Empathy

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Why Obama Now

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Friday Twitter Feed - August 22, 2008

Hands down, my favorite tweet, today...

"When one has grown tired of loudly singing The Proclaimers' "500 Miles" in a Groundskeeper Willie voice, one has grown tired of life itself. - Andy Ihnatko 07:11:51
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Crier

I've always been an emotional guy. I remember the first time I cried at a movie was when I saw Disney's "The Fox and the Hound" when I was about 7 years old. I don't recall much about the movie, but I do remember I cried buckets because they couldn't be friends, anymore. Books, TV, Movies - hell, even sappy commercials. Any touching story had the potential to make me weepy. My wife was the same way. I remember more than once we'd be watching TV together and something emotional would happen, and we'd look at each other at the same time with tears in our eyes. Sometimes we'd laugh because we were such saps, sometimes we'd just snuggle closer and continue watching. (Side note: That's one of the things I miss most - she and I were so in sync on so many levels.)

So I've always been a weepy guy. Then my wife died and I went into a long, two-and-a-half year grieving period where I cried a
lot. Sad tears, angry tears, tears of resignation - her death turned me inside-out, emotionally. Grief ends, though, and in time I came back to my senses and my personality started to re-emerge. Except now I'm even weepier. My eyes well up with tears at the drop of a hat, now. Commercials about graduation or mother's day, small emotional moments in movies and TV shows, even relatively un-empathetic characters have my full empathy, now. It feels ten times stronger than it used to be.

I don't usually mind it, though. I think empathy is one of the more valuable characteristics a person can have and the reason I react so strongly is because I
feel so strongly. Powerful emotions have their attraction, even negative ones. It's not that I only cry at sad things, either. Pride, anger, joy - if it's strong enough, it'll bring tears to my eyes. So the fact that I get weepy doesn't bother me, but sometimes I wonder exactly how much and how often? It seems like a lot, but is it really? So I've started a Cry Diary. A blog where I keep track of my tears and what caused them. It might give me an idea if I have a very poetic soul or I'm just a huge pussy.
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End of Term

This has been an amazing year for me as a parent. My son is wrapping up second grade, and I've always seen this age as a pivotal one because of what happened to me at that point in my own life. I discovered books. I read "I Robot" by Issac Asimov when I was in second grade and I was hooked. I started reading the Caves of Steel trilogy after that, then the Robots of Dawn books, and from there it was naturally on to Empire. Unfortunately, my paternal Grandfather had passed away just before, but fortunately he left his personal library of thousands of 50's through 80's Sci-Fi paperbacks to my parents. This gave me an endless supply of reading material that lasted me well into high-school when I started building my own library.

So you see why it's a pivotal year. My mind had finally developed enough that I could start to really soak up and retain information. Which brings me to my son's second grade year and his own little informational epiphany.

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He's been a Star Trek fan for a couple of years now. I have the DVR set up to record pretty much every series - the Original Series, Next Generaion, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise - he loves them all. Space opera is the perfect vehicle for a little boy's imagination. There are ships and ray guns and aliens and infinite adventure. He especially loves the ships. I've bought him the technical manuals and encyclopedias from amazon.com and he spends hours drawing pictures of bridges, warp coils, nacelles and hulls.

More recently, I've shown him how to do searches on Google and Wikipedia to find more Star Trek stuff, and here's where I seem to have opened the flood gates.

We were all getting ready for school, one morning, and as I'm running around getting his sister and myself ready to leave, my son starts yelling that there were three Titanics! I knew he'd seen the movie a couple of years ago and I figured he was adding his own imaginary spin to what he remembered of the story. I told him that pretending was fine, but that there was a real Titanic, and we couldn't change history. He still insisted that there were three Titanics and he even provided the names of the other two: the "Olympic," and the "Brit-titanic" (his pronounciation). I was still rushing around the house getting ready, and, frustrated at the distraction, told him, "Man, you can't just go rewriting history on a whim. There was only one Titanic." He was more insistent than ever, though, and started pulling me to the front-room computer. There, on the screen, was a wikipedia page about the Olympic Class ocean liners from the turn of the 20th century - the Titanic, the Britannic, and the Olympic. I was floored. He then started to tell me about the fates of the three ships that he'd read on their various wikipedia entries.

I was so thrilled at the step he'd taken. He'd been looking for "Olympic Class" on Wikipedia trying to find the Star Trek vehicles of that name, but got the early 20th century ocean liners, instead. Then, after finding this new information, he read it and retained it. Here was the same developmental leap I'd taken at the same age - acquiring and retaining data. There's a huge difference, though. I had a limited amount of data that I could acquire, but he, via the internet, has nearly unlimited information at his disposal.

I'm eager to see where he goes next.
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1549

I'm sure we've all heard this amazing story. I have to admit it has me pretty choked up. The amazing captain who stayed calm and competent and thinking of others as he faced what could have been his final moments. The amazing crew who was right there with him helping him get those passengers to safety. The first responders who sped to the scene despite potential danger to help. And the passengers for staying calm and helping each other as they quickly evacuated the plane. This was not some hand-picked group chosen for their talents or special abilities, but rather a sample of regular people. These are some fantastic people and I'm glad I live in a culture that allows people to be the best of what they can be.

4 hankies
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Springfield Victory Mission

This isn't a post about something that made my weepy. This is about something that made me furious. I was watching the very touching Monday night (12/8/08) Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson on my computer via my Dish Network DVR. Craig's mother passed away the prior week, and he was eulogizing her on his first show back from attending her funeral in Scotland.

I was weepy through much of that. Both my parents are still alive, but I do understand loss and it's very easy to empathize.

Toward the end of the show, though, I was skipping through the commercials and I happened across a local commercial for "Springfield Victory Mission" in Springfield Missouri. The commercial showed a man very solemnly stating that he'd had a difficult life, but that Springfield Victory Mission had helped him turn his life around. That's great, as far as it goes, but the infuriating part was that the end of the commercial had a narrator saying the tag line; "
Springfield Victory Mission... eliminating poverty from the inside out."

My jaw dropped. I couldn't help myself. I jumped up from my chair, fists clenched, and roared at my computer screen, "Oh, FUCK YOU!" I was floored that they would say something so horrible and insidious. There's a lot of injustice in the world, and a lot to make me angry, but I'm not the type who typically yells at their TV. This made me completely lose control, though. The insinuation that religion (or the lack thereof) determines whether some kid goes to bed hungry, or even has a bed to sleep in, for that matter, is just evil. The idea that people earn poverty by choosing (or having been indoctrinated with) the wrong beliefs is simply vile. And its subtle hinting that poverty is a result of internal lack rather than external forces - especially forces that might be completely out of a person's control - is beyond wrong.

So a great big, "Up yours!" for Springfield Victory Mission. Whatever good work you've done by helping those in need you've undone with your insinuations that, until they drank your kool-aid, it was really what they deserved.
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Ezra Phoenix Chatterton 1996-2008

I've written about Ezra, before. He's the young man who went to Blizzard Entertainment and made a World of Warcraft Non Player Character in Bloodhoof Village through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

I just saw that Ezra has passed away.
www.ezrachatterton.org

My thoughts are with his father and the rest of his family. 4 hankies
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Craig Ferguson - 10/2/08

This one's a two-parter:



I thought it was pretty touching that Craig would meet this kid, see how remarkable and fantastic he was, and then get him on the show, right away. (2 hankies) Then came the whammy, at the end of the show:



This was just really touching. I've always liked his humor, but now I have a lot of respect for the man, too. 3 hankies
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Early morning conversation with the boy - 9/15/08

I've been having a rough time, recently. I'm having a difficult time, financially, because gas and just about everything else is getting more expensive and we've been living on a fixed income for years. Also, I got into an argument with my folks, yesterday, because I pointed out that Republican shenanigans are why my Mom's retirement account with AIG is in jeopardy. They're both hard-core Religious-Right Republicans and my Mom actually ended up shouting at me about it, telling me to "shut the fuck up!" (She rarely cusses...) It didn't matter if I was right, they were entitled to their opinion. Pointing out that you can't have an opinion that's contrary to actual facts only made it worse. Naturally this stirred my ever-lurking insomnia and when I got up at 6am, this morning, to get the kids bathed and fed before school, I was feeling pretty rocky.

My girl is autistic and for some reason was really pissed off that I put syrup on her waffles so she was yelling and screaming all through breakfast. A little while later I was just chattering at her while I was dressing her (she's completely non-verbal all conversations with her are one-sided) and told her that I was going to be taking care of her for the rest of my life, so she'd just better get used to putting up with me.

My son heard this, and immediately hopped over to where we were sitting and asked, "When you die, can I take care of her?"

I told him, "Well, son, that'd be very nice of you, but I don't know if you'll really want to. By then you'll have a wife and kids of your own, and you may not be in a position to."

I then turned back to my daughter, putting her shoes on, and continued, "Which is sad because when I'm gone she'll have to go into an institution, and there won't anybody who loves her, there."

And I started to cry.

I wasn't expecting it. It just flooded over me. The realization that this poor girl, a grown woman by then, who simply can't make sense of her world, will be shuffled off into some sort of institution where she'll be stored away to count down the rest of her days. 5 hankies.

** Addendum **

This was an unusual event for me. As this diary illustrates, I cry a lot, and all sorts of things can trip me up and push me past my emotional tipping point, but rarely do I cry about events in my own life. Which, when you look at the facts of my life - widowed at 28, lost the love of my life who was pregnant with a son I never got the opportunity to know, and an autistic daughter that I'll likely be caregiver to for the rest of my life - is really astounding.

There are days I feel put upon by the universe, and days I feel sorry for myself and inwardly grumble that my life couldn't have at least been simpler, if not altogether more fortunate. But since I finished grieving for my wife and second son (which did take about 2 1/2 years, though) - but once I finished grieving their loss, I rarely am made sad by my own circumstances. Today, really, it wasn't even my own circumstance that made me sad. It was the idea that there will be a time in my daughter's life that she won't have somebody who loves her as much as I do. Hell, even typing that sentence is making me teary-eyed, again, but it's not for me - it's for her.

I spent the better part of this afternoon absolutely crying my eyes out. I mean wracking sobs and using up most of a box of tissue. Every time I'd try to come back to this post to edit or finish it, it'd set me off again and I wouldn't be able to do anything. I guess once I do have a chance to stop and think about the tragedies that are happening to me and mine, it hits me much harder than all these times when I merely get misty-eyed over a touching movie scene or a tragic comic book hero.
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Colin the Whale Euthanized

I know that sometimes there's no choice, but it doesn't make it less painful. It's so easy to empathize with higher mammals because in so many ways they are like us. 3 hankies
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Olympics

I just saw the medal ceremony for the 55KG men's freestyle wrestling. Henry Cejudo of the US won gold. My son and I had watched a couple matches while getting ready for school, but I hadn't realized the US had already taken the gold. Hearing the Star Spangled Banner while that young man stood up there, so proud, really moved me. 3 hankies
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Women's Fencing

I saw this article linked on Digg. I found the photos (and captions) very moving. The one of the young woman doubled over, crying after her defeat made me teary-eyed. 1 hankie
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Discovery Channel Song

I haven't seen this commercial in months, but a short version was just on as I was watching "Dirty Jobs." The first time I saw it I just fell apart. I laughed and cried, and watched it over and over. It still makes me cry. Tears of joy and pride. We are a remarkable species living on a remarkable planet. The very fact that we're capable of realizing this just fills me with hope and happiness. 3 hankies

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Conversation with my son before he fell asleep.

My daughter is autistic and has no speech. Because of this, I can't explain to her why she should stay in her bed or even her room after we turn off all the lights in the house and she and her brother are tucked into their respective beds. My son usually falls deeply asleep fairly quickly, but since my girl sees no good reason not to go ahead and get back up and go play, I have to sit in their room with them until she goes to sleep.

So each night I typically listen to podcasts on my iPhone and foil my daughter's escape attempts until she finally winds down enough to go to sleep. Tonight, however, I ended up having a long conversation with my son, instead.

Sadly, my constant occupation with keeping his sister out of dangerous or even merely difficult situations means we don't really leave the house much. She's non-verbal, but she's amazingly bright. She knows when to make a successful break for it, and she's
very fast to find trouble so she requires constant vigilance. That means that restaurants or the movies or swimming - instead of being relaxing - are merely long nightmarish marathons of keeping a step ahead of her and hoping that whichever relative had enough clout to talk us into being there would soon be satisfied enough to allow us to head home before I collapse. As a consequence my poor son hasn't had as much social experience as most kids his age. (Also I haven't really had a chance to teach him how to swim.) Mostly this summer he watches loads of star trek and proclaims loudly that someday he's going to invent impulse and warp drives and build starships.

Well, today he went to a pool party for his friend's birthday, and I was nearly having an anxiety attack over it.

There was no way I could take his sister to the pool so I'd have to leave him there for the two whole hours of the party. I suppose it's post-traumatic stress after already been through losing his mother, but the thought of leaving him there without my watchful eye scared the
shit out of me. Rationally, I knew he'd be safe and it would be monstrously unfair not to allow him to go, but even up to 15 minutes before the party time I was seriously considering calling his friend's mom and canceling. I was just terrified that I'd once again win the tragedy-lottery and I was actually making myself ill with worry.

I explained to my son what was going on and that I wanted him to go but I was afraid. He's only 9, poor kid, but he acted very mature. He was calm and just kept promising me he'd be very careful, but he really did want to go so could we just go already, please?

He went, and he had fun and was perfectly fine. Tonight, though, before he fell asleep, he started asking me questions:

"Did you really think I was going to die at the pool?"

I explained that I didn't really think he was going to die at the party, but that when Momma died it made me very scared of the idea of losing either him or his sister. I knew it wasn't going to happen, but I was still scared a little.

"Can I hire my cousin as a lifeguard so I can go swimming again?"

I had to tell him that his cousin was already pretty busy this summer, and that the pool already had hired people to be lifeguards. But since his sister would either poop in the pool or drink gallons of heavily chlorinated water (or both) that meant that it wasn't likely we'd be going back.

"Did your heart break when Mom died?"

This caught me off guard and immediately brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to make sure he wasn't being literal, though, so I explained that a broken heart just meant being really, really sad. And, yes, I was very sad for a long time after his mom died. I grieved for almost three years before I started to feel like myself, again.

What he said next, though, really started me crying because I instantly knew what he meant.

"Someday, I'm going to invent a time machine and save Mom."

Of course it's a fantasy that often crosses my mind though I never let it linger for too long. It's seductive yet completely impossible. Go back in time and prevent the accident that claimed his mother and brother. Rescue our family before it's shattered forever. Preempt the scars and prevent the hole left in our lives by their absence. Nothing could be simpler and nothing could be less possible.

It wasn't easy, but I explained that time travel is just fiction and that you can't bring back somebody you've lost. I told him that the best we can do is try to live good lives and be people she would have been proud of. It was a lame answer, but that doesn't change it's truth.

It was enough. Soon he was asleep, and I was drying my eyes and gently nudging my girl back into bed each time she tried to sneak past me.

4 hankies
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Re-reading the blog

KurtI’m moving posts from the old blogging system to my new system and re-reading and re-watching a lot of them on the way.

Guess what?

Buckets of tears, that’s what. A lot of this stuff remains very potent.
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Countdown - July 16th, 2008

Only Keith Olbermann could make me weep for Tony Snow. 2 hankies
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The Sugarmonster

I just read this remarkable post, and it has me floored.

I've been overweight most of my life. My dad has this weird food=love thing and I was a fat kid because of it (we used to come home from the weekly grocery shopping with boxes and boxes of snack cakes and he was always encouraging me to eat, eat, eat). There were kids worse off than me, but I always felt like a fat kid and occasionally was treated like one, too. When I finally moved away from home and went to college, I lost about 80 lbs. and looked and felt better than any other time of my life. That's also, ironically, the point at which I met my wife. She also had always been a little chunky and had just shed her excess pounds, as well. We celebrated our newfound love by immediately getting pregnant. That was ok. I was ready to take a break from school so I started working and we got an apartment together and she stayed in school to finish her degree.

Pregnancy put pounds on the both of us. By the time our first son was born, we were both a little chubby, again, though not serious. Then we moved to Chicago so she could do her post-grad work and internship (Registered Dietician), and I got a job at an ad agency doing web work. She was already pregnant again, but we'd take walks with our son in the stroller, and I'd also go bike riding on my own. One bit of exercise that I got most every weekday was I spent my lunch break at a park near my work walking for about 45 minutes, or so. I was still a bit chunky, but in reasonable shape. She gave birth to our daughter, finished her school and got her license and a job at a big Hospital down in the city. We signed a mortgage on a nice townhouse in a good suburb and got pregnant a third time. Things were going well.

Then my wife died in a car accident. I was laid so low and so out of sorts that I started smoking again and basically sat down for two and a half years. No more exercising - hell, hardly even any walking. I was convinced by my family to leave the suburbs and use the life-insurance money to buy a house down in my hometown in Arkansas where the cost of living was about a quarter of what it is in the Chicago suburbs and I could more easily afford to be a single parent. Except Illinois is flat and the Chicago suburbs are full of sidewalks and parks and paved walking paths. In Arkansas, not so much. There are some walking paths, but they're relatively rare and not usually flat. With the hills it can be very difficult to walk very far unless you're already moderately healthy - and I was no longer even moderately healthy. Bike riding is worse - you have to be pretty damn fit to bike in the Ozarks. Not an entry-level area. So the weight packed on, though to be honest I really wasn't paying much attention to it. I was busy mourning my wife and an unknown son and trying to learn how to be a single parent (and discovering that my little girl was low-functioning autistic).

Just as a side note to all the assholes who cry in horror when they hear about somebody obese and shout, "But how could you let yourself get so fat?! Don't you just want to curl up in shame that you're so lazy?!" The answer is that sometimes there's so much other shit going on that you don't even realize it's happening.

So the weight was building up and somewhere after about 3 years I decided it's time to quit smoking. It's bad for me and it's just damn expensive, anymore. So I quit. It's not too hard once you get up the courage to actually do it. Except the pounds really started piling on once I wasn't smoking. I was already pretty fat by this time, but suddenly I got huge.

Now I started noticing. By the time I finally got my life in enough order that I could focus on figuring out my weight, I was tipping the scales at about 420 pounds. Some of the horrible, humiliating things she describes in her post were starting to happen to me, and, frankly, it scared me. My kids are already shy one parent, I didn't want them to be totally orphaned.

Thankfully, things are a little better, now
*. I'm still fat, but I'm mobile and capable.

That's not the point, though. The point is that I empathized with this young woman, not just because I empathize with everybody, but because I've been a ways down the road she went down, and it's a bleak place to be. Also, I feel just a burning rage at jerks who've never had to cope with a serious, debilitating problem like this, yet feel perfectly free to offer the harshest criticism and the cruelest taunts. To them a I give a righteous "Fuck You." 3 hankies




* (I eat a little better, now, that I've learned to cook at home more instead of always just taking the kids out for fast food. Also, one of the best things I've done for my health is to replace my office chair with an exercise ball. I've seen videos and posts making fun of it, but after just 3 weeks of sitting on a bouncy ball instead of puddling in an overstuffed office chair, I lost 30 pounds and felt far, far more energetic. I'm still working towards getting healthier, but thankfully I'm no longer at the point where the smallest tasks completely drain me. I'm feeling mostly pretty normal, now. This fall I'm going to start walking my kids to school instead of driving them. That should help quite a bit, too.)
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Sir Ken Robinson: Creativity











17 minutes in, talking about "epiphany" and the dancer. 2 hankies. The whole talk is wonderful, really.
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TED: Susan Savage-Rumbaugh on Bonobos











Chimpanzee and Bonobos have long fascinated me. These close cousins of ours are proto-people. This video illustrates that in an impossible-to-deny fashion. I don't mind eating meat, I don't even protest most animal testing (if it's necessary). People are a few rungs up the evolutionary ladder, and I do value a human's life more than most other animals. The other great apes, though... they're practically human. They deserve to be treated as such.

A bit over six minutes in: "This is a smile on the face of a Bonobo." 1 hankie

At the very end: "We're sharing tools, technologies, and language with another species." 2 hankies
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Where the hell is Matt?



Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

Sometimes, I just see something that so reinvigorates my faith in this fantastic creature that is Homo Sapiens. Artisans and engineers and poets, we are the height of evolutionary achievement, and yet we are selfish and jingoistic and sometimes downright crazy.

I so thoroughly enjoyed this video and so thoroughly felt it's power that I was both laughing and crying for nearly it's entire duration. 4 hankies
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