living a life of true purpose and fulfillment.

It’s like when some of us on the DRB thought we might witness a battle over southern Vermont’s first proposed Medical Marijuana dispensary, and the real tussle of the night—the one that brought the crowds to the meeting—was a discussion about parking clogging up a narrow side street. It turns out that it’s often the mundane things that are so vitally important to our sense of wellbeing.

Through my extensive Co-Active Coach training, I met men and women from around the world who use coaching in their personal and professional lives. I know financial planners, therapists, editors, writers, teachers, human resource managers, performers, administrators, doctors—and even a supervisor at a diamond mine—who all use it in their work. For some, coaching is the entirety of their practice; for most of us, it is a highly effective tool we use to shape lives and careers of more resonance.

I am a much better parent, writer, educator—and person—now than before I embraced Co-Active Coaching. And my coach agrees that as I have lived a more authentic, vulnerable and brave life, she has been inspired to do the same. It is the same with my clients. When I witness someone engaging fully in their life and work, I step up my own game.

As you welcome the New Year, how will you create your own kismet?  What will be your breathtaking challenge? I am crafting my own as I write this.



Magical thinking

I have thought of their mesmerizing faces all week. Go to www.omochild.org to be enchanted yourself.  Five-year-old Terefe has the same devilish grin as my own son. When I first read his description, I thought: This is my son’s soul brother. Terefe, the jokester, often pinches the other kids to make them laugh. (My own dear son struggles to sort out what’s truly hilarious slapstick comedy from what’s just annoying.)  Two-year-old Ruth, whose name is my daughter’s middle name, can be both sneaky and clever. She hides her own bottle, saves it for later, and then steals one from another kid. Her nickname is the “Adorable Cheater.” We often say that our own daughter gets away with an awful lot because of her charm. 

These children—pulling pranks in a home nearly 7,000 miles away from ours—are our kin. Yet they are among the 37 children rescued by Lale Labuko’s nonprofit, “Omo Child,” and living in two shelter homes in Jinka, Ethopia. Their savior, Labuko, now attends Hampshire College in western Massachusetts.

Lale Labuko thinks he’s about 30 years old, although he can’t be sure. He was born in a Kara village in the remote Omo River Valley in southwest Ethiopia and lived among a people who still adhere to ancient beliefs about ritualistic killing of children to ward off evil. Labuko resolved at the age of 15 that he would end this repulsive practice. Although he’s saved numerous children, he has not yet succeeded in persuading village elders to entirely abandon their deadly superstition.

It would be rather effortless to disdain the Kara and reject them as so very different from us—to mark them as “other”—because we can’t comprehend a world view that includes ritual killing of children. Several groups in this extremely isolated region of Ethiopia believe that some people are born “mingi”—cursed—and must be killed to spare the rest of the village from suffering. If a child is born without the permission of the village elders, is born out of wedlock, or is a twin, then elders demand that you abandon the child in the bush to die. If your toddler’s top teeth grow in before the bottom teeth, you will be forced to kill your child to save the village from impending bad luck: Famine, drought or disease will surely be brought down on others if you don’t destroy the curse.

Although it is both incomprehensible and revolting that a superstition about drought could precipitate a child’s murder, it is commonplace in our own society to believe in bad luck. We employ all sorts of talismans, rituals, and charms to ward off lurking malevolence—or just prevent bad penalty kicks and free throws. Numerous studies have shown that modern, Western humans tenaciously cling to magical thinking.

University of Cologne professors Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock and Thomas Mussweiler designed and implemented a group of experiments to determine if people felt more confident—and thus performed better—when allowed to hold “good luck” charms.  Their study—published in “Psychological Science”—showed that participants who had charms with them reported more confidence, and subsequently had more success at a memory task. They also set higher goals for themselves than those whose talismans were taken away. Magical thinking about a particular object in their possession made them feel more competent and self-assured.

Wearing  socks inside out, eating certain foods, participating in a proscribed  team cheer, or wearing a lucky shirt under the official team uniform are part of a very long list of “magic charms” employed regularly by athletes to “improve” their performance. In a set of Canadian studies of athletes by Hans Buhrmann and Maxwell Zaugg, researchers discovered that 86% of male athletes and 90% of female athletes surveyed adhered to the belief that their “lucky” clothes contributed  greatly to their success.  Buhrmann and Zaugg also determined that success appears to breed more superstition: Starters on a team were more superstitious than bench sitters, and winning teams were more superstitious than losing ones.

It’s not just athletes who believe in “good luck” charms. Writing in The Atlantic, Connecticut College professor Stuart Vyse cites studies regarding the magical thinking used by college students when facing exams. Like athletes, many students believe wearing certain clothes helps them think, and some believe using a “lucky” pen is a critical exam preparation component.  Vyse tells of one panicked student who even placed an ad in a campus newspaper: “Help! I’ve lost my silver Cross pen. Deep psychological and sentimental value; never written an exam without it…If found, contact Anna…”

I routinely kiss my hand and then touch the ceiling of my car whenever going through a yellow light (when perhaps it would be best to keep both hands firmly affixed to the wheel); clearly, I am not inured to magical thinking. Two master’s degrees in hand, I know it is utterly ridiculous to cling to this ritual, but I do it anyway. I suppose life’s challenging enough that we all feel that we could use “an edge” whenever and wherever we can get one.

But the stakes are not high in my magical thinking; my children are not in imminent danger, which is why Labuko and the children of the Omo River Valley need my money and not my judgment. Labuko uses every ounce of his own prodigious charm—the personality kind—to convince village elders to give him the “mingi” children so that they can live far from the village. But once he’s rescued them, he needs the resources to keep them safe and comfortable. Next time you practice magical thinking—clutching a charm, crossing your fingers, or knocking on wood—make a donation to Omo Child. Turn your superstition into real providence for those treasured children.


Rough Sleepers in Paris

When my lawyer spouse was tapped to clerk for a federal judge in Casper, Wyoming, she couldn’t turn down the prestigious post. An avid hiker, I was eager to spend a year closer to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks but was less keen to relocate from my hip New England town with its excellent coffee and international restaurants. Although friends argue that my tastes veer to those of a 7th grader—pizza, bagels, macaroni and cheese—I do abundantly appreciate fine java and crusty bread.  I was delighted when I spied a French bakery in downtown Casper. Maybe I could make this western experience work after all.

My elation was short lived.  A local told me the shop would likely soon close. Embarrassed, she explained, “People have stopped going there. You know—part of the whole anti-French ‘Freedom Fries’ thing. It’s terrible.” She referred to the directive by the Chairman of the Committee on House Administration to rename French fries in the Congressional cafeterias after France declined to support the proposed U.S. Invasion of Iraq to look for—as it turned out—nonexistent WMDs. Long entrenched, albeit relatively dormant, American anti-French sentiment was proudly displayed once again. Asked for comment about the Freedom Fries dust up, French embassy spokeswoman Nathalie Loisau remarked wryly that French fries were originally from Belgium. (You could almost hear the deserving sneer: “Imbeciles!”)

American Francophobia has many roots. Americans sense that the French are not eternally grateful for the Allied liberation during WW II. The controversial British historian David Starkey asserts that French anger towards the Americans and the English stems from conflicted feelings over having been liberated: “People don’t like being freed. They mistake liberators for conquerors.” French historian Justin VaÏsse contends the distrust has more to do with the missing Franco-American lobby in the U.S.; few Americans are of direct or recent French descent. Whatever the reasons, there is a nagging American belief that the French are just different.

Sure, their incomprehensible love of Jerry Lewis’ inane comedies sets them apart. But they are undeservedly mocked as somehow less manly, less virile—tending towards “blue-blood” instead of Red-blooded American. Remember when John Kerry’s presidential bid was brought down, in part, because Commerce Secretary Don Evans—and numerous Republican pundits—emphasized that John Kerry liked French things and somehow “looked French”?  Newt Gingrich trotted out this tired line of attack again in his primary fight with Mitt Romney: “And just like John Kerry—he speaks French, too.” How I’d wished that Mitt had had the temerity to reply: “And just like Franҫois Mitterrand—and seemingly every other French leader—Newt took a mistress. How very French.”

There is, however, one real thing that makes the French different: They have a deep compassion and affinity towards the homeless. Polls consistently show that French people are more sympathetic towards the homeless than residents of any other European nation. An astonishing 75% of French people surveyed in a 2009 poll said they felt “solidarity” with rough sleepers (the French colloquialism for the homeless), and 56%  said that they feared they could be homeless themselves someday.  As Angelique Chrisafis , reflected in The Guardian, “The French are the nationality most likely to view homelessness as the result of financial crisis, unemployment and housing crises and the least likely to blame the individual for personal reasons such as drugs or alcohol.” Compare this to a 2011 American survey from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in which 91% of respondents asserted that homelessness was primarily caused by drug and alcohol abuse; 62% said it was laziness.

Like French nationals as a whole, a large percentage of American women fear that they could someday be homeless. The 2013 poll by Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America found that even 27% of very successful women (those making over $200,000 a year) reported worrying that they might become destitute. A survey reported in Bloomberg supports these findings: Women experienced more acute anxiety about finances than the men surveyed.

This complements the findings of a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute: American libertarians are overwhelming young, white and male. Nora Caplan-Bricker, writing in the New Republic, argues, “The thing about freedom is its heights are limitless, and its lows are bottomless. Libertarians, I presume, look at that void and never consider that they will do anything but rise.” If you believe that boundless freedom surely enables success, you are less likely to support a social safety net. But if you assume that fortune can be fleeting and fickle, you are “all in” on a social contract.

Thus, it was refreshing to learn that a young, affluent, white male Parisian—Joël Catherin—took a stand for the rough sleepers in his neighborhood several winters ago.  Using the ubiquitous, tattered cardboard signs that panhandlers, the world over, use to cajole loose change from luckier passersby, he forced Parisians to expand ever more their already sympathetic hearts. He noticed a homeless elderly woman in his neighborhood suffering through a bitterly cold winter night. Instead of her usual sign, “I am hungry”, he made her a new sign that read, “I could be your grandmother.”  It worked wonders; many more people gave money.  My cynical side wonders why he didn’t  invite her in for a warm croissant and hot café-au-lait, but—hey—we do what we can when we can. He began to make clever, eye-catching signs for homeless people all over Paris and started a city-wide discussion: “It wasn’t about money; it was about changing the way people view others.”

Perhaps this Christmas we could all strive to be a little more French?  Vive le French toast!


The Measure of Man and Humanity

We gathered around the table to congratulate, reminisce and chortle as we eased the passage of a friend into his so-called retirement. It was a remarkable group of men and women of different political persuasions, and we ran the age gamut: from the fresh-faced and eager, to the mature and accomplished—tenacious, all. I reveled in the rich company and the good-natured ribbing, and I grinned as we teased him with our mock gift. We told stories of how we’d come to meet and understand the man we’d gathered to honor and goad. Never one to sit silently while enduring adoration or withstanding a drubbing, our friend had his own chronicles to share.

He spoke of a moment, an unexpected—yet mighty—instance of connection. It was December 15, 2012, the day after the horror of Newtown. I was, quite simply, bereft. I’d slept fitfully the previous night and had woken continuously in the dusky gloom to pitiful images of my own children looking to me for shelter. It was a night in which I tasted both my briny tears and the lingering bile my stomach churned out. When dawn offered relief, I fixed myself with a determination: My children would not see me cry. It was not a desire to be stoic in the midst of strain and struggle; I simply did not know how to talk about what had happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School. If I could not sort the horror, how could my darlings possibly manage this intolerable truth? I spent the day glassy-eyed but passably cheerful for their sake.

But then I ran into my friend at the store, and he frankly—guilelessly—inquired, “How are you doing?”  I imagine I looked at him like a specter; I certainly felt less than human. I murmured something about the shootings in Newtown and strained to locate both my voice and an ounce of lucidity. No matter.  A conversation was needless. I croaked, “I just can’t get it out of my head.” He nodded—carefully, slowly, thoughtfully. In acknowledging my own inability to just “carry on”, I had unwittingly invited a moment of undisguised shared humanity. There, in that check-out line, on that day and at that time, the bounds of friendship and fellowship expanded to include a new understanding of connection. We were joined in our grief for those children, those parents, and for humanity writ large.

Until that point, we’d connected over political ideas, philosophical musings, and policy vision and strategy. We engaged with ideas—principled, practical, intellectual. It wasn’t so much that we imagined emotions were the stuff of the faint of heart; it simply hadn’t been part of our repertoire. But a massacre of the innocents—well, my head could not contain the misery; I needed to engage the heart and acknowledge its supremacy. He met me there, unabashed.

It was in that moment, he told those assembled at his retirement dinner, that he knew we shared an understanding of the divine.  He didn’t say “divine”, “God” or “great mystery,” but that is assuredly what he meant.

What I mean to say is this: How often does a fellow traveler honestly and tenderly reveal her unadorned fear, love and hope for the world? And when this miraculous moment manifests itself, will you be there, wholeheartedly—without embarrassment—to hold her and witness the divine? 

Before our chance encounter on that day—a morning in which I desired nothing more than to hole up at home and sob—I did not see how I could possibly compose my column on the Sandy Hook horrors that week. But knowing a friend—an intellectual, a philosopher, a big-thinker—could put aside the headiness and instead settle in for the stiffer stuff of anguish and grave disappointment, gave me the courage to write.

We all spoke of connection at that dinner. How our friend and colleague relishes cultivating friendships and connecting his circles like an endless chain of Olympic rings. One chum even quipped in mock bewilderment, “He kept saying, ‘I’ve got someone you need to meet!’ and I kept thinking: ‘Don’t you get it? I don’t actually like people!’” But there it is: He doesn’t let any of us imagine ourselves to be smaller than he believes we are. When someone thinks of us as ultimately capable and adroit, when someone else acts in the service of our gifts, who are we not to rise to the challenge?

This week marks the anniversary of the utterly pointless slaughter in Newtown. Like so many friends and neighbors, I will seek solace and comfort at one of the vigils planned around our state to remember the victims.  In Brattleboro we will meet on Saturday morning at 9:30 at Pliny Park. I hope it will be cold and clear and that we will stand under a vast sky of possibility and promise. I trust that we can gather in our shared humanity—regardless of political disagreements and any persistent ire—and make a promise to ourselves: To hold the divine—which is just another way of saying our best selves—and conceive a collective sense of purpose and resolve. We could say we owe it to the children—ours, theirs, humankind’s—but truly we owe it to ourselves and to each other, because connection is all we’re actually here to do.



Rescuing the rescuer

As hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews were mercilessly forced into a tiny ghetto in Warsaw in the fall of 1940, a young Catholic social worker—not yet 30—made a righteous decision: She would aid those penned in behind the walls of the Ghetto. Employed by the Welfare Department of the Warsaw municipality, she entered the Ghetto to help alleviate the suffering of the multitudes trapped without food and medical supplies. The Nazi regime, fearful that typhus might spread beyond the walls of the Ghetto, allowed her to minister to the ill. By late November, however, the Jewish quarter was completely sealed off; it became impossible for her to visit under the auspices of her official duties.

It would have been simpler for this plucky young woman to admit defeat under those extraordinarily perverse conditions. Many in her position would—and did— fretfully concede that there was little to be done; the forces of immorality and depravity were too overwhelming to mount a resistance.

But, instead, she built a network.

Reaching out to friends—mostly young women in their teens and 20s—she organized a courageous scheme to smuggle Jewish children out of the Ghetto before they were deported to Treblinka and murdered.  Although rescuing the children was absurdly daring, the real work came once the children were on the other side: finding safehouses, forging documents, and coaching Jewish children in Christian prayers so they could “pass” as gentiles.  Some children were adopted into Polish families; others were hidden in convents and orphanages.  She and her dauntless accomplices saved the lives of over 2,500 Jewish children. This is not just rumor or hearsay: We know what she did because she kept the names of the rescued children and their families buried in jars hoping to reunite them after the war.

Despite beatings that fractured a leg and foot, she did not divulge the names or whereabouts of the children or their protectors.  Sentenced to death for aiding and abetting Jews, she escaped when members of the Polish underground—the Zegota—bribed a guard at Pawiak Prison. She went into hiding but stubbornly—valiantly—continued her work in the Resistance.

Despite years of teaching social studies and history, I just recently discovered this incredible account.  Polish communists successfully buried her story after the war. Labeled subversive, her engrossing story languished behind the Iron Curtain. That is, until three students in a small Kansas high school recovered it. How fitting that her rescuers from historical obscurity were a team of young women.

It all started with a question.

Megan Stewart, Elizabeth Cambers and Sabrina Coons had agreed to participate in a year-long history project for National History Day back in 1999. Their teacher— who exhorted them to live their class motto: “He who changes one person, changes the world entire.”— had shown them an old magazine clipping about a woman named Irena Sendler who allegedly saved over 2,000 children from the Warsaw Ghetto. He asked: “Might this be a typographical error?” Like me—and so many other teachers—he had neither heard the name Irena Sendler nor her astonishing story. His students set out to locate any primary or secondary sources to corroborate the story. What they discovered was sweeter than piecing together their miraculous historical puzzle: They discovered Irena Sendler alive.

They exchanged many letters with Sendler and told her about the performance they’d written about her: “Life in a Jar.” She told them, “Before the day you had written ‘Life in a Jar,’ the world did not know our story; your performance and work is continuing the effort I started over fifty years ago. You are my dearly beloved ones.”  When they later traveled to Warsaw to meet with Sendler, who was then 91, she begged them to always end their performances the same way: They must tell the audience that the real heroes of the story were the Jewish parents and grandparents who selflessly—heart-achingly— gave up their children to a stranger so they might live. She explained to the students that terrified parents would ask her for a guarantee that their children would be safe. Her response: “I don’t even know if I will get out of the Ghetto alive today.” But these exhausted, horror-struck parents still found the almost inhuman courage to trust that love would ultimately conquer the devil.

Unlike in 1999, when students took on year-long projects, history and social studies have been deemed “not critical” for students today—as if studying history is a luxury we can no longer afford. We can’t afford not to.  Learning long forgotten details about heroism combats the ceaseless drumbeats of tyrants.  It urges us to do better, to be better. Hitler has long since moldered in his distant grave, but cruel beasts like Robert Mugabe, Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong-un still callously rule their longsuffering people. There is still so much work to be done.

In a 2005 interview Sendler reflected on being labeled a hero: “We who were rescuing children are not some kind of heroes…The opposite is true. I continue to have qualms of conscience that I did so little. I could have done more. This regret will follow me to my death.”

As you light candles for Hanukkah or Advent—or simply to cast light in winter’s prolonged darkness—remember Irena Sendler. Wish her soul peace in its eternal rest or joy in its further travels.  Her light has spread well beyond her lifetime and forever touches generations—the countless descendants of the children she saved.


Dividing the peas

A friend has skirted the edge of financial ruin for many months now. She worries about losing her house as she toils to shape a living in this county. Between understandable bouts of anxiety and general disquiet, she is more than good-humored— she’s downright hilarious—and generous with her time and her affection. But it is not her generosity of spirit—her graceful embodiment of the Golden Rule—that has me ruminating today. The image I keep turning over is much more concrete: She sits next to me writing a check. It seems she is always writing a check to help those in greater need.

Her remarkable largesse could shame me, if I let it. But I choose, instead, to let it stir me to action. This is her path; this is what feels true and right and just to her. No matter how little she’s got, she sees that someone else almost certainly has less.  She pushes me to be my best self as another friend also inspires me. A mother of four small children, with no time to use the bathroom—let alone think—she recently spearheaded meal deliveries for the families who lost their homes and possessions in the Elliot Street fire. She told me: “It just needs to happen.”

It is not unusual for Americans with the least to give the most to others in need. Studies consistently show that lower income Americans give more to charity (as a percentage of their income) than do the wealthy.  A study last year by the Chronicle of Philanthropy analyzed charitable giving by ZIP codes and revealed that wealthy neighborhoods give much less of their discretionary income than lower-income areas. As Nate Berg of The Atlantic explains, “Only nine of the 1,000 biggest-giving ZIP codes are among the richest 1,000 ZIP codes.”

Penta Daily—an e-newsletter of Barron’s magazine— offers “insight and advice for families with assets of $5 million or more.” (Who knew there’s advice for the rich and separate advice for the really rich?) Last year Penta’s Richard Morais explained a troubling development among the so-called “One Percent”: They have disengaged. According to a study by the Harrison Group and American Express, although 67% come from middle class households and 76% describe themselves as “middle class at heart,” these “Middle Class Millionaires”—85% of whom made their fortunes in their lifetimes—have pulled away from their wider communities. Says Morais, “[T]hese engines for economic growth of the nation, have dug themselves into a bunker…They are hoarding cash, avoiding almost all risk, shunning their communities and hunkering down with a few select friends and family only.”

Morais contends that they feel vilified by a nation that doesn’t understand that they view themselves as middle class at heart. After several years of being blamed for the ills of the nation, Morais asserts, those in the One Percent have turned  away from their communities. This is a scary proposition.  A recent study indicates that people give more to charity when they have more contact with poorer neighbors. As Ken Stern, writing in The Atlantic, explains, “It seems insulation from people in need may dampen the charitable impulse.”

It is a great temptation to fault the super rich for their lack of liberality, but what are the rest of us doing? We must not be miserly—not any of us.  We may be proud, tightfisted New Englanders, but this is not the time to rejoice in our thrift.

An acquaintance recently told me a wonderful story about her neighbors—local business owners. She explained that, “they do alright but are not exactly rolling in the dough.” When they learned that many of their neighbors had lost jobs or had had their hours cuts, they looked for ways to hire them to do work. “I swear,” she said, “it seems like they’ve helped out the whole neighborhood.” She explained that they didn’t create frivolous projects; they identified the tasks that they truly wanted completed and then sought out assistance. This respectful collaboration valued both parties: They helped out as much as they were helped.

What do you need done? And who could you hire to do it? Perhaps it embarrasses you that you have  money to spend on housecleaning or lawn care or repainting the bedroom. Get over it. If you have the money, spend some of it. Help tide someone over during this— the most stinging of seasons. Stubborn unease about your comparative wealth does nothing for those who need to pay for whatever holiday cheer they can create amidst their financial insecurity. No-one can eat contrition.

My dad—no stranger to childhood hunger—often chuckles while retelling stories of dinner with my mom’s family. He claims that even if they only had a can of peas to split 7 ways, they’d happily set another place at the table. He claims he’d leave Friday night “dinners” hungry. But her family’s effortless generosity helped him feel more sated.

Last week my son rocked in my lap during his school’s assembly while we heard community members speak of the importance of Project Feed the Thousands. Soon he and his sister will be wriggling on our laps at a Thanksgiving table heaped with enough food to send us all into carb-induced comas (my dad’s retort to his childhood poverty and all those meager dinners with his in-laws).

Let’s reach for that slice of pie knowing we’ve kept our communities in mind. Donate food, money, time or simply—directly—help. You’ll be in great company. Assuredly, my cash-strapped friend will still be—graciously—writing out checks.